By Wang Ming, China Rights Forum, Spring 1997
In China today, a simple statement about the importance of freedom of expression and an appeal for the release of those in prison for insisting on exercising this freedom can land the author in jail. After hearing of the 11-year sentence handed down to Wang Dan, on November 16, 1996, Wang Ming issued an open letter to the nation on the importance of freedom of speech, calling for the release of Wang Dan and other prisoners of conscience. Wang Ming, 36, has been involved in the struggle for democracy in China since the Democracy Wall movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which he founded an independent journal called Bell Peal in his native Chongqing. Just days after he issued the open letter, Wang Ming was himself detained, and in December he was sentenced administratively to three years' Reeducation Through Labor. He is currently serving his Reeducation term in the municipality's Xishanping Reeducation Brigade, which is reportedly known for its harsh regime. An edited version of his open letter is translated below.
In recent years, prompted by their interest in national affairs and concern about current social problems, some of my fellow citizens expressed their opinions and suggestions to the government through individually- or jointly-signed open letters. Of course, these citizens did no more than exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech-which, in spurring our country's reform process and helping the government to find a way out of the current difficult situation, is of positive value. But the government responded to their words with disapproval and panic, and subsequently, stern suppression. For example, in May of last year, dozens of citizens around the country were subjected to interrogation and detention by public security organs because they participated in producing the open letter "Push Forward Democracy and the Rule of Law"; later, Liu Nianchun was given three years' reeducation through labor and Wang Dan was sentenced to 11 years in prison. This June, having called for a reevaluation of the official verdict on the June Fourth incident, Wang Donghai and Chen Longde were each given two years' Reeducation Through Labor. In October, Liu Xiaobo was given three years in a labor camp for issuing his "Double Tenth Manifesto." The list continues....
The government's brutal suppression of the popular petition movement is a clear violation of not only our own country's constitution but also the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In reality, this sort of suppression is an extension of thousands of years of criminalizing speech in Chinese history and indicates that the government still stubbornly, ignorantly resists the international tide of progress. Such an infringement upon citizens' basic human rights poses a serious threat to our people and our society. As a citizen with a conscience, I cannot remain silent. In order to rectify the government's misguided actions, to stop repeating our history of criminalizing speech and, above all, to defend our innate right as citizens to freedom of speech, which should be held up as the most important symbol of our dignity, I issue the following manifesto.
For a long time now, the government of our country has repeatedly admonished the people: freedom is relative, not absolute, there should and must be restrictions on any freedom-restrictions imposed, of course, by the power of the government! According to this argument, the government is not bound to honor the various freedoms that it has itself promised the people; indeed.... the government can use the absolute power in its hands to meddle with, violate, even expropriate, every one of a citizen's freedoms. In my opinion, however, the argument which our government repeats with such delight is specious, and its great error lies in neglecting a basic fact: not all freedoms are relative; there are some upon which no restrictions may be placed.
The government should know, what is called freedom is precisely the freedom to follow one's own path in pursuing one's own good, so long as one does not interfere with another person's freedom to do the same. Which is to say, when one exercises a certain freedom, if it involves only one's own well-being and does not involve the well-being of someone else or society, then this freedom is absolute....
What is known as freedom of speech refers precisely to the freedom to express one's views, including dissenting views, on politics or other public affairs. If a person expresses a certain view, first of all, this indicates only that he or she has a certain intention or attitude and does not imply that this intention or attitude will be transformed into corresponding action; therefore, the mere act of expressing the opinion cannot be said to jeopardize others or society. In the second place, in response to the argument that merely expressing the opinion can produce an effect on others or society, I say yes, the effect is to provide a greater opportunity to arrive at the truth through debate. Third, as for the possibility of other people accepting the opinion, the person who expressed the opinion bears no responsibility: others will form their attitudes and make their choices using their own independent faculties of judgment and reason.
