China: After the Southern Weekend strike – where now for the struggle for free speech and democratic rights?

CCP dictatorship employs familiar ‘carrot-and-stick’ tactics to quell protests, but for how long?

Vincent Kolo,

The strike last week by journalists at the Southern Weekend newspaper in Guangzhou was a courageous protest against media censorship that generated enormous online sympathy across China. The deal that was struck midweek, following the personal intervention of Guangdong’s new provincial party chief Hu Chunhua, ensured that the Thursday issue of the newspaper appeared at newsstands. The nominally ‘Communist’ (CCP) dictatorship was desperate to avoid a disruption of the paper’s weekly print schedule, which would have meant an escalation of the anti-censorship struggle.

Protests in support of striking Southern Weekend staff
Protests in support of striking Southern Weekend staff

Non-appearance of one of China’s most popular newspapers, like a large blank space, would expose the censor’s handiwork to the general public. It would be an unmistakeable sign of a serious political conflict. Censors are like secret policemen: to be effective they need to work in the shadows and therefore dread the sunlight of publicity. As a foreign ministry official told the BBC when questioned about the dispute, there is “no so-called news censorship in China”. Underlining the bizarre parallel world in which the CCP rulers live, controls on social media were immediately stepped up, with words such as “Southern” and “Weekend” blocked on search engines.

This was the first strike by media employees in China since the mass democracy movement of 1989. Despite untold speeches by CCP ‘reformers’ calling for greater media freedom, the reality has been even tighter controls in recent years. Last year, Reporters Without Borders placed China fifth from the bottom, slightly better than North Korea and Syria, in its ranking of press freedom in 179 countries. At the same time China leads the world in the number of internet users, hitting 564 million this month. The reality gap between ossified pro-regime propaganda as churned out by much of the media on one hand, and the lively controversies of the blogosphere on the other is felt by all conscientious journalists and media workers.

The spark for the conflict at Southern Weekend was the blocking of a pro-reform editorial by the zealous Tuo Zhen, installed as provincial propaganda chief a year ago in order to police Guangdong’s media in the period before and after November’s leadership changeover. Journalists at Southern Weekend complain Tuo’s office has changed or scrapped more than 1,000 articles since he arrived. Their strike, which began on 6 January, generated huge support with demonstrations outside the newspaper’s office and endorsements on social media including from a string of celebrities in postings followed by millions. Thousands signed online petitions demanding Tuo Zhen be sacked. As the clock ticked towards the deadline for the next issue, the journalists’ revolt was developing into a national crisis, and the new CCP leadership around Xi Jinping was facing its first major challenge.

Many of those who supported the newspaper’s stand were more radical in their demands, even calling for an end to one-party dictatorship. The conflict therefore represented a new stage in China’s deepening political crisis due to its overtly political character. As The Economist noted:

“Tens of thousands of similar demonstrations occur every year in China, but their slogans rarely stray into the realm of national politics. The rhetoric of Southern Weekend’s supporters in Guangzhou has been unusually bold, a point that will doubtless be raised by some party leaders who worry that even a modicum of political liberalisation could open the floodgates to demands for far-reaching change.”

While the CCP regime has been known to dismiss or punish one or other ‘sacrificial lamb’ – in cases of corrupt or overly brutal or incompetent local officials – this would not have been so simple in the case of the censor’s office. While, as part of a possible deal with the striking journalists and Southern Weekend management, Tuo Zhen may very well be moved to another post in the future, politically his dismissal would have been extremely costly during the crisis itself. For the one-party dictatorship this became a fundamental issue of its ‘sacred right’ to control the media. “Challenging censors is the same as taking on the party,” noted the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post in an editorial.

Important lessons

For socialists and democracy campaigners there are important lessons from the journalists’ strike that will be valuable for future struggles against the CCP dictatorship. Southern Weekend is a leading liberal publication and is known for its investigative journalism, but also for its capitalist ideological outlook. This has led some sections of the left, including some neo-Maoists, to oppose the strike as pro-Western and “bourgeois”. Predictably, a small gang of CCP supporters staged protests outside the newspaper group’s Guangzhou offices during the strike, jeering at pro-democracy campaigners who gathered in support of the strike and holding placards declaring, “We support the Communist Party. Shut down the traitor newspaper”. Such regime stooges act as strikebreakers and cheerleaders for state repression. Needless to say, such a position has nothing whatsoever to do with socialism.

