A ray of hope

A rare protest against censorship by journalists of the Southern Weekly newspaper in China is likely to have rattled the Chinese leadership.

Although the protest was short-lived, the strike having been called off following an agreement reached to end the dispute, it is historic. Rarely is opposition to government policies articulated publicly in China. That journalists chose to come out in person rather than wage their battle in the virtual world, signals a new resolve to take on authorities.  The dispute arose over the censorship of a New Year editorial in Southern Weekly calling for civil rights. It triggered demands for the resignation of a top propaganda official. While a deal providing for relaxed control on the newspaper ended protests outside Communist Party headquarters, the grievance that sparked the protests has not gone away. Editors of other newspapers, too, have reportedly refused to publish editorials penned by censorship officials seeking to downplay the dispute.

How Chinese authorities read and respond to the signals sent out by journalists in Southern China will be crucial. They will be tempted to use the iron fist as they did at Tiananmen Square over two decades ago. Extreme force worked to silence the Tiananmen Square protesters. But 2013 is not 1989. Today’s generation of Chinese - as elsewhere in the world - have grown up informed by the Internet. The government would do well to adopt a different approach. It could open dialogue with journalists first, then slowly with other sections of the public. It needs to become more responsive to demands for openness. China has made remarkable progress on the economic front but has lagged behind in ensuring people their basic freedoms. Many decades ago, Mao spoke of “letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” Can China’s leaders now summon the courage to make that a reality?

Many in the west will step up their hectoring of China. But sanctimonious lectures on freedom of speech by the US and others, who have had no qualm about silencing Wikileaks in the name of national security, will be counterproductive. It will snuff out all hope of change in China. China doesn’t need liberating by the west. Its people are capable of working that out.

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