In fact, absolute freedoms like freedom of speech are minimum conditions for every individual's pursuit of happiness. Freedom of speech is like the air and water on which we depend for our existence: we cannot do without, even for an instant. Consequently, people frequently call absolute freedoms such as freedom of speech basic freedoms. Because freedom of speech is so important to every individual's well-being, the people of many countries have written it into their constitutions to make clear its sacred and inviolable status. Indeed, the people of our country waged a long struggle and finally wrote freedom of speech into the constitution.... The government's suppression of citizens' freedom of speech is therefore not only extremely unjust but patently unconstitutional.
Every time the government of our country is justly censured domestically and internationally for suppressing its citizens' freedom of speech, it feigns a voice of reason and trots out the old theory of the "people's democratic dictatorship" in defense: namely, we are not suppressing our citizens' freedom of speech-on the contrary, our citizens enjoy full freedom of speech-what we are suppressing is merely the free speech of a minority of hostile elements, and we are denying them not simply freedom of speech but every sort of freedom. Thus, under this theory, my compatriots are simplistically divided by the government into two big camps: "citizens," those who enjoy freedom of speech and other basic rights, and "the minority of hostile elements," those who have been stripped of their freedom of speech and other basic rights. Evidently, this democratic dictatorship is in essence a majority dictatorship, which runs counter to the principle fixed by the constitution that everyone is equal before the law.
Our country's constitution stipulates that freedom of speech is a citizen's basic right. Who, then, is a citizen? The constitution explains: "All persons holding the nationality of the People's Republic of China are citizens of the People's Republic of China." It can be seen here clearly that both "the people" and "the minority of hostile elements" are citizens.... Therefore, if freedom of speech is a basic right of citizens, then it is not only a basic right of "the people" but at the same time a basic right of "the minority of hostile elements." From this it follows that it does not matter whether the government suppresses the free speech of either group: both acts should be considered suppression of citizens' free speech of citizens, thus unconstitutional.
In reality, just like minority dictatorship, majority dictatorship is not real democracy; moreover, majority dictatorship frequently becomes minority dictatorship inthe end. "The people" should heed my warning: the government is not likely to be satisfied with stripping "hostile elements" of their freedom of speech. Its final goal is to strip all citizens, including "the people," of their freedom of speech. Once the government's suppression of the free speech of "hostile elements" gains the tacit consent of "the people," the principle of freedom of speech is fundamentally damaged. The government's illegal acts are effectively legalized, and inevitably, soon thereafter, some of "the people" become "the minority of hostile elements" to be suppressed-ultimately to the point where all citizens find their freedom of speech expropriated. Therefore, if the citizens of our country want to protect their own freedom of speech, there is only one solution: when the government suppresses the free speech of "hostile elements," other citizens must stand up and oppose this illegal behavior.
In a people's democratic dictatorship like that in our country, the government always believes that it is the spokesperson for and executor of the truth, that its own ideology and policies are forever and completely correct. In the eyes of such a wildly arrogant government, nothing is more intolerable than criticism by the people. If anyone dares criticize its ideology or policies, he or she is banished to the "register of subversives" and becomes a victim of its cruel tyranny. In such a country where red terror reigns, freedom of speech is the freedom to sing the praises of the government, the freedom to fawn and flatter obsequiously, the freedom to betray one's conscience and speak lies and falsehoods, or the freedom to remain silent. But it is certainly not the freedom to criticize the government.... This is the very antithesis of freedom.
As anyone with a little common sense knows, true freedom of speech includes not only the freedom to say "yes" to the government but also the freedom to say "no." In my view, it is impossible that the government's ideology and policies could be eternally correct. Some aspects have already been proven false by history; one can predict a similar fate for other aspects well. Thus it is quite normal that the people should support different ideologies and policies-for they can hardly be expected to accept things which have already been proven to be erroneous. It follows that criticizing the government is the people's right-for they can hardly be expected to sit back as the government's misguided line murders their own well-being. But even if the government's ideology and policies are completely correct, the people still have the right to express dissenting opinions. For free debate is the only way to test ideas and policies, to make judgments and arrive at the truth. Without an environment permitting free expression and debate, truth is no more than that which proclaims itself as truth.
