The right to information at the heart of modern China’s intellectual discourse

The right to information at the heart of modern China’s intellectual discourse

The universal principles of human rights, including the right to information, have been claimed by progressive Chinese scholars and intellectuals since the 19th century. Despite many setbacks in contemporary China, the struggle for the right to information has continued to be a core intellectual cause.

The endorsement of the right to information and freedom of expression can be traced throughout Chinese intellectual and political history, countering the dominant narrative of cultural relativism that argues that China’s unique development path cannot reconcile with “Western values” of human rights.

December 2023 marked the 75th anniversary of the publication of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This landmark document spearheaded “the rights revolution” — the development of civil rights worldwide — and has played a crucial role in shaping the global governance of human rights since the Second World War. Article 19 in the UDHR contains the key principle of the right to information: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

On joining the United Nations in 1971, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was committed to the UDHR, including this key article, and yet it is obvious that it has been in constant default of this principle, even more so since levels of censorship and information control by the government have significantly worsened in recent years. Furthermore, China’s ascent to a global superpower has emboldened the party-state’s challenges to the international norms outlined by documents such as UDHR.

This trend of increasing ideological and information control was exemplified in the party communiqué Document 9 in 2013, which openly opposed various “false ideological trends, positions, and activities,” including “universal values” and “the West’s idea of journalism.” One of its most recent propaganda projects, the “Global Civilisation Initiative” (2023), claims that perceptions of “common aspirations” are “relative” and therefore countries must “refrain from imposing their own values or models on others and from stoking ideological confrontation.” Clearly, this relativist rhetoric stands completely opposed to the universalism that underpins the UDHR to which China has officially committed. However, cultural relativism is one of the key tropes of the Chinese government discourse, deployed to fend off criticism of its draconian information control.

What follows is a brief review of evidence of a deep commitment to universalism — and especially freedom of communication — amongst Chinese intellectuals spanning a period from the late 19th century up to the present. This could contribute to a wider rebuttal of the party-state’s notion of Chinese exceptionalism and the refusal to fulfil its constitutional obligation to the right to information in China. 

Drawing from selected intellectuals’ writing and political protest documents in several key historical moments since the 20th century, the aim is not to engage in the detail of academic and theoretical debates either in human rights discourse or in Chinese history. Rather it is to present some primary sources illustrative of the continuing aspirations and efforts of Chinese intellectuals in the pursuit of freedom of speech and a free press – the core meanings of Article 19 – over the past 100-plus years. 

Late Qing Dynasty reformist intellectuals

Liang Qichao’s editorial in Qing Yibao, 1901. 

Putting aside controversies over the “response to the West” paradigm, and the cultural imperialism thesis, as professor of Modern China Studies Marina Svensson’s study concludes, one of the main debates among Chinese intellectuals during the late Qing dynasty was that surrounding the concept of human rights. Despite differences from Western interpretations due to complex historical backgrounds and dynamics, the key idea of a free press was embraced not only as a concept and principle, but also as a practice. At the turn of the 20th century, the unofficial Chinese press made substantial advances, with some suggestions that over 500 diverse newspapers and magazines had emerged in the country by 1911, when the Republic of China was founded. 

Liang Qichao (1873-1929) was one of the most influential reformist intellectuals and prominent journalists at that time. In 1896, he spearheaded as the editor-in-chief of Shi Wubao, one of the earliest reformist newspapers. In 1898, he came to be in charge of Qing Yibao, in which he wrote in December 1901 a powerful editorial to emphasise the vital importance of freedom of expression and pluralistic journalism: “The three freedoms – freedom of thoughts, freedom of speech, and freedom of publications – are undoubtedly the mother of all civilisations, out of which are born all the diverse phenomena of the modern world.”

Liang Qichao’s article also observed that among the different types of Western newspapers, there existed national newspapers adopting a cosmopolitan stance and concern for a wider humanity. He proposed that China needed to emulate this and that Qing Yibao should endeavour to cultivate an international perspective.

The New Culture and May Fourth Movement 

救国视野下的耶稣形象:试论五四时期陈独秀对基督教的态度变化/丁祖潘– 《世代》

La Jeunesse (New Youth) Volume 1, Issue 2, 1915.

