While the protests over press freedom in Guangzhou may not presage an imminent Chinese Spring, they are the first real challenge for the country's new leader, Xi Jinping. They are also a sign of rising pressures that the ruling Communist Party is struggling to contain.
The row began a week ago, when a New Year message to be published by Southern Weekend – a respected, liberal newspaper with a rare reputation for independence – was re-written by the regional censor. Out went the calls for "constitutional government" enshrining rights such as freedom of speech; in their place were inserted anodyne re-statements of Communist Party orthodoxy.
The move was certainly heavy-handed; but, in China's highly controlled media, it was far from unprecedented. Southern Weekend refused to take such treatment lying down, however. Its journalists issued public complaints, went on strike and even called for the resignation of the local propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen – sparking a storm of dissent on social media sites and protests several-hundred strong outside the newspaper's offices.
The dispute is fraught with difficulty for the new-look ruling regime. Not only are public wrangles with the censor vanishingly rare; this one is taking place in Guangdong, the province that has led China's three-decade economic transformation and which was visited by Mr Xi himself last month, in his carefully choreographed first official trip after taking over as General Secretary of the Communist Party.
Since his elevation to the top job in November, hopes have been high that Mr Xi might prove more of a moderniser than his stick-in-the-mud predecessor. Mr Xi's more relaxed speaking style is a breath of fresh air compared with Hu Jintao's incomprehensible sloganising. He has also explicitly targeted corruption, warning that graft will "doom the party and the state" if it is not checked. And his trip to Guangdong – a nod to Deng Xiaoping's 1992 tour of the region – adds to the sense of a new broom at last.
Now, though, with protesters calling for press freedom scuffling outside Southern Weekend's offices with leftists clutching pictures of Mao, Mr Xi's public image – and early popularity – are to be put to the test.
Thus far, the signs are mixed. True, the police response to the demonstrations appears to have been relatively light-touch. But the closure of a pro-reform website last Friday is far from encouraging. And state-run newspapers are predictably blaming known dissidents for the unrest and claiming that China is not ready for reform. Nor does Mr Xi have a wholly free hand. Even if his intentions are all that the optimists hope, efforts to shake up the status quo will meet with resistance from the hundreds of thousands who benefit from it. Progress, if there is any, will be slow.
For all that, there is little choice but to loosen visibly cracking state control. Or to see it break apart. The current row over press freedom is the most widespread protest since Tiananmen Square, nearly 25 years ago. It may not, of itself, start a revolution; but it is unmistakable evidence that the demands of the ever-expanding, internet-enabled middle class are growing more pressing. Nor can they be dodged. Amid the furore over Southern Weekend on the Sina Weibo social networking site, actress Yao Chen – whose microblog has a staggering 30 million readers – posted the newspaper's logo alongside a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Even if the Communist Party can quell the row over one printed editorial, Sina Weibo and its like cannot be controlled.
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