BEIJING (Reuters) - China has cast its Olympic Games as the crowning act in a year of patriotic bonding, and yet Sima Nan -- television pundit, blogger and Communist Party defender -- sees dark forces within seeking to ruin the Party.
The crew-cut 52-year-old has been waging an Internet war against Chinese commentators and intellectuals he says have hijacked this year's national dramas to undermine Communist Party rule and patriotic values.
His target has been two of the nation's most widely read and combative newspapers, the Southern Weekend and the Southern Metropolis Daily, which he has accused of exploiting the calamitous May earthquake, the coming Beijing Olympics, and reports of riots and murder to push liberal Western ideas.
Recently he even scolded Wang Yang, the Party chief of Guangdong province, which controls the two papers, a bold act in the one-party state. And Sima says he will keep criticizing.
"The core issue in dispute is what road China should follow, the Eastern or Western one, the Chinese model or the Western one," he said in his work studio in northern Beijing crowded with traditional Chinese art.
"The kind of radical transformation they advocate, in my judgment, could lead to turmoil."
Some of Sima's critics have said he is a stalking horse for senior Party conservatives, a claim he said was "absurd".
But the skirmishing he has ignited offers a window into the ideological contention about where China should head after the Games in August and as it marks 30 years of economic reforms.
Liberal reformers hope the earthquake, recent social unrest, and international spotlight of the Games will prod the ruling Party to become more open and accountable. Defenders of Party orthodoxy have seized on the same events as vindication of top-down rule and the need to shun liberal democracy.
"I doubt that Sima Nan has any high-level backing, but he's jumping on certain people's fears that some Chinese media have been going too far," said Li Datong, a former editor at the China Youth Daily who was shunted aside for resisting censorship.
"There's momentum for the media to report faster and discuss problems more openly ... But that kind of discussion makes some people worried and suspicious."
"THEY THINK THE WEST'S MOON IS ROUNDER"
For Sima, one of the small minority of Chinese with two-syllable surnames, his campaign is a return to the spotlight of controversy.
The former official and reporter enjoyed fame a decade ago as a foe of the Falun Gong spiritual sect, outlawed after followers besieged the Communist Party leadership's compound in central Beijing for a day in 1999.
Now Sima greets guests with a flourish of banging on a huge hanging drum at the door of his office, and delivers his arguments in a smooth stream of rhetoric, showing his experience as a television compere.
Days after a devastating earthquake hit Sichuan province in the southwest on May 12, the weekly Southern Weekend hailed the government's unusually candid response and welcoming of reporters to the disaster as a promising embrace of "universal values".
If China absorbs these values, it "will with the rest of the world take the broad road of human rights, rule of law and democracy", said a commentary in the paper.
Sima, long irked by what he said was the paper's dwelling on things unfavorable to China, seized on the commentary as a barely veiled promotion of radical "Westernisation" and alien liberal beliefs.
Since then, he has regularly dissected the Southern Weekend and its sister Southern Metropolitan Daily for signs of waywardness, using his blog (blog.sina.com.cn/simanan) to claim they also used reports on a riot in Guizhou province and the slaying of six police officers to attack the Party.
He also accused the paper of writing favorably of Amnesty International and other groups critical of the Beijing Olympics and China's authoritarian government.
"The Olympics are China's chance to show its face," he said.
"But they don't have cultural self-confidence, so they think the West's moon is rounder than China's and that universal values, coming from the West, must be a good thing," he said of his media foes.
The Southern Weekend prints up to 1.3 million copies of every issue, according to local media estimates.
Sima has even recently chided Wang Yang, Party secretary of Guangdong, who has sought to craft himself as a rising reformist, for not disavowing the paper's report on the killer Yang Jia's bruising encounters with police before he slew six officers in Shanghai.
"I don't know what Comrade Wang Yang feels after reading this," Sima wrote.
In this nation where even murky criticism of leaders is often wiped from Web sites as soon as it appears, Sima's finger-wagging at Wang stayed up, raising talk among local journalists that propaganda officials approved. Sima says he acted on his own.
Staff at the Southern Weekend refused to speak on the record, citing an official ban on contact with foreign reporters. But privately they rejected Sima's claims as wild distortions.
"We're being targeted as a symbol of media freedom. Sima Nan is doing what the Propaganda Department is too scared to do at the moment -- attack us openly," said one reporter at the paper.
He and several other people close to the two southern papers said they have faced internal censure from propaganda officials over recent reports and commentaries.
Sima said he was not, as some critics have claimed, seeking to derail Wang Yang's career. But he also said some senior officials were prey to dangerously liberal ideas.
"Their influence is not just among young intellectuals but also ... among certain leading officials," he said.
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