thinking about the southern weekend event

It’s called “the Southern Weekend Incident (南周事件)” in Mandarin and refers to a standoff between the Guangdong Provincial Minister of Information, Tuo Zhen and the editorial board of the Southern Weekend News Weekly (南方周末). If you’ve been following the story in the western press, you are well aware that at stake in the standoff is the question of just how free China’s press should be. However, if you’ve been following the story in Chinese, you’re also aware that what the Incident has revealed how serious disagreement between the two main factions in the central government are.

So what happened and what might it mean?

At the beginning of the year, the Southern Weekend editorial board decided to use “China’s dream, the dream of constitutional government “中国梦,宪政梦)” as the headline for their social commentary page.  With the support of the National Minister of Information, Liu Yunshan, GD Provincial Minister Tuo Zhen change the headline to read “China is closer than it has ever been to achieving its dreams (我们比任何时候都更接近梦想)”.

Apparently, Tuo Zhen made the changes after the editorial board had gone on holiday to celebrate the new year. On January 3, when they discovered what had happened, they went to weibo and announced that “After the Southern Weekend had already decided on its final draft, the editorial board left work, and thus were completely unaware that the Guangdong Provincial Standing Committee Member and Minister of Information Tuo Zhen directed the New Year’s words to be change and altered, leading to many mistakes. On January 4 the editorial board went on strike to protest Tuo Zhen’s heavy-handed intervention, garnering widespread support.

Importantly, the content of the two editorials represent different factions within the central government. The expression “China’s dream, the dream of constitutional government” are quotations of current General Party Secretary Xi Jinping. In contrast, the idea that “China is closer than it has ever been to achieving its dreams” reflects the position of the Jiang Gang, who are supporters of the former General Party Secretary Jiang Zemin.

Thus, the stakes in the conflict were two-fold: (1) the formal question of freedom of the press and (2) the political question of the Jiang Gang’s blatant challenge to Xi Jinping’s reforms.

The day after the Incident became public, Xi Jinping gave a talk that went after one of the primary conflicts with the Jiang Gang — dismantling the labor camp system. Liu Yunshan responded by way of “The Southern Weekend‘s ‘to our readers’ Really Makes one Reflect (南方周末“致读者”实在令人深思)” an editorial that was published in the Global Times (环球时报). Subsequently, the Ministry of Information demanded that all subordinate newspapers print the editorial, supporting Tuo Zhen and attacking Southern Weekend. Not unexpectedly, there were different levels of cooperation with the Ministry; the editor-in-chief of New Beijing Times (新景报), Da Zigeng resigned in protest.

Yesterday, in his first public appearance since the Southern Weekend Incident, Tuo Zhen was unrepentant. He opened the Guangdong Ministry of Information Meetings by announcing that the meetings transmitted the spirit of the national Ministry of Information, rather than the spirit of the new General Secretary’s reforms. The opposition to Xi Jinping was straight forward because on January 4 during its meetings, the national Ministry had made it clear that the mission of the Ministry of Information was to “continue to be guided by of Deng Xiaoping theory, the three represents thought, and the perspective of scientific development (要坚持以邓小平理论、‘三个代表’重要思想、科学发展观为指导)”. Thus in his opening speech, Liu Yunshan explicitly invoked Jiang Zemin’s political project (the three represents) and did not mention Xi Jinping’s project (constitutional government).

So what happens now that Tuo Zhen has backed off, but not really, and an abbreviated version of the Southern Weekend came out as scheduled yesterday? Well the two meetings (两会) are upon us. The Chinese People’s Consultative Committee (全国政协) will meet March 3, 2013 and the National People’s Congress (全国人大) will convene on March 5, 2013. As important government positions are filled, inquiring minds are curious to see how successful the Jiang Gang’s attack on Xi Jinping will be, or whether Xi Jinping and the Princelings will solidify their authority. We’re also wondering whether or not the embattled General Secretary will be able to wrest control of the Ministry of Information away from the Liu Yunshan and Jiang Gang supporters, or if no matter what he does, it will be at odds with the truth that the Jiang Gang is putting forward.

All this to say, more freedom of the press would be welcome precisely because we need open debate about these two positions — constitutional reform versus maintaining the status quo. Indeed, open debate would also allow for alternative voices to enter the conversation, allowing us to see how deep and far-reaching Xi Jinping’s reforms might actually be.

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