Almost every country in the world has a constitution, which outlines the basic laws and political principles of a government. Within this constitution are the freedoms, rights and liberties of its people. One such freedom is the freedom of speech and expression, which is the fundamental right to express your thoughts, views, concerns and ideas. This privilege includes communication through speech and writing and non-verbal forms of communication, such as picketing or demonstrating to convey discontent. There is truth to the adage that actions often speak louder than words.
Freedom of speech and expression is not absolute. There are boundaries that must be observed. For example, you cannot destroy or otherwise damage the reputations of other people with untruths or distortions of the truth.
As every individual has the right to speak one’s mind, so then do we have the right as well as the obligation to hear what others have to say, and one must be tolerant of what the message is. As George Orwell said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.”
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Censorship is an ugly reality. In the media, we often see it portrayed on posters and placards as an angry slash across a mouth or perhaps a hand covering the mouth or the eyes. The truth of the matter is that it is persistent and insidious throughout the world, not just in countries notorious for repressing its citizens but in our own back yard. Freedom of speech can never totally manifest itself, as censorship is always nearby. One must ask the question, then, are people truly free to express their thoughts?
The People’s Republic of China is the world’s most densely inhabited country with roughly 1.3 billion inhabitants. In terms of world economies, it is second only to the United States, and, assuming it continues to modernize at its present rate, will have the world’s largest economy by some point in the twenty first century (Bloomberg). It is a nuclear power, occupies one of the five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, has achieved very high and sustained rates of economic growth and has managed to pull hundreds of millions of its own citizens out of poverty.
Regardless of these achievements, China still has a number of significant problems to deal with, such as inadequate health care and environmental protection and the significant issue of ethnic tensions between China and Tibet. As for its government, despite attempts to amend China’s political system, it remains a steadfast communist state.
The Chinese Empire united a huge territory and many different peoples. During the more than two thousand years of imperial rule, China developed a mode of government that was highly dictatorial, willing to use violence to suppress dissent, and which stressed the value of the group over that of the individual. The Republic of China was established on January 1, 1912, and was then replaced by the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.
Censorship in the Media
This rigid form of government is still in place. In an article written for Reporters Sans Frontières, an undisclosed Chinese technician reported that it has a great deal of power and is highly controlling, using most of the traditional news media such as radio, TV, and print to maintain its unbending power over its citizens and policies. The Communist Party of China, abbreviated to CPC, has forbidden autonomous news and independent information. When a brand new source of information surfaced, called the Internet, the same level of control that the government once had was somewhat lost. The Internet is the first avenue to present an immediate method of sharing and expressing personal views to the public, and within China, these views are often oppositional to the government’s perspective. (Journey to the Heart of Internet Censorship)
Merriam-Webster defines censorship as the suppression or deletion of anything that is considered to be offensive, immoral or harmful to society. It follows, then, that Internet censorship is the suppression of any and all information available via the Internet that may be considered to be offensive, immoral or harmful to society. The Communist Party of China heavily supervises this accessible information in order to protect itself and to ensure that its citizens are not armed with any rebellious or otherwise contrary ideas. Any commentary that does not adhere to the official government position must be amended or the reporter is fired. All internet service providers operating in China must practice self-censorship or risk the loss of their license to operate. This stranglehold that the government has over these private websites is the country’s best form of censorship.
The keystone of the censorship system in China is that basically
ownership is censorship. If you own something — Web site editor,
newspaper editor, press group owner — you are responsible for what
is there. (Bequelin)
It has been suggested by various western reporters that a further motive for China’s Internet censorship is so that the government may be able to coerce its population to buy local, so to speak, as the open market is not readily available. This practice therefore may be an artificial boost to its own e-commerce industry.
Although this censorship exists all over the world, China practices it at an extreme level. The Paris based organization Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF, has China on its Internet Enemy List, ranking it 171st out of 178 countries (2010) in terms of press freedom. China has implemented the world’s most complicated information barrier to monitor the Internet material coming into China from outside the country. They screen the constant stream of information, watchful of certain key words, blocking out harmful sites. This barrier has been coined “The Great Firewall of China”.
Nearly all Internet data enters or leaves China via fiber-optic
cables at three points, and the Chinese government has ordered
Chinese Internet carriers to install routers there, which act as
gatekeepers by filtering out material deemed illegal. The
government provides carriers with a list of all the banned sites,
identified by their Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and URL
(uniform resource identifier), and these are simply fed into
the filters. (Petley, p. 104)
This “Great Firewall of China” was built primarily by Cisco, an American-based multinational corporation that designs and sells consumer electronics, networking and communications technology and services.
