By James Pomfret
GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - A weekly Chinese newspaper at the center of anti-censorship protests appeared on newsstands on Thursday as a newsroom strike ended amid fresh calls for the Communist Party leadership to loosen its grip on the media.
The strike at the Southern Weekly in affluent Guangdong province came after censors watered down a page-two editorial in the New Year edition. Calls for China to enshrine constitutional rights were replaced with comments praising one-party rule.
The rare newsroom revolt at one of China's most respected and liberal papers hit a raw nerve nationwide, with calls for freedom of expression led by bloggers with millions of followers such as actress Yao Chen and writer Han Han.
How the party responds to those calls will be a key indicator of new party leader Xi Jinping's reformist inclinations.
About six protesters were forcibly cleared from the gates of the paper by plainclothes officials on Thursday, shouting as they were bundled into vehicles as dozens of uniformed police officers looked on.
The problem of reconciling the conflict between conservatives and liberals was illustrated in scuffles and heated arguments outside the Southern Weekly's gates all week.
Leftists carrying Mao Zedong posters and red China flags repeatedly abused scores of Southern Weekly supporters for undermining China's socialist system and one-party rule.
"After we have full stomachs, we want to say more. This is normal," said Ye Qiliang, a young man in a brown jacket who opposed the Maoists in one evening protest.
"The media is the people's voice. We are now all Southern Weekly People."
Sources close to the reporters said censors had pledged to remove an "inspection" process to vet news topics, while journalists would go back to work and not talk publicly about the matter. While the paper's appearance in newsstands suggested a truce, the latest issue carried subtle signs of resistance.
"GNAWING AT BONES"
Microblog posts attributed to newsroom staff expressed dismay at censors forcing the paper to pull an editorial from its current edition, which one source in Guangzhou close to reporters at the Southern Weekly corroborated.
Buried in the back pages, however, was a call for reform.
"The party's methods of controlling the media must move with the times," the article read, citing a Monday editorial from the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily. In its interpretation of the editorial, the Southern Weekly said the remaining necessary reforms were as difficult as "gnawing at bones".
"They need the protection and support of a moderate, rational and constructive media," it said.
The censorship turmoil has also spread to the capital. Online accounts said Dai Zigeng, the publisher of the popular Beijing News daily, announced his resignation on Wednesday after the newspaper resisted government pressure to republish an editorial criticizing the Southern Weekly.
Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group for journalists, called on party chief Xi, set to become president in March, to put an end to censorship.
Chinese Internet users face the "Great Fire Wall" of censorship, especially over politically sensitive topics such as human rights, while foreign websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube are blocked.
"We believe that the system and actions of infringing on the media's autonomy and citizens' freedom of expression run contrary to the excellent Chinese political tradition as well as the modern spirit of rule of law," wrote a group of prominent Chinese scholars in one of several online open letters and petitions widely circulated on the Southern Weekly standoff.
While the newsroom revolts could be isolated, middle class patience with the denial of basic freedoms appears to be wearing thin.
"I don't want anyone recklessly deleting, changing, tying or binding me," wrote Han Han, one of China's most popular bloggers with some 30 million followers.
(Additional reporting by Hui Li, Sui-Lee Wee and Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing; Jane Lee and Anita Li in Shanghai; Editing by Nick Macfie)