Opponents of Southern Weekend stage counterdemonstration
Opponents of Southern Weekend stage counterdemonstration

The CCP was in conflict with the Southern Weekend not over the latter’s neo-liberalism, but to defend its repressive machinery (in this case the provincial propaganda department) against what were very limited democratic demands. The CCP tried to peddle the all-too-familiar line that “external forces” were behind the conflict. This was the central theme of an editorial in the Global Times, which other media were ordered to copy. This in turn triggered further dissention and some scattered acts of defiance by sections of the state-run media. Even some Global Times journalists took the unprecedented step of protesting via internet against their newspaper for raising the foreign bogey, an argument that fools fewer and fewer people. As blogger Li Chengpeng commented ironically, “These foreign forces are odious… They steal from the Chinese people and stash it in Swiss bank accounts. Their children drive Ferraris while they ignore Chinese school bus tragedies.”

Genuine socialists support all struggle for democratic advances, even of a limited nature. We understand that every partial victory from struggle can enrich the masses’ experience and strengthen the struggle for full democratic rights, against the current system. This includes struggles by sections of the professional middle-classes and intellectuals, especially when they resort to the strike weapon – the traditional method of the proletariat – which raises consciousness and self-confidence for struggle. This does not oblige us to support the political positions of the Southern Weekend establishment, or its editorial staff, which we disagree with. Similarly, we protest against the CCP’s repression against leftist bloggers and websites, regardless of whether we agree with their political standpoint. Many left websites have been closed in the past year, something that is rarely mentioned in the international capitalist media, unlike the huge coverage given to the Southern Weekend dispute.

We oppose the pro-capitalist ideology of the imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, but this does not stop us demanding his release from prison and opposing the brutal persecution he and other dissidents, including many socialists, face in China today. The liberal capitalist wing of the Chinese regime find themselves trapped in the middle, between deepening mass anger which represents the outline of a future mass movement against despotism, and the ruling elite’s manoeuvres aimed at forestalling this movement. The editors of the Southern Weekly have been careful not to openly challenge the CCP dictatorship or even its right to practise censorship – they merely urge it to adopt more ‘modern’ methods. In the newspaper’s editorial after the strike they wrote: “It’s fundamental that the party regulates the press, but its method of regulation needs to be advanced to keep pace with the times.” This editorial also pleaded that in order for the CCP to carry out reform (i.e. preserve its rule) it needs a “moderate, rational and constructive media”.

Unlike the bourgeois liberals, whose opinions this editorial expresses, we stand for full and immediate democratic rights. Socialists do not seek to reform the dictatorship but to end it. We also understand that the struggle for democratic rights in China is linked to the class struggle – against capitalism – and the need for a socialist alternative. Some sectarian sections of the left do not grasp this fundamental fact, despite the many important examples from the history of workers’ struggle and Marxism. They fool themselves that capitalism can be defeated while ignoring and opting out of what they falsely regard as a “bourgeois” struggle for democratic rights. This was not the approach of Lenin and Trotsky, who combined the struggle for democratic demands – for the overthrow of the Russian Tsar – with the need for the working class to lead this democratic revolution, armed with a socialist programme and a revolutionary party.

Wukan-type deal ends protests

Many commentators have drawn parallels with the way the dispute at Southern Weekend was resolved, and the settlement of the village rebellion in Wukan in 2011. At Wukan we saw a much bigger and more prolonged mass movement, but both struggles ended with deals brokered by the provincial CCP leaders. This has been hailed by commentators especially in the ‘political reform’ camp as a possible harbinger of a more reform-orientated and ‘consensual’ approach by the regime. We socialists beg to differ.

In both cases the substance of the deal was vague and consisted mainly of “verbal promises”, which in Wukan’s case largely remain unfulfilled. In both cases the regime was under enormous pressure to prevent the protests spreading, but also to avoid being seen to make a full retreat, for fear this would increase the confidence of the masses and inspire ‘copycat’ struggles.

Guangdong boss ‘Little Hu’ (so named because he is closely allied to retiring president Hu Jintao and his tuanpai faction), was desperate, especially so early on in his new position, to end a strike that was attracting national and international attention, and preferably without resorting to mass sackings and repression. This was clearly being considered, with threats by a top propaganda official in Beijing to “disband the newsroom and close the newspaper”, according to the South China Morning Post (9 January 2012).

Hu, who undoubtedly coordinated with the central leadership, feared that the latter course could have backfired, igniting even greater solidarity protests at least online (a power factor in China), and would have sent out disastrous signals about the political direction of Xi Jinping’s regime. Above all Xi and his team subscribe to the mantra of ‘stability’. Xi does not stand for political reform, but he is attempting to balance between its supporters and opponents in order both to consolidate his position, but also to blunt opposition to the unpopular economic policies his team are preparing. Had the CCP dictatorship crushed the Southern Weekend strike this would have signalled that the door of ‘political reform’ had slammed shut – frustrating Xi’s balancing act.

