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You can Buy Anything Cheaply in China except Freedom of Speech

Updated on February 1, 2015
bonmotsminot profile image

I'm a lawyer and mother of two from New Zealand. I have a passion for the written word and am interested in lots of topics (esp. Travel)!


"The free flow of information is crucial, because that's how we discover truth, that's how we learn what's really happening in our communities and our country and our world”

— Michelle Obama, First Lady


The first lady Michelle Obama's inaugural visit to China in March last year, followed by the Charlie Hebdo massacre last month in Paris, are two events that remind us of the great importance to the civilized world of the right to freedom of speech.

Despite being declared last year to be the "world's largest economy", when it comes to freedom of speech, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has a very long way to go indeed when it comes to this fundamental human right -freedom of speech. The PRC is one of the most restrictively censored countries in the world. News media are carefully censored by the government, and access to many internet sites freely available in the rest of the world is blocked.

The PRC blocks many foreign news sites and social media services such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Its army of censors routinely filters out information deemed offensive by the government and silences dissenting voices.

Given China's ancient feudal history, in which it played a key role for centuries as a hub of learning and scholarship (including the art of calligraphy), it's hard to reconcile this repressive China of today, with Imperial China, in which a written language was developed, and the scribes in the monasteries presided over a flowering of language, culture and recorded history. It's also hard to reconcile such an economically successful and innovative country, with the denial of fundamental human rights like freedom of speech. How can China present such a paradox?

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Why's freedom of speech so important?

Freedom of speech (or expression) is such a deeply-rooted principle in modern Western liberal democracies that most of us in the West take it entirely for granted. Back as far as 1948, the right was enshrined in international law under Article 19 of the International Declaration of Human Rights. It's reflected in most constitutions or charters of rights of Western countries, and thus is also enshrined in domestic law.

Not everyone agrees what 'free speech' actually means, and what its limits are. The US Supreme Court has often struggled, in free speech cases under the US Constitution, to define what it does or doesn't apply to. The Supreme Court's held that it includes a number of things we wouldn't perhaps traditionally associate with the 'free speech' concept, notably:

  • the right not to speak (specifically, not to salute the flag)
  • to wear black armbands to protest a war
  • to use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages
  • to advertise commercial products and professional services
  • to contribute money to political campaigns

The Pope recently suggested that free speech does not (or should not) include the right to cause religious offence.

Debates aside though, we in the West can scarcely imagine a world in which our right to speak, and the very content of what we say, can be controlled and censored. We can't conceive of a world in which we open our web browser, and are granted access to only a handful of internet sites (with the remainder being blocked behind huge firewalls). The idea of being thrown into prison for things we have said or written about the government, is unthinkable. Yet these things currently happen in the PRC on a not infrequent basis.

Free speech is seen [by China] as a luxury for countries that are not trying to coordinate a massive, diverse, and historically unruly country in order to rise out of extreme poverty and global marginalization

— Jennifer Carvalho

Does the PRC protect 'freedom of speech'?

Generally speaking, Communist countries like China base their paradigm of society on the needs, rights and aspirations of the collective or community, not those of the individual. This makes a crucial difference when it comes to determining the values that underpin Communist societies.

Freedom of speech, like other human rights, is primarily a right vested in the individual. In a society where the community or collective interest is paramount, freedom of the individual to speak (or do anything else for that matter) is likely to be regarded as less important than the rights of the community at large, and of the political institutions. This will be especially so where an individual's freedom of speech comes into direct conflict with authority or the community (such as where the individual organises a protest or speaks out against the political masters).

As one might expect, this 'qualified' type of freedom of speech is exactly what's reflected in the Chinese constitution -which gives people the right of free speech, but then limits that right by things like not overthrowing the socialist system or advocating secession. Let's look at some specific examples:

Media censorship: The Chinese government has for a long time censored both traditional media and the internet to avoid potential subversion of its authority. Only news outlets deemed favourable to the government are allowed to broadcast on TV or radio. China blocks many foreign news sites and social media services such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Its many censors work to filter out information deemed offensive by the government and silences dissenting voices. This censorship is often justified on grounds of 'protecting state secrets', or other vague security grounds. The watchdog group Reporters without Borders ranked China 173 out of 179 countries in its 2013 worldwide index of press freedom.

Imprisonment, harassment and surveillance of journalists. It's not uncommon for journalists or writers who write anything deemed negative or critical of the government to be imprisoned or placed under house arrest. Even foreign journalists operating in China have been subjected to harassment and surveillance, and have had cameras confiscated. China requires foreign correspondents to obtain permission before reporting in the country and has used this as a way of preventing journalists from reporting on potentially sensitive topics like corruption.

Imprisonment of government critics. Many writers, artists, academics and ordinary citizens have been arrested and imprisoned for criticising the government, even though China's 1982 constitution purports to protect freedom of speech. These arrests are often justified on grounds of 'subverting state power' or 'disclosing state secrets'.

