A cutting-edge newspaper group in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou has let go one of its most popular columnists, the latest in a string of firings and redundancies which may mark a broader media crackdown.
Chen Ming, a well-known columnist for the Southern group of newspapers, wrote late on Monday via the Sina microblogging service that he was "taking a sabbatical," effectively ending his job.
The announcement sent shock waves through Chen's followers, who responded with messages of anger, support, and sympathy on Tuesday.
"Your support means a great deal to me," said Chen, who was widely known by his pen name "Xiao Shu."
"I am sorry I haven't been able to reply to all of you individually."
But he appeared to believe the decision was out of his bosses' control. "I love the Southern newspaper group, so please respect my feelings, and don't attack them because of me," he tweeted.
"I am going to remain independent, peaceable, and rational-minded, but I am not going to give up my principles."
Contacted by telephone on Tuesday, Chen declined to comment on his apparent sacking from the group, which publishes the influential Southern Weekend newspaper.
"I'm sorry. I have to stick to what I decided before," he said. "I can't give interviews. I have expressed my views on the Sina microblog. I haven't anything to add to that."
Asked about his plans for the future, Chen said: "I will have to take it one step at a time. I don't know right now."
A two-year 'sabbatical'
Southern Weekend general manager Song Bo said he was unsure of Chen's status with the paper following the news.
"I don't really know about this," he said. "I am the general manager, in charge of running the business."
"I don't really understand what goes on over there [in editorial]."
Peng Xiaoyun, former director of the Southern group's op-ed section, said she had been fired at the same time as Chen.
"I did pretty much the same job as Xiao Shu," Peng said. "He had a fairly moderate approach, and I stuck mostly to rational forms of argument."
"But it seems as if there's not much room for either moderation or rationality now," she said.
A second senior manager in the Southern media group declined to give an interview. "I hope you can understand," the manager said.
A media source said the term "sabbatical" was likely a euphemism for Chen's sacking.
"Usually if you take a sabbatical longer than six months, you have to resign from your job," the source said. "If his lasts for two years, that basically means that he has been laid off."
"This has been brewing since they stopped his column in the second half of last year," the source added.
Netizens expressed anger and shock at the news.
"Xiao Shu has given us a new piece of vocabulary, the 'two-year sabbatical,'" wrote microblogger Lanwuyou.
Chen's "sabbatical" is the latest in a long line of high-profile departures from the Southern group, which has a reputation for challenging traditional propaganda controls on Chinese media and tackling the country's most sensitive stories.
Former Southern Weekend editor Jiang Yiping, Southern Metropolis Daily editor Cheng Yizhong and Southern Metropolis Weekly deputy editor Chang Ping have already left the group's publications.
Blogger Beifeng said via the microblogging service Twitter he felt as if Chen's departure was predictable, citing the firing of Chang Ping.
"As soon as Chang Ping was 'resigned' I could see what lay ahead for him," he wrote.
Chen is a prominent media professional, working in publishing and editing a collection of political writings in favor of democracy from the Yan'an period of Communist Party history.
He graduated from Guangzhou's Zhongshan University in 1984, and has a substantial following on the Internet, where he coined the phrase "standing and watching is power," referring to the formation of online communities of opinion.
Blogger and citizen journalist Zhou Shuguang said the essay collection Chen edited, titled "The Harbingers of History: Solemn Promises from Half a Century Ago," contained promises made by Party leaders about democracy.
"Looking at it now, it's like a joke," he wrote.
Chang Ping said recently that his dismissal was part of a broader crackdown on domestic media.
Chang, 42, penned a well-known opinion piece calling for more understanding from China during the Tibetan riots and protests of 2008.
He was banned from writing columns for Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily last July.
He told the Index on Censorship publication Uncut that "a lot of people think that this is the beginning of a cold winter."
China's ruling Communist Party has launched a fresh wave of detentions and subversion trials in the wake of anonymous online calls for "Jasmine" rallies, inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.
Authorities in the southwestern province of Sichuan recently detained activist and writer Ran Yunfei on charges of "incitement to subvert state power" and handed a 10-year jail term to writer Liu Xianbin.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.