By James Pomfret
GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - Chinese police broke up scuffles outside the gates of a prominent newspaper in southern Guangzhou on Tuesday, as Communist Party authorities showed signs of a taking a harder line against journalists defying official censorship.
Crowds of people congregated for a second day outside the liberal Southern Weekly that has become embroiled in a highly symbolic open revolt against press control in Guangdong, China's most prosperous and liberal province, but many journalists were reluctant to call it a full-blown strike.
Guangdong was the birthplace of reforms, begun three decades ago, that propelled China to become the world's second-largest economy. How the party responds to the paper's battle against meddling by propaganda authorities stands to be a key indicator of new party leader Xi Jinping's reformist inclinations.
The scuffles broke out after supporters of the paper, published on Thursdays, jeered and skirmished with a small band of leftists holding posters of Chairman Mao Zedong and signs denouncing the Southern Weekly as "a traitor newspaper" for defying the party.
"These people (leftists) are paid agitators of the government, twisting the truth with propaganda. We had to do something about it," said pro-press freedom protester Cheng Qiubo.
Dozens of police officers had to intervene, though the protests were allowed to continue. Two technicians with a ladder tried to rig a surveillance camera to the branch of a tree outside the newspaper gates, but were swiftly surrounded and shouted down by angry crowds and forced to retreat.
The standoff at the Southern Weekly, long seen as a beacon of independent and in-depth reporting in China's stilted, highly controlled media landscape, escalated into a national social media issue and has triggered demands for the new leadership to enshrine media freedom.
The drama began late last week when reporters at the weekly accused censors of replacing an original New Year letter to readers that called for a constitutional government with another piece lauding the party's achievements.
Several protesters were called into local police stations to be questioned, according to a female known by her blogger name Ran Xiang JieJie, who said this was intended as subtle "intimidation" to deter further activism.
A purported directive issued by Beijing's Central Propaganda Department has been widely circulated in media circles and suggests authorities may be tightening their grip.
While the directive couldn't be independently verified by Reuters, a journalist at the paper and the China Digital Times displayed what he said were copies in which authorities reaffirmed the party's right to censorship, while backing Guangzhou propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, whom many have been calling on to quit.
"This situation could be going in a bad direction for us," said a source in close touch with Southern Weekly staff.
A controversial editorial by the state-run Global Times that was published by several Guangdong media outlets, but not any Southern Media Group publications, blamed foreign forces and activists such as Chen Guangcheng for inciting the protests, and said China wasn't ready for dramatic media reform.
Many reporters at the newspaper were reluctant to discuss their next move.
"It's not a convenient time for me to speak," said Wu Wei, the paper's social media editor. Other reporters at the paper said they would continue to fight for editorial freedom.
While some editorial staff at the Southern Weekly were widely reported to have refused to work since Sunday, some sources in the parent Southern Media Group say the paper may still be published on Thursday, with editors from sister publications possibly brought in to shepherd the paper into newsstands should staffers refuse to work.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)