Free speech – Americans get too used to it to appreciate it, while Chinese get too used to lack of it (Final Part of the series)

November 9, 2010Megan5 Comments

Previous parts:

As the saying goes, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and I can’t agree with it more when it comes to the issue of free speech and free press. The latitude allowed to the Americans is laudably and enviably great in the eyes of Chinese, whereas Americans desires more freedom and less government presence.

Article 35 of Constitution of the People’s Republic of China
Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
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.

In the class I took of First Amendment cases in U.S. courts, several cases opened my eyes and struck me that everyone is entitled to their opinion and the expression of it, however ghastly it is.

In Near v. Minnesota (1931), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jay Near, who published a scandal sheet charging local officials that they were implicated with gangsters, and announced the Minnesota “gag law”, which authorizes censoring or prohibiting “obscene, lewd, and lascivious” or a “malicious, scandalous and defamatory” newspapers or periodicals, unconstitutional.

In New York Times v. United States (1971), the Supreme Court decided that then President Nixon’s administration violated the constitution in its effort to prevent the publication of the “Pentagon Papers” that revealed mistakes and lies on the part of U.S. policymakers during the Vietnam War.

In Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988), Larry Flynt, the owner of Hustler magazine who published an offensive ad parody suggesting Reverend Falwell committed an incest with his mother, prevailed on the ground that public figures suing for intentional infliction of emotional distress based on parodies would hinder the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern.

In China, if you release classified government documents, especially those, like the Pentagon Papers, whose disclosure would embarrass the authorities, you are “the enemy of the people;” if you publish articles criticizing current policies that are even way less virulent and disturbing than Near’s publication, you are “inciting subversion of the state power;” if you satirize and parody politicians in public, let alone in the most outrageous form of cooking up incest, which Hustler magazine resorted to, you are “fanning the publicity to the detriment of social stability.”

Of course, very few in China make such attempts in the first place, because all publishers and media are licensed, and all of them engage self-censorship for fear of penalty, retribution or persecution. In the anonymity of the Web is “jarring noises,” as though the Great  Firewall cannot muffle all of them amidst the vast sea of online information, but China’s legislature is drafting a law that will enforce identification of all Internet users in the country.

The evidence of what I deem is the utmost liberty that Americans now enjoy also lies in the enhancement from the past to the present. Abrams and his four fellows were not protected because their denouncement of President Wilson’s policy was during wartime. But now the New York Times was protected even when it published stolen classified government documents that could evoke anti-war sentiments when troops in Vietnam were still fighting. Fairness doctrine, a policy requiring broadcast media to present opposing views of public issues fairly, a government gesture that was found constitutional in Red Lion and deemed reasonable,  was eventually abolished for fear of governmental interference with editorial decisions. Camera used to be prohibited in the courtroom, but after Chandler v. Florida, camera access to trials is not unconstitutional.

By contrast, China hasn’t changed a bit in its relentless punishment of dissidents. “Counterrevolutionary,” “subversion of state power,” “revealing state secrets,” “disturbing public order,” these are the common stigmas the Chinese authorities stamp dissidents with. Six years ago, when I was still an undergrad, I saw on TV one day the massive construction work going on in Beijing for the Olympics. “The government spends so much on a sports game for show while so many people in the hinterland are starving and homeless,” I said. My father, whose memory of adolescence is filled with political turmoil and snitches and denouncement that severed basic human bonds, shushed me, “Don’t ever be so naive with your words again! We never know if there will be another Cultural Revolution.”

Many Chinese hold true the tenet of “Ignorance is bliss,” and bury their heads in the sand, shunning stories of people punished for their undesirable speech, often times a real zinger, as they know that if they wrestle too much over the issue, their faith in the regime will be shaken. Or they make a red herring argument, “Whining about lack of freedom of speech won’t work when there are so many empty stomachs.” They don’t want to admit it’s not that free speech does not work; it’s that the regime doe not let it. They seek solace in the self-deceiving notion that things will get better.

