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Newspaper becomes lightning rod for free press debate in China

Wang Junwei a protester outside the newspaper office Southern Weekend is taken away by undercover police in Guangzhou January 10, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Wang Junwei and Yang Xinhua both took to the sidewalks Thursday outside the offices of the newspaper that has become the front line for China's free-speech debate. But the two men came to deliver very different messages.

"We like freedom! We like democracy!" shouted Mr. Wang, a 38-year-old migrant worker and father of one. The embattled Southern Weekend newspaper, he explained, was an important voice for the voiceless in China, a media outlet with a rare willingness to push the boundaries set by the country's legion of censors.

That independent streak led Southern Weekend into a showdown with its official monitors over a New Year's editorial praising the Communist Party that the newspaper was forced to run in the place of its own editorial calling for greater protection of rights. Journalists at the paper briefly went on strike this week in protest, although a deal has now apparently been reached – with officials promising less hands-on interference – that allowed the paper to be published Thursday.

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The Globe and Mail began its rail journey through China from just southeast of Guangzhou, a voyage that will take us into the heart of the country along the route of the famous Long March nearly 70 years ago that cemented Mao Zedong and his Communist Party in power and led to the creation of the People's Republic. But first we stopped to gauge the impact of Southern Weekend's stand against censorship.

The battle over what it means is just beginning. Editors at the Beijing News, another liberal-minded publication, raised their own challenge to censors this week (although less successfully so far). And the street outside the Guangzhou headquarters of Southern Weekend was transformed Thursday into the rarest of things in China: a speakers' corner where citizens publicly argued about the direction the country is heading in.

With foreign television cameras on him, Mr. Wang – who said he arrived in Guangzhou on Wednesday from his home in central Henan province to look for work – climbed up onto a flower box and held aloft a banner drawn up by another Southern Weekend supporter that criticized the ruling Communist Party and founder Mao Zedong, who is still revered by an outspoken section of Chinese society. "It is the government that needs to obey the law!" Mr. Wang shouted, as a dozens of police officers slowly closed in on the small clutch of protesters around him.

Mr. Wang's attacks on the ruling party and its founder drew the ire of Mr. Yang, a burly 50-year-old who said he came to the Southern Weekend office to counter those who were demanding Western-style free speech. "We don't disagree that we need democracy," Mr. Yang shouted at Mr. Wang, a red scarf wrapped around his neck in a show of support for the ideas of Chairman Mao. "But we need equality first!"

The freewheeling debate drew a crowd of onlookers – some of whom occasionally applauded points made by the pro-Southern Weekend protesters – and a swarm of uniformed and plainclothes police. Thursday afternoon, in the wake of the very public argument between Mr. Wang and Mr. Yang, the police moved to close the speakers' corner, standing aside as a group of plainclothes thugs rushed in to seize Mr. Wang and several other prominent protesters, dragging them away into a waiting white van.

"I've been kidnapped!" shouted Xiao Qingshan, a 45-year-old labour rights activist who was pulled out of his wheelchair by the plainclothes thugs.

Even before Thursday's roundup of activists in Guangzhou, the strike at Southern Weekend was seen as an early test of new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's interest in political reform. The fact that all discussion of the incident – both online and in official media – was quickly suppressed was seen by some as a sign that the party's conservative wing has prevailed.

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"This is a sad start for the new Chinese government. Long-awaited political reforms are just a dream that will not come true soon," Zhang Hong, deputy editor-in-chief of the Economic Observer, a Beijing-based newspaper, wrote in an editorial published Thursday in Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post. "The media and liberal intellectuals will find the environment for reporting and free speech as stifled as it has been in the past. With social discontent growing, more confrontations between authorities and liberal intellectuals loom."

Like most of those protesting outside Southern Weekend, Mr. Xiao was a veteran dissident, recently jailed 18 months for his political activities. In an interview before his disappearance, he said the newspaper's battle with censorship was linked to his own battle to get better working conditions for migrant workers. "Southern Weekend reports the facts. They speak for the ordinary people. They challenge the other media so the ordinary people's voices can get out."

At least five people – including Mr. Xiao and Mr. Wang – were dragged away in unmarked vehicles, and police forced the rest of the crowd to disperse. It was not clear whether Mr. Yang or any of the Maoists had also been detained.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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