Freedom of Expression Vs Dissent: Is Communist China Wary of Its Own Past?

Dr Gadde Omprasad
12th December 2021

Picture Courtesy: AFP

The disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai from public appearance in recent times attracted the headlines of many newspapers. Before Peng Shuai, several prominent personalities belonging to various fields including e-commerce billionaire Jack Ma, real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, film actress Fan Bingbing, pop sensation Zhao Wei, bio physicist He Jiankui, to name a few disappeared from the public platform. Though there were many reasons speculated, the most important reason appears to be ‘dissent’. They attracted media attention since they are public figures. There are number of unknown people who could not have been noticed by the media. To explore the reasons for these disappearances from public platforms, one has to understand the intricacies of Chinese communism and the freedoms available to people through its constitution.

One, the freedom of expression has certain limitations. In the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s era in 1977, the 11th National Congress of Chinese Communist Party recommended modifications to the constitution enacted in 1975 to add four freedoms to Article 45. Accordingly, the 1978 constitution explicitly provided certain rights and obligations to citizens and the right to speak out freely, right to air views fully, right to hold great debates and right to write big character posters, which were also referred as “four big rights” apart from right to strike.  Since then till 1979, several protest activities, criticisms against the communist rule, and dominance of single party took place. The subsequent developments led to democracy movement widely referred as “Beijing Spring” shaking up the very foundations of communist philosophy.

As a result, in 1980, the Chinese Parliament, National People’s Congress abolished these rights and any of the practice of these activities were declared as illegal. Though Article 35 of the 1982 Constitution proclaimed people can enjoy freedom of speech, press, assembly, form association, process and demonstration, but with certain limits prescribed in Article 53, without harming labour discipline, public order and the goal of achieving a socialist order under Chinese Communist Party.

Two, in the following years, the 1982 constitution was further revised five times in 1988, 1993, 1999, 2004 and 2018 respectively to accommodate private sector, allow private property, human rights and according to the changing vision and needs of the state and declared China as a socialist democracy in which Chinese Communist Party is the central authority. None of these amendments included the ‘big four rights’ to be granted to the citizens. The 13th National People’s Congress held in 2018 even went on to declare China as a one party state and multiparty system as unconstitutional. “The three represents theory” propagated by Jiang Zemin, former Chinese President redefined the relationship between party and people. Since then, the communist party represented China’s advanced productive forces, advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people. This theory allowed capitalists and entrepreneurs to join the party as they represented a new social structure and engaged in honest hard work and contributed to build socialism with Chinese characteristics. At the same time, the private entrepreneurs must abide by the party’s basic principles.

Three, what haunt Chinese Communist Party are the experiences that it went through in late 1970’s when the four big rights were used to criticise the party policies and generate democratic aspirations. The freedom of expression in the form of speaking out one’s own mind with disregard to party lines was seen as a dissent. In 1978, when Deng Ziaoping introduced four modernisations industry, agriculture, science and technology and national defence to bring economic development, a call was given by human rights activist Wei Jingsheng to include democracy to the list as without which modernisation would be meaningless. The democratic movements in 1979 and during the dissolution of USSR in 1980’s, the Tiananmen Square incident are still afresh in the mind of the Communist Party and its ideologues. Again, the economic transition from a typical communist country to pro liberal capitalist economy in the new millennia also invited several pro democratic movements, including that of 2011 Jasmine revolution which was inspired by the Arab Spring. Chinese social media platform Weibo was used to spread the movement across 13 major cities in China. Government reacted with stiff action including mass arrests and banning from social media appearances.

Four, any kind of dissent is punishable under relevant laws and applicable to everyone from rich to poor, superstars to big shots, party workers to common men as they have reached to that position because the party has facilitated such provisions, freedom and environment. In 2012, Xi Jinping as the General Secretary of Communist Party launched war on corruption and reinvigorated the 18th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) to use Shuanggui disciplinary system to punish corrupted party workers, officials and the people who use public platforms to express their thoughts. This disciplinary system is beyond the reach of China’s criminal justice system. CCDI can call any one who breaches the discipline within the party and outside, for explanation. It can detain anyone for a prolonged solitary confinement, without having any contacts with the outside world and under constant surveillance. Any of the information regarding the detainee available in public space would be wiped out. The 2021 communist party introduced new guidelines to its members, which banned public speaking airing the views publicly, without using the proper organisational channels. Even a sign of dissent is unacceptable and to be seen as disregard to the party lines. All these have to be seen as efforts to increase the party’s control over society. Many critics argued that ever since Xi Jinping came to power, the number of disappearance of prominent party workers, entrepreneurs and public figures have increased.

As there are growing criticisms against the alleged human rights violations in Xinjinag region on the Uygher Muslim community and re-education camps in the region, amidst the disappearances of public figures from the social media platforms, it will be interesting to see how China would react. The diplomatic boycott of winter Olympics in China by the US and Australia have already sparked new wave of tensions, which many countries are expected to follow.

*The Author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Central University of Sikkim, Gangtok 

Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author