GUANGZHOU, China -- Protests over censorship at one of China's most liberal newspapers descended into ideological confrontation on Tuesday, pitting advocates of free speech against supporters of Communist Party control who wielded red flags and portraits of Mao Zedong.
The face-off between liberals and leftists at the headquarters of a newspaper company in southern China came after disgruntled editors and reporters at Southern Weekend last week decried what they alleged was crude meddling by the head of party propaganda in Guangdong Province, which has long had a reputation as a bastion of a relatively free press.
The protesting journalists at Southern Weekend have called for the dismissal of Tuo Zhen, the top propaganda official in Guangdong Province. They blame Mr. Tuo, a former journalist, for making a drastic change in a New Year's editorial that had originally called for greater respect for constitutional rights. The revised editorial instead praised Communist Party policies.
A former editor with the Southern Daily group of newspapers, which includes Southern Weekend, said negotiations continued on Tuesday between representatives of the disgruntled journalists and newspaper managers and provincial propaganda officials.
The former editor, who asked that his name not be used for fear it could jeopardize his new job, said the talks focused on the protesting journalists' demands that the paper's managers rescind a statement that denied that Mr. Tuo was responsible for the New Year editorial and for an inquiry into the incident.
"They want that statement to be removed, and they also want assurances about relaxing controls on journalists -- not removing party oversight, but making it more reasonable, allowing reporters to challenge officials," he said. "The other main demand is for an impartial explanation of what happened, an accounting so it won't happen again."
The former editor said a continued standoff into Wednesday could jeopardize the newspaper's usual publication on Thursday. "In effect, it's a strike," he said. "It looks unclear whether it can come out on Thursday."
Senior Chinese officials have so far not commented publicly on the censorship dispute at the newspaper, which has tested how far the recently appointed Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, will extend his vows of economic reform into a degree of political relaxation. But self-proclaimed defenders of Communist orthodoxy who turned up at the newspaper headquarters said on Tuesday that they were there to make the party's case.
"We support the Communist Party, shut down the traitor newspaper," said one of the cardboard signs held up by one of 10 or so protesters who came to defend the government.
"Southern Weekend is having an American dream," said another of the signs. "We don't want the American dream, we want the Chinese dream."
Some of the group held up portraits of Mao, the late revolutionary leader who remains a symbol of communist zeal, while others waved the red flags of China and of the Communist Party. Most of the party supporters refused to give their names. They said they came on their own initiative, and not at the behest of officials.
The dueling protests outside the newspaper's headquarters in this provincial capital reflected the political passions and tensions churned up by the quarrel over censorship, which has erupted while Mr. Xi is trying to win public favor and consolidate his authority.
Hundreds of bystanders watched and took photos on mobile phones as the leftists shouted at the 20 or more protesters who had gathered to denounce censorship, and shoving matches broke out between the demonstrators.
At one point, leftists were showered with 50-cent renminbi currency notes. The "Fifty Cent Party" has become a popular term for disparaging pro-party leftists, who are alleged by critics to be willing to take 50 cents in payment for each pro-party message they send onto the Internet.
"It's the only newspaper in China that's willing to tell the truth," said Liang Taiping, 28, a poet from the southern city of Changsha who said he took the train to Guangzhou to show his support for Southern Weekend, which is widely read nationwide.
"What's the point of living while you can't even speak freely?" he said.
About 70 police officers and security guards stood nearby. They did not try to break up the protests, but officers recorded them with video cameras and occasionally stepped in to stop shoving and fisticuffs. Later, the rival protesters broke into separate camps concentrated on different sides of the gate to the newspaper headquarters.
The protests at Southern Weekend broke out while Mr. Xi, the party's general secretary appointed in November, has been sending mixed signals about his intentions. He has repeatedly said he supports faster and bolder reform, but on Saturday he gave a speech defending the party's history and Mao's standing in it.
The Central Propaganda Department, which administers the censorship apparatus, issued instructions telling news media that the dispute at Southern Weekend was "due to the meddling of hostile outside forces," according to China Digital Times, a group based in Berkeley, Calif., that monitors media and censorship issues.
Both supporters and critics of Southern Weekend journalists have claimed that Mr. Xi would back their cause.
"I don't believe that Xi is totally hypocritical when he talks about reform," said Chen Min, a prominent former opinion writer for Southern Weekend who was forced out of the newspaper in 2011.
"The Southern Weekend journalists have said that they accept party control, but the question is what kind of control and how far should it go unchallenged," Mr. Chen added.
Jonah Kessel reported from Guangzhou, China, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Mia Li contributed reporting from Guangzhou, and Patrick Zuo from Beijing.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.