When US President Barack Obama visited Beijing last month, the White House chose for him to do an interview with one Chinese publication. They specifically did not choose the usual state media like CCTV or China Daily.
Instead Obama had a quick 10-minute chat with Southern Weekend (南方周末), a progressive newspaper based in Guangdong which is best known for its investigative pieces about corruption and social problems that seem to fly under the radar of censors mostly because of its geographic distance from Beijing.
However, when the interview with Obama was scheduled to be published on November 19, Southern Weekend subscribers got their copies with the pages ripped out (last-minute censoring). Apparently those were the first batch printed. The second batch for newsstands featured blank white boxes, called 开天窗, kai tian chuang or "blank window" as a hint that censorship was involved.
Apparently the interview request with Southern Weekend was made by the White House and approved by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then the US side arranged it directly with the weekly paper. However, when propaganda officials got wind of it they were angry, restricting the questions and then further slashed the transcript of the interview just hours before it was to go to press.
So editors of the paper resorted to showing their hands were tied with the blank windows.
"Everyone in the Chinese media knows about the tradition of opening a blank window, leaving a big blank space on the page to indicate that something has been censored," said the editor of another publication. "Whether that was the intention of the ad, it was certainly read that way."
The story could not be found on the paper's website either.
And now the editor-in-chief Xiang Xi who conducted the interview with Obama has been demoted and a new editor from the Southern Daily has replaced him. Xiang is still there, but is now the No. 2 guy.
While Xiang has not commented on his situation, it does send a strong signal that getting an exclusive interview with the president of a country that promotes freedom of the press doesn't pay dividends.
This is just another chilling reminder of how the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao leadership is tightening its control over the media even further. It also shows how uncoordinated the different minstries are and that the propaganda department trumps all.