BEIJING — Free-speech activists in masks squared off against flag-waving communist loyalists in a southern Chinese city Tuesday, as a dispute over censorship at a newspaper spilled into the broader population, with authorities shutting microblog accounts of supporters of the paper.
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.
Hundreds of people gathered for a second day outside the publication's office bearing flowers and signs in support.
The paper's editorial committee was in negotiations with its top management, which is part of the provincial propaganda office, a Southern Weekly editor said. The editor spoke on the condition of anonymity because of an internal directive not to talk to foreign media.
Propaganda officials want the newspaper to publish — as normal — on Thursday, but editors are negotiating over whether to do so, and the terms under which they would be willing, for example, if they could include a letter to readers explaining the incident, the editor said.
The committee also is pushing a larger appeal to abolish censorship of the newspaper's content before publication, the editor said.
The suggestion is that Communist Party leaders could provide direction but not interfere with reporting and editing, and should refrain from taking issue with content until after publication, the editor said.
Free-speech activists started gathering outside Southern Weekly's offices again Tuesday morning, holding signs calling for media freedom and other democratic reforms, but were soon confronted by party loyalists waving Chinese flags.
Both sides berated each other — at times resorting to hurling abuse and calling each other "traitors and running dogs" — and police had to break up minor scuffling that ensued.
"Southern Weekly is the only mainland newspaper that, relatively speaking, is more able to report the truth," said one of the protesters, Cheng Qiubo, a democracy activist. "We are very angry that it has been censored … so we hope that this country can have media freedom, to abolish the news censorship system."
The issue also galvanized a variety of people on China's popular Twitter-like microblogs, with many journalists, scholars, entrepreneurs and celebrities posting messages of support for the newspaper's stance.
"One word of truth outweighs the whole world," celebrity Chinese actress Yao Chen quoted the Russian Nobel Prize Literature winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a post that was accompanied by the newspaper's logo.
The newspaper's name in Chinese translates to "Southern Weekly," and in a sign of the authorities' sensitivity about the dispute, searches on microblogs were blocked for that name and even for the otherwise mundane individual Chinese phrases "southern" and "weekend."
At least 15 journalists at the newspaper have not been able to post messages on Sina Weibo, a popular microblog site that has served as a key platform for dissenting voices and for spreading information on sensitive incidents. The journalists have declined to comment.