NEWS
Chinese state visit: Five times China has proven it doesn't value free speech

In the run up to the Chinese state visit to the UK, "modern" China’s attidute towards free expression is far from modern

19 Oct 2015
BY RYAN MCCHRYSTAL
(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

With UK-China relations warming, the president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, will pay a state visit to the UK from 20-23 October. The UK government hopes the visit will help finalise multi­billion-pound deals for Chinese state-owned companies to contribute to the building of two British nuclear power plants.

Many — including the Dalai Lama — are concerned that Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne are putting the desire for profit above concern for human rights.

Xi may be staying in luxury at Buckingham Palace during his visit, but here are just five examples of how respect for free speech in China doesn’t get past the front door:

1. Locking up artists

The soccer-loving Chinese president is due to visit Manchester City Football Club’s stadium with Cameron during his visit. But will he make time for the new exhibition by Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei in London? We won’t hold our breath.

The major retrospective of the artist’s work is currently on show at the Royal Academy of Arts. Ai — whose work is famous for addressing human rights abuses and corruption — has been harassed, beaten, placed under house arrest and imprisoned.

The current London exhibition almost didn’t go ahead as the British Embassy in Beijing turned down Ai’s request for a business visa in connection with his criminal conviction for tax fraud — an accusation he denies. British Home Secretary Theresa May eventually overturned the embassy’s decision, but only after a mass public outcry. This shouldn’t be the height of the British government’s efforts to address Chinese human rights abuses.

2. The use of online “opinion monitors”

China’s Terracotta Army, the 8,000-strong force of sculptures depicting warriors and horses, was purpose-built to protect emperor Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC, in his afterlife. In the modern day, China’s army of “opinion monitors”, which has been purpose-built to protect China’s current leaders from criticism and dissent, dwarfs anything the Qin dynasty could muster.

Last year, Index on Censorship reported that the Chinese government is expanding its censorship and monitoring of web activity with a new training programme for an estimated two million flies on the firewall.

China’s hundreds of millions of web users increasingly use blogs to condemn the state, but posts are routinely deleted by government employees. In 2012, monitors banned more than 100 search terms relating to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 and even shut down Google services.

3. Banning books

Often overshadowed by China’s internet censorship, we shouldn’t forget that Chinese authorities have a rich history of restricting free expression in literature. In 1931, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was banned for its portrayal of anthropomorphised animals for fear children would regard humans and animals as equal. During Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, all aspects of arts and culture had to promote and aid the revolution. Libraries full of historical and foreign texts were destroyed and books deemed undesirable were burned.

The country’s post-Mao transition has been marked by a commitment to “modernising”. While the Chinese populace has access to more information than ever before, their leaders’ continuation of banning books on grounds of non-conformity and deviance are anything but modern.

Publications which are still banned — often for perceived politically incorrect content — include the memoirs of Li Rui, a retired Chinese politician and dissident who caused a stir in the CCP by calling for political reform; Lung Ying-tai’s Big River, Big Sea about the Chinese Civil War; and Jung Chang’s best-selling Wild Swans, a history that spans a century, recounting the lives of three female generations in the author’s family.

4. Detaining activists

Recent years have been marked with an intensification of the crackdown on dissent. On 6 March 2015, just days before International Women’s Day, the Chinese government detained a number of high-profile feminist activists. They were accused of creating a disturbance and, if convicted, could have received three-year prison sentences.

The women had been linked to several actions over the years which highlight issues such as domestic violence and the poor provision of women’s toilets, obvious embarrassments to the authorities.

As a result of their detention, China’s small, but increasingly vocal feminist movement was dealt a heavy blow. Demonstrations were cancelled and debate was effectively silenced. Five of the activists were released fairly quickly, but five more were in prison until 13 April, with two being denied treatment for serious medical conditions while in custody.

5. Repressing Uyghur Muslims

China continues to persecute the largely Muslim minority Uyghurs of Xinjiang. A tough system of policies and regulations deny Uyghurs religious freedom and by extension freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The abuse of national security and anti-terror laws to persecute Uyghurs and further deny them freedom of expression was highlighted in the recent ban by the Chinese authorities on 22 Muslim names in Xinjiang in an apparent attempt to discourage extremism among the region’s Uyghur residents. Many children were barred from attending school unless their names were changed.

Ryan McChrystal is the assistant online editor at Index on Censorship

Ryan McChrystal

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