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Thursday, September 29, 2005

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China: Getting the Facts

Category: Commentary

To my faithful readers, I apologize that this week is not about technology. However, I feel that it is important to finally document the abuses of human rights that are applied to the Chinese people every day. There's a lot of misunderstanding on the issues (something I was a part of) and I'd like to set the record straight.

China has been in the news a great deal as of late as they continue to improve their "Great Firewall of China" and work with U.S. companies to restrict free speech. This action has led to a powerful argument about whether China should be allowed to dictate to American companies or not. Should the words "democracy" and "freedom" be removed from the Chinese lexicon?

When I first began paying close attention to the issue, my opinion was "Yes, the Chinese government has a right to control its own borders. They have no law against restriction of speech." That isn't to say that I agreed with the idea of censorship, but it is what the current government dictates, and what the people accepted.

Except for one problem, that is. The people of China never accepted a lack of free speech.

In arguing the point, a very informative fellow pointed me to a copy of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China. Now to be clear, I had never known that the Chinese had a Constitution. I think that it's generally assumed that Communist States simply impose their rule without any true guarantee to the people of their rights. But in 1982 the People's Republic of China (hereafter referred to as "PRC") drafted and ratified a Constitution granting the people very broad rights and privileges.

Free Speech

Probably the most critical right any government can guarantee its people is the right to free speech. It was so important to the United States, that it was made the first amendment to the Constitution. The Founding Fathers knew from early case law and criticism that the only way to keep a nation free was to make sure that the people could know what the government was doing and speak out against it.

Take careful note, however, that I said "guarantee", not "grant". The ability to speak your mind is a basic right that humans have. It can only be taken away, not granted. Besides taking the right away, a government can attempt to protect that right and guarantee that it can always be exercised.

There will always be limits, of course, but it's important to respond to excess "free speech" with an even hand. For example, if I stand up in a restaurant and begin to loudly shout about government injustices, that is out of line. Thankfully, it is likely to only get me thrown out or brought up on a minor charge of disturbing the peace.

Now consider the PRC Constitution for a moment. Article 35 clearly states:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

It also states in Article 41 that the people of China may freely criticize their government in an open forum:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary.

Yet in the news we constantly hear that the words "democracy" and "freedom" are being filtered and removed from the speech of the Chinese people. Blogs that formerly were a good way of telling other countries about the Chinese injustices are now shut down and silenced. As a Chinese citizen you may be subject to arrest and significant jail time if you're caught violating the PRC government's new rules on speech.

Consider the protesters in Tiananmen Square. They were peaceful protesters who wanted an audience with the government. Instead, hundreds (if not thousands) of protesters were killed.

Is this the free speech the Chinese government "guarantees" its people? Is this the right to criticize the government that the Chinese government "guarantees"? It doesn't seem like much of a guarantee at all, does it?


Another right that the PRC "guarantees" its people in its constitution is the right to practice religion free from fear of government reprisal. Now I understand that many readers may have strong feelings for or against religion. But part of freedom is allowing people to believe and practice whatever they want, regardless of what you think about it. For example, I may not believe in the Muslim religion, nor may I even approve of it. In fact, after the September 11th attacks on my country, it can be very difficult to separate the people who committed the heinous acts from the religion that they purported to believe in.

Yet as a US Citizen it is my duty to protect the beliefs of others, as long as they are exercising personal freedoms and not freedoms over others. (This is an important distinction. If exercising your freedom takes away freedom from others, it cannot be granted.) What that means is that I treat the people who I know are Muslim with the respect they deserve regardless of their religion. And should anyone else attempt to bridge their freedom, I am bound to defend them so that we all can be free.

Now consider Article 36 of the PRC Constitution:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

Does it not say that people are free to practice any religion free from government reprisal? Of course, the PRC interpretation is "any religion except Falun Gong". Or Catholic Christianity. Or Tibetan Buddhism. Or any other religion for that matter.

You see, as soon as a follower of a religion does something that the PRC state disagrees with, the entire religion is made illegal. Yes, you heard that right, the entire religion. Personal responsibility for one's own actions is not taken into account. Rather, the religion is immediately blamed and outlawed. In this way, the PRC doesn't have to support any religion they don't want to. Oh, and its for the protection of the people against themselves.

Words Without Meaning

It is easy for the PRC government to justify their position thanks to Article 51 of the PRC Constitution:

The exercise by citizens of the People's Republic of China of their freedoms and rights may not infringe upon the interests of the state

In a single paragraph, the PRC declares that the entire document is meaningless, and that rights are granted or revoked at their whim.

But is it really that easy?

You see, the PRC government never guaranteed the people of China any rights, because they never guaranteed that they themselves can be held accountable. And without accountability, their Constitution is just words on paper.

In the US, there are sets of checks and balances that ensure that the governments power can be overturned if abused. The first line of that defense is the court system. If Congress attempts to pass an unconstitutional law, concerned citizens can bring a suit to the Supreme Court to strike down that law. If the President attempts to overstep his authority, the Supreme Court can again rule the actions out of line and command the resources of the US against him.

The second line of defense is the organization of the government and military. Power is distributed throughout the government to ensure that no one person or group of people can wield complete and tyrannical control. In fact the various parts of the government are actually set against each other to prevent consolidation of power. Similarly, the military is intentionally divided, again to prevent power from consolidating and the military taking over.

The third line of defense is the much maligned second amendment. During the revolutionary war, the well armed Minutemen were highly successful in driving back the British forces. The Founding Fathers believed that without easy access to weapons, the US could have never managed to free itself from the British government. So they wrote the second amendment of the Constitution to ensure that the people could overthrow the government should it ever become corrupt beyond repair.

The fourth and final line of defense ends up being the true first line of defense: The freedom-loving people. While everyone likes to disagree on what exactly freedom means and how far it extends, nearly every citizen of the US wants to preserve freedom. On the small scale this means that the people of the US try to balance the system by electing representatives, voting on issues, running for office, and using the courts. On a larger scale, if an all out war started between the military and the people, you can be certain that a large portion of the military would take the side of people.

So be glad for the freedoms you have in the U.S., and in other free countries around the world. And the next time someone tries to tell you that, "there's no law against limiting speech in China," point them to this page and help them learn the facts for themselves.

The author can be contacted at


Full Text of the PRC Constitution
China sets new rules on Internet news
Business at the Price of Freedom
Tiananmen Square protests of 1989
Yahoo! Helps Jail Chinese Man
UN Commission on Human Rights Violations in China

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