Who really has free speech anyway?

Many people, usually Americans but not always, say they wouldn’t live in China because of the free speech laws — or lack of them. It’s easy to understand why they would think this: Media outlets all over the world report that things in China aren’t the same as the USA. On closer inspection though, we find, there aren’t that many differences.

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US First Amendment

The most obvious recent example was Dr Li Wen Liang, who was called by the local police and asked to “drink tea” he was asked not to discuss an illness that was thought to be spreading around his hospital.

Not because anyone wanted to keep it quiet or hide it (the official announcement came only days later) but because the disease was still unknown and, word spreading out so close to China’s most important holiday, could cause some panic. Dr Li agreed, signed a piece of paper (no different from a cease and desist notice) and went back to work.

This is how Freedom of Speech works in China — you can tell the truth and you can criticise but you can’t spread rumours, you can’t spread unhealthy information such as pornography, you can’t insult the leaders (out of respect) and you can’t incite violence, sedition or treason.

But if you have a legitimate complaint, you can go to the government offices and lodge your complaint. You can get on Weibo, TikTok or Wechat, any social media platform and tell your friends — you’ll never be locked up for having a complaint, an opinion or a grievance — it’s all about how you handle it.

speech on the stage

Chinese people know how to achieve change. Look what happened in the case of Dr Li: now recognised as a hero. His family have received an apology, his wife and new baby receive government support, the people responsible for warning Dr Li were reprimanded and retrained in how to handle issues like this correctly and new laws, introduced in October 2020 to be implemented in April 2021, preventing these incidents in future. All because of an outpouring of “free speech” on social media.

Chinese people know how to achieve change. Look what happened in the case of Dr Li: now recognised as a hero. His family have received an apology, his wife and new baby receive government support, the people responsible for warning Dr Li were reprimanded and retrained in how to handle issues like this correctly and new laws, introduced in October 2020 to be implemented in April 2021, preventing these incidents in future. All because of an outpouring of “free speech” on social media.

So, just how free is free speech in America? The First Amendment to the US Constitution in 1789, revised in 1992, says this: 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.

These are indeed noble words and it’s correct that this should be enshrined as part of the national heritage and legal system. However, there are problems the Founders didn’t consider. Namely, defamation, slander, libel and hate-speech.

Defamation, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary the act of communicating false statements about a person that injure the reputation of that person. So, in other words, freedom of speech doesn’t give you the right to lie, if you do, and the person believes their reputation has been damaged, you may be sued and suffer consequences, you won’t be protected by your rights of free speech.

Slander, is similar although it only encompasses the utterances (spoken words) of false charges or misinformation against another to defame or damage their reputation. Once again, you won’t be protected by First Amendment rights

Libel is a written, or oral defamatory statement which conveys an unjustly unfavourable impression. Under this law, if you say something, which may be true, but should be private, and the person you say it about believes the world now has a less favourable impression of him/her, you can be sued. Again, no protection under the Amendment.

Additionally, under the legal definition of libel, the publication of blasphemous, treasonable, seditious or obscene writing or pictures is also an offence: this means you can’t send pornography, you can’t ridicule your God, or anyone else’s God.

You can’t call for separation of parts of the country or overthrowing of the government, if you do, you commit an offence which isn’t going to be protected just because the Founding Fathers created a law allowing you the right of free speech.

Hate speech, according to Middle Tennessee State University law program, lacks First Amendment protection (https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1207/anti-discrimination-laws) and is defined as speech expressing hatred to a particular group of people. So, if we decide we don’t like a group of people, we are allowed to think that, but as soon as we say it, we breach the laws built around the First Amendment.

So, next time an American asks why China doesn’t embrace freedom of speech, we can safely comment back, that there aren’t many differences between freedom of speech in China and the USA. Yes, it’s true, an American can be rude and disrespectful toward their leadership while Chinese can’t, but culturally and politically, most of them wouldn’t want to — respect for leadership is deeply ingrained in a Confucian society, as China is, and a 95.5% satisfaction rate with government according to recent surveys published in the Harvard gazette (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/07/long-term-survey-reveals-chinese-government-satisfaction/) indicates that there isn’t much that the people need to be disrespectful or rude about.

Indeed, there are many differences between the two countries both culturally and legally but, in China, as long as you maintain respect, everything an American can legally write or say under their First Amendment, a Chinese can also say without fear.

Surprisingly, too many people biased by an international media that maintains otherwise: Freedom of Speech isn’t so hard to come by in China.

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