Premier Wen Jiabao Calls Freedom of Speech "Indispensable," Comments Reportedly Censored

January 10, 2011

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao answered questions on the topics of freedom of expression and political reform during an interview with the U.S.-based international cable network CNN that aired in early October 2010. In his interview, Wen said that freedom of speech was "indispensable" for both developing and developed countries and that the Chinese people's wishes for democracy and freedom were "irresistible." Chinese officials reportedly censored the interview within China.

Premier Wen Jiabao appeared in a CNN interview with journalist Fareed Zakaria that aired on October 3, 2010, according to an English transcript provided by CNN. In response to Zakaria's question about whether China could be "as strong and creative a nation with so many restrictions on freedom of expression, with the Internet being censored?" Wen said through a translator:

I believe freedom of speech is indispensable, for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong. Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution.

Wen also said "I don't think you know all about China on this point," and then cited figures regarding China's Internet to support his contention that there is freedom of speech in China. He said there are 400 million Internet users and 800 million cell phone subscribers in China who are able to express their views, some critical, on the Internet. He added:

I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we more importantly must create conditions to let them criticize the work of the government. It is only when there is the supervision and critical oversight from the people that the government will be in a position to do an even better job, and employees of government departments will be the true public servants of the people.

In response to Zakaria's observation that opinions challenging the "political primacy" of the Communist Party are blocked on the Internet and that Internet restrictions could impede people's creativity, Wen said:

I believe I and all the Chinese people have such a conviction that China will make continuous progress, and the people's wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope that you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.

In response to a question about Wen's commitment to political reform, Wen said:

In spite of the various discussions and views in society, and in spite of some resistance, I will act in accordance with these ideals unswervingly, and advance within the realm of my capabilities political restructuring... . I will not fall in spite of the strong wind and harsh rain, and I will not yield until the last day of my life.

According to Zakaria, the interview was Wen's first with a Western journalist since Zakaria last interviewed Wen in 2008 (CNN English transcript). During the 2008 interview, Wen spoke on such topics as Internet freedom and political reform, and said the "government should be subject to oversight by the people." In his 2008 interview, as in his 2010 discussion with Zakaria, Wen highlighted the number of Internet users in China (then over 200 million) and Internet comments critical of the government as evidence of China's Internet freedom. In both interviews Wen also mentioned the need for government limits on speech. In 2010, Wen said speech activities needed to be "conducted within the range allowed by" China's constitution and laws. Wen said controls were necessary because of China's large population and the need to maintain "normal order." In 2008, Wen said that China's "impos[ing] some proper restrictions" to uphold state security was important for "the overall safety of the country and for the freedom of the majority of the people."

Wen's CNN interview was preceded by other public appearances at which Wen discussed political reform. In August 2010, Wen gave a speech in the coastal city of Shenzhen, at which he said "[i]f there is no guarantee of reform of the political system, then results obtained from the reform of the economic system may be lost, and the goal of modernization cannot be achieved," according to an August 23 People's Daily article. The next month, during a talk with overseas Chinese media while in New York for the UN General Assembly, Wen reportedly responded to a question by saying, "I've previously said economic reform without the protection of political reform will not achieve complete success, and might even lose what's been gained," according to a September 27 South China Morning Post (SCMP) article ("Wen Returns to Hot Topic of Political Reform" - subscription required).

News media based in the United States and Hong Kong reported that Wen's political reform comments in his speech and interviews received little coverage in China, raising questions about restrictions on the free flow of information inside the country and the political sensitivity of Wen's remarks. An October 13 Washington Post (WP) article said the portions of Wen's Shenzhen speech referring to political reform were "never reported in most of the strictly controlled mainland press." SCMP reported that Wen's New York comments "only received sketchy reports at home." The New York Times (October 27) and the China Digital Times (October 20) reported that Chinese officials issued an October 19 directive ordering Web sites and news organizations to remove all content relating to Wen's CNN interview. The WP noted that a Xinhua article on the CNN interview had "omitted the remarks about democracy and political reform." On October 12 the Beijing News included an article (in Chinese) on Wen's CNN interview, noting that Zakaria had referenced Wen's Shenzhen remarks and that Wen had responded by summing up his political ideals in four main points: "to let every Chinese citizen live happily and with dignity, to let everyone feel safe and secure, to let society achieve fairness and justice, and to let everyone face the future with confidence." The article made no mention of Wen's comments about freedom of speech, democracy, and political reform. Official Chinese media similarly refrained from reporting Wen's comments about political reform during his 2008 CNN interview, according to an October 5, 2008, Radio Free Asia article (in Chinese).

Some Chinese citizens have referenced Wen's statements in their calls for greater freedom of speech. In early October, for example, 23 former top Communist Party officials, including Mao Zedong's former secretary, issued an open letter calling for an end to censorship of the press and the creation of a press law to protect freedom of speech and the press, citing Wen's "freedom of speech is indispensable" comment.

Wen's characterization of the current state of freedom of expression in China, including his citation of the number of Internet users in China and the presence of language critical of the government on the Internet, echo the government's statements that this is proof that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of speech. In June 2010, for example, China's State Council Information Office released a White Paper on the State of the Internet (Chinese, English via China Daily), which notes that lively exchanges occur on China's Internet and that China has a "huge quantity of BBS posts and blog articles" that would be "hard to imagine in any other country." (For more information on the White Paper, see this related CECC analysis.) Under international human rights standards, however, the existence of a large number of Internet users in China and some discussion that the government characterizes as "critical" or "vigorous" are insufficient evidence that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of speech. Rather, under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed and expressed an intent to ratify, the test is whether government restrictions on speech are "provided by law" and "necessary" to protect one of the purposes provided in Article 19, which are limited to purposes such as protecting national security and public morals and do not include purposes such as censoring and punishing criticism of the government. Chinese officials, however, continue to use restrictions on speech to censor and punish criticism of the Chinese government and Communist Party.

For more information, see Section II―Freedom of Expression in the CECC's 2010 Annual Report.