The five levels of expression in China

The following article, shared through Sina Weibo as a text image this week, shares a recent talk given by Wu Si (吴思), a former China Media Project fellow and the editor-in-chief of the liberal journal Yanhuang Chunqiu. In his talk, Wu Si described freedom of expression in China as a building with five levels — starting at the Constitutional ground level and moving up to the odd and unpredictable space of the internet and social media.

Wu’s talk offers a great overview of how media and information control work in China, how much can actually be said (and how much can’t), and why. The writer of the piece summarizes Wu’s remarks, but at points the voice seems to be Wu’s own. For the convenience of our readers, I have separated the portions laying out Wu’s ideas from the introductions and transitions that are clearly the author’s.

Wu Si: The Five Levels of Freedom of Expression in China
Kai Wen (凯文)
December 4, 2012

Wu Si is one of the best-known scholars in mainland China today, and his books Unspoken Rules and Blood Compact have not only netted top sales but have introduced two concepts that have now become effective tools for observing traditional and modern China. At the same time, as the editor-in-chief of Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine, he has a deep understanding of media controls. At a recent event to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Constitution, Wu Si used the metaphor of property area to offer a layman’s explanation of the situation with regard to freedom of expression in China today.

Is it true that mainland media have not enjoyed freedom of expression in recent times? There are very different views on this issue in the leadership and the public. In the propaganda dished out by official mouthpieces, modern media [in China] have real and full-fledged freedom of expression; but for those radically opposed [to this idea], the control exercised by official propaganda organs is like an iron curtain, to a large degree killing off the vitality of public opinion. As the editor-in-chief of Yanhuang Chunqiu, Wu Si must frequently deal with controls on expression. In his view, freedom of expression in China can be separated into five levels.

The first level is the pretty scene painted by the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, in which Article 35 stipulates that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” This phrase is often referred to as the “six great freedoms” (六大自由), and no limitations whatsoever are placed upon them [in the language of the Constitution]. On the face of it, this looks very attractive. Applying the metaphor of property area we might say this is 100 square meters [or roughly 1,100 square feet].

Does this 100 square meters exist in truth? No. And the reason lies with the second level: laws and regulations. Wu Si explains in detail the complicated operation of this level.

Despite repeated efforts through twists and turns, a “Press Law” (新闻法) could not take shape [in China], and so this second level is empty, to be filled in with administrative regulations. They stipulate on the one hand who can take part in publishing, who has the right to publish. On the other hand, adminstrative regulations also decide what you can and cannot talk about. [CMP NOTE: In the 1980s there was a real attempt by reformers in China to introduce a law protecting freedom of speech, but these efforts met resistance from hardliners and were scuttled entirely after June 4, 1989.]

One of the most important regulations concerns who can enter the [media] market, which in fact is governed by a system of “supervising and publishing institutions” (主管主办单位制度). What is the system of supervising and publishing institutions? To create a media, you must apply through a supervising institution in order to receive approval. Only provincial and ministerial-level bodies can serve as supervising institutions. You must have a provincial or ministerial-level body submit an application to the General Administration of Press and Publications, and only then will you be accepted and considered for approval. If you are only a private citizen, and are not a branch institution of a provincial or ministerial-level body, then you have no right to submit an application. Through the use of this method, the press freedom of every individual citizen [in China] is in fact null and void — it becomes a right belonging instead to the [official] unit.

Another aspect is what you can say. For the publishing sector, the regulation directly managing the expression space is the “registration of major topics system” (重大选题备案制度). If you want to say something that could have a major impact, you must first report to a higher body and put it on file (上报备案). This applies to major questions of Communist Party history, national history, military history, and anything concerning affairs involving officials now or at any previous time above the “four deputies and two highs” (四副两高) -- meaning the vice-chairman [of the CCP], vice-premier [of the State Council], vice-chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the judges of the Supreme People’s Court, and the heads of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. Notice that it specifies “now or at any previous time. That means from Party co-founder Chen Duxiu (陈独秀) all the way down to today. Issues concerning ethnic minorities. Religious issues. Issues concerning the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the international Communist movement. And major topics that might impact social stability. As far as publishing newspapers and magazines goes, if you’re not just talking about pretty things but actually discuss the affairs of the nation, then you could say every single article could be construed as a major topic. In this sense, at least in theory, all of them should be reported and registered.

