Free Speech Exercises in China

This is the translation of three short pieces about the ambiguous progress of the exercise of free speech in China.  I use the imagery of "sea change" to describe what is going on.  It is not true that there is absolutely no freedom of speech inside China.  But within the space in which the Chinese are allowed on the Internet, there is some free speech.  More importantly, there is much self-reflection about the conduct and implications.  By constrast, this sort of self-awareness is probably less prevalent in places where free speech is taken for granted.

I will reproduce the following from a previous comment:

(Chongqing Morning News via Yahoo! News)  Groan!  This is yet another story about a deputy mayor accepting 225,000 yuan in bribes on 9 occasions.  This was not disputed.  But this man was fined only 60,000 yuan and sentenced to 3 years (with a 5 year deferral).  At, an Internet survey with 59,531 votes as of August 3 (8:00 am) show 66.53% don't believed that he was guilty of accepting bribes, and 72.14% believed that the verdict was unfair to him.  Is this the end of morals and ethics in society?

What makes Yu Bin so special?  Because he took the money out of desperation -- not for himself, but for the poor people who came to see him.  He had no choice.  In the interview, he used this example: "It was before the Spring Festival in 2003 and three dismissed workers came to the municipal building, sat in the mayor's office and refused to leave.  They were not asking for much: 'Here is the New Year and we are dismissed workers who don't have any meat or fish to put on the table.'  So Yu took out his wallet and gave them 200 yuan apiece."  Money doesn't grow out of trees, and Yu Bin said he had to keep finding money to help people even though it was against the law.  During his trial, he offered evidence about how the money went towards solving practical local problems (such as schools and water works), but the court refused to consider it because the only legal issue was whether he took the money or not.

Yu Bin got a great deal of sympathy on the Internet at first.  Later, upon further examination, it became clear that the accounting of his transactions did not add up, whereupon it is suspected that somebody put him up to coming up these tales to get public support.  So this was a cautionary tale about how public opinion on the Internet can be cynically manipulated.

From MediaChina, there is another case of a corrupt official in Fouyang City, Anhui province.  This official has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.  Meanwhile, his defense lawyer got on the Internet and presented the case for the defense: "Based upon his administrative level and his authority, the amount of bribes that he was alleged to have received would make him a one-in-a-hundred good cadre."  Immediately, many people on the Internet began heated discussion.  In an unusual development, the prosecutor of the case published a 10,000-word essay in the major media to rebut the defense (in Chongqing Evening News, September 12).

This is an unusual situation, because prosecutors do not usually go public with their cases (especially since an appeal might be in the works), and that is even true in the United States.  But this prosecutor was so incensed that he had to say something, given what he felt were ridiculous assertions and commentaries.

But then Chongqing Evening News reported: "The net result was that the prosecutor won the argument and the unhealthy speech was deleted from the Internet."

The MediaChina commentator was unhappy.  The Chinese constitution guarantees that citizens have freedom of speech.  As long as a citizen does not violate any laws (such as inflaming people to endanger national security or disseminating pornography), he should be able to speak freely.  According to the news report, the defense lawyer may have assumed an absurd position, but he approached it in a scholarly manner without using any personal attacks or endangering national security.  You can rebut him like the prosecutor did, but there was no reason to delete his comments.

According to the MediaChina commentator, freedom of speech is extremely important to the pursuit of truth.  Milton Friedmann believes that we cannot at first tell the truth from absurdity but the latter can be very important in locating the former.  Therefore, we need to have a market of free opinions in which truth can prevail.  Milton Friedmann believes that we cannot know if the suppressed opinion is right or wrong, but we do know the suppression itself is wrong.  In the above debate, we saw that the lawyer made an assertion and the prosecutor rebutted it.  Both sides had to right to speak so that people can understand the law and the reasoning in order to understand the facts and the truth.  If the lawyer's 'faulty' speech was suppressed, we could not tell who was right or wrong.

The third story comes from a webmaster at a forum in Xici Hutong.  This is a bulletin board system at which hundreds of people can post essays and commentaries on current affairs.  As such, the forum must be patrolled frequently to get rid of the spam and 'harmful' comments.  Therefore the webmasters are often the subject of abuse from people who felt that they had been unjustly deleted.  The webmaster wrote:

During my time as the webmaster, I deleted quite a number of posts.  There were spam ads and repeated old posts but I have never deleted anything that was opposite to my viewpoints or anything that would "not be tolerated by official websites."

To tell you the truth, if I were not a webmaster, I would really like to have seen some of the more irrational and biased posts being deleted.  But I won't, because I am the webmaster and I will therefore go by the philosophy and practice on this forum.

Some people would like to divide people according to 'party line,' whether because it is easier to define the enemy or else to set up a united front.  I feel that this is a really out-of-date approach.  Why do I say that it is out-of-date?  Because classifying people as rightists and leftists was what used to be done around the time of the Cultural Revolution.  Today, our society has developed to such a stage that I don't see any need to define people by party line.  Ultimately, most people's attitudes are similar as well as dissimilar with others.

But the most important thing is that if we can forget about the struggle over party positions, we may perhaps have a more meaningful discussion.

Therefore, I don't agree with people saying that I am a so-called leftist, or middle-of-the-road or even a so-called 'loyalist.'  Today, most citizens don't care about any kind of party anymore.  The people at this forum are supposed to have better intellectual qualities than most.  Should we not step out of this shadow of the past and deal with the real issues?