A New Year’s greeting gets the axe in China

The big breaking media story in China today concerns the “New Year’s Greeting” (新年献词) at Guangdong’s Southern Weekly, a newspaper with a longstanding reputation for harder-hitting journalism. According to accounts on Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, Southern Weekly‘s “greeting,” an annual tradition with notable precedents (including Chang Ping‘s 1999 letter, which is being actively shared today), was censored directly by propaganda officials without the knowledge or consent of editors.

We have not yet independently confirmed how the changes to the “New Year’s Greeting” as Southern Weekly occurred. But if the internal chatter among Chinese journalists is accurate, this direct interference by propaganda leaders is indeed unprecedented.

For some background on recent changes at the Nanfang Daily Group, which publishes a number of China’s most respected newspapers, including Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily, readers may want to review our coverage last year [More on iSun Affairs report here].

The original Southern Weekly letter, written by Dai Zhiyong (戴志勇), was called, “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism” (“中国梦,宪政梦”). Playing on General Secretary Xi Jinping’s lately popular phrase “China Dream,” which he employed in a rather generalized way to talk about the dream of the “great revival of the Chinese nation,” the Southern Weekly letter called for a bold realization of the “dream of constitutionalism in China”, so that civil rights could be protected and power effectively checked:

Only if constitutionalism is realized and power effectively checked can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently, and only then can every person believe in their hearts that they are free to live their own lives. Only then can we build a truly free and strong nation. . .

According to chatter on Weibo, there were three versions of the letter. The first was the original by Dai Zhiyong, from which the above translation comes. The second was the draft from editors at the newspaper. The third, the version that eventually went to print, contains further changes now being attributed to Tuo Zhen (庹震), Guangdong’s provincial propaganda chief, as well as an introductory message from Tuo Zhen.

Side-by-side comparisons of the Dai Zhiyong version and subsequent versions are being shared today on Chinese social media. Here is an example post on Sina Weibo [See image of the second version followed by the original version at the end of this post].

Posts online today suggest the original title for the piece was changed first to, “Dreams Are Our Promise of What Ought To Be Done” (梦想是我们对应然之事的承诺), and eventually to the more unctuous title, “We Are Now Closer to Our Dream Than Ever Before” (我们比任何时候都更接近梦想).

The headline of the separate introductory New Year’s message by the propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, on the front page of today’s Southern Weekly reads simply: “Pursuing Our Dreams,” or zhuimeng (追梦).

The full story here is not yet clear. But it looks as though two egregious violations of propaganda protocol are involved here. First, Tuo Zhen seems to have single-handedly made changes to the second version of the “New Year’s Greeting” after editors responded to his objections to the original. The result is Tuo Zhen’s version three. Second, Tuo Zhen seems to have added his own separate text unilaterally to the paper by penning the “Pursuing Our Dreams” message.


[ABOVE: Images, posted to Sina Weibo today, of the print version of Southern Weekly, with the lead editorial, or "New Year's Greeting," allegedly written by Guangdong's top propaganda leader without the knowledge of editors at the paper.]

While the original editorial is strongly worded, voicing the hope that China’s Constitution will “cut its teeth” and become the real foundation of freedom in the country, the final version is entirely toothless. The greeting begins:

Dreams are our own expectations. Dreams are our promise of what ought to be done. This is the 1,057th time we have seen you [i.e., the 1,057th edition of the paper], and it is the first time we have seen you this year. In the past, now and in the future, you have defended your lives and we have defended this newspaper. Here we extend our blessing and hope that in this new year we can all come a step closer to our dreams.

After a vapid passage about the important of China’s Constitution, the letter goes on to quote directly from the official editorial in the January 1, 2013, edition of the Party’s official People’s Daily: “We are now closer than we have ever been to this dream, thanks to livelihood promises (民生承诺) like “every person’s destiny is closely tied to the destiny of our nation and its people.”

Discussion of the changes to the “New Year’s Greeting” began very early this morning. Here is a post Murong Xuecun made to Sina Weibo shortly before 2 a.m., with a quip including his own tongue-in-cheek altered title:

The New Year’s Greeting at Southern Weekly was originally called “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism” (“中国梦,宪政梦”). After being censored by the propaganda department it was called, “The Dream of Constitutionalism, Wake Up” (宪政梦,醒醒吧).

《南方周末》的新年贺辞本来叫作《中国梦,宪政梦》,经过宣传部的审查,现已改为《宪政梦,醒醒吧》。

By early afternoon, many posts on the Southern Weekly “New Year’s Greeting” incident were being deleted from Chinese social media.

For the moment, it looks as though one of first idealistic cries of hope for 2013 we have seen in China’s media has met with one of the most egregious examples of Party interference we have seen in years.

As one user summed it up on Sina Weibo: “Southern Weekly‘s constitutional dreams have crumbled in the hands of propaganda leaders.”

Another account of the “New Year’s Greeting” incident can be found online here, quoting veteran Chinese journalist Luo Changping (罗昌平). Readers should also note the parallels between the message in the original Southern Weekly letter and the greeting published in the journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, which we translated yesterday.

Our selected translation of the original greeting follows:

We hope that our Constitution cuts its teeth, that our Constitution can be realized [in practice] someday soon. This is the only way this ancient nation of ours can complete is arduous transition; this is the only way our nation and its people can stand strong once again on firm ground. We have already today a China where one can dream. And this is an age already in which dreams can be grasped.

We passed through the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution, and we have spent more than 30 years gruadually returning to reason and sense . . .

We came anew to a realization of what is real, what is deception, seeing right as right and wrong as wrong. Our love of justice was rekindled. . .

More than 170 years ago, we began our gradual awakening from the lunacy of [feudal] imperial rule. We faced defeat, first at the hands of Britain, then at the hands of Japan . . . With the Xinhai Revolution the rule of the Qing fell, and our forebears built Asia’s first republic. But a free, democratic and prosperous China under constitutional rule never followed. Instead, wars raged inside and outside our country; cruelty and suffering came unceasing. . .

Today, we dream not only of material prosperity, but even more of spiritual abundance; we dream not only that our country can be strong, but even more that the people of our country can enjoy dignity. . .

Only if constitutionalism is realized and [civil] rights preserved can the hearts of the people gleam like the sun and moon. . . Only then can the “urban police” (城管) joke cheerfully with small-time peddlers. Only then can our own homes truly become our castles . . .

Only if constitutionalism is realized and power effectively checked can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently, and only then can every person believe in their hearts that they are free to live their own lives. Only then can we build a truly free and strong nation. . .

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