Established in 1915, La Jeunesse (New Youth) was one of the leading publications during the New Culture Movement, which advocated reforms in China through the introduction of science and democracy. Its founder, Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), was an iconic political thinker and author, and he was appointed Dean of the School of Letters at Peking University in 1917.

Among a range of political and civil rights that the periodical was promoting, as Marina Svensson documents, “freedom of thought, speech and publication were especially high on the agenda.” In the opening issue of New Youth, Chen wrote an editorial article Call to Youth in which he advised young Chinese to seek autonomy in forming their own way of life, values, and beliefs — and to embrace an open and cosmopolitan view of the world. He also wrote in other places promoting the importance of freedom of speech. 

Other prominent intellectuals such as Hu Shi, Cai Yuanpei, Li Dazhao and Gao Yihan were also advocates for freedom of speech. Gao Yihan (1885-1968) wrote in the second issue of New Youth: “In order to maintain public liberty, independent media is essential. The development of human nature needs to embrace freedom and the media need to reflect freedom of expression.”

Among student activists, Luo Jialun wrote in the independent magazine New Tide to champion freedom of thought “based on a utilitarian justification.” Luo became dedicated to the cause and went on to translate John Bagwell Bury’s 1927 book A History of Freedom of Thought.

P. C. Chang and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights


P. C. Chang & UDHR, 1948. Source: Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University.

Peng Chun Chang (1892-1957), a Chinese philosopher and educator, was the vice-chairman of the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations and one of the most influential and major architects in the writing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Human Rights professor at Stockholm University Hans Ingvar Roth explains, Chang adopted both a pragmatic and philosophical approach to the issue and articulated his unequivocal support for freedom of speech and a free press — which, he maintained, were compatible with traditional Confucianism.

In 1948 at a UN meeting in Geneva, Chang made the following points: “The printed world since its very inception has been the greatest enemy of tyrants and autocrats. Little wonder, in their attempt to subjugate the people, they first turned their wrath on the makers of the printed word. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, builder of the Great Wall of China, was surely a forerunner of all dictators and tyrants who have suppressed freedom of speech. It was he who put to death scholars whose writings he did not like, and it was he who ordered all books to be burned. He tried to put an end to the freedom of thought and information by suppressing the printed word and its authors. And what was the result? He failed miserably and his dynasty was overthrown. Dictators, whenever and wherever found, may well take note of his experience! The history of China in the past 2,000 years is replete with statesmen, scholars, and poets who preferred imprisonment, exile and even death to not being free to vent to their own thoughts and beliefs.”

Hu Ping’s essay “On Freedom of Speech” 

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The manuscript of Hu Ping’s essay “On Freedom of Speech,” 1980.

During Mao Zedong’s era (1949-1976), all media and journalism organisations were taken over and controlled by the party-state as part of the official propaganda and ideological apparatus. However, against the backdrop of severe repression of information and the free press, Chinese philosopher Hu Ping (1947-) drafted an essay entitled “On Freedom of Speech” in 1975. Early versions were published in 1979 in the underground magazine Wotu in Beijing and circulated on Beijing University campus in 1980. Its final version was published in the reformist periodical Youth Forum in 1986 and widely spread among progressive scholars and officials. 

Hu’s sixty-thousand-word essay confronted a range of Western and Chinese writing he could access at that time concerning discussions of freedom of speech. He built a strong argument that “freedom of speech is the foremost human right” both conceptually and practically based on Chinese realities. He regarded freedom of speech as the most fundamental principle of political rights and compared it to the lever to move the world in Archimedes’s famous quote “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world. 

Hu Ping wrote: “The key is providing those of average courage and intelligence with a fundamental principle that is easily grasped and easily supported. A principle that will safeguard the people’s most fundamental rights and smooth the way for the future process of democratisation. It should provide a foundation for the entire people, one that will never collapse. As I see it, that principle is freedom of speech.” (…) Our ideal is that, by our persistent efforts, we might help the people truly understand and accept the principle, so that it will take root in China. Our descendants should live in a land where they can think, speak, and write freely. By then they may think it strange, that we once lived in an age when we brought disaster on our heads simply by speaking out loud.”

