A row over censorship at a Chinese newspaper has turned into a political challenge for the country's new leadership after a series of protests.
The action was in support of the Southern Weekly in its confrontation with a top censor after it was forced to change a New Year's editorial calling for political reform into a tribute praising the ruling Communist Party.
Protesters, including schoolchildren and white-collar workers, gathered outside the offices of the newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou to lay flowers at the gate, hold signs and shout slogans calling for freedom of speech, political reform, constitutional governance and democracy.
"I feel that the ordinary people must awaken," said one of the protesters, Yuan Fengchu. "The people are starting to realise that their rights have been taken away by the Communist Party and they are feeling that they are being constantly oppressed."
Political expression in the public sphere is often viewed as risky in China, where the government frequently harasses and even jails dissidents for pro-democracy calls.
Another protester, Guangzhou writer and activist Wu Wei, who goes by the pen name Ye Du, said the protest marked a rare instance in which people were making overt calls for political freedom since large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed in a military crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
"In other cities, we've seen people march, but most of the time they are protesting environmental pollution or people's livelihood issues," he said. "Here they are asking for political rights, the right to protest. The Southern Weekly incident has provided an opportunity for citizens to voice their desires."
The protest came as 18 Chinese academics signed an open letter calling for the dismissal of Tuo Zhen, a provincial propaganda minister blamed for the censorship. The scholars included legal professors, liberal economists, historians and writers.
Peking University law professor He Weifang, who was among them, said the newspaper's good work needed to be defended from censorship. "Southern Weekly is known as a newspaper that exposes the truth, but after Tuo Zhen arrived in Guangdong, he constantly pressured the paper. We need to let him know that he can't do this," he said. "This incident is a test to see if the new leadership is determined to push political reform."
Six weeks ago, China installed a new generation of Communist Party leaders for the next five years, with current Vice President Xi Jinping at the helm. Some of his announcements for a trimmed-down style of leadership, with reduced waste and fewer unnecessary meetings, have raised hopes in some quarters that he might favour deeper reforms in the political system to mollify a public long frustrated by local corruption.