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By John Ruwitch and James Pomfret
GUANGZHOU, China, Jan 8 (Reuters) - The Communist Party
chief of Guangdong province stepped in to mediate a standoff
over censorship at a Chinese newspaper on Tuesday, a source
said, in a potentially encouraging sign for press freedoms in
The source close to the Guangdong Communist Party Committee
said Hu Chunhua, a rising political star in China who just took
over leadership of Guangdong province last month, had offered a
solution to the dispute that led to some staff at the Southern
Weekly going on strike.
The drama began late last week when reporters at the liberal
paper accused censors of replacing a New Year letter to readers
that called for a constitutional government with another piece
lauding the party's achievements.
Under Hu's deal, the source said, newspaper workers would
end their strike and return to work, the paper would print as
normal this week, and most staff would not face punishment.
"Guangdong's Hu personally stepped in to resolve this," the
"He gets personal image points by showing that he has guts
and the ability to resolve complex situations. In addition, the
signal that he projects through this is one of relative
openness, it's a signal of a leader who is relatively steady."
The standoff at the Southern Weekly, long seen as a beacon
of independent and in-depth reporting in China's highly
controlled media landscape, has led to demands for the country's
new leadership to grant greater media freedoms.
The apparent concessions by authorities in the dispute could
be seen as an indicator of new Communist Party leader Xi
Jinping's reformist inclinations.
It wasn't possible to immediately corroborate Hu's
involvement in brokering the deal with editorial staff, who may
be bound by an agreement not to speak out.
"LENGTHEN LEASH ON PAPER"
Two sources close to Southern Weekly reporters, however,
said journalists would be back at work tomorrow and that
propaganda authorities had agreed in future to "lengthen their
leash" on the paper. The sources said reporters regarded this as
a victory for the Southern Weekly newsroom.
The paper's chief editor Huang Can would also be fired, the
two sources and the source close to the Guangdong Communist
Party Committee said.
Guangdong's propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, a chief protagonist
in the standoff, has faced calls to quit by staff at the paper,
activists and in an online petition.
The source close to the party committee said Hu had implied
that Tuo would eventually be removed, but that he could not go
immediately in order to save face.
"Of course he didn't say 'I guarantee it'. There's no need
to say it, but he got the meaning across ... The meaning is that
replacing him right now would not fly as far as face is
concerned, but he cannot not be replaced and so he will be
replaced at a more moderate time," he said.
A representative in the newspaper's distribution department
told Reuters the paper would be published as normal this
Thursday and that editorial staff would be back to work.
Earlier in the day, Chinese police broke up scuffles outside
the gates of the paper in Guangzhou between leftist
pro-government supporters and activists protesting against the
Southern Weekly's press restrictions.
Despite the apparent concessions at the Southern Weekly,
China still maintains tight media control as a political lever
to contain dissent and preserve its one party rule.
Authorities shut the website of a leading pro-reform
magazine last week, apparently because it had run an article
calling for political reform and constitutional government
. A former Reuters correspondent in China, Chris
Buckley, who joined the New York Times last year, was also
forced to leave the country after failing to obtain a visa.
(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Shanghai; Sui-Lee Wee
and Fiona Li in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie and Pravin Char)