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Is China's long winter ending?

Date

The Canberra Times

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The protest against censorship that is unfolding at a weekly newspaper in China is in its early stages. Yet it appears likely the growing strike will be among the greatest political tests the Asian giant has faced since the Tiananmen Square tragedy almost 24 years ago.

Tensions were rising among the journalists at Southern Weekend throughout last year as a result of the interventionist ways of Guangdong province's new propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen. The Weekend is a large, influential paper, which has fought a delicate, years-long battle to be known as an honest champion of individuals' rights. Mr Tuo, clearly unused to and uncomfortable with liberal media, reportedly scrapped or censored more than 1000 stories over the past year. The catalyst for the recent shutdown was Mr Tuo's decision to replace an editorial, which had argued for greater liberties for citizens, with his own poorly written ode to the Chinese Community Party.

Strikes are unlawful in China, but the journalists nonetheless stopped working, demanding the government sack Mr Tuo. The protest swiftly became a focus for discontent Chinese across the country, who want to be able to express themselves. Police have so far failed to disperse hundreds of citizens who gathered to support the paper's staff. Most remarkably, given the potential repercussions, many of these people were willing to identify themselves, and their opposition to the authorities, in public.

China has experienced a growing number of protests in recent years, though most have related to local issues, such as allegedly corrupt planning decisions. The Weekend's dissent, however, is acutely political. Officials have tried to censor the popular blogging website Sina Weibo by filtering out the Mandarin characters that spell the newspaper's name. Yet thousands of comments are still appearing in support of the journalists' calls for free speech. One business, Taobao, published on its official blog what, in the past, would have been an unthinkably bold comment: ''There is no winter which can't be outlasted. Even now, the swallows are flying towards the south.''

The protesters, especially those online, have sent a clear message: Chinese society has moved beyond censorship. Indeed, some of the so-called ''princelings'' among the country's new generation of leaders have argued for years, within Communist Party forums, that the state must cede ground, and give greater political freedoms to its citizens. They acknowledge that if modern China continues to suppress these liberties, it will be unable to unlock the full benefits of the information age and, hence, the markets that will dominate global economies this century.

The world is watching closely how the party's new general secretary, Xi Jinping, reacts to the Weekend strike. But, more importantly, so, too, are China's citizens. Whatever happens, Mr Xi now surely knows that, unlike his predecessors, he cannot hide his actions from his people.

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