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Is Freedom of Thought in China Just a Dream?

Crackdown on Internet Speech Flouts Deng Xiaoping’s Advice on Eve of Reform and Opening Up

The Shanghai Free Trade Zone was recently launched. The measure is commonly regarded as an attempt by the leadership of the Communist Party to further economic reform, which has slowed over the past decade. It is also part of what policymakers call “walking on two legs.” Trying to deepen stagnant economic reform is one leg. The other is clamping down on heretical ideas. While the government’s tight grip on books and magazines remains, the Internet has become the latest major battlefield of this “second leg.”

In the name of protecting social order, officials have taken steps to outlaw what they call rumors. Websites in China are indeed plagued by all kinds of rumors. Just ask movie or sports stars. In some cases, baseless rumors do, in fact, constitute defamation. China has laws targeting defamation; the challenge is how to enforce these laws fairly and strictly.

Then, there is another type of rumor—for lack of a better word—that worries regulators. This is the rapid spread of so-called political rumors, and it is the real target of the latest round of regulation. People who criticize the government on the Internet must now weigh the risk of being arrested.

There are several recent examples of this. A traffic accident in August in the eastern province of Anhui killed ten people and injured six. An Internet user reported on Weibo, the country’s version of Twitter, that sixteen people died and was soon arrested for spreading rumors. Then, an employee of a karaoke bar died under mysterious circumstances in the northwestern province of Gansu in September. A sixteen-year-old who questioned the police account of the death, Yang Hui, suggested on an Internet forum that people should demonstrate against the local government. In fact, a crowd of people protested even before the teenager made his call. Despite this, Yang was arrested and accused of provoking trouble. These cases angered the public, and police were pressured by their superiors to release the suspects.

The most influential victim of the campaign has perhaps been Charles Xue Manzi, an American citizen with more than 12 million Weibo followers. He was arrested on August 25 in Beijing on charges he solicited prostitutes. In recent years, Xue has been among the most influential opinion leaders on the Internet and has sometimes been a critic of government policies. News Broadcast, the most important prime-time news program on state-run CCTV, generously spent three minutes on Xue’s arrest. A month later, another Internet opinion leader, Dong Liangjie, was arrested for spreading rumors. He had written that faucets sold in the country contain high levels of lead. Dong gained fame for his fierce attacks on the increasingly serious pollution problem.

The peak of the campaign was the announcement of legal guidelines on September 9 by the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the nation’s top prosecutor’s office. The interpretation provided legal cover for the government’s unprecedented suppression of free speech. One local government official even declared that the judgment of the government is the only criterion necessary for deciding what is rumor and what is true.

This situation is part and parcel with the fundamental logic used by China’s authorities over the past three decades: economic development coupled with halted political reform. This approach is not sustainable, but who is willing to challenge it? Ronald Harry Coase, a Nobel Laureate who died in September, praised the great economic achievements in China, but in a book titled How China Became Capitalist, he argued that the country’s future depends on whether a market for free ideas can be established.

China lacks a tradition of respecting and protecting the freedom of speech. In imperial times, people could be imprisoned or even executed for speaking their minds. In 1952, during the consolidation of colleges and universities, the bulk of social science and humanities studies was demolished or sidelined. Freedom of thought was dealt a further blow during the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957, then devastated during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. After a policy of reform and opening up was adopted in the late 1970s, the reins on speech have, by turns, been relaxed or tightened. There have been periods when a little space was allowed, but generally speaking, though a market economy is nearly established, the market for freedom of thought has yet to be opened.

In sifting through party ideological writings, one can see a changing line. In the 1950s, party officials believed that a nation without great philosophers, poets, and lawyers can still be prosperous and strong. At present, they advocate building an innovative country, but innovation will not sprout from closely watched discussion and government-financed “core commentators” on Internet forums.

In November, the party will hold the Third Plenary Meeting of its Eighteenth Central Committee, an event that is regarded as an opportunity to move overall reform forward. Some commentators like to compare it with the Third Session of the Fourteenth Central Committee, which was convened twenty years ago and established the framework for a market economy. However, another landmark meeting should also be remembered: the Third Meeting of the Eleventh Central Committee at the end of 1978, a gathering that launched the start of reform and opening up.

On the eve of that meeting, Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader and the architect of reform, openly criticized the tendency of officials to crack down on so-called rumors. “Problems related to people’s thoughts shouldn’t be handled by suppressing them,” Deng said in his speech at the meeting. “Tracking someone’s political background or the so-called political rumor upon hearing any discussion, especially somewhat critical discussions among people, and making it a legal case to crack down on that, this bad behavior must be resolutely stopped.”

In contemplating a new round of reform, Deng’s warnings are more relevant than ever.