Disgruntled journalists also displayed their anger through a photograph in the paper showing a flock of birds flying through dark skies above the newspaper's office, with one bird leading.

"The sky may not be very clear, but they will still fly into the distance with their mission close to their hearts," said a note with the picture.

The editor-in-chief of the Beijing News, Yang Bin, was abruptly removed two days ago without any official explanation.

Friday's acts of defiance by journalists were the latest in a long struggle between the Communist party, which tries to control information, and China's newspapers and magazines, which want to attract readers and revenue with bold reporting.

A Beijing editor said propaganda officials singled out the Beijing News for criticism at a 6 December meeting, where it was decided that "city tabloids" such as the News should "strengthen party control" and bow to the wishes of propaganda officials.

Censors defied

In recent years, the stolid Guangming Daily and People's Daily in Beijing, and other propaganda broadsheets, have turned to new tabloids as profit-makers.

In turn, these tabloids have sometimes defied censors by appealing to central patronage.

Chinese officials are struggling
to keep media controls in place

The Beijing News "committed errors in the orientation of opinion" and was a "recidivist," officials said, according to the editor who was formally briefed on the meeting.

The Propaganda Department also rejected an offer by the feisty tabloid to "put its own house in order", said the editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of propaganda rules in China.

The editor said propaganda officials criticised the Beijing News' reporting of the June murder of seven rural protesters by officials in Dingzhou, northern China; as well as relatively sympathetic reports about a migrant worker who killed his foreman and three others after his wages went unpaid.

The Propaganda Department chief, Liu Yunshan, said the News' problems must be "fundamentally resolved", said the editor.

Online discussions

While Communist party officials were reasserting their hold on the tabloid, nearly instantaneous internet reporting of the Yang's sacking and a flurry of online discussions suggested limits to the party's control.

At the Beijing News, a petition denouncing Yang's dismissal and the handover of controls to more conservative editors from its parent newspaper, the Guangming Daily, was circulated among staff, reporters at the paper said.

Some speculated that the Guangming Daily, which owns 51% of the Beijing News, wanted more control over the more lucrative tabloid.

"The real reason is the black hands of power and self-interest are at work", said one veteran journalist.