China censorship prompts rally and online protest

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BEIJING — Free-speech protesters in masks squared off against flag-waving communist loyalists in a southern Chinese city today as a dispute over censorship at a newspaper spilled into the broader population.

What started out as a conflict between journalists at the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly and a top censor over a New Year’s editorial has rapidly become a focal point driving public calls for the authoritarian Communist Party government to loosen its grip on information.

The dispute centers on how the editorial, originally calling for political reform, was transformed into a tribute praising the Communist Party. Scholars have signed open letters calling for the censor’s dismissal, celebrities and other supporters of the journalists are speaking out for the paper on microblogs — drawing a crackdown by authorities — and hundreds of people gathered for a second day outside the publication’s office bearing flowers and signs in support.

The paper’s editorial committee is pushing a larger appeal to abolish censorship of the newspaper’s content prior to publication, the editor said. The suggestion is that Communist Party leaders could provide direction but not interfere with reporting and editing.

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