Winds of freedom: A press protest in China may signal more to come

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A rare public protest involving hundreds of people about a newspaper editorial in the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly points up some of the problems in today's China.

Many of the tensions are prompted by the efforts of government officials to achieve economic modernization while continuing to maintain firm Communist Party control.

A staff member of the widely read, relatively liberal paper, circulation 1.6 million, had written a New Year's Day editorial, "China's Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism," which urged greater respect for constitutional rights. Government censors reviewed the editorial, deemed it too critical and changed it, adding praise for Communist Party rule.

Some of the Southern Weekly writers walked out in protest, while members of the public, including some Chinese celebrities and popular bloggers, rallied to their cause. Some supporters placed bouquets of flowers and banners with pro-freedom inscriptions at the newspaper's entrance. After days of the ruckus and some negotiations, the government backed down and apparently agreed to reduce censorship in the future.

What realities does this confrontation signal? One is that continuing to achieve a rising standard of living through economic modernization is difficult for any government without also accepting some degree of freedom of speech. The Beijing government tries to keep the lid on free speech and a free press through a range of constraints, including close government monitoring and blocks on parts of the Internet and social media.

A second is that the competition and gulf continues between North China, which includes Beijing and its centralized bureaucracy, and South China, based in Guangzhou (the former Canton), which has always been more sophisticated and mercantile in its approach to life.

A third is the fracas could force some new decisions on Xi Jinping, who will soon be China's new president. He has been portrayed as more open to modernization and liberalization than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. This episode is a challenge for him to deliver on some new freedoms.

The Post-Gazette tips its hat to the Southern Weekly. It manifested courage in its desire for freedom of the press, a stand that was greatly appreciated by many in China.

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