The beginning of the end of information censorship in China was supposed to come as micro-blogging gained popularity and as sites like Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) and CNN could no longer be effectively blocked by sophisticated methods used by the central government of the People’s Republic. Information would flow more freely because of barriers breached by online gathering sites like Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) and Twitter, as was true in the case of the so-called Arab Spring.
Instead, protests about how a small regional newspaper has been treated may trigger the largest single push by citizens in China to gain more access to information and anti-government opinion, which the government would rather that they not have. Old media may do what new media in China has been unable to do, yet.
The Southern Weekly is a newspaper tucked away in the city of Guangzhou. That puts it far from Beijing and Shanghai, where a great deal of exposure to foreigners and presumably news and information are part of everyday life. Despite the fact that Guangzhou is more remote from most Western visitors, celebrities and bloggers have aggressively supported an end to smothering censorship of Southern Weekly content. Many of these supporters have gone so far as to press for the dismissal of the region’s chief censor, Tuo Zhen, the head propaganda minister for Guangdong province, where Guangzhou is located.
Unlike worker protests for better conditions and higher wages, censorship issues have gained a foothold that years of backlash to factory conditions have not.
The strength of the protest over the censorship of Southern Weekly likely has to do with the fact that its editorials about political reform have not come from micro-blogs but from an established media staffed by journalists. The Southern Weekly is known for its long push for relative editorial independence.
It would be ironic if a regional newspaper sparked a national aggressive push for a more independent media and increased access to information from sources outside China. A small paper would have kindled Chinawide calls for change that fights about access to Google and CNN could not.