By James Pomfret
GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - Scores of supporters of one of China's most liberal newspapers demonstrated outside its headquarters on Monday in a rare protest against censorship, backing an unusual strike by journalists against interference by the provincial propaganda chief.
The protest in Guangzhou, capital of southern Guangdong province, comes amid an escalating standoff between the government and the people over press freedom. It is also an early test of Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping's commitment to reform.
The outcry began late last week after reporters at the influential Southern Weekly newspaper accused censors of replacing an original New Year's letter to readers that called for a constitutional government with another piece lauding the party's achievements.
Police allowed the demonstration outside the headquarters of the Southern Group, illustrating that the Guangdong government, led by newly appointed and rising political star Hu Chunhua, wants to tread carefully to contain rising public anger over censorship.
The protesters, most of them young, laid down small hand-written signs that said "freedom of expression is not a crime" and "Chinese people want freedom". Many clutched yellow chrysanthemums, symbolizing mourning the death of press freedom.
"The Nanfang (Southern) Media Group is relatively willing to speak the truth in China so we need to stand up for its courage and support it now," Ao Jiayang, a young NGO worker with bright orange dyed hair, told Reuters.
"We hope that through this we can fight for media freedom in China," Ao said. "Today's turnout reflects that more and more people in China have a civic consciousness."
The attention paid to the protest domestically highlights the unique position of Guangdong, China's wealthiest and most liberal province and the birthplace of the country's "reform and opening up" program. In a symbolic move, Xi chose to go to Guangdong on his first trip after being anointed party chief in November.
On Sunday night, the Southern Weekly official microblog denied the removal of the New Year Letter was due to censorship, saying the "online rumors were false". Those remarks drew criticism from Chinese Internet users.
Many Southern Weekly journalists disavowed themselves from the statement on the microblog, which they say was taken over by management, and pledged to go on strike the next day.
Several open letters have circulated on the Internet calling for the Guangdong propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, to step down, blaming him for muzzling the press.
Photographs on microblogs showed banners that said "if the toxin of Tuo isn't removed ... Guangdong will be castrated."
"Not since the time of reform and opening up and the founding of China has there been someone like Tuo Zhen," Yan Lieshan, a retired veteran editor at Southern Weekly, told Reuters by telephone. "He's too arrogant, he has gone overboard and constantly violates regulations."
Xiao Shu, a former prominent commentator at the Southern Weekly newspaper, said Tuo required that journalists submit topics for him to approve and yanked issues that he disliked.
"These details illustrate one problem: that he has established within the Guangdong media a system of prior censorship of the press," Xiao said, calling for Tuo's removal.
Chinese Internet users already cope with extensive censorship, especially over politically sensitive topics like human rights and elite politics, and popular foreign sites Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube are blocked.
China shut the website of a leading pro-reform magazine on Friday, apparently because it ran an article calling for political reform and constitutional government, sensitive topics for the party which brooks no dissent.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Beijing Newsroom, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie)