When examining both Chinese and American free speech laws, numerous complexities arise. The Chinese government tries to use the “privilege” of free expression to seem less totalitarian. Still, they practice complete control and censorship over what common citizens might think or say. All content is monitored and censored by the government their speech laws are oppressive of their citizens’ rights.
America is on the other side of the spectrum. Where the Chinese government is quick to silence any criticisms, the American government is frequently a proponent of free speech. Even the nation’s leader will jump to the defense of the people’s First Amendment right. This was seen when Obama defended the Trump supporter because America “respects free speech” (Abbey-Lambertz par. 7).
As discussed throughout this series, American free speech laws are more liberal than Chinese free speech laws, and American citizens have easier access to uncensored truth. How can one discover the truth for themselves if they cannot grapple with it openly? All people everywhere deserve access to the unbiased truth, and they deserve to openly wrestle with their opinions. This is how people become well-informed citizens.
Freedom of speech is indeed a privilege, but it is granted to Americans as a Constitutional right. Bearing in mind the oppressiveness of the Chinese free speech laws, an American citizen should be increasingly grateful. They should be careful to speak, knowing and appreciating the weight of their words. In a world where people are denied the right to seek the truth and express their opinions, Americans should be conscious of their freedom and learn how use it intentionally.
We discussed some history, looking at how the governments have shaped modern practices in both countries. We looked at modern conditions. Let’s take a moment to revisit some key differences between American and Chinese free speech practices.
Freedom of Opinions
As mentioned before, the Chinese are only allowed access to sites that are regularly monitored by their government. In America, one can safely post their opinion as long as it does not include child porn, libel, or copyright infringement. Meanwhile in China, every opinion is scrutinized by the Communist Party and filtered through the state’s best interests.
Removing the Mask
The Chinese “free-speech elite” makes it appear that their government grants freedom of expression as a privilege to a few fortunate members of society. However, common citizens have no platform where they can openly express their opinions. The government monitors and censors all content that is distributed publicly, revealing how oppressive their speech laws are regarding their citizens’ rights.
On the other hand, American free speech laws are protected by the First Amendment. Still, content is subject to limited censorship. When compared to the Chinese laws, American laws are for more progressive in their execution. Now, what does this mean for the press in both countries? Since the Chinese government regulates their media so intensely, it would seem that the United States’ press is less censored.
In an article for The New York Times, Beijing writer Hung Huang explains that their media censorship has in some respects loosened up. Specifically, she claims that her magazine has not been censored for the past four years, even though they have published some fairly sexual photoshoots. Because of this, she argues that Chinese citizens do not feel censorship like most Westerners assume they do (Huang par. 1).
Censorship Does Happen
She recognizes, however, that the state does censor political information. For example, when Chinese infants were sickened by contaminated baby formula, no state-operated media reported on the debate (par. 4).
Another example of Chinese media censorship happened when the wife of the director of the Chinese Olympics channel disrupted a news conference to inform the world of her husband’s extramarital affair. This incident happened on live television, but no other stations dared report on it, and the only video of it that was posted on the Internet was later removed by censors (par. 6).
Huang put it best when she wrote, “Yes, Fu Manchu as Big Brother is among us.”
From Huang’s article, it can be inferred that most of the Chinese media’s censorship goes unrecognized. So, it is probably safe to assume that most common Chinese citizens do not even realize that they are being deprived of knowledge. Their television stations are under rigid control (par. 6). As discussed earlier, their journalists are frequently imprisoned, and their Internet is regularly monitored and blocked.
They do not understand that they are uninformed because they do not know anything else. They only know media filtered through their Communist government. Even if they want to further research an issue, they can only pull from sources that their government has deemed unthreatening to the Communist agenda.
Clearly, the constitutional right of free speech reigns supreme in America. But how much freedom is too much? Some argue the autonomy of the American media has led to issues being blown out of proportion. Further, they propose that many American citizens are misinformed.
In an article for The Washington Post, Jennifer Hochschild and Katherine L. Einstein explain how American politics contains several great examples of how citizens can be misinformed. Many citizens have expressed concern over a media bias.
The media tends to exaggerate problems while highlighting the issues that it wants voters to focus on. By controlling what the people see, the media can paint a positive or negative picture of a candidate, and these pictures can often be far from the truth.
Consequently, American voters have pieces of information that might contain facts, but do not accurately reflect the situation. Ultimately, they end up making misinformed decisions, but they are not completely uninformed (“No, We’re Not Arguing from the Same Facts” par. 7). Hochschild and Einstein go on to deduce that:
“In some cases –such as parents’ refusal to vaccinate or Americans’ belief that the Iraq invasion was necessary in order to eliminate the country’s weapons of mass destruction–people died because of the choice to act on misinformation. In other cases–such as opposition by the uninsured to the Affordable Care Act or liberal African Americans’ support for confirming Clarence Thomas to be a Supreme Court justice—people have relied on false ‘knowledge’ to make choices that ended up violating their own interests as they defined them.”
Here, Hochschild and Einstein assert that misinformation is a serious problem because it leads people to act contrary to their actual beliefs. Still, it is important to note that the access to accurate information is available to American citizens.
