BEIJING —Hundreds of people gathered outside the headquarters of a newspaper company in southern China on Monday, intensifying a battle over media censorship that poses a test of the willingness of China's new leadership to tolerate calls for change.
The demonstration was an outpouring of support for journalists at the relatively liberal Southern Weekend newspaper, who erupted in fury late last week over what they called overbearing interference by local propaganda officials.
At the same time, the embattled newsroom received backing on the Internet from celebrities and other prominent commentators that turned what began as a local censorship dispute into a broader national display of solidarity.
Disputes between media organizations and local party leaders over the limits of reporting and expressions of opinion are common in China, but they rarely emerge into public view. But this time calls to support the frustrated journalists spread quickly in Chinese online forums over the weekend, and those who showed up Monday outside the media offices in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, ran the gamut from high school and university students to retirees.
The journalists at Southern Weekend have been calling for the ouster of Tuo Zhen, the top propaganda official in Guangdong province. They blame him for overseeing a change in a New Year's editorial that originally called for greater respect for constitutional rights. The editorial went through layers of changes and ultimately became one praising the direction of the current political system.
The protest follows the leadership transition installing Xi Jinping as Communist Party chief. Xi, who is also scheduled to assume the nation's presidency in March, has raised expectations that he might pursue a more open-minded approach to molding China's economic and political models during his planned decadelong tenure.
Besides being a weather vane that could reveal the direction of Xi and the new party leadership, the tensions at Southern Weekend could pose a serious test for Hu Chunhua, the new party chief of Guangdong and a potential candidate to succeed Xi as the leader of China in a decade.