The Tiananmen Democratic Movement 

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Tiananmen protests, 1989. The picture reads “Free press, Free assembly.”

In the post-Mao era (1976-1989), despite still limited freedom of expression, progressive journalism and burgeoning publications made a critical contribution to society. Many intellectual discussions, open letters and protests led up to the climax of the 1989 democratic movement, where the principle of freedom of speech remained one of the key issues in the intellectual discourse and political protests. 

In February 1989, prominent dissident intellectual Fang Lizhi (1936-2012) published the article “China’s Despair and China’s Hope.” In it, he argued that China’s hope lies in the emergence of pressure groups which would challenge the leadership’s authority. As Fang observes, “unofficial clubs, associations, discussion groups, and other informal gatherings” already surfaced across various trades and societal levels in China, operating as embryonic pressure groups. Among the topics these pressure groups most commonly discussed, the right to information appears as the first item: “1. Guarantee of human rights. Most importantly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Also, the release of Wei Jingsheng and all political prisoners.”

Fang also wrote that: “The road to Chinese democracy has already been long and difficult and is likely to remain difficult for many years to come. (…) Chinese history since the May Fourth period, including the forty years since 1949, makes it clear that democracy is not bestowed from the top, but must be fought for and won. We must not expect this fact to change in the decades to come. Yet, it is precisely because democracy is generated from the bottom that despite the many frustrations and disappointments in our present situation I still view our future with hope.”

Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08 

Charter 08 Still Alive in the Chinese Blogosphere - Xia Yeliang (夏业良) etc.

Charter 08

The setback of 1989 did not end the struggle for freedom and democracy in China. In 2008, a petition to the government, Charter 08, was published online and signed by high-profile Chinese dissident intellectuals and human rights activists, including future Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo. It symbolised a milestone in the post-1989 democratic movement. In this manifesto, it places the right to information at the top of key universal human values:

This is a historic moment for China, and our future hangs in the balance. In reviewing the political modernisation process of the past hundred years or more, we reiterate and endorse basic universal values as follows: freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilised ideals.”

The “Blank Paper” movement 

People hold white sheets of paper in protest against COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing on Sunday. | REUTERS

“Blank Paper” protests in Beijing, 2022. Source: Reuters.

At the end of 2022, public protests of various sizes sprang up across China, where students and other citizens voiced a range of grievances, high among them the disgruntlement towards the government’s “Zero-Covid” policy. The protests were coined the “Blank Paper” movement after the protesters expressed their anger and discontent by holding up blank sheets of A4 paper, symbolising both the silencing of protest and defiance and rejection of state censorship and control. Many were protesting against the regime’s stifling of free speech and its heavy-handed political control.

To cite one example, on Tsinghua University campus in Beijing, a video captured hundreds of students gathering to air their grievances, amongst them a young woman saying: “If we dare not speak out because we are afraid of being arrested, I think our people will be disappointed with us. As a student of Tsinghua University, I will regret it for the rest of my life!” In the background, large numbers of students chant the slogan: “Democracy, Rule of Law and freedom of speech.”

Although these spontaneous protests were met with a severe government crackdown, it is questionable how long the enforced silence will remain. It becomes evident that more and more Chinese youth and members of the overseas Chinese diaspora have emerged to express and claim their right to information.

From Liang Qichao in 1901 to the unnamed protestor on Tsinghua University campus in 2022, these seven cases not only provide insights into the struggle for freedom of speech in China during the past 100-plus years. They also tell a story of common struggles against oppression.

As Hu Ping said in an interview, his ideas of freedom of speech were formed during the Cultural Revolution. He maintains that it was the catastrophic reality of this era, and the deep fear he and many experienced during it that became the source of his criticism of the state apparatus and his embrace of liberalism. It is both a regional and universal struggle underscored and embedded in the Chinese intellectual discourse, which has become part of the global endeavour of fulfilling the promises of UDHR, as Amartya Sen puts it, a “critical engagement ‘sans frontières.’”

Su Yun (pen name)
Former journalist, commentator on contemporary Chinese media and culture, Circle 19 participant.