China’s Southern Metropolis Daily (SMD) printed a full page of black ink on Tuesday, sparking speculation that the liberal-leaning newspaper was making a subtle reference to the International Day of Democracy. The newspaper later said that an advertiser had bought the space to protest new “stringent” advertising regulations.

china newspaper democracy day
Today’s Southern Metropolis Daily. Photo: weibo

“Did a print accident hit Southern Metropolis Daily? Why is one page all black?” one user asked on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform.

The spread, marked for “ads”, featured no words or pictures.

Weibo users speculate the newspaper was making reference to the International Day of Democracy. Photo: Weibo
Weibo users speculate the newspaper was making reference to the International Day of Democracy. Photo: Weibo

Some online commenters suggested it was an advertiser’s marketing trick to get attention. Others pointed out that September 15 is the International Day of Democracy and the newspaper may have made a convoluted complaint about China’s “dark” reality on the democracy and human rights front.

The Guangzhou-based newspaper carried three stories on its front page today: one about migrant workers applying for public housing, one about a corrupt official and one about a boating accident which killed a girl.

Some saluted the newspaper while others, including property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, merely commented: “So black.”

china newspaper democracy day
One Weibo user saluted the newspaper for its “courage.” Photo: Weibo

In response to speculation, the newspaper issued an informal clarification on social media platform Wechat, saying an advertiser had purchased the ad space to protest the country’s new advertising laws.

A new law, enacted on September 1, placed tighter restrictions on “misleading information” in sales promotions and ads in new media. The new regulations have been compared to “a pair of shackles” for companies who have been “treading on thin ice”, Southern Metropolis Daily said on Wechat.

The newspaper did not say who the advertiser was.

Southern Metropolis Daily, one of the most read newspapers in China, is known for its investigative reports and hard-hitting criticism of governmental corruption. Its sister publication, Southern Weekly, drew international attention in 2013 after editorial staff staged a daring protest against a propaganda official’s rewrite of the weekly newspaper’s New Year’s address to readers, removing references to constitutionalism.

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.