Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. What happens when the New Year's editorial in a respected newspaper gets pulled and replaced by a censor's message? Well, that's what happened in Guangdong, China this week. it's part of a trend in recent months of the Chinese government increasingly trying to control the message, but with more than half a billion Chinese online, that's not as easy as it used to be. The World's Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad is in our Boston studio today. Mary Kay, what happened in Guangdong precisely and why is it getting so much attention online?
Mary Kay Magistad: Okay, so basically there was a well-known weekly columnist named Dai Zhiyong, who had put together a New Year's editorial for the front page, called China's Dream, a Difficult Dream. And he was talking about the Chinese people's desire for greater freedom and rule of law. Journalists in China are used to having their articles censored—certain lines, certain paragraphs are taken out. But in this case the entire editorial was replaced by a shorter message from the Guangdong Province censor, who's message was basically that China's dream, China's hopes can only be achieved by putting your faith in the new leader, Xi Jinping. You know, it sounded very old school, kind of the sort of thing that might have been said when Mau Zedong was the head of the party. And there's been a lot of chatter online, a lot of criticism of this move, like who do you think you are? What do you think this is removing an editorial completely, and why do you think we're gonna take seriously something like this?
Werman: So the government is trying to exert more control it seems lately. Why now? What's going on?
Magistad: Well, we're in the middle of a leadership transition in China. The party leaders changed in November. The same people will also become state leaders of China in March at the National People's Congress. In the midst of this all the party is very jittery. It knows that it has a lot of huge challenges that it's facing. A lot of policies that probably should've been changed a long time ago, but weren't because the party doesn't really want to relinquish control of anything. One of the things that they seem to have decided to do is to squeeze control of the internet. They've been deleting Weibo accounts of activists and they've been requiring that Weibo users now have to register with their real names and must be aware that if they say anything "illegal" that that could be pulled and there could be serious consequences.
Werman: I mean more than ever, Mary kay, there seems to be this disconnect between what the government is trying to do, you know, living with this old construct, with propaganda censors and the like, and how people both inside and outside China are perceiving it. Why is the government so tone deaf?
Magistad: It's a really good question. I think part of it is just habit. This is how the party has always functioned and even as the party has been very pragmatic and flexible in moving into the modern age in terms of economic reform, I think it really fears political reform because it's not sure how many steps it can take in that direction before it loses control.
Werman: So with the Chinese government trying hard to control the message during this transition, I'd love to know how this affects the way you operate, Mary Kay. Is it getting harder to report?
Magistad: It's not really getting that much harder to report. There had been new regulations put in place that said that foreign journalists could interview anyone who agreed to be interviewed. That was in sharp contrast to regulations before that said basically, we had to ask permission for almost everything. When the various revolutions in the Middle East happened in early 2011, the government got really spooked by this, particularly when there was an anonymous call online that Chinese too should gather for a Jasmine Revolution.
Werman: Right, I remember that.
Magistad: Around that time the foreign ministry gathered their various foreign correspondents, including me, and said well you know that regulation that said you can interview anyone who agrees to be interviewed? We're not changing the regulation, but you just didn't understand the nuances of the regulation, and that is if we decide that it's a special circumstance, a special situation, we decide who you have to ask permission from.
Werman: I see. And had you understood the nuance, Mary Kay?
Magistad: Not in that way, no. But okay, that said, you know, it was a little tense then. It's loosened up significantly since the and so now the main thing that most foreign journalists are dealing with is that when you're trying to access information online, when you're trying to send a story, the internet is squeezed. But it's not just for foreign correspondents. It's for everyone in China.
Werman: The World's China correspondent, Mary Kay Magistad, who is here in Boston with us for a couple of days. Thanks so much.
Magistad: Thank you, Marco.