The long and winding path to free speech

The long and winding path to free speech

(Nandu Weekly)

Yang Niuhu was shocked to hear that his 16-year-old son had been detained. On the afternoon of 17 September, Yang Zhong, an ordinary junior high school student, encountered several policemen. He was taken to the local police station and charged with the crime of “provocation”. What the younger Yang had actually done was question the mysterious death of a man in Zhangjiachuan county, Gansu province. “It’s clear to me that this incident will cloud my son’s mind. The problems it will cause him from a psychological perspective are beyond my imagination”, his father said to Nandu Weekly, a news magazine attached to Nanfang Media.

According to a statement released by the local office of the Public Security Bureau, a police officer received a telephone call from someone surnamed Ma in South Zhangchuan Bridge. Ma said that a man was lying in the street and it was uncertain whether this man was still alive. When a police officer finally arrived at the scene, he found that the man had passed away. The officer asked for assistance from the dependents of the dead man in completing the autopsy, but they neglected to do so. Yang Zhong, however, published numerous posts that night on both his Weibo and QQ Spaces accounts raising questions about the death. “This was clearly not a natural death, and the police have known from an early point that this is actually a homicide,” argued Yang. “There was a fight between police officers and the dependents.” Having been detained for nearly a full week at the police station, Yang Zhong was finally released after the Gansu Provincial Public Security Bureau reconsidered his case.

Meanwhile in Shanghai, one of China’s most iconic cities, a new project seems to be emerging in strong contradiction with the situation in Gansu. The landmark free trade zone, brainchild of Premier Li Keqiang, is an example of the implementation of new, explorative policy, and as such stands at odds with the ideology of Li’s predecessors. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that the free trade zone would eventually be exempt from restrictions imposed by the Great Firewall, and people living there would able to benefit from this unique policy by being able to access websites blocked elsewhere, such as Facebook and Twitter. Ironically, the day after this article was published, it disappeared from the website of the South China Morning Post, as did media posts referencing the article. It has also since been announced by Party spokesman that the free trade zone will not be exempt from the Great Firewall. At the moment, it appears unlikely that the free trade zone will provide much scope for the expansion of free speech.

In a joint statement, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court announced that if defamatory information is clicked and viewed 5000 times or more, or if it is reposted more than 500 times, the original creator of the information will be jailed for up to three years. Many jurists have called into question the precise definition of “defamatory” information. In an op-ed focusing on the Yang Zhong case, China Business News wrote, “When the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court announced their judgment, we published an editorial expressing our concern about the implications it has for the crime of ‘online troublemaking’. What we are worried about is the vague way in which this law is written may lead to abuse of power by the police during its implementation. This kind of regulation may lead to improper online speech and online rumour-making being confused with one another, leading to something that was not initially illegal becoming illegal. Yang Zhong was detained on the basis of a single improper Weibo post, proving that we have cause to be concerned.” On the night of 23 September, the chief of the Zhangjiachuan Public Security Bureau was sacked on orders from major leaders of the Zhangjiachuan County Party Committee.

With the rapid growth of individual voices, a large number of internet users who are aggressive in formulating public agendas have chosen to cooperate with the elites in order to expand their influence. After they obtain enormous influence, they of course express their bewilderment at the direction their influence takes. Looking at the reaction on Weibo and other Chinese social media platforms, it can be seen that some accounts have been commercialized, while others, due to their emotional value, have acquired an even bigger audience. The people being these accounts are often “invited to tea” by the police, even when their criticism of state power is targeted and discrete. But, thanks to the unending determination of these people, the limits on free speech are being pushed back step by step, and some people who have received unfair treatment from society have been saved by their actions. Furthermore, due to the persistence of this outspoken minority, some issues, such as the air quality in Beijing, have been addressed.

In order to find out about the future of free speech in China in a way not only as accurate as possible but also as rational as possible, we do not just need to consider the modest advances that China has made. We also need to pay attention to the complicated and changing political environment in China. On one hand, when an official is faced with a sensitive issue, their immediate and overriding reaction is to maintain order. As we saw in the case of Yang Zhong, the government arrested the major organizers of a social movement in order to, at least nominally, maintain stability. On the other hand, there are cases when the government must acquiesce to concentrated, powerful voices and make seemingly responsible decisions which, while often temporary, are designed to quench the demands not only of the dissenters, but also of third parties, such as social media. However, this only happens when it is politically convenient for the state. When storms return, so does the real face of the government. A typical example of this is the manner in which officials who have committed crimes eventually regain their position and privileges. One instance of this is the case of Li Changjiang, the former Chairman of General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, who was deposed in the wake of the Sanlu milk powder scandal. Soon after, he returned to central government as the Deputy Head of the National Anti-Pornography Group. Indeed, while it may appear from an outside perspective that real progress is being made, there is actually not even the slightest of changes to the circumstances which allow injustices to arise. That being said, it is obviously good news that, even in an incomplete way, changes are starting to be made in pursuit of the truth. Equally, there is also voicing of different views towards reform in discussions between officials of different levels. Fresh and advanced ideas, which they have either an intrinsic command of or have developed with their wisdom, play an ever more important role in policy discussion and formulation. Although there may not have been any substantive shift towards the development of either a democracy or a civil sphere, the pluralisation of opinions will result in the gradual improvement of society in China.  

As he walked out of the police station, Yang Zhong said that regretted publishing posts on Weibo without first confirming the facts. His father cut him off – “Hold your head high. You are not wrong. Why are you behaving as though you have committed a crime?” Up to the present, if you search information about this case on Weibo, you are met with the words, written in red, “According to relevant laws and policies, Weibo posts related to your search cannot be displayed.”  

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President of China Current Network - China Current Chinese, China Current International, China Current Idea Centre - Research Service