China paper deal clouds campaign

Guangzhou, China, Jan. 9 (AP): Communist Party-backed management and rebellious staff at an influential weekly newspaper stepped back today from a contentious standoff over censorship that spilled over to the wider public and turned into an unexpected test of the new Chinese leadership's tolerance for political reform.

Hopes among supporters of the Southern Weekly that the dispute would strike a blow against censorship appeared to fizzle with a tentative resolution.

Under an agreement, editors and reporters at the newspaper will not be punished for protesting and stopping work in anger over a propaganda official's heavy-handed rewriting of a New Year's editorial last week, according to two members of the editorial staff.

One, an editor, said propaganda officials will no longer directly censor content prior to publication, though other longstanding controls remain in place.

"If that's the case, we've got a small victory for the media," said David Bandurksi, an expert on Chinese media at Hong Kong University. The compromise, he said, might see censors back off the "really ham-fisted approach" they had taken in recent months.

The agreement to keep propaganda officials from censoring articles before they appear rolls back more intrusive controls put in place in recent months, but it does not mean an end to censorship. The Propaganda Department, which controls all media in China, chiefly relies on directives, self-censorship by editors and reporters and dismissal of those who do not comply to enforce the party line.

But a Southern Weekly journalist said it was hard to call the agreement a victory because controls still remain in place and punishments of staff, though forestalled for now, may be imposed later.

Management refused to yield to one demand from staff ' that this week's editions include an explanation of the dispute, the editor and a colleague said.

The staff members who described the deal asked not to be identified because they feared retaliation after they and other employees were told not to speak to foreign media. Executives at the newspaper and its parent company, the state-owned Nanfang Media Group, declined comment on the agreement other than to say that staff were at work on Wednesday and the Southern Weekly would publish as normal on Thursday.

Aside from getting the presses rolling, the agreement appears likely to deflate the confrontation that presented a knotty challenge to Communist Party leader Xi Jinping two months after taking office. Xi has raised hopes of more liberal party rule, urging respect for the often-ignored constitution, and of a wider role for the media in helping Beijing press a renewed campaign against widespread corruption.

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