Discuss Free Speech in China Compared to the UK

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Freedom of speech is defined as, “the right to express any opinion in public without censorship or restraint by the government”, and Article 35 of the Chinese constitution promises the right to "freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration." (China.org, 1982) I am going to explore this question focusing solely on how governmental censorship of the internet and media limits free speech for people in China today, and the impact that this has. Although there are many other aspects of this broad topic, namely Tibetan protests, I cannot explore them all in such a short discussion. I will then analyze freedom of speech comparatively to the United Kingdom, and show that although freedom of speech is welcomed there are still restrictions, as there are in any country, and the ramifications are frequently negative. I will argue how I believe that the degree of freedom of speech for people in China is dependent on their demographic and job. I will also argue how restricting freedom of speech is not necessarily a sinister objective. Therefore, although there are limits on freedom of speech for people in China today, these limitations are only felt by particular segments of society at a time, and have been shown to have positive consequences comparatively.

To begin, there are over 1 billion people in China, 384 million of whom were internet users by 2009 (Xiao, 2011), primarily those in urban China. Freedom of speech via the internet has many limitations, as I will explain. Censorship has been defined as, “the act of changing or suppressing speech or writing that is considered subversive of the common good.” The “Great Firewall of China” is a well-known, sophisticated filtration system that has been in place since 1995 when the internet first became commercially available to people in China. The rules that have been created from 1995 to the present have been implemented to control and supervise nearly all aspects of the internet. One of the first State Council regulations put forward, the PRC Regulations for the Safety Protection of Computer Information Systems, states that the Ministry for Public Security has the right to “supervise, inspect and guide the security protection work”, "investigate and prosecute illegal criminal cases" and "perform other supervising duties.” (Tai, 2006). The system that is in place has over 30,000 censors, with many key words and phrases blocked relating to democracy, Tibet, independence movements and world news. It is not only search engines, however, that are censored. Constant monitoring of the internet also extends to screening emails going in and out of China, and any posts made on forums and micro-blogs, which are state run, can be “harmonized”, deleted, or blocked all together. The laws in place also allow for substantial fines, network termination and even imprisonment, with an estimated 54 people currently detained for internet related offences (Amnesty International, 2009). For example, Wang Zhenyong was arrested in 2001 for “downloading and distributing by e-mail promotional material on the Falungong spiritual movement.” Furthermore, a very recent ruling was introduced to tackle the problem that supervisors were unable to control the sharing of posts as traffic into the sites becomes uncontrollable. The law states that any rumour that is “shared 500 times or seen 5,000 times” (China Digital Times, 2013) can lead to the perpetrator facing a possible three-year jail sentence, which sets a dangerous precedent for society, especially as another recent ruling states that users of blogs are no longer allowed to use acronyms as usernames – banishing anonymity. These censorship rulings and methods would lead one to believe that freedom of speech is limited, as Chinese “netizens” are unable to voice their opinions, particularly of the government, without facing some kind of consequences, or being accused of “subversion”.

However, in order to assess the impact that these restrictions have on freedom of speech, it is best to look from a national perspective. As I previously mentioned, it is only a quarter of the population who have internet access, an even smaller percentage of whom have private internet access, all others will usually go to internet cafes. Of this small percentage, there are around 4 million forum users and 600,000 micro-blog users out of an approximate 384 million web users. As the majority of web users live in urban China, it is likely that they are working individuals, which limits the number of people actively using micro-blogs and forums. This is because both are very time consuming, and keeping up with individual posts requires time that many will not have. From this, it can be questioned how many web users are tactically seeking to express their freedom of speech in a political sense. Arguably, many web users may be wholly unaware of the censorship that is in place because in their down time on the internet it is more likely that they are looking at sports, news, and finance as opposed to politically sensitive topics. In this respect, although particular posts may be “harmonised” or deleted, infringing on free speech, it must be kept in mind that there will be a much higher percentage of web users that will not see the post, and even those that do are unlikely to actively react to something just because of sensational content. Furthermore, for those arguing that censorship is a barrier to freedom of speech, there are ways to circumvent this, for example, using different Chinese characters that spell the same word but mean different things, as was the case in 2011 when hackers shared 950 characters that were not blocked or removed by workers. This is showing how “the internet may lead to the production and dissemination of more diverse information and communication, thus diminishing the symbolic power of the state” (Lei, 2011) and continue to undermine the “Great Firewall”. However, as previously mentioned, “there still lacks knowledge of how many Chinese Web surfers adopt such approaches” (Human Rights Watch, 2006). Furthermore, the question itself presupposes that there are degrees of freedom of speech. In rural China, for example, the majority of people do not have access to the internet and their main communication method is face to face interaction, and possibly mobiles. For this reason, those in rural China may argue that they have a fair amount of freedom of speech as their methods of communication cannot be censored in the same way, and voicing their opinions to others is relatively easy. In addition, there are areas at universities where open, albeit supervised, debates can take place regarding sensitive topics such as Chinese democracy in comparison to the western world. For these reasons, I would argue that despite technical and legal restrictions on the internet that do stop many from exercising freedom of speech, these barriers only impact a small minority. Many are either not aware of the scale of filtration, do not have access to the internet, or simply are not concerned with voicing such opinions. Therefore, there is only a breakdown of freedom of speech for a small segment of society.

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The other major censorship implementation which impacts freedom of speech in China is the media. Article 24 of the Chinese constitution states that “Citizens may..in their publications freely express their views and opinions with respect to national affairs, economic..cultural..and social affairs..” (China.org, 1982) According to Reporters Without Borders, China ranked 174/179 in the index of free press, which is a damning statistic for China that boasts around 2,000 newspapers and 374 television networks, none of which broadcast external media. As with the internet, there are many laws in place which limit freedom of the press. These are primarily concerned with ...

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