On Smog and Censorship in China

Supporters posted photos to Chinese social media with signs decrying censorship at the magazine Southern Weekend. Photo: China Media Project.

Two things have been weighing on me lately. One (quite literally weighing on me and smothering my lungs) is the record-breaking smog that is blanketing Beijing in a toxic cloud.

The other is the recent uproar over the censorship of Southern Weekend, a widely read weekly newspaper considered one of the most progressive mainstream news outlets in China—and the resulting strike by its reporters.

Neither air pollution nor censorship is a new phenomenon here, and both are things you resign yourself to. The smog was so bad last Saturday that it was the leading story on CCTV's 7 pm newscast, by all accounts the most-watched program in the world, since every local station in the country is forced to broadcast it.

But while smog can make the news, reports on censorship of the news are, of course, officially off-limits.

That didn't stop Southern Weekend from becoming one of the hottest topics in early January, as thousands—including some of the country's most popular actresses and starlets—took to the streets and to the internet to support the journalists of Southern Weekend and to criticize the heavy-handed interference of the Chinese government.

Journalists Strike

The incident began January 2, when a planned New Year's editorial calling for implementation of the Chinese Constitution was replaced without the knowledge of the magazine's editors by Tuo Zhen, head of the Guangdong Province Propaganda Department. (Guangdong is a southern province near Hong Kong, better known in the U.S. for being the manufacturing capital of the world; its factories produce a third of the world’s shoes, textiles, and toys.)

The Chinese Constitution guarantees rights such as press freedom and freedom of assembly and protest, but it is routinely ignored. Rather than the strongly worded editorial backing the constitution, readers who opened the paper on January 3 instead found a bland message praising the Communist Party.

Reporters and editors immediately took to the Internet and Sina Weibo (a microblogging service similar to Twitter) to denounce the removal of the editorial and to call for Tuo Zhen’s resignation.

Their posts were quickly deleted by Sina's own internal censors, but it was too late—China's netizens had already spread the word, and thousands of messages of support for Southern Weekend appeared. Even Yao Chen, an actress with more than 30 million followers on Sina Weibo, threw down for Southern Weekend, quoting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when she posted, “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.”

The Propaganda Department, realizing it had a crisis on its hands, launched a nationwide effort to censor any mention of “Southern Weekend” and “Tuo Zhen” on the Internet. The department issued directives reinforcing the principle of media censorship, accusing “foreign elements” of stirring the pot, and demanding that news outlets republish the official government and Party statement on Southern Weekend.

Frustrated with the government’s hostile response, and perhaps emboldened by support from around the country, the reporters at Southern Weekend then went on strike—an incredible move in a country where journalists are routinely fired or even jailed for stepping out of line.

From the Internet to the Streets

When the reporters struck, the public outcry spilled over from the internet into the streets. Hundreds of people gathered outside the offices of the Southern Media Group to support Southern Weekend. You can see photos here. The protesters ranged from university students to retirees. The demands on their signs often went beyond those of the reporters—an apology and the resignation of Tuo Zhen—and called for democracy and freedom of speech.

The week-long standoff was resolved January 9 in a seeming victory, when the Propaganda Department apparently agreed to loosen some controls on the paper and promised that no strikers would be fired (it remains to be seen whether or not there will be repercussions and retaliation). Details are hazy, as editors and reporters have been told not to talk to the press.

The next day, the news magazine hit the stands on time, protests died down, the interrogation of prominent supporters of Southern Weekend by Chinese security forces began, and we were left to analyze the aftermath.

How Censorship Works

How should we understand the uproar? Is this a defining moment for a new social movement in China, or will things simply go back to normal? To understand the importance of incidents like this one, it's important to know how censorship typically works.

The Southern Media Group, which owns and publishes Southern Weekend among other newspapers and magazines, is state-owned and -operated, like all other legal news outlets in China. As Seeing Red in China, a blog about modern China, explains, the top leaders of the Southern Media Group are the Communist Party Secretary and the deputy chief of the Propaganda Department of Guangdong Province.

All news outlets in China are under the control of the Community Party’s Central Propaganda Department, which is based in Beijing but has offices throughout the country. Not a government body itself, it works with government agencies to monitor, direct, and censor the news.

In general, government departments and agencies are, for all practical purposes, administrative arms of the Communist Party, entrusted with the day-to-day running of the country and the implementation of Party policy. Party organs and government departments often work hand in hand.

