井底之蛙

4/14/2008

Freedom of speech in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:17 am

FreeSpeechwar

Danwei has some links on the current war over free speech in China. The whole thing was sparked by an April 3 editorial in Southern Metropolis Daily. The author, Chang Ping, was critical of some of the Chinese responses to western media coverage of Tibet. I have not read every single post at Anti-CNN, but the main issue that was making people angry was that some media outlets were publishing pictures of Tibetans being arrested in Nepal and claiming that they were pictures of what was happening in Tibet.

<>According to information compiled by netizens, certain media in countries such as Germany, United States, United Kingdom and India made clear factual errors in their reporting. From the viewpoint of journalistic professionalism, these errors were very wrong, even deliberately misleading. Although some media outlets have issued apologies and corrections, the damage from the inaccurate news was already done and the Chinese people find it hard to forgive. Like any kind of fake news, the damage is first and foremost on the public trust in the media themselves, because ten thousand truths cannot undo one lie. If in the reporting of the incident (as well as other major incidents), the Chinese media are not allowed to report freely and the overseas media are suspect, then where is the truth going to come from?

I was not too surprised by this mix-up, nor by the fact that the Western media did not make a big deal about the correction. Hey, it’s some Asian cops, who really cares if they are Chinese or not. More to the point, CNN would probably claim that the basic story (unrest in Tibet violently suppressed by Chinese security) was correct, so no harm no foul. Even the liberal Chang Ping however would not buy that. He goes from an “error” to “deliberately misleading” in just one sentence. Then it becomes “fake news” which “the Chinese people find hard to forgive.” Not quite Milton on free speech. Still, Chang Ping was to some extent criticizing Chinese nationalist criticism of the West, and this set off a firestorm, triggered in part by an editorial in Beijing Evening News

I took a look at the so-called speech of this Southern Metropolis Chang Ping. I noticed immediately that this individual had brought “free speech” to an appalling or even “terrifying” degree. The heart of the matter for which he was criticized was this: “Free speech intrinsically includes the freedom of mistaken speech and particularly the freedom to question authority. More frightening than rumors is the removal of free speech.” And he openly held this up as a universal value. According to his logic, “free speech” means that you can muddy the truth, fabricate facts, indiscriminately distort history, speak irresponsibly, “freely” rumor-monger, “freely” smear, “freely” toss about labels. Just like the western media’s hysterical performance on the issue of China’s Tıbet. Was that free speech? That was violent speech. I have never seen the western media enjoy that kind of freedom of speech in their own country, because that would be an infringement on the rights of others, and it would trample social justice and betray fundamental ethical principles.1 If this is the “universal value” that Southern Metropolis Chang Ping wants to protect, then honor is the price he pays in return.

There are lots of more temperate voices out there, but the one I found most interesting was 十年砍柴 who compares the whole thing to the Evening Chats at Yanshan incident during the Cultural Revolution. A number of his comments pick up on this theme 大家快跑,文革又来了! I actually think this is a pretty good point. One problem with the Deng years was that that it was not certain what the sacred cows of the New China were. It is not news that nationalism quickly became one of them, and that the Olympics and Tibet are currently flashpoints for Chinese nationalism. What I find interesting is how the old CR political culture is coming back. Orthodoxy as the key political value.2 Battles in the newspapers over words that can be read as anti-Mao/anti-China. Key essays that will end up in a future Modern China class. The state is not actively doing much about these cases, but what I would call New Red Guards are taking (or at least talking about) direct action. Apparently the Maoist political culture is proving to be more resilient than one would have hoped.

  1. Are Chinese media people really this ignorant of the western press or is he just lying? []
  2. You get some of this everywhere, of course. Not that I’m bitter []

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