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Southern Weekend's good, bad and imagined implications for Chinese press freedom: The SinoFile

The first in VO's new daily China blog series, The SinaFile, asks the universal question on Southern Weekend: What does it mean?

Flowers at the steps of China's 'Southern Weekend' -- commemorating the death of Chinese journalism? (麦明杰 - Mai Mingjie)

A prominent independent Chinese newspaper is back on the stands with a cryptic response to a standoff with Chinese censors that still has domestic and foreign media struggling for a moral of the story – an implication for Chinese press freedom and democracy – as problematic as that was with media on Wukan.

The staff at Southern Weekend (南方周末Pinyin: Nanfang Zhoumo), a widely respected national newspaper based in Southwestern industrial capital Guangzhou, went on strike when censors reportedly turned an editorial written as a call for more tolerated dissidence in the People's Republic into an all-too-typical eulogy for Beijing. The staff had signed an open letter decrying the “rape” of their paper and called for their provincial propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, to be removed from his post.

Hundreds of supporters protested at the paper's offices, some laying yellow chrysanthemums at the site to commemorate the death of a relatively hard-hitting Chinese press. 

Authorities censored over 1,030 of the paper's stories in 2012, according to a piece from The Los Angeles Times, citing an anonymous journalist source. A whopping figure, and a testament to the caliber of the publication's journalism-against-all-odds. 

The dispute is at least ostensibly over, with Southern Weekend back on the stands Thursday, with a cryptic article entitled Whose Image is Affected by Ridiculous Behavior?, available in print but not yet on the paper's Web site, linked above. In the aftermath of this mess, it is reported that the staff will stop calling for Tuo Zhen's dismissal and refrain from speaking to foreign media about the stand-off in an obscure deal with authorities.

What does it all mean?

The international media response is anything but clear on this issue – some say this is a wholesale failure of the Chinese press' effort to secure more autonomy. Some say the public response this issue elicited marks the beginning of the kind of unrest that could result in reform for Chinese society. 

Downers – a few uppers 

It is clear, in the short-term, that the standoff means more censorship. The original editorial remains unpublished and keywords associated with the incident, to include 南周 NanZhou, the abbreviated name of the newspaper, remain censored on Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter as of 7:00AM Friday, China time.

Hong Kong's South China Morning Post has published a series of articles from Chinese media sources decrying this incident as a bad sign for Chinese press freedom.

Zhang Hong, deputy editor of another independent publication – The Economic Observer (经济观察报 Jingji GuanchaBao -- where I was an intern, many years ago, under different leadership) wrote that this incident “won't lead to a loosening of rules on Chinese media.” 

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