Why China's Defense of Internet Censorship Falls Flat


The first few weeks of 2015 have seen a renewed push to control the Internet in China. Virtual private networks, typically used to get around China’s “Great Firewall,” have been under “more sophisticated” attacks than ever before.  China is (yet again) pushing to require real-name registration of social media accounts, even while deleting a number of accounts “that were disseminating distorted views of history.”

China is well aware that its crackdown has opened it up to criticism from foreign media outlets and free speech advocates. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei took time in his press conference today to address those critiques. “China’s Internet has facilitated Chinese citizens and offered them a direct channel to exercise the right to know, the right to participate, the right to express, and the right to supervise,” Hong insisted. He also repeated China’s argument “all countries have the right to administer the cyber space in accordance with the law and the cyber sovereignty of all countries should be respected and maintained.”

An op-ed in Xinhua also responded to recent Western criticisms of China’s internet censorship (Beijing prefers the term “regulation”). To view China’s regulation of the internet as restricting the freedom of speech is a “misunderstanding based on long-term prejudice,” Xinhua argues.

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In particular, the Xinhua piece was responding to foreign media reports on recent bans of certain social media accounts. Xinhua dismissed accusations that Beijing was simply deleting accounts that threatened its rule. “The truth is that those accounts had a negative impact [sic] on society,” the piece argued. Deleted accounts either posed as authoritative government outlets (such as the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection) or “were related to terrorism, violence and pornography.” Such accounts “deserve no protection of freedom of speech,” Xinhua declared.

At heart, we have a fundamental difference in the interpretation of what “freedom of speech” should mean. In Western societies, speech is assumed to be protected unless the government can show a compelling reason why it should not be. A famous U.S. Supreme Court decision (Schenck v. United States), for example, ruled that free speech could be limited if it presented a “clear and present danger” while a subsequent ruling in 1969 stipulated that merely advocating for violence in a general sense does not reach that threshold.

In China, the barriers for restricting free speech are considerably lower. China’s draft terrorism law, for example, outlaws not only terrorist actions but speech and even thought that is aimed at subverting state power, inciting ethnic hatred, or splitting the state. In a more general sense, China believes free speech can be restricted, as the Xinhua piece points out, not only for violating laws and regulations, but for going against “widely accepted moral principles and values.”

That approach to free speech – that it is subordinate to upholding “moral principles” – was on full display in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders earlier this year. While the Western world drew together to defend free speech under the phrase “I Am Charlie,” Chinese media suggested instead that the satirical magazine should never have been allowed to publish the offensive material in the first place. Because the world is a diverse place, Xinhua argued then, “freedom of the press should be limited” in the name of demonstrating “mutual respect.”

It’s worth pointing out that China was not alone in responding in this way; former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in a series of tweets that the Charlie Hebdo attacks laid bare a “clash of values” between Muslim sensitivities and Western insistence on free speech. Yudhoyono suggested that the West should be the one to compromise – “leaders in the West are responsible so the freedom isn’t abused to defame Islam,” he said.

However, it’s one thing to censor free speech in the interest of protecting minorities (such as Europe’s restrictions on anti-Semitism). What the West mainly objects to is the political nature of China’s regulation of the Internet. Were China’s internet regulations as simple as deleting accounts that assume fake government identities or spread hate speech and terrorist materials, as the Xinhua article implies, they would receive little attention. However, China also routinely shuts down accounts for going too far in criticizing the government – or, more accurately, for attempting to mobilize the public on anything from environmental issues to demanding asset disclosures from Chinese officials.

China’s tightening grip on the Internet is causing more worry as it comes along with a push to crack down on other avenues of expression, including the teaching that goes on at China’s universities. The idea that a country can prohibit professors from criticizing the government and its leaders, as China’s education minister recently suggested, is anathema to free speech advocates. In defending “widely accepted moral principles and values,” China’s government all too often simply winds up defending itself.

It’s one thing to protect against offensive speech; it’s another to crack down on speech that champions alternative world views and, yes, political systems. China is guilty of the latter, no matter how hard it argues that it is only engaging in the former.

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