Why Freedom of Speech in China is Not a Right

Americans see the presence of freedom of speech in society as a right. In China, this approach to life is considered a privilege.

Chinese authorities see limitations on the freedom of expression as being a way to monitor potentially problematic social issues. Although the government does tolerate some criticism, the right to offer opinions freely only exists in specific categories of people.

That means you must be in a particular class, a “free speech elite,” to have the right to express yourself in China. Even with that opportunity, it can only happen within a government-controlled forum.

Most of the people who are considered part of that class are the senior party and government leaders and those with their patronage. Some academics and journalists receive limited access to this privilege.

What Rights do Ordinary Citizens Have?

An ordinary citizen who doesn’t fit into any of those groups does not have any freedom of political expression in China. Although frustrations and criticism can be expressed in private, anything that’s said or published publicly would most likely result in prosecution for subversion.

Chinese officials say that anyone can publish works in the country, but it is the freedom to submit their piece only. If the government-operated commissions or media don’t want to take the work, then there is no way to legally exercise their right. The government says that these individuals can enjoy their work by themselves or give copies to their family and friends. 

Some individuals and groups who don’t receive government authorization to publish still manage to get periodicals and books printed on a small scale. This process requires subterfuge and often violates Chinese law.

How Harsh Are the Chinese Laws?

The People’s Daily, which is the official newspaper of the Communist Party in China, reported that a court in the Anhui province sentenced two men to prison for the unlawful operation of a business.

The two men were only identified by the names of Yu and He. They received prison terms of seven and nine years respectively. Their crime was the publication of love poems to the general public without obtaining authorization from the government first.

Some citizens can post to bulletin boards and forums to exercise their publication “rights,” but these online mechanisms are still tightly controlled by the government. All posts are carefully and continuously monitored, and anything deemed to be inappropriate is immediately removed.