The Assault on Freedom of Speech in China

According to Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, Chinese citizens have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In reality this is utterly false. Consistently, China has shown total contempt for the concept of freedom of speech, and, most worryingly, it is being aided in this by major Western corporations. Throwing aside the pretence of responsible and ethical business, well known corporations including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and Cisco Systems are actively assisting the Chinese government’s campaign against human rights, motivated by the promise of potentially huge financial returns.

In contemporary China, journalists, bloggers, academics, and political opponents of the Government routinely face harassment and imprisonment. A brief summary of recent developments makes for sobering reading.

Academic historian Xu Zerong was detained on spurious charges of ‘illegally providing state secrets’ (in reality, sending historical material dating from the 1950s about the Korean War to researchers outside China) and publishing banned material. This earned him a combined prison sentence of 13 years.

On July 10, China announced it will put Chinese-American academic Li Shaomin on trial for spying. On July 14, one day after China’s successful bid for the 2008 Olympics, Li Shaomin, an American academic, was tried for ‘espionage’. Then on July 24, Sociologist Dr. Gao Zhan was sentenced to ten years in prison on charges of ‘collecting intelligence for Taiwan’. Routinely, China imprisons academics on trumped up charges of ‘espionage’ in order to silence criticism of the regime.

Wired News reported that the Chinese government ‘continues to maintain a nearly rock-solid cyberwall’, blocking access to information on the Internet and employing 30,000 ‘Internet police’ to monitor its citizens. Most worryingly, it was revealed that the Internet blocking software was sold to the Chinese government by US companies.

Journalist Shi Tao warned journalists of the dangers associated with dissidents returning to mark the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He was arrested and later imprisoned for 10 years, for revealing a ‘State secret’. Court papers revealed that Yahoo Holdings in Hong Kong had provided details regarding Tao’s e-mail correspondence and IP address tracking, leading to his conviction.

It was revealed that Microsoft was censoring Chinese weblogs that used words such as ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, and ‘demonstration’. Microsoft’s justification for this blatant assistance with censorship was that it ‘abides by the laws, regulations and norms of each country in which it operates’. This same year, the Chinese government imprisoned three journalists, dismissed editors of a number of newspapers, banned dozens of newspapers, and confiscated almost one million ‘illegal’ publications. Also in 2005, a court froze the assets of two journalists who had criticised work conditions at factories run by Foxconn, a company which makes the Apple iPod.

Google agreed to censor search results in China, and set up a special government authorised search engine for China. All other Google search engines are blocked from being used. Google’s motto ‘Don’t be evil’ here looks to be little more than words.

This February, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith stated in a letter to the Wall Street Journal that Western corporations are failing to prevent censorship and other human rights abuses in China, and are in fact assisting them. ‘There is enormous profit potential, but entering the Chinese market means challenging a repressive regime on basic human rights tenets. Sadly, some of America’s largest tech firms are currently failing this new test of corporate responsibility’, he wrote.

While President George W. Bush continues to mouth platitudes about freedom and democracy, he has failed to apply these standards to China, thereby revealing the power of the economic motive in determining who is eligible for human rights and who apparently isn’t. The outrageous human rights abuses and restrictions on freedom of speech in China continue apace, aided and abetted by quiescent Western governments and Western companies willing to actively assist government censorship in return for a ‘fast buck’.

This article originally appeared in Blurb magazine and is reproduced here with permission.

Comments are closed.