When the Internet search engine Google launched a special version in early 2006 that would censor searches for topics that the Chinese authorities did not wish its citizens to discuss, it was widely regarded as a concession by the company to a regime unwilling to allow free speech. Google maintains that the only way they could remain in China and be competitive with domestic search engines was to offer Google.cn. Yahoo, Microsoft and Skype all justify their censored versions of their product offered to China by claiming that these modified editions are necessary for them to be able to participate in the world’s largest market.
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In 2008 the eyes of the world fell on Beijing, as it hosted the summer Olympic Games. This was an opportunity for China to show the world how far it had come since the reforms of 1978 in terms of economic, political, and social development. The infrastructure, planning and the games themselves were a huge success, generating enormous global television audiences. However, early on in the Games it became clear that the Chinese government was censoring journalists’ access to the Internet in the official media center. In its bid to host the Games in 2001, the Chinese government had promised to give journalists complete freedom to report from the Games. However, when the time came, journalists found they were unable to access Internet websites related to human rights issues, popular unrest, Chinese politics, Taiwan or Tibet or even food safety issues. Despite international outcry at the censorship, and some slight changes in the level of censorship, journalists were never able to attain complete, unrestricted access during the Games.
The Chinese government continuously manipulates or restricts history if they perceive it as a threat to the social, political or economic stability of the country. One such incident is the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.
Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest public square situated in Beijing, China. It has been the location of many historical events, such as the May 1919 uprising, Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949 and the Massacre on June 4th, 1989. Although the protests were centered in the square, it has been reported that there were no deaths in the square itself, but rather in the streets surrounding the square.
Hu Yaobang, a pro-democracy government official, died on April 15, 1989. With his death came peaceful memorial demonstrations in Shanghai, Beijing, and other cities by students and intellectuals. By April 21, the crowd had grown to roughly 100,000 people. The demonstrators were demanding economic change and an end to the Chinese government’s authoritarianism. By May 19, martial law was declared, and military vehicles began to mobilize. Some students began a hunger strike, which grew to thousands, to coincide with a state visit by Soviet party Chief Mikhail Gorbachev, as his presence was covered by foreign media representatives. The government was humiliated. On the night of June 3rd, the government acted. They ordered the People’s Liberation Army to clear the square and put an end to the protest.
No one knows for sure the death toll. Many more died in the days and weeks following, as the government systematically eradicated any remaining dissidents.
The International Red Cross put the number of casualties at 2,800 dead and an equal number injured, while Amnesty International believes the number to be closer to 1,000. To this day, the entire events of that period in China’s history remain unknown. The government refuses to acknowledge the actual number of dead, wounded, imprisoned and executed.
In 1991, Prime Minister Li Peng, who had ordered
the Tiananmen shootings in consultation with Deng
Xiaoping, stated the Party’s position, which has not
changed since: in view of the families’ desire for
silence and secrecy, the names of the victims would
not be released. ((Sorman, p. 160)
China’s economy suffered as the world reacted with international restrictions. Foreign loans to China were suspended by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and various governments, such as Japan, suspended all loans to the country. President Bush cancelled all military sales to the Chinese government. Tourism revenue decreased drastically. While other communist countries in the world were falling, the crackdown had the opposite effect than what the students had originally protested for.
Censorship in Religion
China is officially an atheist state; however, religious freedom was always guaranteed under the People’s Republic of China constitution. Despite this supposed freedom, only five religions are officially accepted. These are Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam. All are strictly controlled by the government. Since the reforms of 1978, the Chinese government has been more tolerant of the revival of religion, in the belief that it will foster greater social cohesion.
One religious organization that it will not tolerate is Falun Gong. Although in its earlier stages the government watched and monitored the movement, as it grew in popularity, the Communist Party of China declared it a heretical organization in October 1999. The CPC believes it to be a well organized political group that is in opposition to the central government.
In recent years, China has begun to relax some of its rigidity. As of October 2008, foreign journalists would not be required to get government permission to travel within China or interview Chinese citizens. However permission was still needed to travel and report in restricted areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang.
2008 saw many of the world’s economies plunge, and China too, felt the downturn. As the global financial crisis worsened, the CPC has allowed some of the bad news reports concerning the economy to be available to its people. This is an important point as one recent immigrant to Canada from China told AFP, the “media is different here. In China it is propaganda, promotion of things well done. Here they speak of disasters or human rights, look for negative sides.” (Chinese Media)
Despite these progresses that China has made in recent years, it is still so heavily censored by a government that is intolerant of its people’s thoughts, opinions and concerns. It is quite obvious that the Chinese are not truly free to express their thoughts.
In an address to the officers of the US army in 1738, George Washington, the first president of the United States of America said,” If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter“