Freedom of Speech

Freedom of Speech

| David Bandurski

The “Dialogue” program on the official China Central Television. Image by CTBTO, available at under CC license.

Article 35 of China’s Constitution states that “[c]itizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Formally speaking, this language seems to accord with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” In practice, however, the ruling Chinese Communist Party places substantial restrictions on the exercise of freedom of speech, which is regarded as potentially destabilizing to the regime.

This essentially negates the second half of the freedom of expression clause in the UDHR, which states that “this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The CCP has developed a vast human and technological apparatus to ensure that it can monitor and control information through all channels, both online and offline, and this means constant, even real-time interference in Chinese nationals’ right to enjoy freedom of speech, even beyond China’s borders.  

The story of the media and freedom of speech in China since the 1980s has essentially been about the constant efforts of the CCP leadership to balance the imperative of regime stability against the priorities of reform and development, the latter having resulted in a more complex and diverse society that has often sought ways to assert its rights and interests over and against those of the Party.

As the reform and opening policy took root in China after 1978, there was some reassessment of the extreme state of press control that had prevailed throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), during which all press content was dominated by Mao Zedong. The term “news reform”(新闻改革)was used more readily in the early 1980s, and there was a strong conviction as reforms took hold that strict controls over the press and ideology had contributed decisively to the painful political extremes of the previous three decades. It was in the context of this reform spirit that “freedom of speech” was included China’s 1982 Constitution. Though the CCP continued to control the press in the 1980s, and journalism and publishing were embedded within the Party-State, there were moves to reassess its role.

This reform trajectory took a dramatic turn with the events of 1989, the crackdown on the democracy movement on June 4 resulting in a new regime of speech controls under Jiang Zemin around a policy of “public opinion guidance” (舆论导向). Essentially this reflected a renewed conviction in the leadership that regime stability, and avoiding a Soviet-style collapse, depended upon “guiding” the ideas and opinions of the public through robust CCP control of all channels of expression. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as economic development picked up pace, and as the rise of the internet offered new channels for expression, China went through an unprecedented era of media development. This resulted in a notable rise in professional activity among the Chinese media, and even the emergence of investigative reporting.[1] The mandate of “public opinion guidance” remained firmly in place, however, and journalists and media were constantly disciplined. Meanwhile, from the late 1990s, China developed a vast system of technical and legislative controls for the internet – collectively known as the “Great Firewall” – blocking to access the outside world, and censoring content domestically.

In the Xi Jinping era, controls on the press and the internet have intensified, as the CCP has sought to reassert its dominance over all channels of communication, including the internet and a new generation of social media. In large part this is due to a rise in more freewheeling media reporting and online engagement and criticism through the 2000s. In February 2016, Xi Jinping re-asserted the CCP’s supremacy over the media in a speech in which he reiterated that the media must be “surnamed Party” (姓党), and asking them essentially to pledge their loyalty to the regime. Under the powerful Cyberspace Administration of China, formed directly under the CCP’s central leadership in 2014, controls on the internet and social media have intensified, and the mandate of “public opinion guidance” has been extended, even though codified in legal guidelines, to all users. Facing criticism of its media control policies, China insists domestically that they are necessary to maintain stability as a prerequisite for development. Officials often stress that “Freedom of expression does not equal free expression,” by which they mean that speech must be curtailed in the interests of the general population.

This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

The CMP Dictionary