What does this mean, “report and register” (报备)? China actually has no [prior] news censorship system, at least in name. So if censorship is not permitted, what do you do? You “report and register.” “Report and register” means that we let them know that we are doing a report, and we leave it at that, no need to seek approval. But under China’s system of “report and register” a [prior] censorship system is in fact in operation. But it is not carried out very strictly, and so this is something of a grey area. The reason things are so unclear is that not-so-bad Article 35 of the Constitution we talked about earlier. Article 35 says that Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of speech and of the press. If we didn’t have this language, we could just call [our current system] a censorship system (审批制度). But since there is this article, we can’t call it a censorship system, but call it a report and register system instead. In this way, the language in the Constitution about having 100 square meters of freedom of speech isn’t just empty talk. There is some meaning in it. If this promise hadn’t been made [in the Constitution], everything underneath would have become a lot more direct; there wouldn’t be any need to cover anything up at all. In the process of application [of press controls], the stipulations of the Constitution serve to restrict administrative regulations — a system of censorship becomes a system of report and register.

On the second level, if you talk about pretty and harmless matters you have about 78 square meters. But if you talk about national matters, in fact your expression space shrinks down from 100 square meters at the Constitutional level to about 10 meters.

On the third level of freedom of expression, “administrative orders and bans” (行政命令), Wu Si explains:

When you’re running a newspaper, magazine or website in China you regularly receive certain phone calls to “just say HI” (打招呼). These are administrative orders and bans. They specify what you can say, and what you cannot say. Generally speaking, the things within the scope of those important topics we talked about earlier that need to be reported and registered are difficult to handle in practice, and in fact there is no way to keep a handle on them. So if you bring them up, you bring them up. If you touch them, you touch them. If what you say is in line with the Party line there is generally no problem. If what you say is not in line, only then will someone call to say HI, sending down an order or ban. If everyone is perfectly honest, they know in their hearts where the boundaries are. If you’re a good and well-behaved editor-in-chief, editor or reporter the two side co-exist in harmony. In this situation, the degree of freedom of expression we enjoy is not the 10 square meters dictated by regulations that we saw on Level Two, not that dismal — we might have 20 square meters.

The last two levels owe their thanks to the efforts of bolder journalists and citizens:

On the fourth level there are some newspapers and magazines that are relatively “fierce” (猛), for example Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily. When they lose an editor [over a sensitive report] they are replaced with another, and through and through they remain “fierce” and are difficult to deal with. And there are magazines, like Caijing, which aren’t under directly managed by any office in the administrative system. They have entered with fuzzy identities, as corporate entities, and managing them isn’t all that easy. Some of these magazines have really strong backstage supporters, and also strong people in front of the stage [editors and reporters]. When both the front and the back of the stage are strong then it is sometimes possible to expand the expression space to around 30 square meters, or even to 50 square meters. This is the sort of expression space we enjoy when we face an editor-in-chief who doesn’t follow the rules so much.

Now for Level Five. To enter [the media] you must have supervising and publishing institutions. But if you open up a Weibo account who are your supervising and publishing institutions? If we hold a discussion forum, who are our supervising and publishing institutions? When you talk “crap” over the dinner table, who manages you? There we have another expression space. To set up a Weibo account you don’t need approval. Of course you might be “pursued cross-province” [for something you said], that kind of thing. If, like the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, you focus on an issue like re-education through labor, these things can happen. But generally speaking, there is no entry system, and that makes this a very big space. Tens of millions of people have Weibo accounts and it’s impossible to manage them all successfully. So this gives us the freedom we find on Level Five. And this freedom is a bit roomier than what we found on Level Four. Compared to the rather “fierce” editors I just talked about who get maybe between 30 and 50 square meters, the space [on Level Five] maybe gets up to 60-70 quare meters.

Therefore, in Wu Si’s view, the way space for expression in China is structured is quite complex. Freedom of expression is not “total,” but nor is it “nonexistent.” It can be found on all five levels. Freedom of expression is squeezed down from 100 square meters down to 10 square meters, and then it expands back up to 60 or 70 square meters, not as a result of formal policies or official grace but through the resistance of media professionals and ordinary citizens.

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