However, as speech has mushroomed, so have strictures. Digital repression began in China nearly 20 years ago when the government identified the Internet as a threat to state power and national unity. Legislation in the mid-1990s barred transmission of information in nine broad categories, including attacks on the reputation of state institutions and activities that contravene the Chinese Constitution or laws. Later laws restricted online providers from operating without a state license or making available international news.
Caught in a race against new platforms and technologies, China’s censorship may gradually collapse under its own weight. Surveillance slows Internet traffic, burdening the country’s vast economic engine. Even pillars of the system are showing cracks. In late March, Zeng Li, a long-serving censorship official, wrote a deathbed apology for banning pieces he shouldn’t have. “I don’t want to be a sinner against history,” he wrote.
Because of its ferocity, China’s battle with unwanted speech will either embolden or inhibit censors in other authoritarian regimes. It may also dictate whether China lets dissent build under pressure or instead lets off steam, enabling its politics and society to evolve in response to public needs and demands.
For defenders of free speech, these high stakes mean that the fight against censorship in China must be a call to arms. Governments and international groups must support human rights defenders and free speech advocates. Corporations doing business in China must resist capitulation to censorship, surveillance and government encroachment on personal freedoms. Ordinary citizens, online and off, must amplify the voices of Chinese writers and bloggers, transmitting their messages and demanding their freedom.
Only by siding with and arming the Chinese rebels will free speech win the day.
Suzanne Nossel is the executive director of PEN American Center.