Hundreds of people gathered outside the offices of a cutting-edge newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou on Monday in solidarity with protesting journalists after official censorship at the paper sparked a public outcry.
Those who gathered outside the offices of the Southern newspaper group included high-school students and office workers.
They laid flowers at the gate, carried banners and placards, and shouted slogans calling for freedom of speech, political reform, constitutional governance, and democracy, participants said after censors last week toned down the paper’s New Year’s letter to readers.
Photographs showed one man holding a banner saying: “Freedom of speech. Support Southern Weekend. End the press ban.”
"At most, there were several hundred people there," said protester Xu Lin. "They came to have their voices heard."
Xu said that in spite of a strong security presence, no obvious confrontation took place.
"I gave a speech and recited some poetry and lyrics," Xu added. "There were a lot of police and plainclothes officers, but they didn't take any action."
"They just made sure that everyone left a space for passersby to get through. They didn't detain anyone," he said.
However, Guangzhou-based activist Wu Wei, who is known by his pen name Ye Du, said he had been escorted away from the scene by police after watching the protest for a short time.
Ye said that he thought tweets sent out late on Sunday saying Southern Weekend editorial staff would strike were probably accurate.
"I'm 99 percent sure that this happened," he said. "I think the authorities will have no choice but to take heed of the views of the public, both on the ground and online."
"Otherwise, there will be a crisis of confidence and damage to the legitimacy of the regime, and it's hard to tell how much."
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 ruling Chinese 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.
Ye said the protest was 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.
However, official media gave little sign of a softening of the Party's stance on censorship in the wake of a leadership transition last year.
The English-language tabloid Global Times, which has close ties to the Party, said in an editorial that no Chinese media outlet should fool itself into thinking that it can occupy a "political special zone" in which it is free from government control.
"In China's current social political reality, there cannot be the kind of 'free media' that these people hope in their hearts for," the paper said.
Netizens passed around an image of a document apparently signed by editorial staff at the Southern group.
"After a day of fighting to hang onto it, Southern Weekend lost control of its official microblog account, as a result of official pressure," the declaration said. "We will fight this to the end, and until this is resolved, staff will not be carrying out normal editorial duties."
"We call on everyone to rally in defense of Southern Weekend," said the document, signed by 19 journalists.
Tweets from those journalists' individual accounts didn't show up in search results on the popular Twitter-like service Sina Weibo on Monday.
Repeated calls to the Guangdong provincial propaganda department and to the provincial press office rang unanswered during office hours on Monday, as did calls to Southern Weekend's public hotline.
Wang Genghui, deputy editor-in-chief of the Southern newspaper group, denied that anyone was on strike.
"There is no strike," he said. "They are all at work normally; all the rumors came from outside [the paper]. There is nothing going on at Southern Weekend."
He said the protests were unrelated to his staff.
"These are all people from the wider public who have no connection to Southern Weekend," Wang added.
An employee who answered the phone in the paper's advertising department said it was hard to say whether or not the journalists were on strike, however.
"They don't need to be in the office every day," he said. "They all usually work outside the office."
The news ethics committee at Southern Weekend issued a statement on Monday calling for a full investigation by an independent panel into the allegations surrounding Tuo and the New Year editorial.
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.