The deal that ended the dispute at Southern Weekend seems to include the familiar mix of threats (of repression) and some concessions, probably including a promise of no disciplinary action provided the strike ended immediately. Media reports say the newspaper and its staff received assurances from Hu Chunhua that the censors will not in future change articles prior to publication. The onus will be on the editorial staff to practise self-censorship, which anyway is the most common form of censorship today.

At the same time Southern Weekend staff refused to speak to reporters, especially foreign and Hong Kong media, about the settlement, saying they were under a gag order (a similar phenomenon was seen in Wukan after the deal with then provincial party boss Wang Yang and his representatives). Despite the rumoured assurances, Hong Kong media report that Southern Weekend journalists fear reprisals and some are already looking for other jobs. As at Wukan, the CCP’s more ‘sensitive’ approach to crisis management does not mean no repression, but rather that repression is delayed and then applied selectively against ‘troublemakers’.

Wukan mass struggle in 2011
Wukan mass struggle in 2011

As Sreeram Chaulia points out in Asia Time Online: “When poor peasants in a village called Wukan (also in Guangdong province) rose up to defend themselves against CCP-enabled land-grabbing and corruption in September 2011, the crisis was nipped in the bud at the local level through a mixture of the symbolic removal of errant party apparatchiks, state intimidation and co-option. The Chinese state has developed a sophisticated crisis-response mechanism that deploys sticks and carrots and contains unrest, both geographical and ideational.”

But given the explosive social contradictions in China, mass unrest cannot be ‘contained’ indefinitely, no matter how sophisticated is the state’s response. At Wukan the protest movement was called off in return for new village elections, and the removal of corrupt leaders who had connived with property developers to steal the villagers’ land. The preceding months of struggle had shown great audacity, determination and organisational skill by the population, many of whom probably felt the deal was the best they could achieve at the time, given the nature of the dictatorial state.

We warned that the struggle had not reached a conclusion, and that the CCP representatives could not be trusted to honour any deal. This is not about the ‘personal integrity’ of this or that official, but the nature of the authoritarian system, its endemic corruption and reliance on capitalist economic mechanisms that enrich a minority at the expense of the majority. Our warnings have been confirmed in Wukan. Pro-CCP candidates were the main winners in the village elections (following pressure on more radical protest leaders to withdraw) and police surveillance and harassment, especially of young activists, has increased significantly. The original trigger for the protests – land confiscation – remains largely unresolved, while the new village leaders call for “calm” and an end to protests in order to “attract investors”.

Despite this, the struggle at Wukan has left its imprint on the political situation in China. The same can be said of the strike at Southern Weekend. These events show that the CCP regime can be challenged, and forced onto the back foot. They show that organised collective struggle brings rewards, and can squeeze concessions from the dictatorship. These examples must be built upon and the lessons learned by all who are fighting for real change as new battles loom.

At the time of writing the one-party state is following up its negotiated settlement in Guangzhou with arrests and threats against those who supported the journalists’ revolt. At least ten demonstrators who protested outside the Southern Weekend offices have been seized, while several celebrities who posted support on their microblog sites have been summonsed to “drink tea” with the security police – a common form of intimidation.

“The way China’s leaders contained a rights row that saw rare protests against censorship shows there is no consensus for rapid change,” argued AFP after the strike. But this refers to the view from the top, and the current balance of forces within the CCP regime. The mood at ground level is altogether different.

While the deal brokered last week by Hu Chunhua and the Guangdong CCP is not worth much in itself, the journalists’ strike has nevertheless made a difference. It is one of the few overtly political struggles to date. The support it engendered shook the regime. The censors will feel greater pressure, for fear of triggering new disputes. As this conflict demonstrates, sympathy protests can spread rapidly in the conditions that exist in China today. The ‘mad dog’ of the propaganda officialdom has been given a sharp kick – which will make it more wary the next time it wants to bite!

What we stand for calls for an end to press censorship and the disbandment of the propaganda ministry as part of the wider struggle against the dictatorial regime. We stand for a free media that is publicly owned but not controlled by government. We oppose private ownership as this has led everywhere to the concentration of print and broadcasting media in powerful undemocratic cartels. The so called ‘free press’ in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and in Western ‘democracies’, is nothing of the sort, with a near monopoly exercised by a handful of media tycoons. Socialists stand for the mass media to become accessible to all, to allow the whole of society to use this as a means of communication, artistic and cultural expression, requiring great openness and tolerance of different ideas. This can only be possible with democratically controlled state funding to support autonomous publications and media organisations reflecting a full diversity of opinions.