International attention has long been focused on China’s internet governance practises. With the emergence of social media sites like Weibo and WeChat, the topic of whether or not Chinese social media regulations limit users’ freedom of speech arises. This essay contends that such governance drastically restricts freedom of speech in China, despite government claims to be promoting social stability.
1.2: Overview of Internet Governance in China
Chinese internet censorship, sometimes known as the “Great Firewall,” is a sophisticated set of laws and technological tools used to restrict the flow of information on the internet. Read more about it here How censorship works in China. It functions through a number of mechanisms, including IP blocking, keyword filtering, and content removal, all of which are carried out by various governmental and regulatory organisations. According to reports by (Martinsons et al., 2005; Vuori & Paltemaa, 2019), the Chinese government has passed more than 60 internet laws, which are enforced by more than a dozen official organisations. This has created a highly regulated online environment. The countries with the tightest internet regulations are depicted in Figure 1. China has the least free internet usage, as was to be expected.
Figure 1. Countries with the least internet freedom index scores 2021 -source (Chart: Where Governments Have the Tightest Grip on the Internet | Statista, n.d.)
China continues to score at a noticeably low 10 points as of October 2022, as seen by the statistics in Figure 2, placing it as one of the least free countries in terms of internet usage. This rating indicates serious limitations in a variety of internet freedom areas, such as impeded access to online services, constrained freedom of expression, and violated privacy rights. Such a result is indicative of a setting marked by strict governmental control, ubiquitous surveillance, and harsh legal frameworks that stifle online criticism. As a result, this emphasises China’s position as a government that takes a very restrictive stance towards internet freedom.
Figure 2. Degree of internet freedom in the Asia-Pacific region in 2022 – source (APAC: Internet Freedom by Country 2022 | Statista, n.d.)
2.0 Impact on Freedom of Speech
2.1: Case Studies – Weibo, WeChat, and Other Platforms
Weibo and WeChat are two examples of social media sites that have significantly influenced Chinese society’s public conversation. These sites do not, however, operate without government interference. Weibo, which is sometimes likened to Twitter, for example, has automatic and manual systems to check for and eliminate posts that are politically sensitive. This restricts conversation on issues like the Tiananmen Square protests and Tibetan independence.
WeChat, a versatile app compared to WhatsApp, uses comparable procedures. Real-time chat discussion monitoring is possible, and sensitive phrases can raise alarms that result in account suspension. (Ye & Zhao, 2023) analysis indicates that this level of surveillance chills free expression.
2.2: Types of Content Typically Censored
Content that is frequently censored includes criticism of the Communist Party, analysis of critical historical events, and even support for democratic or human rights reforms. Additionally, trending topics or hashtags that appear to criticise the government can be changed or removed. Beyond political material, even social concerns like other rights are susceptible to content suppression, according to a thorough investigation by (Tai, 2014).
2.3: Real-world Consequences on Public Discourse
Social media filtering techniques have real effects on public dialogue. They foster a culture where self-censorship becomes the norm, restricting free speech and discouraging opposing viewpoints.
Furthermore, the incapacity to discuss important concerns hinders group problem-solving and maintains the status quo. For instance, as stated in a research by (Yang et al., 2019), it has been challenging to mobilise public opinion against industrial pollution due to the repression of environmental activists on Weibo.
3.1: Argument – Censorship for Social Stability and Harmony
The requirement for societal peace and stability is one of the justifications for internet censorship in China that is most frequently claimed. Filtering “harmful” information from the internet, according to the Chinese government, is an essential step in preserving a common national identity and averting societal upheaval. In a journal paper titled “Internet Governance for Social Harmony,” the Chinese government makes the case that internet control can be crucial in halting the spread of extremist ideas and preserving public order.
3.2: Rebuttal – The Stifling of Dissent and the Danger of a Homogeneous Opinion
Although the idea of societal stability is significant, opponents contend that it is frequently upheld at the expense of silencing disagreement and encouraging uniform thinking. The government effectively controls the narrative when it selectively blocks the internet, leaving little place for opposing viewpoints or constructive criticism.
This uniformity of opinion, according to The Impact of Censorship on Social Stability, poses serious risks. First off, by excluding alternatives that differ from the government’s position, it reduces the public’s capacity for group problem-solving. Second, by restricting public discussion of governmental acts, it reduces accountability. Finally, it increases the chance of “social stability” being a euphemism for ideological homogeneity, when opposing ideas are never entertained nor discussed.
Although preserving social order is a desirable aim, the method used to accomplish it—namely, substantial internet censorship—has a unique set of drawbacks. It limits the range of viewpoints, stifles criticism, and may hinder societal advancement. The primary premise, that internet regulation as practised by Chinese social media platforms substantially restricts freedom of speech, is thus unaffected by the counterargument for social stability.
The processes and effects of internet regulation on Chinese social media platforms have been thoroughly examined in this study. The complex system of internet regulation, which includes the Great Firewall and platform-specific controls on Weibo and WeChat, was covered in the introduction. Later parts focused on the kinds of content that are frequently restricted and the effects that these actions have on public debate in the actual world in order to assess the resulting repression of free speech.
The government’s defence that internet filtering is required for the benefit of societal peace and stability was specifically examined as a counterargument. The reply, however, showed that such a system comes at the expense of limiting disagreement and encouraging a uniform viewpoint, which poses serious threats to society advancement and free speech.
The conflict between the pursuit of social stability and the values of free expression is one of the puzzling paradoxes that the subject of internet governance in China poses. Although the government may have good intentions in trying to keep society peaceful, the strategies used create moral and philosophical questions. The government runs the danger of fostering an echo chamber that is inimical to the values of a fair and progressive society by stifling varied voices and viewpoints.
The freedom to listen, discuss, and interact with opposing perspectives are equally important to exercising one’s right to free speech. A government runs the danger of undermining the same stability it aims to maintain when it assumes the position of the last arbitrator of what may and cannot be spoken. This is due to the fact that a stable society is one that has the resources and freedoms to settle issues in a peaceful and beneficial way, rather than just one that is conflict-free.
There are worrisome concerns about the long-term repercussions for free speech and democratic debate, even while internet governance in Chinese social media platforms may be successful in managing the narrative. As a result, the controversy over internet regulation in China serves as a sobering example of the delicate balance that needs to be struck between societal harmony and individual liberties.
Weijia Xu 520190285