HONG KONG—Authorities in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou have demoted the editor-in-chief of a cutting-edge newspaper, shortly after he interviewed visiting U.S. President Barack Obama.
Xiang Xi, who was shown in photographs of the interview seated in an armchair opposite Obama in the Nov. 19 edition of the newspaper, was renamed "executive" editor-in-chief of Southern Weekend last week, with another editor brought in to fill his former slot.
Employees at the newspaper said there had been no official word on the personnel changes yet, however.
"We can't know it if they don't announce it," said one woman who answered the phone Sunday, when asked if Xiang's job title had indeed changed.
Southern Weekend is still controlled and heavily censored by the ruling Communist Party, but it is known for a quality of journalism that is harder hitting than most state-run media, especially those based in Beijing.
The disappearance of Xiang from the top seat at his newspaper, so soon after his appearance in the 'hot seat' in front of Obama, has prompted analysts to examine the role of the Communist Party's powerful but secretive propaganda department in arranging the interview, which contained little that might be deemed controversial.
Basketball and trade
In it, Obama described his visit to China as "fruitful", declared that Yao Ming was one of his favorite basketball players, and emphasized his commitment to growing ties and collaboration between Washington and Beijing, especially climate change, nuclear proliferation and poverty reduction.
On trade, a potentially sensitive topic since the U.S. imposed tariffs on Chinese tires and steel products earlier this year, Obama promised to revisit some trade restrictions imposed under China's World Trade Organization accession agreement, to "re-evaluate" current policies, and to support China's rise as a peaceful, regional power.
Analysts said behind-the-scenes politics were more likely the cause of Xiang Xi's change in status than the content of the interview. U.S.-based human rights activist Liu Nianchun said Xiang was probably acting as scapegoat after the interview angered some high-ranking Communist Party leader.
U.S.-based human rights activist Liu Nianchun said Xiang was probably acting as scapegoat after the interview angered some high-ranking Communist Party leader.
"Xiang Xi ... would have played a completely passive role in the whole affair from start to finish," Liu said.
"The interview was suggested by Obama, and was approved ... by the Central Propaganda Department, who would also have written the list of questions."
"It seems that someone higher up ...was unhappy... and so someone had to take the blame," he said.
"The Central Propaganda Department certainly won't take it, so it falls to the editor-in-chief of Southern Weekend."
Outreach to critics
Zhou Zehao, professor of information science at Pennsylvania's York College, said Obama's choice of Southern Weekend appeared to have been made because of the paper's reputation for hard-hitting journalism, compared with the more tightly controlled Communist Party mouthpieces in Beijing.
"Perhaps [Obama's aides] wanted to use this channel to ... give him the chance to say a few things that he wouldn't be able to say in other situations," Zhou said, adding that the move might have been aimed at reaching out to opponents of the government, or democracy activists.
"One of the problems of the interview format is that once you have started, it's hard to wrap things up," he said.
"They're not going to shut the U.S. president up, now, are they?"
Xiang's demotion is likely to put further pressure on Washington, which was seen as taking a cautious line with Beijing on human rights issues during Obama's first meeting with China's leaders.
Southern Weekend frequently features investigative reports on social problems and news related to official corruption and misdeeds.
Obama chose to hold his keynote interview in China with the paper, and not, as many visiting leaders do, tightly controlled state television.
Some reports have indicated that the interview with Obama was arranged without the approval of the Propaganda Department in the first place, although it had been given the green light by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai and in Cantonese by Bat Tze-mak. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.