GUANGZHOU (REUTERS, AP) - The latest issue of a Chinese newspaper at the centre of anti-censorship protests appeared on newsstands in Beijing and Shanghai on Thursday as usual, but not its home city Guangzhou.
The latest edition of the Southern Weekly bore no hints of the dispute that erupted last week over a New Year's editorial that was rewritten to praise the Communist Party, driving some staff to stop work in protest.
Still fuming, some editors and reporters tried late on Wednesday to insert a carefully worded commentary praising the newspaper as a tribune of reform, but were rebuffed by management, an editor said.
The editor, who asked not to be named because he had been repeatedly warned not to talk to foreign media, described the mood among the staff as indignant. He predicted that some staff would resign, either voluntarily out of anger or forced out by management.
"There's complete disappointment," the editor said.
The newspaper, which is published on Thursdays, was not available in at least six newsstands in Guangzhou, which normally carry the paper.
The paper appeared as normal in Beijing, carrying a cover story on the aftermath of a fire at an orphanage in central Henan province.
“It’s not coming today,” said one newspaper seller in a kiosk near the Southern Weekly’s headquarters in Guangzhou.
“I don’t know why it wasn’t delivered,” he said, as a stream of early morning commuters bought other newspapers from his stand.
In Shanghai, two sections of the paper were missing – one focused on a new regulation on land reclamation and the other on “the dramatic changes” in reform.
When asked about the missing Guangzhou copies, a woman called Zhou at the Southern Weekly’s distribution office said: “Today’s paper has been published as normal, but may not have arrived at newspaper kiosks yet, which is also normal. It should be available for purchase within today”.
She said she had no knowledge of whether some sections may be missing in some cities or why.
In a show of continued resistance, the Southern Weekly republished a Monday editorial from the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, that said “the party’s methods of controlling the media must move with the times”.
In its interpretation of the People’s Daily editorial, the Southern Weekly said the remaining reforms that need to be done are as difficult as “gnawing at bones”.
“They need the protection and support of a moderate, rational and constructive media,” the Southern Weekly said.
The drama at the Southern Weekly began late last week when reporters at the liberal paper accused censors of replacing a New Year letter to readers that called for a constitutional government with another piece lauding the party’s achievements.
Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for journalists, denounced the censorship and called on Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, set to become president in March, to abolish political censorship.
The censorship turmoil at the Southern Weekly has also spread to another newspaper. Online accounts said Mr Dai Zigeng, the publisher of the popular Beijing News daily, had announced his resignation on Wednesday after the newspaper resisted government pressure to republish an editorial criticising the Southern Weekly.
Hopes that the dispute would strike a blow against censorship initially ran high. Internet microblogs crackled with messages of support.
Liberal-minded academics wrote open letters. And hundreds of people this week gathered outside the newspaper's offices off a busy street in the southern commercial centre of Guangzhou, waving signs that called for freedom of expression.
Expectations for change, however, began fizzling on Wednesday as a compromise to end the dispute took shape. Under the deal, according to the editor and another staff member, editors and reporters would not be punished for protesting and stopping work, and propaganda officials would no longer directly censor content prior to publication, though many other longstanding controls to ensure party control would remain in place.
The outpouring challenged one of the key levers of party rule - its right to control the media and dictate content - and officials pushed back this week to reassert authority.
"This crisis rings alarm bells for journalists and liberal intellectuals. The new government might kick-start economic reforms in certain areas, to ensure continued growth. But swift political reforms are not on the top leaders' agenda, as they are still calculating resistance from conservative blocs," Mr Zhang Hong, deputy editor-in-chief of the business newspaper Economic Observer, wrote in a commentary on Thursday in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.
In a further sign of tightening, police attempted on Thursday to prevent more of the protests outside the compound housing the Southern Weekly and its parent company, the Nanfang Media Group, in Guangzhou, a city long at the forefront of reforms. About 30 police officers guarded the area and ordered reporters and any loiterers to move away, saying there had been complaints about obstructing traffic.
The Southern Weekly has been a standard-bearer for hard-edged reporting and liberal commentary since the 1990s. Throughout, senior party politicians and propaganda functionaries have repeatedly attempted to rein in the newspaper, cashiering editors and reporters who breach often unstated limits.
Even if censorship largely remains intact, the standoff has showed the breadth of support independent-minded media like Southern Weekly have among many Chinese, who are wired to the Internet and increasingly sophisticated in their expectations of the government.
That may give censors pause in the future, said Professor David Bandurski, a China media expert at Hong Kong University.
"It might make them more cautious on how they handle the media," he said.