A cutting-edge newspaper in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong has raised eyebrows after it printed a full-page advertisement consisting of a block of black ink.
The Southern Metropolis Daily, which has fallen foul of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department with its relatively daring reporting, showed a black rectangle on its A24 page, prompting some to wonder if the ad was making a sly reference to the International Day of Democracy.
On its front page, the Guangzhou-based newspaper carried stories about migrant workers applying for public housing, a corrupt official and a boating accident in which a girl died.
Commentators took to popular Twitter-like service Sina Weibo to speculate over the motivation behind the page, with some pointing out that Sept. 15 is the International Day of Democracy.
Guangzhou-based writer Xu Lin said the page was clearly intended to send a message.
"First, this is probably a deliberate form of political propaganda, because this ad was taken out on that day out of 365 others, which happens to be the International Day of Democracy," Xu told RFA on Wednesday.
"People in the media are extremely sensitive to the significance of dates, and if it hadn't been intended as an anti-authoritarian protest, then they would have avoided that date altogether," he said. "That's why I think it's deliberate."
The paper later claimed the ad had been taken out by a disgruntled advertiser after changes to rules on advertisements, but declined to give further details.
On its official account on the smartphone app WeChat, the paper said some companies had been hard hit by a new law which came into effect on Sept. 1 governing "misleading information" in sales promotions and advertising.
Some clients had been "treading on thin ice" with regard to their advertising practices, the paper said.
An employee who answered the phone at the paper's offices on Wednesday said the fee for the advertisement would have been quite steep, suggesting a strong intent behind the move.
"The price for a full page advertisement in the A section would be 561,300 yuan [U.S. $88,094], but you would get a 65 percent discount, so that would be 370,000 yuan [U.S. $58,095]," the employee said, but declined to comment further.
Online commentator Wu Bin, known by his nickname Xiucai Jianghu, said the ad was likely a form of performance art.
"This is a wordless protest on the International Day of Democracy, because there is no democracy in China," Wu said. "They dare not write it there in black and white."
"This is an expression of somebody's anger," he said.
The United Nations' marked its International Day of Democracy on Sept. 15 with the theme of "space for civil society" amid an unprecedented crackdown by Chinese president Xi Jinping's administration on rights lawyers, activists and nongovernmental organizations in recent years.
The Southern newspaper group, which owns Southern Metropolis Daily, was at the heart of a 2013 press freedom protest and journalists' strike over the rewriting of the Southern Weekend's New Year message in favor of constitutional government by a provincial propaganda official.
The official in question, Tuo Zhen, has since been promoted to deputy chairman of the party's powerful propaganda department in Beijing.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Ka Pa for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.