As Evan Osnos, who writes about China for The New Yorker, explains censorship, there is typically no man with a red pen in the newsroom striking out objectionable stories. The Propaganda Department instead sends weekly directives to news outlets outlining what is and isn't acceptable (see here for some examples) and relies on self-censorship by editors and reporters, who know well which topics are off-limits.

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Dissent from this system is rare, and when it occurs, journalists are either fired (as many Southern Weekend reporters and editors have been, over the years) or, more rarely, jailed.


The media landscape is much different now than even 20 years ago. In the 1990s, the government began cutting funding and subsidies for media outlets, instead exhorting them to support themselves through advertising. As newspapers had to compete for ads and readers, they began to more aggressively report the news, including doing investigative journalism and at times making direct critiques of the government and the Party.

Southern Weekend, much like the more politically liberal Guangdong Province itself, has gained a reputation as a reform-minded, aggressive news outlet over the years. The newspaper and its parent Southern Media Group represent a current within the Party that is seen as more willing to push the limits of what can be covered. It has published regular stories on, for example, abuses at the Foxconn factories where iPhones and other electronics are made, official corruption, and the outbreak of SARS.

This willingness would not exist if the reading public were not increasingly demanding reform and transparency.

Even in this changing media environment, however, censorship is rampant. And under Tuo Zhen, who became head of the Guangdong Propaganda Department in May 2012, control and censorship increased. Rather than self-censorship, it became overt—reporters now had to submit their topics to the Propaganda Department before they could even begin writing, and even then, every weekly edition still had several articles pulled before printing. The removal of the New Year’s editorial, with no prior notice to the editors, seems to have been the final straw.

Free Speech vs. Free Market

Yet it would be a mistake to simply understand this incident as part of a burgeoning movement for democracy in China (as many misunderstood what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989).

Southern Weekend has a reputation as a liberal, reform-minded paper—but what does it mean to be “liberal” in China, and what does reform mean in today’s environment?

Dissident intellectual Zhao Hui writes, “Southern Weekend has a clear [political] leaning that can be summed up as: recognition of the importance of a market economy, globalization and rule of law; [and] warmth toward individual rights, universal values, and political reform.” The paper advocates for what many in the U.S. would call neoliberal economic policies—in other words, pro-business—coupled with traditional liberal political institutions.

The protest over Southern Weekend grows from decades of neoliberal thought in China that believes Western-style democracy will come hand in hand with a free-market economy.

In 1978, Party leader Deng Xiaoping initiated privatization of China’s previously state-dominated economy. He began to privatize land and state-owned enterprises, and several southern cities were declared “Special Economic Zones” open to foreign investment.

A dominant train of thought in China holds that this process, which is called economic reform, will lead to political reform. In his book The End of the Revolution, Wang Hui, an influential academic at Tsinghua University, argues this thinking is mistaken.

Wang critiques “liberal” intellectuals, politicians, and dissident activists who want to import Western-style democracy and further market reforms, such as increased land privatization and privatization of the remaining state-owned enterprises, but neglect to address the deepening crises in Chinese society that have resulted from “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.”

The increasing number of strikes reveals how workers suffer under the low-wage model of production for export. The income gap between rural and urban areas is widening. And the environment is rapidly degrading (smog included). All of these are products of neoliberal policies.

While many activists and intellectuals, Wang writes, “are concerned with the fate of such constitutional rights as the freedom of thought, speech, and assembly, among others, [they] have not yet been able to connect these pursuits with those of other social strata, namely the struggle for survival and the right to development.”

Liberals want to continue the market reforms and weaken the Party’s grip on all aspects of society. A growing middle class is calling for more individual freedoms. But the Community Party is determined to maintain its control. And bubbling underneath all of this, inequality is growing, a labor movement is burgeoning, and environmental degradation is rapidly undermining the foundation of life.

The key question Wang Hui and others pose is: will a movement that calls for greater freedom of expression ally itself with the growing labor and environmental movements in China, which are challenging the foundations of neoliberal economic policy?

This is the question on my mind in the aftermath of Southern Weekend. I hope all those in the U.S. and elsewhere will be asking it too as the Chinese century unfolds.

Esther Wang is a writer and organizer currently living in Beijing. You can find more of her writing at estherwang.com.