Shock: China does not understand freedom of speech

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I know it might come as somewhat of a shock for you, so brace yourself, my dear reader: a country without a freedom of speech does not understand the concept of freedom of speech. News at 10.

As News.com.au recounts, “Relations between the two nations [China and Australia] hit a new low this week after Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian shared a falsified image on Twitter of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to a child’s throat. It was a provocative and blatant reference to recent allegations that Australian soldiers had committed war crimes, including killing 39 Afghans, which were revealed in the Brereton inquiry last month.”

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Faced with a backlash from Australia and around the world, Chinese authorities have now doubled down on both criticism and defiance:

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Where to even begin?

For starters, a Chinese diplomat has no freedom of speech any more than an Australian, American or Rwandan one does. Diplomats, indeed all government employees, are required, with stringency that varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, to keep their private opinions to themselves and instead to publicly toe their government’s line, whatever it happens to be. This is indeed an encroachment on an individual’s freedom of speech but a widely accepted one for the need of any government to speak with one voice and not be embarrassed by public dissention from its employees, the public servants. This is hardly a public sector issue alone, however: most businesses and NGOs likewise require discretion from their workers so as not to bring the employer into disrepute. It is clear though that of all employee categories, the highest onus rests on diplomates, who have to be first and foremost… diplomatic. The fact that Zhao tweeted a photoshopped picture of an Australian soldier slashing the throat of an Afghan child has nothing to do with exercising his freedom of speech and everything with being instructed to do so by his superiors in the Foreign Ministry. This is an official act, a state-sponsored insult.

Zhao was retweeting an image produced by graphic artist Fu Yu, supposedly randomly found by Zhao on the Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo – though since the retweeted  image bore no usual watermark there is a suspicion that Zhao and the authorities have had access to the original, pre-posted artwork. Be that as it may, was Fu Yu, also known as Qilin, exercising his freedom of speech when producing and posting the killer photoshop? Well yes, but this rings as hollow as an antique Chinese brass bell. Chinese people using Chinese public fora enjoy no right to free speech. They are merely allowed to say whatever the authorities deem is permissible at any particular time to say, no more and no less. The situation is reminiscent of the old Cold War era joke where an American and a Russian meet and discuss freedoms they enjoy. Says the American: “As a citizen I have every right to go in front of the White House and say to anyone who will listen that President Reagan is an idiot”. “Well, that’s exactly the same with me,” ripostes the Russian, “As a Soviet citizen I have every right to go to the middle of the Red Square and say to anyone who will listen that President Reagan is an idiot”.

In reality, neither Zhao or Fu are “practicing their freedom of speech”, as the ChiCom mouthpiece “Global Times” is claiming. Zhao is doing what he’s ordered to do (that’s not to say that he’s not enjoying it) and Fu is engaging in a government-approved form of attack on a government-approved target. If Fu lived in a free country he could indeed exercise his right to criticise a foreign government – as well as his own. We all routinely do it in the West. Maybe one day Fu too will get to enjoy this fundamental right. But clearly not yet.

If photoshopped images or cartoons are “ridiculously… intolerant to Australia” it’s not because Australia is against others around the world exercising their freedom of speech to criticise our country, our people and our government; it’s because such speech represents in this case an official attack by the Chinese government. For better or worse, international relations operate under different rules than Twitter.

Even then, the response to China’s verbal attacks on Australia does not rest on any presumption that China cannot and shouldn’t be allowed to do such things, but on pointing out a double hypocrisy inherent in their actions – hypocrisy so humongously huge that, like the Great Wall of China, it’s visible from space.*

Firstly, there is the above-mentioned hypocrisy of a country without freedom of speech (or for that matter any other personal freedoms) claiming to be the champion and exerciser of such treasured right.

Secondly, there is the even worse hypocrisy of one of the grossest abusers of human rights over the last 70 years having the gumption to criticise Australia over alleged (and yet to be tested in court) crimes committed by a handful of its soldiers. And we’re not even talking about Mao’s China, the hardcore totalitarian regime that murdered and starved to death an estimated 60 million of its own people. That was over 40 years ago, though power is still being wielded by the same organisation – the Chinese Communist Party – which has never in any way apologised and repented for these and other atrocities and abuses committed under Mao’s leadership. Modern China, while far less deadly to its citizens and others, is still one of the major human rights deniers and abusers in the world. This is the country and the regime that:

  • denies its people democracy and basic freedoms like those of speech, assembly, conscience, and religion;
  • is keeping over one million of its Muslim citizens in concentration camps;
  • has been and continues to commit cultural genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang;
  • imprisons on a mass scale political dissenters, religious activists, members of unapproved sects and organisations (like Falun Gong) and many others;
  • harvests and trades prisoners’ organs on an industrial scale;
  • engages in the most extensive program of industrial espionage and intellectual property theft around the world;
  • conducts a neo-colonial policy of exploitation throughout the developing world;
  • has recently suppressed freedoms in Hong Kong in breach of its treaty with the United Kingdom; and
  • rattles its sabre against most of its neighbours, routinely encroaching on their sovereignty.

The list goes on. The actions of some Australian military personnel, if proved in the court of law, and needless to say serious as they are, pale next to the range and scale of China’s disregard for basic norms of domestic and international behaviour. It’s like being lectured on chastity by the Whore of Babylon.

See what I did here? I just exercised my freedom of speech. I don’t expect the Chinese authorities to like or agree with either the method or the content, and they are welcome to criticise both. That’s how freedom of speech actually works. But, sadly, I don’t expect the Chinese authorities to understand that.

* contrary to the popular myth, the Great Wall is far from the only human-made structure visible from space; many others likewise are.

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