Quashing democracy protests. Who can forget the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 in Beijing? This was a series of pro-democracy student-led protests, supporting by the city's residents, that were subject to a brutal crackdown by the Chinese authorities, and imposition of martial law, enforced by the army. Newsreels from that time show tanks rolling in, and assauly rifles being aimed at unarmed protesters -killing many of them. It's telling that since 1989, the Chinese government has prevented any discussion of the crackdown publicly or in the media, or any commemorative or memorial events being held. Similar protests were held in Hong Kong in September last year, and like Tiananmen square, the Chinese authorities had little tolerance for the protests -after protesters breached a security barrier outside the electoral office, Chinese armed forces came in and forcibly removed them the following day.

Religious freedom of expression. Another area where the PRC falls well short of international law requirements for protection of freedom of speech and religion. There have been many instances of persecution of religious sects (such as Tibetan Buddhists and the Falun Gong) by Chinese authorities, and arbitrary arrests and detention relating to religious practices (e.g. assembling for religious worship, expressing religious beliefs in public and in private, and publishing religious texts). The Chinese government has imposed restrictions on Islamic dress among its Uighur population, most recently by banning full-length burqas in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital city.

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Tibet and China


Case Study: Tibet

Tibet (since 1959 a territory of China) represents, perhaps more starkly than any other example in recent history, the failure of China's approach to free speech and democratic rights in its sovereign territories.

Formerly a proud feudal theocracy headed by the Dalai Lama (the high priest and leader of Tibetan Buddhism), in 1951 Tibet was invaded by China, many of its monasteries were set on fire or demolished, and monks and ordinary citizens alike were forced to denounce the Dalai Lama, and openly express their devotion and support for the Chinese communist government. In exchange for this, Tibet (a country based for centuries on subsistence agriculture), was promised a new wave of wealth and economic development.

Although life for the ordinary Tibetan may have become easier economically since its annexation by China, arguably Tibet has suffered a progressive form of cultural annihilation at the hands of China -with its language, religion and cultural practices at risk of being wiped out entirely. Nomadic populations of yak herders have been forced to resettle in permanent dwellings.

Most of all perhaps, freedom of speech has suffered in Tibet -both the freedom to speak the Tibetan language and to freely express religious and cultural beliefs, but also the freedom to criticise or question any measures taken by the Chinese government, which is omnipresent everywhere in Tibet (and is usually heavily armed).

Human rights abuses documented in Tibet include the deprivation of life, disappearances, torture, poor prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and detention, denial of fair public trial, denial of freedom of speech and of press and Internet freedoms. They also include political and religious repression, forced abortions, sterilisation, and even infanticide. The Chinese security forces have used torture and degrading treatment in dealing with some detainees and prisoners, according to the U.S. State Department's 2009 report. It's difficult to verify some of these claims because of media bans.

Sadly in Tibet, since the wave of street protests in 2008 was put down, Tibetan monks, nuns and ordinary citizens have resorted in increasing numbers to the extreme of self-immolation (suicide by fire), as a means of protesting what they see as an intolerable level of oppression in their own country. It is to be hoped that Chinese authorities take heed of this misery, and try to find a new approach to governing Tibet.

Freedom of expression -global regional index

The higher the number, the higher the observance of freedom of speech in legal framework
The higher the number, the higher the observance of freedom of speech in legal framework | Source

Case Study 2: Uighur

China is practising similarly repressive policies toward the Muslim minority Uighur population in the Xinjiang province, as it practises in Tibet. Officials in Xinjiang have placed the Chinese flag inside mosques throughout the region, and have restricted many faithful (including children under the age of 18) from entering mosques at all. The Chinese government has also clamped down on bilingual education in the region, placing Uighur people (and for the Uighur, Mandarin is not a first language).

The PRC's policies in Xinjiang are driven by economics -the need to take advantage of the vast energy resources in that state, and to develop relationships with neighbouring countries to the West.

Like the Tibetans, desperation has driven the Uighur people to extreme measures -various terrorist groups have recently begun to operate in Xinjiang, with money and support from militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Uighurs in North-western China
Uighurs in North-western China | Source

Is there hope for free speech in China?

Unfortunately, at the present time, the political climate in the PRC doesn't favour greater moves toward freedom of speech in that country.

A few weeks ago, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, officially-sanctioned Chinese media used that incident to reinforce the traditional view:

The world is diverse and there should be limits on press freedom,” read the editorial by Paris bureau chief Ying Qiang. “Unfettered and unprincipled satire, humiliation, and free speech are not acceptable.”

For China, limits on freedom of speech are still considered to be entirely necessary in order to protect China's legitimate security interests -to prevent another 'Chinese 9/11' (the multiple stabbling on a train in the Yunnan province by alleged terrorists affiliated with Syria), and to promote order. It's difficult to see how (or why) China's views on this issue will change in the near future.


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    • JPac1 profile image

      James Packard 

      6 years ago from Columbia, Missouri

      Reflecting on bonmotsminot's assumption that a cultural relativist's argument is that free speech isn't as important in an authoritarian society, I beg to differ. The argument is not that it's less important, but that it's looked at differently. Free SPEECH might exist but free ACTION, which really exist nowhere, does not. The point is it's worked for China for centuries. They've become one of the world's greatest powers doing what they're doing. I suppose you're right the more progressive, liberally-minded young generation will push for a more open or less restricted society, but perhaps saying free-speech just doesn't exist is over-stepping.

