In a rare move, some Chinese journalists are openly confronting a top censor after a southern newspaper known for its edgy reporting was forced to change a New Year's editorial calling for political reform into a tribute praising the Communist Party.
Sixty journalists from the Southern Weekly in Guangdong province issued a complaint Thursday over the last-minute changes that they said were made without the consent of the editorial department.
Another group of 35 former reporters from the newspaper went a step further Friday, calling for the resignation of the provincial party propaganda chief Tuo Zhen - whom they held personally responsible for the changes - while arguing that strong and credible news media are crucial for the country and even necessary for the ruling party.
"If the media should lose credibility and influence, then how can the ruling party make its voice heard or convince its people?" their letter said.
The party-run Global Times newspaper hit back with a defense of the government line, publishing an editorial saying the media cannot exist "romantically" outside the country's political reality. The spat has become one of the hottest topics on China's popular microblog site Sina Weibo.
Also apparently coming under pressure from Chinese censors was the Beijing-based pro-reform journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, whose website was no longer accessible on the mainland Friday. The journal regularly challenges censorship and recently published a New Year's message advocating political reform.
Yang Jisheng, the journal's deputy director, said a Ministry of Industry and Information Technology department instructed the journal to shut down the website on Monday without providing a reason. By Friday, journal staff found the site blocked in China.
China's media in recent years have become increasingly freewheeling in some kinds of coverage, including lurid reports on celebrities and sports figures. Still, censorship of political issues remains tight - although government officials typically claim there is no censorship at all - and the restrictions have drawn increasingly vocal criticism from journalists and members of the public.
Touching off the latest tussle was a New Year's message to be published in the Southern Weekly on Thursday. The newspaper's annual feature has become a popular and influential tradition because of its boldness.
For 2013, the theme was to be constitutional rule. The original version called for democracy, freedom and adherence to the constitution - a reference to promises made in the 1982-era constitution to allow such reforms as independent courts and the rule of law. The country's communist leaders have been reluctant to fulfill those pledges for fear of eroding their monopoly on power.
"The Chinese dream is the dream of constitutional rule," the original version read, according to copies of the text widely disseminated online and confirmed in a telephone interview with its author, one of the newspaper's editors, Dai Zhiyong.
That later was watered down as part of the newspaper's usual vetting process with upper-level management - a process that is part self-censorship, part consultation with Communist Party censors. It was watered down further, Southern Weekly journalists say, without the knowledge of front-line reporters and editors on the evening before it hit the newsstand.
The version that eventually was published said the Chinese dream of renaissance was closer than ever before, thanks to China's Communist leaders.
The journalists took issue not only with the changes to that message but with revisions of the headline and design. In particular, they said an additional message apparently added by censors to the newspaper's front page contained a major error about Chinese folk history. A reference to a flood control campaign supposedly introduced 4,000 years ago was erroneously dated to about 2,000 years ago.
The phone for the party's provincial propaganda office in Guangdong rang unanswered Friday.
In their call for Tuo's resignation, former Southern Weekly journalists said the man has brought the darkest time in the past three decades to the media industry in Guangdong, one of the boldest in China.
Zhao Chu, an independent media observer in Shanghai, said the intervention was not isolated but had the sanction of Beijing. The party remains keen on maintaining its rule, and the Southern Weekly - a symbol of China's media ideals - became a target as it tries to control public discussions, Zhao said.
Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, wrote on his microblog that the apparent party intervention runs contrary to China's claim that there is no news censorship.
"This clearly tells the international community that China has broken its word," he said.
When Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying was asked about the issue during a routine briefing Friday, she said she was not aware of the specifics of the situation, but added, "I want to point out that there's no so-called news censorship in China and the Chinese government protects the freedom of news report and has given full play to news media in terms of supervision."
David Bandurski, a researcher with the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, said the Chinese government normally controls the media by guidance, and that censorship is not conducted in the form of red ink but through consultation among propaganda officials and editors. What's unusual in the Southern Weekly case is that propaganda officials apparently bypassed the editors, he said.
"That kind of interference, without the knowledge of the editors, is very serious and worrisome," Bandurski said.
It is still too early to tell if the incident is isolated or indicative, and the open letter by former Southern Weekly journalists is challenging Beijing to show its stand, Bandurski said.
"It says, put your cards on the table, tell us where you really are about openness," Bandurski said.