Chinese authorities moved on Friday to close down the website of a cutting-edge political magazine, while journalists at an outspoken newspaper protested over the withdrawal of an article, calling for a provincial propaganda chief to step down.
Wu Si, editor of Yanhuang Chuqiu, said they had been informed at the end of last month of the decision.
"Our magazine website received a notice from the Ministry of Information Industry on Dec. 31 saying that Yanhuang Chunqiu website's registration had been canceled," Wu said.
"They didn't tell us the reason ... we wrote back and asked them why, but we haven't had a reply, because of course everyone's on vacation at the moment."
The magazine's Web address displayed a cartoon policeman holding up a badge, and the words: "Visit Denied! The website you requested has been closed because it didn't register."
The closure of the site came after the magazine ran an article calling for political reform, which was still visible on its Sina Weibo account on Friday.
"In more than 30 years of reform, the abuses caused by political reform lagging behind economic reform have become daily more visible, and the factors for social instability have gradually accumulated," the article said.
"Promoting reform of the political system is an urgent task," it added.
Asked if the site's closure was linked to the pro-reform article, Wu replied: "We didn't think it was very sensitive, otherwise we wouldn't have published it, but I can't assume that."
'A close eye'
While China's newly anointed leadership, led by president-in-waiting Xi Jinping, have warned the ruling Communist Party that it risks losing power if it doesn't tackle rampant official corruption, the next generation of leaders has also made it clear that it will never institute a Western-style democratic system.
Beijing-based constitutional scholar Chen Yongmiao said that the shut-down appears linked to growing calls within China for reforms to the political system.
"They have been keeping a close eye on this issue recently," Chen said. "I heard that a lot of well-known microblog accounts have been shut down for calling for a constitutional political system."
"Yanhuang Chunqiu is very influential," he said. "That's why it has been shut down."
Beijing-based veteran journalist Gao Yu said two factors were at work behind the closure.
"One is that [the authorities] want to send a signal that they're being tough on Internet management, and the other is that [the magazine] wrote a New Year article calling for government by constitution and political reform ... which was very well received," she said.
Chen said Yanhuang Chunqiu was the second liberal media outlet to come under pressure in recent days, following the removal of a pro-reform New Year message pulled by propaganda officials from the cutting edge newspaper Southern Weekend.
Meanwhile, dozens of prominent journalists penned an open letter demanding the resignation of Tuo Zhen, propaganda chief of Guangdong province, after Southern Weekend was forced to change its New Year editorial.
Tuo is thought to have forced the paper to publish an article he wrote himself in praise of the “Chinese Dream” and of the new leadership under Xi.
"It is our view that Minister Tuo Zhen’s actions overstep the bounds, that they are dictatorial, that they are ignorant and excessive," said the letter, translated by the Hong Kong University's China Media Project.
"It is our view that in this era in which hope is necessary, he is obliterating hope; in this era in which equality is yearned for, his actions are haughty and condescending," it said, calling Tuo's actions "crude and thoughtless."
"The open letter ... ups the ante by publicly challenging the central leadership to show where it stands on the issue of greater openness," wrote media analyst David Bandurski on the CMP's blog.
The 30-odd signatures included authors, columnists, university professors, and senior editors at other news organizations.
Former journalist Zhai Minglei said he agreed with the letter. "I think the important thing is that these officials should be dealt with; they should lose their jobs," he said.
"If we don't get rid of these officials, the entire journalistic profession will lose credibility and dignity," Zhai said. "This is a widespread view among people who work in the [Chinese] media."
Calls from the public
An employee who answered the phone at the Southern Weekend headquarters in Guangzhou on Thursday said she had only heard of the incident because she had fielded calls from members of the public wanting to inquire about it.
"We had prepared the Dec. 31 issue in advance and then we all went on vacation," she said. "We probably won't know any more until people come back to work on Monday."
"I only knew about it because our readers are calling in."
However, an employee who answered the phone at the paper's Beijing bureau said the incident would affect their work.
"Of course it will affect us, but it's not convenient for me to talk to you because we are waiting for [word from] Guangzhou," he said.
"You should confirm it with them; it's not convenient for me to speak to you here."
Last month, a prominent group of Chinese academics warned in another open letter that the country risks "violent revolution" if the government does not respond to public pressure and allow long-stalled political reforms.
Press still controlled
The outlook for press freedom in China continued to look grim throughout 2012, with 88 journalists behind bars and no letup in state control of the media during a year of political transition, according to an annual report from a Paris-based press freedom group.
Beijing kept up its campaign of arrests, attacks, and acts of censorship against anyone who didn't toe the official line of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
China ranked 174th of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index, it said.
"Many media are trying to free themselves of control by the Propaganda Department and local officials, but the Communist Party refuses to loosen its grip on this 'strategic' sector and keeps on inventing new ways to censor," RSF said in a statement issued alongside the report.
Reported by Qiao Long and Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Hai Nan, Fung Yat-yiu and Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.