Censorship battle captivates Chinese students

SHANGHAI: Chinese school students are rekindling an interest in politics thanks to a series of epic political scandals and the advent of social media.

Students at an elite Shanghai high school told Fairfax Media they were cautiously following news of a rare journalists' rebellion at the newspaper Southern Week-end via the journalists' microblog accounts, despite frenetic online censorship and fiery propaganda edicts.

And they are taking sides ahead of the "trial of the century", featuring maverick politician Bo Xilai, which authorities have signalled will be begin soon.

Mr Bo's family had received in-principle official approval to hire a high-profile lawyer, Shen Zhigeng, said a source close to the matter, and Xinhua announced on Wednesday night that his file has been handed over to the judicial system.

The former Communist Party boss of Chongqing municipality has been officially accused of massive corruption, abuses of power, illicit sexual liaisons and involvement in his wife's murder of Englishman Neil Heywood.

One student said Mr Bo was "a good guy" because of the fight he led against mafia figures in his Yangtze River metropolis. Another said Mr Bo was guilty of "inner party" misdeeds that would never be disclosed.

Pu Zhiqiang, a leading lawyer, said Mr Bo's trial would not lead any closer to truth or rule of law because there was no prospect of it being anything but a piece of theatre for the purposes of "political power struggle".

However, even the prospect of the most show-stopping trial since Madame Mao is being overshadowed by the open media revolt against tightening censorship that begun last week at Southern Week-end.

Unconfirmed reports say journalists at Southern Weekend reached a peace deal overnight, but not before the anti-censorship rebellion had spread to other key media outlets and the news had penetrated deep into Chinese society.

The editor at another leading newspaper threatened to resign on Tuesday night following a heated exchange on the newsroom floor, after being ordered to print an editorial that deflected blame to foreigners.

However, the main battlefield is now the internet, where in-house censors and propaganda authorities are working furiously to delete postings and plant favourable news and commentary but have not achieved the same success in controlling what people read as they have with traditional media platforms.

"Newspapers have been marginalised as people's reading habits change," said Mr Pu, who specialises in free-speech cases.

All students at the high school who spoke with Fairfax Media said they had accounts with multiple social media providers, which are privately owned but tightly patrolled.

Angela Ma, a Year 11 student and member of the Communist Youth League, said she was following the Southern Weekend imbroglio and sympathised with the cause of open information and accountability.

"I am looking forward to more democracy, as there is still much information that is not being disclosed," she said, adding that she would like to become a journalist herself.

But she said now was a time for learning and thinking rather than talking.

The Communist Party has worked tirelessly to attract the loyalty of elite students since the 1989 protests led by Beijing university students at Tiananmen Square, which was fuelled in part by a newsroom rebellion in Shanghai.

Angela's study partner, Xue Xiaotian, who is also a Youth League member and hopes to become a party member when he turns 18, sided with the party.

He said the Southern Weekend incident had been triggered by journalists who had said things that were "not very harmonious".

"I think we must love our country first," he said. "The government has worked very hard for our future."

This story Censorship battle captivates Chinese students first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.