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Barack Obama

China demotes editor after Obama interview: sources

BEIJING (Reuters) - The top editor of a Chinese newspaper that interviewed U.S. President Barack Obama has been demoted, sources said, in a move they described as fallout from Communist Party censors’ anger over its handling of the story.

Xiang Xi, the top editor of the Southern Weekend weekly newspaper who interviewed Obama during his visit to China in mid-November, has been named as “executive” editor-in-chief and placed under a new top editor this week after pressure from the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda department, said three employees of the paper.

They all requested anonymity, saying they feared punishment for speaking about the move, which has also been discussed on Chinese-language Internet sites.

Xiang’s demotion could revive debate in Washington about the impact of Obama’s visit. It underscored the contention between Washington and Beijing over censorship and access during Obama’s visit, when U.S. officials’ pressed for opportunities for him to speak directly to the Chinese public.

“The propaganda department was certainly unhappy about the interview,” said Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger and media commentator based in Beijing who follows censorship.

“Xiang Xi was de facto top editor at the South Weekend and in effective he has been shifted from number one to number two....This could be a way to stave off more pressure from above.”

Anti and one source at the paper said Xiang’s formal title may not have changed, but the appointment of a new superior transferred from a paper, the Southern Daily, more trusted by the Party was a slap for Southern Weekend.

Xiang could not be contacted for comment.

The paper (www.infzm.com) is one of China's most popular and combative newspapers, featuring investigative reports on social problems and official corruption and misdeeds.

Like all Chinese media, the Southern Weekend comes under state control and censorship, but it is based in the far southern province of Guangdong, which has gone further than other parts of the country in allowing adventurous reporting.

Obama chose to hold his keynote interview in China with the paper, and not, as many visiting leaders do, tightly controlled state television. (link.reuters.com/wup56g)

Reporters at the paper believed Xiang was moved to placate the powerful Party propaganda department, incensed that the interview with Obama was initiated without its approval, said an editor from a magazine who said he was told of the development by senior staff at the paper. He also requested anonymity.

“OPENING A BLANK WINDOW”

The interview had been requested by the White House and approved by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which then went directly to the paper to arrange it, he said.

But when propaganda department officials learned about the planned interview they criticized the paper, took a heavy hand in restricting questions and slashed the transcript approved for publication hours before it went to press, said the editor from another publication.

Only a brief, bland selection appeared on November 19, and other Chinese media were told by censors not to republish even that, said the editor and a reporter at another Chinese paper.

But Southern Weekend editors gave over both the bottom halves of the two pages on which the cut interview appeared to ads for the paper featuring conspicuously large fields of blank space -- a gesture some readers saw as a hint of censorship.

“Everyone in the Chinese media knows about the tradition of opening a blank window (kai tian chuang), leaving a big blank space on a page to indicate that something has been censored,” said the editor from another publication. “Whether that was the intention of the ad, it was certainly read that way.”

The tradition of “opening a blank window” to protest against censorship was used by the Communist Party-controlled press and other opponents of authoritarian Nationalist rule in China before 1949 and has continued sporadically under Communist Party rule.

The editor from the other publication said censors also told the Southern Weekend not to print a picture of a note that Obama wrote for the paper, speaking of the importance of a free press.

Richard Buangan, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, said the White House had requested that the Southern Weekend interview Obama, but could give no more details.

During his visit to China, Obama prodded the host government on censorship and human rights. But Beijing showed no signs of giving ground, and did not allow questions from reporters during the joint press appearance by Obama and President Hu Jintao.

The U.S. President also held a “townhall” meeting with students in Shanghai, which U.S. officials pressed to be broadcast live nationwide. [ID:nPEK108931] In the end, however, Chinese officials restricted live television viewing to Shanghai itself.

Editing by Ken Wills and Alex Richardson

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