GUANGZHOU (REUTERS) - Chinese police broke up scuffles outside the gates of a prominent newspaper in southern Guangzhou on Tuesday, as Communist Party authorities showed signs of taking a harder line against journalists defying official censorship.
Crowds of people congregated for a second day outside the liberal Southern Weekly that has become embroiled in a highly symbolic open revolt against press control in Guangdong, China's most prosperous and liberal province, but many journalists were reluctant to call it a full-blown strike.
Guangdong was the birthplace of reforms, begun three decades ago, that propelled China to become the world's second-largest economy. How the party responds to the paper's battle against meddling by propaganda authorities stands to be a key indicator of new party leader Xi Jinping's reformist inclinations.
The scuffles broke out after supporters of the paper, published on Thursdays, jeered and skirmished with a small band of leftists holding posters of Chairman Mao Zedong and signs denouncing the Southern Weekly as "a traitor newspaper" for defying the party.
"These people (leftists) are paid agitators of the government, twisting the truth with propaganda. We had to do something about it," said pro-press freedom protester Cheng Qiubo.
Dozens of police officers had to intervene, though the protests were allowed to continue. Two technicians with a ladder tried to rig a surveillance camera to the branch of a tree outside the newspaper gates, but were swiftly surrounded and shouted down by angry crowds and forced to retreat.
The standoff at the Southern Weekly, long seen as a beacon of independent and in-depth reporting in China's stilted, highly controlled media landscape, escalated into a national social media issue and has triggered demands for the new leadership to enshrine media freedom.
The drama began late last week when reporters at the weekly accused censors of replacing an original New Year letter to readers that called for a constitutional government with another piece lauding the party's achievements.