Earlier this week in southern China, protests began after a New Year’s Day op-ed by the newspaper Southern Weekly was censored. In its original form, the op-ed hoped for a new year in which the liberal principles of the Chinese constitution were respected. When that op-ed was reduced to party platitudes by propaganda officials, the paper’s employees briefly went on strike and the protests began. Brooke speaks with Jeremy Goldkorn is the director of Danwei, a firm that researches Chinese media and internet, about the situation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier this week in southern China something weird happened.
REPORTER: Yellow chrysanthemums symbolizing the death of press freedom when laid outside the headquarters of the Southern Weekly newspaper in the city of Guangzhou.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were protesting the censoring of a New Year's Day op-ed last week in the Southern Weekly. In its original form it hoped for a new year in which the liberal principles of the Chinese Constitution actually were respected. When that op-ed was reduced to party platitudes by propaganda officials, the paper’s employees briefly went on strike. The paper resumed publication at week’s end, after an agreement was reached between the newspaper and the local government, which, in fact owns the paper. Jeremy Goldkorn is the director of Danwei, a firm that researches Chinese media and the Internet. He says that despite state ownership, the stakes in censoring Southern Weekly were high. It does some of the best investigative reporting in China.
JEREMY GOLDKORN: They were the first Chinese media organization to describe what was going on with SARS, kind of a flu that was killing people. China completely suppressed that kind of information and the Southern Weekly published a few stories that helped to open up the conversation inside China.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They also did a ground-changing piece about police misconduct.
JEREMY GOLDKORN: There was a, a young guy whose name was Sun Zhigang, and he was a graphic designer and had come to Guangzhou, the big city, working as a graphic designer, but he did not have a residence permit. And this guy got detained by police and then he died in police custody. This is a newspaper that has consistently published stories that reveal problems in society that are generally considered too dangerous for most newspapers to do. This kind of thing has gone on basically every year at some point. You know, the current goings-on, I, I feel it's being hyped up a little bit by the western media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This strike that brings civilians into the street, isn’t there a, a much higher profile element to this?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: Yes, Brooke. Even though you are an American, you are not completely wrong about this.
It is a big deal. There have been demonstrations on the street, you know, and that doesn't happen in China. This is not New York City. You don’t just like go and demonstrate, you know, unless you like to go to jail.
Li Bingbing, an actress, model, and Yao Chen, another actress celebrity, have both tweeted messages that are slightly cryptic but very clearly in support of the newspaper. There has been a very broad base of support from all kinds of people that you may not have expected.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pretty much as the unrest was going on at Southern Weekend, the editors of a historical journal published a cover article that argued that the existing Constitution offered a basis for political reform. Last Friday, the magazine's website was shut down. Officials claimed that it failed to [LAUGHS] update its registration. How much does China’s Constitution play into this?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: Constitutionalism, the idea of a constitution, was one of the very important strands of thinking of many Chinese intellectuals after the Qing Dynasty ended in 1911 and they looked at France and they looked to the United States with admiration. In the 1920s, the Communist Party of China, in at least one official document, adopts the idea of constitutionalism as an aim. It’s a topic that the government is paranoid about, and it does have an appeal to a broader public, I think. How broad, I’m not sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what does this Constitution have to say about free speech?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: The Chinese Constitution guarantees all kinds of rights, like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and religion, all kinds of rights that you don’t actually enjoy in China. If you really hold the government account according to the words that you can read in the Chinese Constitution, which you can buy in any bookstore anywhere in the country, it can make the government a little bit uncomfortable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even the government has invoked its own Constitution from time to time, thus painting itself potentially into an eventual corner.
JEREMY GOLDKORN: You know, Brooke, the name of the countries, the People's Republic of China, how is that not painting yourself into a corner.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] At the demonstrations, apparently some pro-government demonstrators held up signs reading “Southern Weekend has an American dream. We don't want the American dream. We want the Chinese dream.” So what is the Chinese dream actually about these days?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: Xi Jinping, the new General Secretary of the Communist Party and leader of China, talked about fulfilling the Chinese dream as one of his ambitions. But what exactly is the Chinese dream is very difficult to define. The American dream is something that anyone can understand. You know, you work hard, you get rich, you succeed. It’s so simple.
There is not really a Chinese dream in any coherent sense like there is an American dream, but the government is trying to use this idea of a Chinese dre - dream as a kind of a propaganda rallying call. I don't think it has any resonance with real Chinese people though.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks again, Jeremy.
JEREMY GOLDKORN: Ciao, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeremy Goldkorn is the director of Danwei, a firm that researches Chinese media and the Internet. The Southern Weekly was back on newsstands in China on Thursday, with an investigation of a fire at an orphanage and discussions of proposed changes to labor camp and farmland seizure laws.