(Photo Credit: Suzanne Nossel)
It is extremely easy to consider free speech in China and free speech in the US as opposing sides. From a cultural standpoint, the US is home to a myriad of divergent opinions that people freely express every day. Because of this, and the often negative portrayal of censorship in China to those in the US, many within the country view China as a place devoid of meaningful dialogue and lacking in major human rights. According to a Pew Research Center poll, since 2018, Americans’ views of China, namely its government, have grown increasingly negative. In short responses filled out by respondents, words like “human rights,” “individual rights,” and “freedom” were common touchpoints for their concerns.
For many in the US, China’s rules on censorship are concerning because of the limitations on access to information that aren’t experienced in the US. China’s use of firewalls, restrictions of specific forms of media, and the responses to protests paint a very scary picture for those in the West. While some of the pessimism can be boiled down to an issue of “West vs. the Rest” mentality, some of those claims contain some validity as well.
China employs censorship groups that oversee digital and media-related information, imposes regulations on private media groups through contracts, and uses what is known as the Golden Shield Project, more commonly known as the “Great Firewall,” all to censor and regulate information. Within China, certain social media sites, news sites, and the internet all have very tangible restrictions, all with the purpose to show Chinese citizens information that they deem relevant and important.
However, Western views can often be hypocritical. America is a country that prides itself on free speech. The lack of censorship within the country has been essential in fighting social injustices and creating important dialogue since its founding. However, as technology, privatization, and polarization further within today’s society, so does the ability to speak freely.
During the pandemic, major tech platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook could be seen taking down or putting cautionary tags on COVID-related posts that were mainly misinformed or false. Alongside this, social media companies also employ algorithms to provide recommended content to users based on their previous online behavior. The marketing strategy is mainly used for user retention, but these programs often create polarization by targeting individuals’ political viewpoints. While these forms of regulations and suggestions are sensible from a financial standpoint, by doing so, the social and ethical implications are completely forgotten. In a very real way, the decisions made by private companies are increasingly reminiscent of the approach that China uses with digital information.
For most in the US, social media is just another extension, or even positive evolution, of open dialogue. Due to this, social media has widespread appeal, especially in a country built on the premise of freedom and liberty. However, alongside with this rapid expansion of free speech into the internet comes an increasing responsibility for private social media companies to handle it responsibly. These platforms have become tools for individuals to express whatever they want, regardless of how well-informed their opinions are. The US has yet to see any major forms of oversight over the ever-transforming role of private actors in free speech.
The East and the West can easily be considered as completely distinct cultures. However, the struggle to regulate censorship and free speech is a problem that both countries are dealing with. While they certainly have their differences, both countries and their respective citizens often face similar issues. If people of both Chinese and Western origins emphasize cross-cultural exchange and educate themselves on the differences and similarities between the both of them, everyone can have a better understanding of what true free speech is.