By Abigail VanWinkle

I.   Introduction

The freedom of press and speech are the absent factors that have permitted China to traverse all other countries and assume the leading position as the world’s most dominant imprisoner of journalist. In 2012, Reporters Without Borders claimed that 30 journalist and 68 Internet users have been imprisoned in China alone. The freedom of press index, which reveals the ranking of countries in accordance to their freedoms concerning speech, placed China at 174 out of the 179 listed countries. When the index was first published in 2002 China was ranked second to last at 138 and since the list has grown, China has remained anchored to the bottom. While continuously descending on the freedom of press index and conclusively being one of the largest offenders of free speech and free press, Reporters Without Borders also assigns China amongst the company of the most prominent listed enemies of the Internet.

II.   Historical Background

At an estimated 1.3 billion people, China’s population exceeds the populace of other countries on the Asian continent, Pacific coast, and the world. Chinese history can be traced by reigning dynasties from more than 5,000 years ago, with each dynasty’s rise and fall beginning and ending its reign through hundreds of wars. The last dynasty to rule came to an end in 1911.  The Qing had been in power since 1644 and the overthrowing by revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen set off the beginning of the Chinese Civil War. The revolutionary period sparked political fervor by many and although the distraction of World War I restrained civil unrest, China’s concerns were not yet advocated.  On May 4, 1919, student activists held political protests and initiated the New Culture Movement consisting of social and political spectrums that ranged from the complete westernization of China to the socialism that exist in present day. The May Fourth Movement came to a close around 1923 and the Communist party began to take precedence with the Soviet Union as an example. China’s first constitution was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly on Dec 25, 1946 and put into effect exactly one year later presenting an outline for the reigning Communist party and their government.  The People’s Republic of China was formally established on Oct1, 1949 when Mao Zedong announced China’s creation of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.”  The National People’s Congress served as China’s national legislature and the first elections, held in 1953, resulted in congress choosing Mao as president and Zhou Enlai as premier (both main roles in the executive branch of government). Since the original constitution, China’s framework has gone through several revisions and the promulgated Constitution of the People’s Republic of China was adopted on Dec 4, 1982 during the fifth session of the fifth National People’s Congress. Of the constitution’s four chapters and 138 articles, the second chapter addresses the “fundamental duties and rights of a citizen” and article 35 claims that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

III. Free Speech

Freedom of speech, a right provided by the 35th amendment, seems only to be visible within the constitution and absent in the country. The act of protest is colossal in accordance to free speech and although China presents itself as a country that welcomes expression, history has proved the constitution’s promises of free speech to be metaphorically empty while the streets are full with advocates. In the summer of 1989, Collegiate students initiated a democratic movement protesting the country’s routine of nepotism, the high inflation and unemployment rate of the economy, and the intent of interference with their campus’ social and political activities. The marches had lasted weeks accumulating a multitude of protestors at multiple locations, while more than a million occupied Tiananmen Square. On June 4th, 1989, the educated youth of China were disrupted by more than their government’s restrictions when hundreds of Chinese civilians were shot and killed by the Chinese army in response to the peaceful mass protest. The Chinese government claimed to have reacted as was necessary to what was said to have been the biggest challenge to the communist state,  but United States President George Bush retorted that he deeply deplored the use of force even in a matter of social chaos.

Another incidence of free speech deprivation dealt with the attempted protest of two elderly women once Beijing, China announced the official protest zones for the 2008 Olympics. Two Chinese women, ages 77 and 79, applied for a permit to protest the grievance of insufficient compensation for the seizure and destruction of their homes in 2001 by the Chinese government for redevelopment. Many homes were bought and destroyed by the Chinese government due to the devising and preparation for the 2008 Olympic plans. To protest, Chinese citizens had to apply for a permit and gather in protest zones set by officials. Of the three zones set for protestors, 77 applications were submitted and zero requests granted; the voices of many would not be heard. Both of the elderly women arrested rely on canes to walk while one I blind in her left eye; aged and deprived, both were sentenced to one year in a ‘re-education through labor camp’ as consequence for their attempt to protest.

Deprivation of speech and freedom are present in multiple cases of arrest throughout the years involving the practice of Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a forbidden philosophy that practices exercises believed to improve health and provide spiritual enlightenment. In February 2002, more than 40 men and women were detained for expressing their support for Falun Gong and sent to re-education camps. Re-education camps are administrative systems that claim to reform people that have been arrested for minor offenses in order to mold them into model Chinese citizens. Detainees are sentenced one to five years at the camps; some being released early for good behavior and others being held an extended year. Along with the punishment of hard labor, the camps hold violent and inhumane routines of torture. The United States’ practitioners of Falun Gong filed a lawsuit against Jiang Zemin, the former communist party chief, for the genocidal actions taking place in the re-education camps of China. Jiang Zemin was granted immunity by United States Head of State Department due to his governmental role, and the appeal was ignored as well as the attempt to take the case to the Supreme Court in 2005.

As time has shown, China is not very warm-hearted to ideas and feelings of expression, and as the technological world advances it does not miss a step in prohibiting the expression of ones thoughts and ideas. Currently, China is being ridiculed world-wide for the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo. Liu Xiaobo was accused of ‘inciting subversion of state power’  with the publication of Charter 08; a declaration calling for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China. Liu Xiaobo was given eleven years of imprisonment (with seven remaining on his sentence) and his family held under house arrest due to his published beliefs. Following his arrest, an ample amount of followers openly expressed their requests for his release through on-line petitions claiming shared responsibility for his ‘crime’. Controversy lies not only with his arrest for co-authoring Charter 08, but his inability to rightfully receive what is his, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Liu Xiaobo was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”, which he believes to be the freedom of expression. Although the circumstance is not preferred, Liu Xiaobo states that “In order to exercise the right to freedom of speech conferred by the Constitution, one should fulfill the social responsibility of a Chinese citizen” and if his arrest was due to his social responsibility, he “[has] no complaints”.

