Government White Paper on Internet Claims Free Speech Protected

June 25, 2010

The State Council Information Office released its White Paper on the State of the Internet in China in June 2010 claiming that the Chinese government's regulation of the Internet guarantees freedom of speech and is consistent with international practice. The white paper highlights the government's efforts to expand Internet access and what it describes as lively exchanges on China's Internet, stating that large numbers of citizens express opinions online through blogs and comment boards. The white paper fails to address, however, aspects of China's regulation of the Internet that violate international human rights standards, including routine filtering of politically sensitive content and vague and broadly worded prohibitions on content.

The State Council Information Office released a white paper on the Chinese government's policies toward the Internet on June 8, 2010, aiming to present "the true situation of the development and regulation of the Internet in China" to Chinese citizens and the international community. The White Paper on the State of the Internet in China (Chinese, English via China Daily) claims that the government "guarantees citizens' freedom of speech on the Internet." It also claims that the government's model for regulating the Internet is "consistent with international practices."

Note that the English translation of the white paper published in the state-run China Daily appears not to follow the original Chinese text exactly. For this reason, the CECC has based the analysis below on its own English translation of the white paper.

White Paper's Claim Regarding Support for Free Speech

In a section titled "Guaranteeing Citizens' Freedom of Speech on the Internet," the white paper notes:

  • the Chinese government's support for news on the Internet to provide citizens with "abundant news information."
  • the presence of lively exchanges on China's Internet and "a huge quantity of BBS posts and blog articles" that would be "hard to imagine in any other country." (Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) are online discussion forums or message boards―see People's Daily Strong Country Forum for an example.)
  • figures such as China's 220 million bloggers and the more than 3 million posts daily on BBSs, news Web site comment pages, and blogs.
  • the government's encouragement of citizens' use of the Internet to supervise officials, including the establishment of informant Web sites by the Supreme People's Court, the Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and other government and Party entities to allow citizens to report on corrupt officials.

Elsewhere, the white paper notes the "large sum of money" the government has spent on Internet infrastructure and the government's goal of expanding Internet access from 28.9 percent to 45 percent of the population in five years.

The white paper's emphasis on quantitative data and government investment to support the claim that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet is similar to the argument Chinese officials made in their November 2008 national report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in advance of the Universal Periodic Review of the Chinese government's human rights record. Paragraph 60 of that report notes that "China has increased its expansion and development of the press and the publishing and information industries" in order to "strengthen the infrastructure that allows citizens to fully enjoy freedom of speech." The report also noted that at the time there were "1,919,000 websites in the country, with 253,000,000 Internet users and 46,980,000 blog writers. With such easy, fast and diverse ways of gaining access to information and expressing opinion, including criticism of the Government, Chinese citizens are enjoying an entirely new lifestyle."

Chinese Internet Policy's Compliance With International Human Rights Standards

While government efforts to expand Internet access have given citizens greater space for expression, under international human rights standards access to the Internet alone is insufficient to guarantee freedom of expression. Rather, the right to freedom of expression also depends on the type of content governments restrict, and whether restrictions are clearly provided in law and narrowly tailored (see Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China has signed and expressed an intent to ratify). Article 19 of the ICCPR permits governments to restrict content for the purpose of respecting the rights or reputations of others or protecting national security, public order, public health or morals, or the general welfare. In October 2009, the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 12/16 (Click on Symbol Number within the link), paragraph 5(p)(i) which calls on states to "refrain from imposing restrictions" inconsistent with Article 19 of the ICCPR, including on:

Discussion of government policies and political debate; reporting on human rights, government activities, and corruption in government; engaging in election campaigns, peaceful demonstrations or political activities, including for peace or democracy; and expression of opinion and dissent, religion or belief, including by persons belonging to minorities or vulnerable groups.

As the Commission noted in its 2009 Annual Report (pp. 59-61), the Chinese government and Internet companies, as required by Chinese regulations, routinely exceed the permissible purposes for Internet restrictions by blocking, removing, or shutting down Web sites and online comments and articles containing politically sensitive content. Furthermore, Chinese courts have punished citizens for criticizing the government and Communist Party online (recent cases include Liu Xiaobo, Tan Zuoren, Huang Qi) in trials where the court did little to assess the actual national security risk and provides no clear guidance of the boundary between free speech and national security risk. The white paper says that Chinese laws and regulations "clearly prohibit the spread of information that contains contents subverting state power, undermining national unity, infringing upon national honor and interests, inciting ethnic hatred and secession, advocating heresy, pornography, violence, terror and other information that infringes upon the legitimate rights and interests of others." Chinese regulations, however, do not provide any clear definition of these concepts. As noted in a February 25, 2010, Global Times article, several Chinese sources, including a Chinese Web site developer and a Chinese academic specializing in Internet politics, said that there are no clear guidelines on what content is permissible and that laws and regulations covering illegal online activity are vague and lack detail.