Even though certain media outlets may be biased, any American citizen can easily pull news from the Internet and properly research their beliefs. If an American citizen is misinformed, they are at least partially responsible for themselves. While their opinion might have been influenced by media bias, there was no reason not to research the topic.
Even though there is risk involved when releasing classified information, the First Amendment typically trumps the Espionage Act. The Pentagon Papers case set the precedent.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned the papers, and they were officially titled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force” (“Pentagon Papers” par. 1). In 1971, small portions of the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the media and distributed throughout the country. They revealed that the U.S. was intentionally expanding its role in the war, even after President Lyndon B. Johnson promised that he would not.
Lawsuits followed. Ultimately, the Supreme Court allowed the press to publish government secrets when The New York Times ran the truth about the Vietnam War (“Pentagon Papers” par. 4).
“Pentagon Papers.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web.
Chinese government uses legal punishment to silence dissenders. David Volodzko, national editor for The Korea JoongAng Daily, reported that “in 2005, China had 32 journalists arrested,” and “ten years later, that figure was up 65 percent” (“Is Free Speech in China Really Getting Better?” par. 5). Looking at these statistics, it is clear to see why the Committee to Protect Journalists deemed China the “worst jailer of the press” (Omari par. 1).
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese do not stop at their journalists. They also arrest common people for writing about their opinions without approval from the state. In January 2003, two men were sentenced to nine and seven years in prison for “unlawful operation of a business” (“Freedom of Expression in China” par. 14). Here is the tragic reality: they were caught publishing love poems without the authorities’ permission. Their citizens have limited access to the news, and their journalists have the constant threat of punishment looming over them. This is not a safe environment for citizens to express their opinions.
In some cases, exercising free speech in the U.S. does not come without opposition. The publication of classified information creates tension between the First Amendment and the Espionage Act. Basically, the Legal Information Institute states the Espionage Act is the addition that:
“Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person, or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information… shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”
“18 U.S. Code and 798 – Disclosure of Classified Information” par. 1
In other words, anyone who wittingly makes classified information available to anyone who is unauthorized for such knowledge will be fined or jailed for up to ten years. America’s Future Foundation writer Ken Silva explains that “attorneys for the largest publications in the country routinely advise editors that articles containing classified information must be vetted by the U.S. government” (“Can Journalists Go To Jail For Printing Classified Information?” par. 4).
This seems to contradict the First Amendment, thus rendering the act unconstitutional. After all, if one must withhold information, how can their speech be considered free? One might argue that this limitation hinders free speech. The Espionage Act can be used to prosecute the media for revealing government secrets. Many argue that this is contradictory to the First Amendment as well (Silva par. 10). We will discuss more on that in our next post.
When riots broke out in Hong Kong, people on mainland China had no idea. The Chinese government censored their news to ensure their citizens would remain uninformed. According to USA TODAY journalist Calum MacLeod, the 2014 Umbrella Revolution saw Hong Kong citizens shielding themselves from tear gas and pepper spray behind umbrellas as they cried out for democracy. Since 1997, China has claimed to rule over Hong Kong as “one country, two systems” (qtd. in MacLeod par. 10). People living in the same “country” had no idea their neighbors were even in danger. To keep the Chinese people in the dark, the government blocked popular social media sites like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube (par. 10). The Umbrella Revolution is only one example of how the Chinese government controls what information the citizens can access.
Compare this to the freedom of the press in the United States. A great example of how intensely the American public is permitted to react presents itself in the 2014 Ferguson Riots. TIME Magazine testified that after Michael Brown was shot dead by officer Darren Wilson in August 2014, racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri quickly turned into full-blown riots described as “nights of protests marred by spasms of violence” (Drehle et al par. 1).
Everyone in America was aware of the conflict, and the shot was heard around the world; even Chinese news outlets commented on the issue. Xinua news writer Li Li wrote that “the Ferguson incident once again demonstrates that even if in a country that has for years tried to play the role of an international human rights judge and defender, there is still much room for improvement at home” (qtd. in Leavenworth par. 5). Commentaries this strong are rarely published without the state’s consent (par. 6).
When the Ferguson riots occurred, debates were raging across the United States. The POLITICO Magazine article “In Missouri, Ferguson is Still Burning” details how the debate played out. Most citizens used social media platforms to express their opinions. Most notably, the activist group Black Lives Matter demanded some of the media spotlight (Severns par. 14). They still protest police brutality against black people, trying to raise awareness of the problem. This issue is still hotly debated, and it is often in direct conflict with the U.S. government, calling police brutality into question. Others were calling for a militarized police force to calm down the riots. Common citizens were demanding that Obama act (par. 11-13). Even American celebrities are expected to use social media platforms to influence people into action (par. 20).
