GUANGZHOU, China — Like wedding guests separated across the aisle, the protesters assembled on either side of a gated driveway at the headquarters of the embattled Southern Weekly newspaper. To the right, several dozen supporters of the newspaper staff waved banners calling for an end to censorship of the Chinese press.
"Freedom!" they chanted.
To the left, beneath fluttering red Chinese flags and hoisted portraits of Mao Tse-tung, a battalion of mostly older men shouted into a microphone, trying to drown out their ideological rivals.
"Long live Chairman Mao!" they chanted.
"We love China!"
Across the divide, the dueling protesters have been engaging in a spirited debate over the Communist Party's grip on the media. The spat erupted over the weekend in the southern city of Guangzhou when journalists threatened to strike over a front-page New Year's editorial that was rewritten by propaganda officials. Although a strike was averted by a last-minute deal Wednesday, the raucous public protests continued outside the newspaper headquarters.
The protests were inspired by rising expectations after the 18th Communist Party congress in November, when the new leadership was installed. Xi Jinping, the new party secretary who will become president in March, has hinted at plans to uphold constitutionally guaranteed rights and fight corruption within the party. What role the media will play in that fight is at the heart of the debate.
One lesson of the Guangzhou protests is that the overarching conflict about the role of the press in a communist society is not likely to be resolved any time soon.
"You can't fight corruption without freedom of the press," said a 46-year-old activist, Xiao Qingshan, who demonstrated from a wheelchair (necessitated by a work injury) that was festooned with pro-democracy slogans. "We're tired of being lied to. We want the same kind of freedoms as in the West."
Protesters poked fingers in each other's chests. They pushed. They shoved. Police who had planted themselves in the middle of the driveway broke up a few incipient fights but otherwise did not intervene.
A 73-year-old retired engineer wearing a Mao pin on his leather jacket hectored a university student who had dared to walk across the divide to debate.
"You young people don't understand what's going on. Who does this newspaper belong to? It belongs to the Communist Party," lectured the older man, who would not give his name. "These journalists are civil servants who are supposed to obey orders, not behave like traitors following the United States."
Indeed, despite a shift toward commercialization, newspaper ownership in China remains deeply lodged with the state. In order to operate, all of China's more than 2,000 newspapers require a Communist Party or government organ to sponsor a publishing license. Inside each newsroom is a Communist Party secretary who makes sure the stories are politically correct.
The restrictive environment makes the journalism at the muckraking Southern Weekly and its sister paper, the Southern Metropolis Daily, all the more remarkable.
The publications belong to the Nanfang Media Group, which is owned by the government of Guangdong, China's richest and most liberal province.
For several years, the Southern Weekly and the Southern Metropolis Daily were able to deliver stories that challenged authority and exposed unchecked power.
That was possible because the newspapers' stewards had long belonged to liberal factions of the party, shielding it from interference, said Cheng Yizhong, who helped launch the Southern Metropolis Daily in 1997.