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China’s prohibitive controls on freedom of speech have provoked an unprecedented outpouring of online protest, after celebrities, popular bloggers, businessmen and ordinary netizens took to the web to voice their support for journalists at an influential newspaper who protested against censorship of their work.

Hacks at Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly, which has a long history of campaigning journalism, were incensed when a New Year editorial piece calling for a constitutional China was watered down into a bland homage to the Communist Party.

Guangdong propaganda boss Tuo Zhen, himself a veteran of state-run media company Xinhua, was accused of the hatchet job, making changes to the article after editors had responded to his original objections and even adding his own introductory message, according to China Media Project.

Although journalists expect that their work has to comply with local laws, Tuo’s interference appears to have been the final straw for many, who wrote an open letter accusing him of being “dictatorial”, “ignorant” and “excessive”.

As the stand-off between the Communist Party-influenced management at the paper and journos continued, support sprung up on the web from some unlikely but influential sources.

Actors Yao Chen and Chen Kui, who between them have nearly 60 million followers, wrote messages of support on their Twitter-like weibo accounts, while outspoken businessman Ren Zhiqiang tweeted the same sentiments to his 13 million followers, according to Tea Leaf Nation.

Bloggers Han Han and Li Chengpeng added their voices of support while portal editors at web giant Sina were more subversive, apparently seeding the message “Go Southern Weekend!” in the first characters of unrelated headlines.

Students at a local university and a bunch of leading academics have also written open letters denouncing Tuo’s actions and calling for his removal.

Commentators are keen to see how incoming president Xi Jinping reacts to this test of his leadership and reformist credentials.

At the moment the police appear to have been allowing protesters to gather around the Southern Weekly offices without threatening violence or arrest, although discussion of the topic online is being censored as per usual, according to China Digital Times.

The signs are not looking particularly good, though, despite hopes Xi’s tenure may see a softening stance towards online censorship. The government has already agreed comprehensive new real-name registration rules for all internet users and no-nonsense plans to clamp down on the mobile apps market. ®

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