Freedom of Speech in China

The excellent China site EastSouthWestNorth has just posted its translation of a fascinating article, originally written by Shen Minte and published in the Beijing Daily News. The whole thing is available at the ESWN link above, but here is an especially interesting passage:

This leads to another piece of common knowledge: when a certain speech comes out, people begin to think and classify, but they may not be able to judge its nature yet. This is particularly true of certain ideas that appear unconventional or are unacceptable to the majority of the people at the time. Frequently, it will take a certain period of time in history before people become convinced of its veracity (or absurdity). During this process, the worst thing is for some “authorities” to emerge and make a “truth judgment” in the form of a single conclusion about the rights and wrongs of the matter. Then everybody hears that call and engage in either “effusive praises” or “mouth-and-pen condemnations.” The reason why this is the “worst thing” is that the price may be huge, possibly including bloodshed and loss of lives.

The most unforgettable and outstanding episode is the population theory of Mr. Ma Yinchu. If it had not been declared as “counter-revolutionary Malthusian population theory” and subjected to mass criticisms, there might have been 300 million people fewer in China today. Instead, the actual population pressure will be with us for at least a century. All the problems today about job opportunities, universal education, healthcare insurance and so on are related to this population pressure.

Another unforgettable and outstanding episode is the doubts that Zhang Zhixin raised about the Cultural Revolution. The relevant leaders determined that this was “counter-revolutionary speech that maliciously attacked the Cultural Revolution” and it was also routine at the time to condemn people on the basis of speech alone. This resulted in the tragedy of Zhang Zhixin having her throat cut and executed by a firing squad. This tragedy could be avoided if each Chinese person had the freedom of speech as opposed to “the highest directives” being issued from above and followed closely from below. The ten years of calamity resulted in the collapse of our culture, the loss of morality and the creation of all the habits of totalitarianism. These remaining ills are still being eradicated with difficulty in certain domains today.

The crux of Shen’s argument, then, is actually historical rather than moral, which is probably a more effective tack to take when one’s primary audience is a country that’s sick of being criticized for violating human rights. Whether or not freedom of speech is a fundamental right is largely irrelevant here, instead, Shen argues that freedom of speech must exist because it is impossible to differentiate between “good” and “bad”, “correct” and “absurd” speech at the time it is spoken.

Chinese philosophy blog The Useless Tree makes the apt connection with Warring-States era philosopher Zhuangzi, who was, to put it lightly, skeptical of humanity’s “ability to ascertain the truth value of language.” In the second chapter of the Inner Chapters (whose authorship is generally attributed to Zhuangzi), he engages in a prolonged and complex discussion of the value of calling things by fixed names versus the value of deeming things based on circumstances. Dr. Hal Roth (Brown University) has described this dichotomy of ways of calling things — ways of living, really –as “fixed cognition” versus “flowing cognition”; Zhuangzi comes down squarely on the “flowing cognition” side, and so, in a way, does Shen Minte.

The Way has never had borders, saying has never had norms. It is by a ‘That’s it’ which deems that a boundary is marked. Let me say something about the marking of boundaries. You can locate as there and enclose by a line, sort out and assess, divide up and discriminate between alternatives, compete over and fight over: these I call our Eight Powers. What is outside the cosmos the sage locates as there but does not sort out. What is within the cosmos the sage sorts but does not assess. The records of the former kings in the successive reigns in the Annals the sage assesses, but he does not argue over alternatives.
To divide, then, is to leave something undivided: to discriminate between alternatives is to leave something which is neither alternative. ‘What?’ you ask. The sage keeps it in his breast, common men argue over alternatives to show it to each other. Hence I say: ‘To discriminate between alternatives is to fail to see something.
Zhuangzi Ch. 2 (A.C. Graham Translation)

Shen, of course, is not quite on the same level as Zhuangzi, nor does he take his argument nearly so far, but still, one can’t help but suspect Zhuangzi would agree with his sentiment. Anyway, Shen closes his argument with this:

If there is only one voice, then truth cannot be recognized and developed. All speeches exist at the same level (but that does not mean that they will all be acted upon or carried out) and they enjoy the right to be expressed freely. We should earnestly follow these important requirements concerning the freedom of speech according to our constitution.

Also of interest
[Ed. Note: Apologies for the lack of more frequent posts, we’ve been having some internet connectivity issues at ChinaGeeks HQ recently].
– An LA Times story reported that (soon to be former) President Bush has “many fans” in China, The Peking Duck (and, presumably, anyone else who has lived in China for more than a week) disagrees.
Danwei has an amusing way for people stuck in the Spring Festival transportation crunch to get home quickly, without paying a cent.


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