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China's government has, for the moment, defused a struggle over censorship. Journalists at Southern Weekly, which is one of China's boldest newspapers, are back to work after a week-long strike. They walked out after government censors replaced on of their editorials - an editorial that called for reforms.
The journalists returned to work with assurances that at least they will not be punished. Their strike sparked wider protests and a crackdown, and tells us something about China's new leaders.
NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: For a few days this week, demands for free speech spilled out onto China's streets; something that's rarely happened since the Tiananmen protests of 1989.
As Southern Weekly journalists in Guangzhou engaged in silent battle with officials inside their building, their advocates outside were louder. This shows the popular demand for civil rights, says Zhang Hong, the deputy editor of the Economic Observer in Beijing; he believes the dangers of silence now outweigh the risk of speaking out.
ZHANG HONG: If I am going to live in this country for the coming years, for my daughter who will live in this country for the coming decades, if we don't speak out, I can't imagine what kind of world it will be. So, it's risky, yes or no?
LIM: For days, messages supporting the journalists seemed everywhere; hidden acrostics on major websites; another paper printing a paean to porridge, a word that in Chinese sounds the same as Southern Weekly. It seemed to be a window of opportunity; then, it closed.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Here a protestor in Guangzhou shouts that he's being kidnapped as he's bundled into a van by plainclothes police. Inside the building, journalists have struck an uneasy truce with censors.
The paper is back on the newsstands, without its political section. The message, Zhang says, is clear.
HONG: From this incident, we can see that the authorities have no intention to loosen their control on the media. They are not going to do what the people are looking forward to. They are not going to put the political reform on their agenda.
LIM: Now the machinery of state repression has swung into action. More than a dozen people were detained at the protests, some accused of illegal assembly. At least three celebrities say they've been called in by state security and warned off tweeting on the topic.
And in Hangzhou, 800 miles away from the protests, seven people were detained for holding a meeting to discuss free speech. I reached one of them, veteran activist Lu Gengsong, by phone. He's been warned he could be charged with inciting subversion.
LU GENGSONG: (Through Translator) After the new leadership came in, we thought Communist Party control might be more relaxed. We were holding an event to support Southern Weekly. We never imagined it would turn into such a huge deal, and we'd be detained.
LIM: Hopes had been high after a southern tour by China's new Communist leader, Xi Jinping. For Chinese people, the destination was symbolic, as the place where China's economic reforms began. For his part, Xi's launched a high-profile attack on official extravagance, signaling limited reform, according to Russell Leigh Moses of the Beijing Centre.
RUSSELL LEIGH MOSES: I think we're already looking at efforts at party reform. Political reform seems imply something larger, something deeper, something more extensive. We're not at that point now.
LIM: Others disagree. Huang Weiding is a retired publisher who's been consulted by the new leadership on ways to fight corruption. He says, in the Chinese context, party reform is political reform - the problem is how to change fast enough.
HUANG WEIDING: (Through Translator) In normal circumstances, reform is just tinkering with the system. You can't just replace the system. That would be revolution. Sometimes, people lack patience.
LIM: This week's collision between new media and old-school censorship shows how fast people's demands are changing. The danger facing China's new leaders is whether they can move quickly enough to fulfill those demands. Otherwise, more such clashes may loom.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
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