GUANGZHOU, China -- The demonstrations have died down and the reporters and editors are back to work at China's most prominent weekly newspaper. Its latest issue was published more or less on schedule. But the paper, Southern Weekend, is sure to remain a crucial battleground over Communist Party censorship.
Southern Weekend has been a weather vane for restrictions on news organizations in China since its founding 29 years ago, and its journalists say their frustration with those constraints has been building for years, turning their relationship with provincial party officials into something of a cat-and-mouse battle.
The restrictions have tightened since last summer, leading to the protests that erupted at Southern Weekend's offices last week over a heavily rewritten New Year's editorial, one of the sharpest outbreaks of friction so far.
The newspaper appeared on newsstands Thursday, after protesting journalists accepted a compromise in which provincial propaganda officials promised to loosen some of the more intrusive censorship controls over their work. The police in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, moved in to quell any new demonstrations at the entrance to the offices of the Nanfang Media Group, which owns the paper.
The latest issue of Southern Weekend featured an investigation into a fire at an orphanage in central China that left seven people dead, as well as discussions of proposed changes to labor-camp and farmland-seizure laws. It made no direct mention of the protests against censorship that turned the newspaper itself into the biggest story in China so far this year.
The protesting journalists directed their anger at Tuo Zhen, the head of party propaganda in Guangdong, whom they blamed for tampering with the New Year's editorial, changing it from an essay urging respect for citizens' constitutional rights into an error-marred paean to party rule. But the closest that anything in the latest issue came to touching on that controversy was a reprint of a commentary from People's Daily, the Communist Party's main national paper, on the role of the news media.
"Party control of the media is a principle, but the manner in which the party controls the media must keep up with the times," Southern Weekend said in reference to the People's Daily commentary.
Southern Weekend has been at the forefront of changes in China's increasingly commercial news organizations. By reporting aggressively on scandals, corruption, popular protests and other sensitive subjects, the newspaper and others like it have collided repeatedly with party restrictions. Now Southern Weekend is at the heart of the next big test: whether the Communist Party's new leader, Xi Jinping, intends to extend his broad promises of economic reform into a measure of political liberalization, including more scope for the news media to challenge officials.
"There was an accidental element to the Tuo Zhen incident, but it also erupted out of long-accumulated grievances over interference in reporting and editing," said Zhang Ping, a former editor and columnist with the paper who was dismissed from the Nanfang Media Group under official pressure in 2011. He also goes by the pen name Chang Ping.
"For me, the most important thing about this incident is that it's exposed the dark insides of the Propaganda Department," Mr. Zhang said, speaking about the censorship uproar from Germany, where he now lives. "It's almost impossible to appeal against the Propaganda Department. You couldn't question their decisions."
Much more was at stake than one botched editorial. Mr. Tuo, who took up his post last May, was the embodiment of increasingly meddlesome censorship, according to people who have worked for Southern Weekend and academics who have studied the newspaper.
"Tuo Zhen seemed to have no understanding that running a paper is a business," said Yan Lieshan, a senior editor and columnist with the Nanfang Media Group. "Nowadays, most newspapers in China have to pay their own way and make a living, but when editors act like censors, they can throttle a paper to death."
The journalists' grievances go back years, including an incident in 2009 when propaganda and Foreign Ministry officials micromanaged publication of an interview with President Obama, Mr. Zhang and other former Southern Weekend journalists said. The White House reached out to Southern Weekend as a relatively liberal and sympathetic outlet, but censors took that as proof of the paper's political unreliability. The version of the interview the paper ultimately published was bland and heavily cut.
"Over the last few years, it's been clear that they've been seen as one of the problem publications," David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong, said of Southern Weekend. "I definitely have heard that there's been a lot more killing of stories."
Southern Weekend, which also calls itself Southern Weekly in English, was founded in 1984 as a supplement to Southern Daily, the main official newspaper of the Guangdong Province party committee. Its first editor in chief, Zuo Fang, tried to seize the opportunities created by Deng Xiaoping's market-oriented economic reforms to draw in readers and advertisers. At first, it featured "scantily clad starlets and action-packed crime serial novels," according to Li-Fung Cho, a scholar at the University of Hong Kong who studied the newspaper. But by the mid-1990s it had begun to feature investigative reports and won a nationwide readership.
All Chinese newspapers are owned by arms of the state or the party, but most must pay their way as commercial businesses, and some even generate profits for their official owners. The tension between commerce and political control has been especially sharp for Southern Weekend, based in one of China's most business-focused provinces.
"You could see how influential they'd become by the handling they got from propaganda officials," Mr. Bandurski said. "Southern Weekend became like the guy at the front taking the blows for everyone else."
The newspaper was nearly shut down in 1993 after it published a fabricated report about a double murder, according to a memoir by Mr. Zuo, the former editor in chief. It was spared only because of lobbying by Xie Fei, the relatively liberal party chief of Guangdong at the time.
More recently, however, officials have tightened their grip. even under Wang Yang, who headed the provincial party until December and cast himself as a tolerant reformer.
Mr. Wang is expected to be named a deputy prime minister in March.
Mr. Xi has said he favors deeper reform, which some observers have said could include measured political relaxation. But rolling back China's censors will take more than general vows of reform, said Zhang Jicheng, a journalist who left a sister publication to Southern Weekend last year under political pressure.
"At the senior levels, there may be people who are personally more open and forward-looking, but ultimately the censorship doesn't budge much, because the regulations and institutions remain the same," Mr. Zhang said. "I hope that this incident leads to good changes, to less meddling, but I find it hard to believe that there won't be internal recriminations. There always have been in the past."
Edward Wong reported from Guangzhou, China, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Jonathan Ansfield and Shi Da contributed reporting from Beijing.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.