Scuffles broke out as protests over censorship at a cutting-edge Chinese newspaper continued on Tuesday, amid public slanging matches between ruling left-wing Chinese Communist Party supporters and protesters angry over tight media controls.
Several hundred protesters showed up outside the offices of the Southern Weekend newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou for a second day running, following online calls for continued protests over censorship of the paper's New Year editorial.
Footage on Hong Kong's Cable TV showed people shouting "Running dogs!", "50-centers!" and "Traitors," as government supporters, known as the "50-cent party" for the fees they are supposedly paid, appeared to have turned up as well.
"Did you ask me if you could come here?" shouted one bystander at a Hong Kong camera crew. "Do you think you are in Hong Kong?"
One protester said he had seen a number of the "50 centers" talking quietly on the sidelines with police, suggesting they may have been working for the government.
"These clashes happened three or four times, and the police detained one person, who hadn't been released by the time I left the scene," said protester Wei Xiaobing.
"By the time I left, there were upwards of 500 people there, probably more than yesterday," Wei said.
"It was clear that there was a bigger police presence, too, and while they didn't take aggressive measures to interfere, we felt they were taking a harder line [today]."
Netizens, journalists, and academics have faced off with the authorities since the Southern Weekend newspaper was forced to change a New Year editorial calling for political reform into a tribute praising the Communist Party.
Those who express dissenting political views, or who call for major changes to one-party rule in China, are often harassed, held under house arrest, or sent to prison for subversion or unrelated charges.
The protest is one of the first overt calls by members of the public for political freedom since large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed in a military crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Last week, 18 Chinese academics signed an open letter calling for the dismissal of Tuo Zhen, a provincial propaganda minister blamed for the censorship. The scholars included legal professors, liberal economists, historians, and writers.
There has been no direct official comment on the confrontation so far.
Return to work?
However, Reuters reported that Guangdong provincial chief Hu Chunhua had stepped in to broker a deal between senior editorial staff and provincial propaganda chiefs.
The agency quoted a source close to the Guangdong Communist Party Committee as saying that Hu, who just took over leadership of Guangdong province last month, had suggested a return to normal work at the paper following a strike.
Senior editors have denied newspaper workers have been on strike, in spite of an online declaration signed by some staff members.
"Most staff" won't be punished after the incident if a normal edition is printed this week, the source said.
"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."
The Southern Weekend has long been seen as a beacon of independent and in-depth reporting amid otherwise tight controls on the media.
Reuters reported that propaganda authorities had agreed in future to "lengthen their leash" on the paper. However, more than one source said the paper's chief editor Huang Can now stands to lose his job whatever happens.
Meanwhile, a number of activists who have spoken out openly in support of the newspaper in recent days said they have been contacted by state security police.
Anhui-based pro-democracy activist Zhang Lin said he had received a call from the police after he sent out a tweet in support of Southern Weekend on the Sina Weibo microblog service.
"They didn't say anything very specific...but they asked me my views on this issue," Zhang said. "The subtext was to warn me not to pay much attention to it."
According to the Sichuan-based rights website Tianwang, Zhejiang-based activists Lu Gengsong and Mao Qingxiang had both had their homes searched in connection with the protest.
Lu's wife confirmed that police and government officials had entered the couple's home on Tuesday, confiscating one of her husband's computers and other materials.
"He was taken to the police station for questioning," she said, adding that Mao had been questioned around the same time.
The two men hadn't been released by 8.00 p.m. local time (12 noon GMT) on Tuesday, she said.
Repeated calls to the Guangdong provincial government propaganda department and to the government press office went unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
Dai Zhiyong, the Southern Weekend editor who penned the original, pro-reform article that was altered, declined to comment.
"I have already had a lot of interview requests, but it has been decided that it's not convenient for any of us to give interviews," Dai said.
Mak Yin-ting, chair of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA), said the paper's demands didn't seem unreasonable from outside mainland China.
"Of course this is a question of systematized media censorship, and the right of citizens to freedom of publication isn't being upheld," Mak said.
"[The protesters] want a free press and an end to censorship, and the Southern Weekend incident is going to have a bigger and bigger impact," she said.
The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) paid tribute both to the original editorial and to the journalists who protested at its removal.
"The original version talked of hopes of change for the New Year and called for a constitutional government," RSF said in a statement on its website.
"It was purged of its critical content and prefaced by a propagandistic introduction."
It said the "unprecedented" protests show that the Chinese media are at an historic crossroads.
"It is unacceptable that the content of a respected newspaper such as Nanfang Zhoumo [Southern Weekend] should be censored by the Communist Party without warning, because it dared to talk about the rule of law and civil liberties," the statement said.
RSF called on China's president-in-waiting Xi Jinping to take stock of the consequences of media censorship as he prepares to take over the presidency in March.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.