In China, freedom of expression is viewed as a privilege, not a right. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China explains that this privilege is only extended to elite members of Chinese society. The “free-speech elite” is made up of citizens who hold prominent financial, political, and academic careers (“Freedom of Expression in China” par. 2). For example, only senior members of the Communist Party can publish criticisms or opposing viewpoints. Specifically, Li Rui, former aide to Mao Zedong, published a letter asserting the following:
“The key is reforming an aged political system that is obsolete, and speeding up the development of democratic politics so the country can truly embark on a course of peace and stability characterized by democracy, science, and rule of law… Only with democratization can there be modernization. This has been a global tide from the 20th century, especially the Second World War, onward, and those who join it will prosper while those who resist it will perish.”
qtd. in “Freedom of Expression in China” par. 4
In other words, Li directly called for greater democracy, claiming that reforms were necessary for achieving modernity in China. The Chinese government basically claims to support the idea that freedom of expression is a privilege, but they reserve the right to punish their elite for using this privilege.
Common citizens are not allowed public forums free of censorship. Consequently, their citizens have no platform where they can openly express their opinions (“Freedom of Expression in China” par. 8). In the peer-reviewed article “Censorship and Deletion Practices in Chinese Social Media,” Dr. David Bamman et al writes that China practices complete censorship, aiming to prevent “all access” (par. 4) to social media resources. He goes on to describe how their domestic social media sites are programmed to delete posts with sensitive language. To give their citizens a sense of false liberty, the Chinese authorities allow them to post their criticisms on a government-monitored forum. By law, the forums must be licensed, the posts must be constantly monitored, and inappropriate posts must be taken down (“Freedom of Expression in China” par. 16).
For the common citizen in America, freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment. The Bill of Rights states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (amend. I).
As far as free speech, take note that the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (U.S. Const. amend. I). Put simply, this seems to mean that there can be no legal action taken against someone who wants to express their opinions. Despite this apparent freedom, American media is subject to censorship.
Dr. David Bamman et al calls this “soft censorship” because the law “allows access, but polices content” (“Censorship and Deletion Practices in Chinese Social Media” par. 4). Specifically, the United States government prohibits display of child pornography, libel, and media that infringes on copyright or other intellectual property rights (Bamman et al par. 4). According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, libel is when someone publishes something that defames another person’s character, causing them to be disliked, damaging their reputation, and harming their business (“Libel” par. 1).
Additionally, the Constitution asserts that copyright laws are put in place not only to protect intellectual property, but they also “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited time to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” (U.S. Const. art. I sec. 8). Even with these laws in place, it is not difficult to find this prohibited content. These restrictions are in place for the benefit and protection of American citizens.
Beyond this, some social media organizations choose to filter what their users can post. Facebook does not allow users to post anything “hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence” (qtd. in Bamman et al par. 4). Social media users are expected to moderate each other, and they can report or block other users for offensive content. However, no legal action can be taken unless it contains child porn, libel, or copyright infringement.
Freedom of speech and of the press has long been considered part of America’s Constitutional, inalienable rights. These rights are not incorporated in every culture. I wanted to develop a series exploring the differences between the expression and history of free speech laws in our American culture, especially compared to a country with tighter restrictions, like China.
This series, based on informative research, will primarily compare history and practice between America and China. By examining specific examples, I will explore how each country approaches the execution of their respective free speech laws. This includes the extent to which citizens can exercise freedom of expression. It also includes the censorship of the Internet and social media. Then, we will discuss how their approaches affect the freedom of the press.
This series will explore the similarities and differences in the freedom of the press. It will briefly discuss where each country’s media experiences freedom, and it will touch on where each country’s media is limited. Finally, it will delve into how informed their citizens are based on how easily they can access the truth. Considering the other complexities, the series will assess how easily each country’s citizens can find research coming from uncensored facts and unbiased sources.
Don’t Boo, Vote
At a rally for the 2016 Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton, an elderly man dressed in military attire stood up. Everyone looked on as he stood silently, holding a sign in support of her opponent, Donald Trump. While he was being escorted from the building, the crowd booed and jeered at him. President Barack Obama promptly told the audience to quiet down, discouraging them from creating an uproar. Kate Abbey-Lambertz for The Huffington Post reported that he told them:
“You’ve got an older gentleman who’s supporting his candidate. He’s not doing nothing. You don’t have to worry about him. […] We live in a country that respects free speech. Don’t boo, vote.”
Obama Shouts Over Crowd To Defend Trump Supporter At Rally, par. 5-7
Here, it is clearly seen that even the head of the American government is a proponent of free speech. Other countries are not so fortunate. Imagine what might have happened if someone in China stood up in opposition to the Communist Party. Without a doubt, they would have been silenced. How would it feel to live in a world without free speech? How can one country justify stripping their citizens of their ability to express their opinion?
For the United States, freedom of the press is a First Amendment right, but for China, there are clearly some stricter regulations. Some would argue that the independence of the American media has led to issues being blown out of proportion; thus, many American citizens are misinformed. On the other hand, the limitations experienced by the Chinese press means that their citizens are uninformed.
Comparatively, Chinese free speech laws are more oppressive than the American laws; therefore, the United States’ press is less censored. An examination of both American and Chinese free speech laws reveals contrasts in the following major complexities: the execution of free speech laws, the freedom of the press, and the accessibility of the truth for the citizens.