By John Ruwitch and James Pomfret
GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - The Communist Party chief of Guangdong province stepped in to mediate a standoff over censorship at a Chinese newspaper on Tuesday, a source said, in a potentially encouraging sign for press freedoms in China.
The source close to the Guangdong Communist Party Committee said Hu Chunhua, a rising political star in China who just took over leadership of Guangdong province last month, had offered a solution to the dispute that led to some staff at the Southern Weekly going on strike.
The drama began late last week when reporters at the liberal paper accused censors of replacing a New Year letter to readers that called for a constitutional government with another piece lauding the party's achievements.
Under Hu's deal, the source said, newspaper workers would end their strike and return to work, the paper would print as normal this week, and most staff would not face punishment. "Guangdong's Hu personally stepped in to resolve this," the source said.
"He gets personal image points by showing that he has guts and the ability to resolve complex situations. In addition, the signal that he projects through this is one of relative openness, it's a signal of a leader who is relatively steady."
The standoff at the Southern Weekly, long seen as a beacon of independent and in-depth reporting in China's highly controlled media landscape, has led to demands for the country's new leadership to grant greater media freedoms.
The apparent concessions by authorities in the dispute could be seen as an indicator of new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's reformist inclinations.
It wasn't possible to immediately corroborate Hu's involvement in brokering the deal with editorial staff, who may be bound by an agreement not to speak out.
"LENGTHEN LEASH ON PAPER"
Two sources close to Southern Weekly reporters, however, said journalists would be back at work tomorrow and that propaganda authorities had agreed in future to "lengthen their leash" on the paper. The sources said reporters regarded this as a victory for the Southern Weekly newsroom.
The paper's chief editor Huang Can would also be fired, the two sources and the source close to the Guangdong Communist Party Committee said.
Guangdong's propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, a chief protagonist in the standoff, has faced calls to quit by staff at the paper, activists and in an online petition.
The source close to the party committee said Hu had implied that Tuo would eventually be removed, but that he could not go immediately in order to save face.
"Of course he didn't say 'I guarantee it'. There's no need to say it, but he got the meaning across ... The meaning is that replacing him right now would not fly as far as face is concerned, but he cannot not be replaced and so he will be replaced at a more moderate time," he said.
A representative in the newspaper's distribution department told Reuters the paper would be published as normal this Thursday and that editorial staff would be back to work.
Earlier in the day, Chinese police broke up scuffles outside the gates of the paper in Guangzhou between leftist pro-government supporters and activists protesting against the Southern Weekly's press restrictions.
Despite the apparent concessions at the Southern Weekly, China still maintains tight media control as a political lever to contain dissent and preserve its one party rule.
Authorities shut the website of a leading pro-reform magazine last week, apparently because it had run an article calling for political reform and constitutional government. A former Reuters correspondent in China, Chris Buckley, who joined the New York Times last year, was also forced to leave the country after failing to obtain a visa.
(Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Shanghai; Sui-Lee Wee and Fiona Li in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie and Pravin Char)