It could only happen in China when every single statistic is exponentially magnified. The furore over the attempt by the local communist party censor in Guangzhou to maintain a firm grip on a New Year editorial in the local rag Southern Weekend became world news. The original text was hardly riveting and the letter was anything but a call to arms. But it did not go unnoticed. In a matter of hours the paper’s economics and environmental news staff said they were on strike, while editors loyal to the government snatched control took of the paper’s official microblogs.
A strike by journalists is still a rare event in today’s China, but what was remarkable was the following chain of events, not just the few dozen brave supporters of the paper who stood outside its newsroom, watched by a larger number of police. It was what the New York Times described as “a real-time melee in the blogosphere.”
In a country where media knows its limits, the action taken by journalists at the Southern Weekend started moving the goal posts. The stir was extraordinary.
Southern Weekend statement that its Weibo account was taken away was retweeted over 20,000 times in 13 minutes. Li Bingbing and Yao Chen – two famous Chinese actors with over 31m followers on Sina Weibo – expressed support within hours for the paper on their microblogs. The terms "Southern Weekend" and "New Year's Greeting" were almost immediately blocked on Sina Weibo, the country's most popular microblog with more than 400m users.
But the horse has already bolted. Most observers remarked how the information box was now wide open, bearing in mind that, the US Pew Research Centre, 93% of Chinese have cell phones, 50% are online and 62% use social networking. Although 86% of the respondents say they share views about movies and music and only 10% about politics, it would not take very long for their interest to move from culture to community to politics.
This must be causing sleepless nights to party minders. They won’t forget how when in 1989 another Chinese paper in Shangai, The World Economic Herald, was one of the fuses that ignited Tiananman Square. The New Year letter was not a trivial end-of-year postcard but a subtle call for constitutionalism and greater rights posing an early challenge to new Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Twenty-four years ago, the authoritarian powers were willing to go far to maintain control. This time, with the Internet opening access to information, we are about to see how far Chinese citizens will go to defend and advance freedom of speech.