January 8th, 2013

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Has China's Media Censorship Reached a Tipping Point?



When Mr. Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief of Guangdong province, rewrote and replaced the New Year editorial of th Southern Weekend agazine without the consent of its editors, he probably did not think it would make much of a splash. Indeed, Mr. Tuo might have believed that it was a natural extension of his job, which involved issuing censorship directives to newspaper editors, approving story ideas and having the final say on whether an article is put to ink.

He could not have been more wrong.

In China, where journalists usually accept censorship of the print press as a fact of life, Mr. Tuo's presumptuous move somehow touched a raw nerve. Through China's social media, in particular its Twitter-like microblog platforms, the editors o Southern Weekend eleased statements about the incident. And almost overnight, "Southern Weekend" became the rallying cry of users longing for freedom of press in China.

And these include some of Chinese social media's most high profile users from all walks of life. Celebrities such as actress Yao Chen (with 31 million followers) and actor Chen Kui (with 27 million followers) tweeted explicit messages of support on Sina Weibo, a microblog platform. Yao quoted the 1970 Nobel lecture of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author and dissident, along with a logo of Southern Weekend. Chen was more direct, "I am not that deep, and I don't play word games, I support the friends at Southern Weekend."

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Lin Tianhong (@林天宏), a magazine editor, penned a Sina Weibo post that seemed to capture the sense that a tipping point may have been reached. He wrote,

Over the years, we journalists have been censored and silenced.  We are used to it. We started to compromise and self-comfort. We became familiar with the explicit and not-so-explicit boundaries of our work, and we began to self-censor. We were like frogs being cooked in tepid water... We have gone too far, as if we have forgotten why we chose this profession to begin with. Why are we trying to protect our colleagues at Southern Weekend? For me there is only one reason, life is just a few decades long, how can you forget your innocence?



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