Is there Freedom of Expression in China?

Community News & Features Jun 28, 2017 at 8:54 pm
ERIC BACULINAO, NBC News Beijing Bureau Chief

ERIC BACULINAO, NBC News Beijing Bureau Chief

By Eric Baculinao

(Read on June 26, 2017, OISE, Toronto, at a public forum organized by the Filipino Canadian Writers and Journalists Network)

First of all, I am here purely in my personal capacity and not on behalf of any entity, be it NBC News or any other organization.  Our common interest in understanding China, which is exerting increasing influence in our world today, is the sole reason why I’d like to share my impressions from my many years of observing and living in that country.

So is there freedom of expression in China today?  My short answer is yes and no.  To say that there is no freedom of expression in China is to deny the explosion of outlets of information and creative expression in the past several decades, that among others has produced a Nobel Prize winner in literature and rendered the Chinese the largest consumer of news.  But to say there is freedom of expression in the way we understand it in our democracies is to deny the fact that the ruling Communist Party incessantly improves its system of censorship and control so that the greater freedoms will not undermine the stability of the party-led political system.

Danilo Vizmanos Jr. raises questions on why China’s economic growth, while making some people very rich, does not filter down to the poor.

Danilo Vizmanos Jr. raises questions on why China’s economic growth, while making some people very rich, does not filter down to the poor.

Expanding freedom while maintaining control—that probably sums up the Chinese ruling party’s seemingly contradictory strategy of opening up to the greater flow of information for the successful modernization and high-speed economic growth of China on which the party’s legitimacy depends, and also combatting what it considers negative influences resulting from such greater opening up which also represent ideational threats to the party rule.  In the Chinese thinking, unlimited freedom of expression can lead to chaos and collapse of the party-led system, while denying freedom of expression could mean stagnation and dead-end, which can also lead to the collapse of the party-led system. The fate of the ruling Chinese Communist Party depends on such a balancing act.

When I first arrived in China in 1971, the country was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and the few State-owned media outlets and general literary production were used mainly as propaganda tools to unite the people around the thoughts of Chairman Mao. In Beijing, we could only watch a limited menu of television programs that were shown again and again, literary works were mostly inspired by the model Peking Operas which extolled revolutionary heroes. Shanghai had only one radio station.  According to one statistics, there were probably just a hundred thousand television receivers for a country of eight hundred million.

_DSC9779The media and literary landscape began to change when Deng Xiaoping instituted reforms in the early 80s, which essentially married commerce and party control as China took the first steps to open up to the world.  Foreign media were invited in, while Chinese  media outlets multiplied as the market economy led to decentralization and incentives to develop sources of revenues outside of state subsidies. Competition for readership led to diversification of content and a decisive shift from the purely propaganda model.

But probably the most significant game changer would be China’s embrace of technological positivism by promoting the development of the Internet.  Rejecting the argument that new communications technologies can be disruptive of old modes of governance, the Communist Party has concluded that the Internet can bring BOTH modernization and enhanced party control.  It rejected fears of convergence, the idea that the Internet will democratize China, erode the party’s monopoly of power and drive the country towards the Western-led liberal world order.

The rise of the Internet is most illustrative of the Communist Party’s balancing act  (as it simultaneously expands and controls the scope of informational and creative freedoms).

Joe Rivera in animated discussion

Joe Rivera in animated discussion

China today boasts of over 700 million Internet users, over 90 percent of whom accessing the web with their mobile phones.  It represents the biggest market for news and creative works. Indeed, for example, the highest paid authors in China need not write books to make big bucks, they write online novels.

One fantasy novelist, 35 year old Zhang Wei who earned $16 million in 2015, explained one advantage of online literature: unlike traditional publishing where you have to finish all chapters before you can publish the book, with online writing, you only need a few thousand characters to start your installments, and online literature is the cheapest entertainment, just a few cents to read one installment, he said.

With most Chinese obtaining their information and entertainment online, authorities devote huge effort to improve the system of censorship and control. Just last week, they ordered three popular sites to suspend their hard-to-censor audio visual streaming services, because their politically-related programs “do not conform with state rules..and propagate negative remarks and opinions.”


