Monday, January 07, 2013

Southern Rebellions

Perhaps a misjudgment on weather led to a showdown between a newspaper the Southern Weekends and the Chief of the Propaganda Department of Guangdong Province.

The editorial board of the Southern Weekends demands resignation of Mr. Tuo Zhen, the chief of the Propaganda Department of Guangdong Province. The editors and reporters must have counted on the breeze of openness and democracy since the once a decade power transfer. But it seems the wind was not in their favor.

Dozens reporters and editors accounts were suspended at the Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese knockoff of Twitter. The official Southern Weekends Weibo account was taken over by the Propaganda Department. Searching of the term 'Southern Weekends' is banned.

Editors and reporters mounted pressure from outside. Dozens former employees issued a statement supporting the fight for journalism. Dozens public intellectuals from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan jointly urged Mr. Tuo be fired. Hundreds of interns signed a open letter asking Mr. Tuo's departure. Other medias, including TV, newspaper and Internet media showed sympathy or support.

The focus stays on an individual, Mr. Tuo. The newspaper is not protesting the censorship itself, but rather a procedural abnormality in the censoring process. Editors and reporters revealed a record of 1,034 articles either changed or withdrawn by the Propaganda Department in the year of 2012, which converted to a shocking 19.88 articles per issue. However, the change made on the New Year Special was an outlier. The Propaganda Department changed major part of the newspaper without editors and reporters's awareness.

By definition, the Southern Weekends is a mouthpiece of Chinese Communists Party (the Chinese literal translation is "Journalists are the Party's Throat and Tongue"). By law, all Chinese news agencies falls into this definition. In particular, the Southern Weekends is published by the Guangdong Provincial Committee of CCP. However, the Southern Weekends has made itself an advocate for democracy and openness. Although the managerial level officials had been shuffled many times, the newspaper attracted mostly freedom-leaning reporters and editors in the past few decades. Although a chief editor was jailed after the newspaper broke out a story of torture death of a young man in a police 'rescue camp', which led to the abolishment of such camps across the country.

Mr. Tuo was born in a propaganda family in 1959. Before the current assignment, Tuo was the deputy director of the official Xinhua News Agency. Mr. Tuo's father Tuo Wenzhong was the Director of the Propaganda Department of Nanyang Prefecture of Henan Province. Mr. Tuo Zhen's sister Ms. Tuo Jun is the Deputy Director of the Propaganda Department of the CCP Nanyang Prefecture of Henan Province. Mr. Tuo Zhen's daughter Ms. Tuo Yannan "Kelly" is a senior executive with the China Daily's Japan office. Mr. Tuo Zhen's sponsor at the top is Mr. Liu Yunshan, a member of the seven people Standing Committee of the Politburo. Liu was also implicated in the recent Ye Junqing scandal.

The newspaper cited the Constitution on rights of journalism and publishing. On the other hand, official identities and public perception of journalists are still the mouthpiece of the Party. How do editors and reporters in China find peace between their inner urge to freedom and the strips on their official uniform is beyond human comprehension. Equally puzzling, the newspaper seems to have no problem with censorship, which on paper does not exist in China, but have a big problem with Mr. Tuo, who is not only the head of the Propaganda Department but also the chief of the newspaper's official publisher. Conflicts between the media and the censorship are no secret, but the clash of this scale is totally unexpected.

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