IV.  Free Press

Freedom of the press is another promise made by the Chinese government provided in chapter two of the revised 1982 constitution. The prohibition of printing beliefs and ideas are facilitated by a multitude of screenings by hired government operations and cooperative companies. Those who publish dissatisfaction with Chinese government and policies on-line are labeled Cyber-dissidents. Cyber-dissidents are very common in China because the blogs that are posted on the world web are anonymous and essentially provide safety to the writer. However, in 2003, Jiang Lijun was sentenced to four years imprisonment for his articles supporting democracy and was accused of attempting to form a draft of declaration while seeking violent means to impose democracy. If Jiang Lijun’s publications on the internet were anonymous, how was Jiang Lijun exposed? That is where one of America’s leading Internet company steps in. Yahoo gave the Chinese government Lijun’s personal information associated with the account without hesitation when requested, and in turn he was arrested that very day for ‘subversion.’ Yahoo came to the rescue once again in 2004, this time to Lijun’s friend Shi Tao who received ten years imprisonment. Tao’s offense was not due to his commentary on politics but the summary of public records. Tao sent an e-mail with a summary of government orders that directed media organizations to filter and down-play the fifteenth anniversary of the 1989 pro-democracy protest. Police arrested Shi Tao for ‘illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities’ while his wife and family were interrogated and placed on house arrest. In 2007, Jerry Yang, Yahoo co-founder, expressed the remorse and offered apologies for the actions taken by his company however they neglected to make any clear decisions on censorship in relation to China. Yahoo is not the only American company assisting China with restriction of the press. In 2005, Article19 urged the company to uphold the rightful access to information from all and by all. Google, a popular Internet search engine, created a website dedicated to China,, which permits citizens from millions of resources provided on the world web. Google’s service is absent of any trivial words that may trigger ideas against the government such as ‘occupy’ and ‘Falun Gong’ and only provides search results that are not viewed as acceptable by the Chinese government. On April 29, 2010, China adopted an amendment that required internet and telecom companies to cooperate with authorities when it came to national security issues. This allowed the government to regulate what the public had informational access to while excusing their interference with news. Another stipulation of internet use recently required personal information and registration for Internet users that went into effect March 16, 2012. Being forced to register personal information meant that the ideas and values that individuals previously expressed with protection of an unknown identity would now flag them as dissidents of government policy. In response to the stipulation, 10 million Internet users provided their real names out of the 300 million registered; another punishable offense by the government.

V.   Critical Comparison

The right to free speech and free press is listed in both the Chinese Constitution and the United States Constitution, yet China was graded 174th in the freedom of press index while America sits at 47th. Expression is a right that every person in America exercises daily through speech without punishment, whether political or social. The Chinese government placed two elderly women in an abusive camp for applying for the right to stand in a designated zone to protest the demolition of their homes; arrested for wanting the chance to be heard was a crime. In America, protests are held all over for a variety of reasons such as the economy, religious beliefs, social reform, party lobbying and more. The United States Supreme Court granted the Westboro Baptist Church the right to announce hatred and cause emotional distress to families of dead soldiers in its 8-1 decision of Phelps v. Snyder because it was a protective right given to them by our constitution. Although China grants the right to their citizens, if used unfavorably, the right is taken and they are subject to reform like the elderly women sent to re-education camps. In the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, a majority frowned upon the actions of the protestors yet they did not resort to the oppressive measures that China actively subjects its citizens to. Shi Tao was turned in and imprisoned for summarizing official documents over the Internet while Daniel Ellsberg was a hero for releasing private government documents (Pentagon Papers) published in national newspapers. One might announce that as a citizen one’s duty is to inform, like Tao and Ellsberg did, yet there are polar consequences to such bold actions. Tao, who believed he was protected, was detained for trivial summaries concerning Chinese government while The Washington Post and New York Times published actual private government documents of the United States as public awareness.

A country’s flag symbolizes unity and holds sentimental and patriotic value for the people, it is viewed as sacred. Texas v. Johnson was a United States Supreme Court decision in 1989 that allowed Gregory Lee Johnson the right to burn a United States flag during a political protest. The Chinese do not see a vile act as an act of expression or speech; it is strictly written in the fourth chapter of their constitution that burning of the flag is against the law. Johnson was granted the right to desecrate a symbol through expressing political dissatisfaction, yet Chinese citizens are not permitted to reveal anything but patriotic support.  With the World Wide Web being accessible through computers, tablets, and cellphones, American citizens are granted with everything the internet has to present while constantly receiving and interpreting information. There are blogs, social networks, personal websites, and internet groups where people consistently comment on issues that are important to them. The internet is a safe haven for the exchange of ideas and beliefs in America, but for Chinese society it is a trap. China requires internet users to register personal information for recognition and has government filters set up by participating corporations in order to control internet use and controversial content.

VI.  Conclusion

The freedoms of speech and press are inherent expressions in the United States, yet Chinese citizens live in fear daily hoping not to accidentally form an opinion that defiles their government. Although China grants the right of free expression in their constitution, they have a long, advocating, journey of ahead of them in order to acquire the guaranteed protection that the United States possesses.



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Photo Courtesy

“The World Factbook – China.” Web. 2 May. 2012.



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