    • pramodgokhale profile image


      6 years ago from Pune( India)

      Freedom of speech is a gift to people in democratic nations in the west and in Asia Japan, Korea, India people enjoy it.

      I am an Indian and live with Indian democracy with multi party democratic system which is more complicated than in the west. Indian is plural nation with many faiths, languages, caste , tribes. It is not easy to control them.

      Our democracy has her flaws but it is a functioning democracy and we change governments in center and states when we want.

      India is the only nation in third world to boast to have democracy.

      We are feudal by mind and it will take sometime to build democracy equal to west.

      Over the years Indian know the importance of democracy and values.

      In China it is not possible to go for democratic process but undercurrent against government policies is always strong so in China.

      USSR had broken into pieces , so China can avoid if they wish.


    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      6 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very interesting and informative Hub, Sue. Your points that freedom of speech and the context of the government's modus operandi is crucial to how they interpret freedom of speech. Either way China has a long way to go.

    • bonmotsminot profile imageAUTHOR

      Sue Minot 

      6 years ago from Wellington, New Zealand

      Chris I respect your nuanced point of view but recent evidence points to a different reality, for example:

      (1) Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer and activist behind a peaceful campaigning group called the New Citizens' Movement, was jailed for four years in January for "disrupting public order."

      (2) In March 2014 Cao Shunli, a 52-year-old activist, died after falling into a coma while in police custody. Ms Cao, who died of apparent organ failure, had been taken into custody last September as she tried to fly out of Beijing to a human rights workshop in Geneva.

      (3) All religious groups must be registered with the state, and non-official "underground" churches banned and restrictions placed on freedom of worship, particularly in regions such as Xinjiang, which is home to a large Muslim community.

      There are so many other examples there's not room to list them here but I'd urge you to read this: as it contains some 'hard evidence' of such incidents being on the rise in China.

      There may have been some liberalisation prior to Xi Jinping's accession, but he seems to be a party hardliner who is intent on quelling any kind of dissent against the party (whether privately expressed, or not). The dozens of bookshops in Hong Kong dedicated to publishing 'banned' literature in China are, I think, a testament to the level of censorship operating in mainland China.

    • CHRIS57 profile image


      6 years ago from Northern Germany

      From my personal experience, people in China are free to articulate their individual political thoughts. It is another question if people start to push for political power. That means stepping out of the hierarchical line and that is not allowed.

      Easiest way to sense the free air of personal articulation is that Chinese people are not afraid of contact. That was a completely different show in the former Communist block before perestroika, where people shyed away from foreigners.

      By the way, if ever Chinese people revolt and uprise, it will not happen because of lack of free speech but for pure economic reasons. If millions find out their money invested in real estate had evaporated.

    • bonmotsminot profile imageAUTHOR

      Sue Minot 

      6 years ago from Wellington, New Zealand

      Hmm so..according to a cultural relativist argument, free speech is less important in feudal, authoritarian or hierarchical societies? I'd argue the free speech value is just as important as in Western liberal democracies; it's just that the feudal/authoritarian political history of China makes it less likely the population will openly rebel. However when they do (and I say when, not 'if'), all hell will break loose. It'll be Arab Spring x 20.

    • toptengamer profile image

      Brandon Hart 

      6 years ago from The Game

      I agree with CHRIS57, There are very different cultures between the western countries and China. Even their language is based on a different foundation than Latin.

    • JPac1 profile image

      James Packard 

      6 years ago from Columbia, Missouri

      Fascinating stuff. The key to free speech is pluralism, and having the respect of other people's rights and opinions. Hate-filled speech, especially that targeted at an individual or group of individuals should not be tolerated. I think too often we let ourselves fall into a trap of speaking ill of other's beliefs without realising we're targeting them.

    • CHRIS57 profile image


      6 years ago from Northern Germany

      Interesting hub, voted up.

      May i comment on the topic please. I think for western people it is very difficult to understand Chinese culture and that includes freedom of speech.

      Chinese society with its more than 3000 years of history has been formed by Confucianism, which is nothing else but strict rules of hierarchy. To ease the pain, a touch of Taoism was added, kind of a glue to keep the levels of society in harmony. How does free speech fit into this?

      Through the ages (dynasties including the Great Chairmans "dynasty") a very pragmatic look at things evolved. Chinese accept and assimilate a lot of ideas, as long as it does not conflict with confucian hierarchy.

      Business takes me quite frequently to China. One of my Chinese friends had participated in the Tiananmen Square demonstratrions in 1989. He explained to me that students were divided into 2 groups. Group 1 consisted of mainly older students, group 2 were young enthusiasts. While group 1 read the signs on the horizon and retreated from protests, Group 1 represents the very pragmatic way of how Chinese deal with problems.

      I recommend to read Lin Yutang, especially his book "The Importance of Living". Made me comprehend a little bit of the Chinese way. As much as i find it annoying to be kicked out of internet in China by their watchgard robots if entering controversal search words, Chinese air is free enough to allow breezing. I have something to compare, some 25 years ago there was an iron curtain in my neighbourhood :-)


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