Part of the attentive attendees who participated in vibrant interactive discussion with Baculinao.

Earlier, leading Internet companies were ordered to quit original news reporting or apply for license in order to control the spread of “fake news and rumors”.  Such crackdowns highlight the so-called Great Firewall of China, which in turn provide the ground for the Reporters Without Borders to rank the country in the bottom five of the World Press Freedom Index, for example. It must be noted however that these crackdowns are essentially reactive steps by regulators to catch up with the highly dynamic world of China’s Internet and they do not negate the huge opportunities for free expression that the Internet will continue to open up, especially as the Chinese becoming increasingly middle-class, educated and technically sophisticated.


Journalist Veronica Silva

The Internet has already become China’s most important platform for the dissemination and discussion of news and formation of public opinion in near real time.  Some scholars argue that the Internet is aiding the rise of popular nationalism and participatory governance in that  lacking the procedural legitimacy accorded democratically elected governments, China’s authoritarian party will tend, defensively, to buttress its legitimacy by being more receptive to public opinion as expressed through the Internet.

As far as creative writing is concerned, in the observation of some literary scholars, the system of censorship has impelled writers to creatively use allegories to express social critique – as Chinese writers and poets have done since classical times.

In one work, Nobel prize winner Mo Yan has told the story of the land reforms through the eyes of animals: a former landlord, from the 1950 onwards, reincarnates in several animals: donkey, ox, etc, even a monkey, who all in some manner accompany a strong-headed farmer, who stays independent throughout the decades, refusing to give up his land for the collective.

A better example maybe is the novel The Republic of Wine, in which Mo Yan uses excessive drinking and eating to express the theme of corruption and debauchery.


Voltaire de Leon

Other authors have the option of “waiting” or publishing their works when the subjects involved, like the controversial one-child policy, have become less sensitive, or re-inserting sensitive passages (involving sex for example) in later editions when their fame makes them less vulnerable. Even the issue of censorship now allows more room than in the past for debate between authors and publishers/editors on how to apply the rules.

Overall, China is a work in progress, insofar as the issue of freedom of expression is concerned.  Compared to what was the case over 30 years ago, China has certainly gone a long way. The ruling Communist Party’s own self-interests will continue to drive it to adapt and innovate, which could spell even greater changes to China’s media and literary landscape, even as it will always strive to keep things from spiraling out of control.

At the policy level, striking the right balance between freedom and order is viewed as crucial issue. “As in the real world, freedom and order are both necessary,” party chief President Xi Jinping said.


Social justice advocate Fe Bisuna

“Freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee of freedom, “ he added, arguing that cyberspace is not a place beyond the rule of law.

In that context, there are basically two ways to view the state of media and literary freedom in China today.  Except for challenges to political stability and legitimacy of party rule, the Chinese generally enjoy greater freedoms than before.  Or China is even more repressive today because of a more systematic stifling of political dissent.

Whichever perspective you take, there is no denying that managing the right balance between freedom and order has enabled the country of 1.4 billion people to enjoy the fastest economic and social progress while remaining relatively stable. Given such an accomplishment, there is no reason to doubt that the ruling Communist Party will continue to innovate its strategy for striking the optimal balance between freedom and order, that is viewed as crucial for its ultimate goal of catching up with the West.  We can expect Chinese artists, writers, journalists will continue to be called upon to serve such a national strategy or at least not challenge it.



Filipino-Canadian Writers and Journalists Network (FC-WJN) with Eric Baculinao


Baculinao after guesting at the TV Migrante interview with The Philippine Reporter publishers and FTV Channel officers.
(Photos: HG)

FC-WJN organized a well-attended forum with Eric Baculinao at OISE, co-sponsored by Ontario Public Interest Research Group and Anakbayan Toronto. FC-WJN is a network of professional journalists; writers and book authors (fiction and non-fiction); film-makers and playwrights among others. Next forum will be held late July at OISE. Details will be announced on The Philippine Reporter’s website.