A cartoon by artist Kuang Biao, whose Weibo was recently shut down. (Kuang Biao)

Chinese journalists reacted furiously Friday to what they said was heavy-handed official censorship of a New Year’s message from a popular Guangdong newspaper, setting up a crucial early challenge for new leader Xi Jinping.

The dispute began when the propaganda chief in the southern province, Tuo Zhen, apparently went behind the backs of the editors of the reform-minded paper Southern Weekly and directed that changes be made to the unsigned front-page piece. Tuo deleted some parts and inserted new passages — in some places, adding factual errors — after the paper’s top editors had signed off on the Jan. 2 article and gone home, several editors and reporters said later on their Twitter-like microblogs, called weibo.

Censorship of China’s print media is a long-standing and ubiquitous practice, but having a government official actually rewrite an article before publication, and without consulting the editors, was considered an unusual intrusion even by Chinese standards.

The original message was titled “China’s dream, the dream of constitutionalism” and it expressed the hope that China would become a country ruled by law and the constitution, according to the journalists. “Only if constitutionalism is realized, and power effectively checked, can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently,” it said.

The version that appeared in the paper, however, was a sycophantic piece titled “We are now closer to our dream than ever,” which praised the work of the ruling Communist Party and omitted references to constitutionalism, democracy and equality.

(Kuang Biao)

Beijing’s censors tried to contain the resulting indignation by ordering all the weibo postings about the controversy deleted. According to the China Digital Times Web site, which tracks Chinese censorship issues, the Central Propaganda Department issued an “urgent” notice on Jan. 3 saying, “Upon receipt of this message, controlling departments in all locales must immediately inform reporters and editors that they may not discuss the Southern Weekly New Year’s greeting on any public platforms.”

The complaining journalists suddenly found their weibo posts deleted, and some had their accounts shut down.

But the controversy only intensified Friday with a rare open letter from a prominent group of former journalists affiliated with Southern Weekly calling Tuo’s actions “dictatorial” and also “ignorant and excessive,” according to a translation provided by the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, which studies mainland media issues. By late Friday, more than 50 former journalists had endorsed the letter.

The journalists’ letter directly criticized Tuo, a member of the Guangdong Communist Party Standing Committee with oversight of propaganda, saying, “In this era in which hope is necessary, he is obliterating hope; in this era in which equality is yearned for, his actions are haughty and condescending; in this era of growing open-mindedness, his actions are foolish and careless.”

The journalists added, “If media lose all credibility and influence, then we ask, how is the ruling Party to speak?” They also said that since Xi’s election, “the general attitude at home and overseas . . . has been one of optimism.” But they asked whether the central government supported Tuo’s actions and demanded that he be “deemed unsuitable for his position.”

Later Friday, a group of 50 former Southern Weekly interns issued a separate online letter decrying the censorship and calling for Tuo to be fired. “We stand together to show our support for this newspaper,” they wrote. The former interns also said the government “should respect the rights of expression of the journalists who protested, and they should not be punished.”

The Communications School of Jinling College at Nanjing University also joined the fray, with an open letter posted online, denouncing “the backwardness” of the alleged censorship move.

Media experts said the demands for Tuo’s ouster set up a challenge that will be difficult for the government to ignore. “There is little room for the two sides to negotiate,” Zhang Lifan, a political commentator, wrote on his weibo account Friday. “The incident will testify to the direction of political reform.”

Tuo could not be reached for comment, and the telephone at the propaganda office in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, went unanswered Friday.

The Southern Weekly controversy comes as the government also appears to be stepping up a campaign to rein in the popular and freewheeling microblogging accounts, which have lately been exposing instances of official corruption and embarrassing the Communist Party. Several activists, bloggers and even a popular cartoonist have had their weibo accounts shut down, and the government recently instituted new requirements that Internet users register with their real names, which activists fear could stifle online debate and commentary.

Asked about the Southern Weekly controversy Friday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she did not know the specifics of the situation, which she noted did not pertain to foreign affairs. But she added: “In China, no so-called news censorship system exists. The Chinese government protects journalistic freedom according to the law.”

Asked also to comment on the case of Chris Buckley, a New York Times reporter who was expelled from Beijing with his family on Dec. 31 because his 2013 journalist’s visa has not yet been approved, Hua said Buckley had never officially resigned from his previous position at the Reuters news agency and had not returned the Chinese government press card issued to him as a Reuters reporter.

“Therefore, the Chinese side has no idea who Chris Buckley’s employer is,” Hua said. She denied that Buckley’s visa request had been rejected or that he had been forced to leave China.

She added, “We also have noticed some coverage recently in the foreign media, and we can see some of them still look at China with colored glasses and with their stubborn way of thinking and logic. We hope some of the media can judge and report on China objectively and catch up with the changes.”

As Hua was defending China’s commitment to media freedom, a reformist magazine in Beijing, Yanhuang Chunqiu, said via weibo that its Web site had been abruptly closed. Clicking the link to the Web site returned a message saying, “This website has been shut for not registering.”

Wang Juan contributed to this report.