As for the claim that the people's criticism damages the government's image.... What damages the government's image is not the people's criticism but its own attempts to suppress criticism at every turn. If the government would only adopt a modest attitude of "correct mistakes if you have made any and guard against them if you have not" along with a tolerant spirit of "blame not the speaker but be warned by the words," then its image would be vastly improved. The government would do well to consider carefully the words of the French philosopher Voltaire: "I may oppose every word that you say, but I am ready to die to defend your right to say it."
Our people's greatest misfortune is that we have experienced thousands of years of feudal dictatorship and strict suppression of freedom of speech at the hands of our rulers. From Emperor Qin Shihuang's decree to "burn the books and bury the scholars" to the Ming Emperor Chengzu's execution of Fang Xiaoru and his relatives, friends, and students, to the literary inquisition of the first three reigns of the Qing, our country has repeatedthis history of criminalizing speech. After the People's Republic was establishe d, it seemed that this heinous chapter of our history could at last be ended. On the eve of its founding, when Mao Zedong was asked how the Chinese people could put thousands of years of history behind them, Mao replied, "Put democracy into practice." But it is apparent that democracy has not yet been put into practice.... From the Anti-Rightist campaign to quashing the Democracy Wall movement, from the June Fourth Massacre to muzzling the [May 1995] citizens' petition movement, the government has never stopped suppressing freedom of speech. The people of our country have yet to know the taste of freedom.
In the past few decades, serious consequences have resulted from the government's suppression of the people's freedom of speech. First, because of the suppression of free speech, many compatriots-ranging from leaders such as Peng Dehuai [purged for criticizing the disastrous Great Leap Forward] to common Party members such as Zhang Zhixin [executed during the Cultural Revolution] and ordinary citizens such as Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan-have been persecuted for their words. They have lost not only their happiness but also their youth, their homeland, their freedom and even their lives. Second, because of the suppression of free speech, multitudes of different opinions have died stillborn without expression or debate, stifling truth and science. Third, because of the suppression of free speech, many social problems have failed to be recognized in a timely fashion or have effective solutions found for them; inevitably, then, the compounded problems have resulted in social crises, disasters and major steps backward. Fourth, because of the suppression of free speech, the people have had no channel for the peaceful expression of their wishes, meaning deepening feelings of dissatisfaction, increasing hostility toward the government, and intensified political antagonism-the seeds of real turmoil.
In view of the multifarious harm that the suppression of free speech causes a society and its people, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims itself "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations," expressly stipulates in Article 19: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; 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." I believe that the people and government of our country should adopt this as our standard of achievement as well. To spur the establishment of the principle of freedom of speech as one of our society's basic standards, I make the following proposals:
- Release Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan, Liu Nianchun, Liu Xiaobo, Chen Longde and all other citizens who have been imprisoned because of their words; beyond this, make legal redress and rehabilitate their reputations;
- From now on, adopt a principle of tolerance toward those with dissenting political views and end the erroneous suppression and punishment of them;
- Lift restrictions on speech and the press; bring about true academic freedom, the freedom to publish and freedom of the press;
- Amend the parts of the constitution which conflict with the principle of free speech, repeal all laws and policies that restrict citizens' freedom of speech and enact concrete legislation to safeguard citizens' freedom of speech.
- Citizens must consciously fight for freedom of speech in order to make it a reality
Here I want to say a word of highest praise for heroes such as Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan, Chen Ziming, Liu Nianchun, Liu Xiaobo, Wang Donghai and Chen Longde. Even up against a monolithic government, even on such a rough and rugged path, these individuals have never given up in their struggle for freedom of speech. This sort of courage and spirit of sacrifice, this sort of tenacity and sense of reason, are the qualities we need most in our fight. Although they were persecuted by the government in the end, they upheld their freedom of speech and dignity as citizens. Compared with those who drift along in ignominy, satisfied to live as slaves, they deserve to be called the backbone of our people. Precisely because of their unflinching struggle, our country has not yet lost all hope of realizing freedom of speech. They have already started to clear the path; we must continue their work, making the path ever wider and brighter. We cannot give up until all Chinese citizens enjoy full freedom of speech.
Chinese citizen Wang Ming
November 16, 1996
This open letter was translated by Mark Goellner.