BEIJING -- China's influential "Southern Weekly" newspaper has long been known for its outspokenness and independent-minded efforts to cover the news in a country where information is a tightly controlled commodity.
Employees say that when they returned from an annual New Year's holiday on January 3 they discovered that a section of the paper that was to discuss the touchy topic of constitutional reform had been dramatically changed. That prompted an uproar.
The uproar came first online -- on blogs and other Twitter-like Weibo social-media sites -- with staffers accusing the propaganda chief where the paper is based, Guangdong Province, of making the changes and then, on January 7 and 8, in the form of protests outside the company's offices.
Photos of the protesters that managed to briefly get posted online before they were taken down showed some holding up signs and shouting slogans calling for freedom of speech, democracy, and political reform.
Dozens of academics and editors have already begun openly calling, online, for the resignation of the propaganda chief. Students from China's Nanjing University and others have posted pictures of themselves online as well holding cards that cheered the newspaper on.
Testing The Boundaries
Some are already beginning to believe the dispute could become a watershed event that promotes much deeper reforms.
Since Xi Jinping took over as head of the Communist Party in November 2012, journalists have been taking bolder steps in testing the limits of the country's new team of leaders both in reporting and on editorial pages.
Xi's actions have in part helped prompt this wave because he has called for protecting the country's constitution. He has also won praise for an anticorruption campaign and efforts to get officials to cut back on pomp.
According to Zhong Xin, a professor of journalism at Renmin University, it appears that people have become bolder in expressing themselves since Xi came into office.
"There have definitely been changes. We have to say that there are changes at different levels that give a general impression of media being more challenging and [regulations] tolerant," Zhong says. "There is a feeling, it seems like people dare to speak a bit more about certain issues."
Zhong says that, although it is difficult to gauge how much change the events may bring, they could at least promote changes in the way China's media is managed. But she does not expect any kind of revolutionary top-to-bottom reform.
"If it's a revolutionary type of change that goes quickly from nothing to everything, from all these rules to no rule and management at all, I think that this type of reform will not happen because in China we prefer gradual reforms, gradual change," Zhong says.
Can Mass Censorship Go On Forever?
Li Datong, a former prominent Chinese editor who was fired from a state media organization for his views, says he hopes that the incident will give the authorities a chance to consider carefully that this type of management and control over the news is absolutely not necessary.
Li says change is not easy but he believes the authorities will have to ease some of their controls at some point.
"Change and reform is not so easy. It needs a very big discussion, because it is a matter of rights, rights of opinion, rights to know the facts and rights of expression. How do you realize these rights, that is the problem," Li says.
"Because in this case it is not just a matter of the propaganda departments controlling the media. They want to control all webpages, all Weibos, everyday they are there deleting pages, deleting this and that," Li continues. "How long can they keep at it?"
For now, however, that struggle goes on. Managers at "Southern Weekly" say they had to turn over their Weibo passwords to the authorities and that the site is no longer being managed by the newspaper's staff.