The saddest thing, however, is that many young Chinese who were born in hothouses without any taste of the bitter days do not care about free speech any more. They embrace the economic boom more than the idealistic freedom, and become the die-hard supporters of the dictatorship. To them, free speech is a tool that traitors like Liu Xiaobo use to help Western countries maintain hegemony and discredit China’s accomplishment (That comes from comments on a YouTube clip under the names WuBingWay and lxmyd). China has risen from a backward agrarian country to one of the world’s economic superpower under the leadership of the Communist Party. Free speech is not essential to or the priority of people’s well-being; wealth and stability are, and the country is on the right trajectory to achieve that goal. Free speech and democracy will bring nothing but brouhaha between parties and chaos among the ill-informed public, which can be easily exploited by evils, for instance, from overseas. We need a single and centralized force,  namely the Communist Party, to crush any enemy, including those from within, on our path to modernity. As a matter of course, interest of some individuals is sacrificed for the greater good of the public. It’s impossible to make everyone happy.

That’s how they nonchalantly view the misfortunes and maltreatment of the ordinary lives. Until one day, some one they personally know lost an unborn baby to forced abortion, lost a father to government bullies that seized private property with bludgeons, or lost a friend to a hit-and-run where the perpetrator is a cocky 19 year old son of a high-ranking police officer, and it suddenly dawns on them that they can’t even twitter about the grievances because of the Great Firewall that blocks most foreign web sites featuring user-generated content, or share the news on any Chinese social network where Internet police abound and any sensitive post is subject to deletion.

This November, the mid-term election has turned into a platform where Americans took advantage of this opportunity to send a clear message to Obama administration that they are angry and dissatisfied. What about in China? Being angry is not an option. People can’t even let their voices be heard since there is no such outlet. They have to stomach whatever policy is thrust upon them. Great spending on health care strikes fear into Americans that the government is furthering its control. But Chinese people never had a day when the government is not meddling with certain parts of their lives, even though many of them are so programmed to live accordingly that they don’t notice it (Great Firewall, for example), and none of them is as down-to-earth as health care.

To me, a Chinese, American people sometimes seem ungrateful for what they have, and take it for granted. If they live in an authoritarian country like China, they will realize how bad things can really be.

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5 comments to “Free speech – Americans get too used to it to appreciate it, while Chinese get too used to lack of it (Final Part of the series)”

  1. sasch | November 9, 2010 | Permalink Reply

    hi there, great series. I think you began with an answer and presented the argument anyway, but still a great series that got me thinking. This last one is very interesting, because the argument that "one party is necessary for economic development" with the caveat that, once everyone is rich then the laws will be relaxed is very attractive to kids who have no clue about the little bubble they live in. Also blaming foreigners for everything is easy and feels good. we'll see …

    a few suggestions? take the google ads off of the top of the page, takes away from the good essays. you need good content first ;) remove some of the clutter, let your thoughts and writing shine through. it will work. get yer fonts up to speed; Times isn't really web friendly. Colors: lime green and cream? you can do better. I know these are all cosmetic, but design should fold in around content and bring it to the forefront, not obscure, hide and try and shout it down.

    love the words tho ;)

    • settinghead | November 10, 2010 | Permalink Reply

      Hi Sasch,

      We are two graduate students studying in the States and we created this blog as part of a long term project of translating and collecting China articles on the internet. Our ultimate goal is to promote cultural exchange and provide new ways for people to communicate and appreciate each other's culture, even if they don't speak the same language. We started this blog to get a taste of how people communicate over the internet so that hopefully we can make a difference in the future.

      Thanks for the good suggestions! You are right on about making content stand out, and we'll keep that in mind whenever we make changes to the website.

      Added your blog to our blogroll for your kind effort! :)

  2. sasch | November 9, 2010 | Permalink Reply

    ummm … my personal blog is obviously not a design gem hahaha i am writing for my friends and family only so … that's my excuse. yours?

  3. CK | February 2, 2011 | Permalink Reply

    That last sentence just reflects how "the grass is always greener on the other side". Reality is American society is censored too. It's nearly impossible to find anyone who can talk about important issues – the population has learned to self-censor. Whereas the govt is prohibited from making laws against free speech via the 1st amendment, this doesn't stop corporations, your family, acquaintances, etc. who avoid topics and insinuate people should just shut up. It's apparently human nature to like censorship; it makes smooth, easy interactions, no stickiness or unpleasantry. (No depth or problem-solving but hey, can't have everything.)

    • Wei Weng | March 31, 2011 | Permalink Reply

      But Americans, unless you somehow get to be the editor of wikileaks, don’t get locked up for many many long years just because they somehow have different idea from authority.

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