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January 08, 2013

China Free Speech Protests Spread Online

by VOA News

Free-speech protesters clashed with Communist party supporters in southern China on Tuesday, as a local dispute about government censorship spilled over into a nationwide online protest.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered Tuesday for a second day outside the progressive Southern Weekly in Guangzhou, where some journalists have gone on strike to protest alleged government editorial interference.

Minor scuffles broke out after activists holding signs and chanting slogans calling for media freedom were confronted by a small group of  party loyalists who waved Chinese flags and held posters of Chairman Mao.

The protesters are calling for the resignation of the provincial propaganda chief after censors last week allegedly blocked a New Year's editorial urging greater constitutional rights. The article was replaced with another praising the party's achievements.

The open protest against state censorship - the first of its kind in years - is seen as a key test for China's incoming leader Xi Jinping, who has called for the government to be more open.

Related - Chinese Paper Has Long History of Challenging Authorities

Kerry Brown, who heads the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney, says he does not expect Beijing to make any major concessions, such as dismissing the provincial propaganda official.

"If journalists were able to do that in such a key area...then they've really got a big scalp. And that will probably give the sniff of blood to others," Brown said. "I think if the party does that, it will probably be construed as a sign of weakness, and I don't think the party will be willing to pay that price at the moment."

Even though the protests outside the newspaper were relatively small Tuesday, a steady stream of Chinese celebrities, journalists and other public figures have applied pressure on Beijing by expressing their support for the paper in social media.

Related - Chinese Censorship Debate Grows Online

In an effort to limit public discussion on the matter, Chinese authorities have blocked searches for the name of the paper on the country's wildly popular microblogs. But many users were able to bypass censors by posting pictures and other cryptic messages that decried government censorship.

The government has so far not responded, and has allowed the protests to take place. But an editorial in the state-run Global Times on Tuesday said there will be no "surprise ending" to the situation, and that China is "unlikely to have an 'absolutely free media' that is dreamed of by those activists."

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