The Chinese Foundations of the Right to Information
We, the participants in Circle 19, a group of Chinese people and friends of China, independent of any political affiliation, aspire to contribute through our work to the development of a modern, democratic, and open China, in which information circulates freely;
Our group’s mission is to promote the right to information in China, grounded in universal and Chinese intellectual resources; we are proud inheritors of values developed throughout the history of this country.
China is a millennia-old and multi-ethnic entity with diversepluralistic traditions; “Chinese culture” encompasses a complex and evolving reality that cannot be grasped in a monolithic way; we cherish this diversityplurality.
The name of our group refers to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the 1919 May Fourth Movement, which advocated reforms in China, including the establishment of the right to information;
In accordance with the Declaration on Information and Democracy, published on 5 November 2018, the right to information consists of the freedom to seek, access and receive reliable information, and this right is essential for China and its citizens;
Gathered in Paris on 12 September 2023 for Circle 19’s inaugural symposium, we solemnly declare the following:
The Right to information: A universal principle engraved in the history, present, and future of China
A Chinese legacy
The invention of journalism
China is the cradle of printing, a technique developed in the 8th century and which, perfected with movable type three centuries later, made possible the mass dissemination of information throughout the world.
China also made a major contribution to the invention of journalism with the development, as early as the 10th century, of privately-owned news sheets competing with official bulletins, some of which were banned by the authorities; and with the first modern current affairs periodicals appearing in Beijing at the end of the 16th century.
In the 19th century, China took part in the international expansion of the daily press notably with the launch in 1874 of the Xunhuan Ribao (Universal Circulated Herald), a newspaper that included numerous editorials. At the start of the 20th century, the Chinese press had reached an unprecedented level of development, with titles representing all political sensibilities.
From the 1980s onwards, Chinese media such as Southern Weekly and Caixin have brought about major social advances by alerting public opinion to abuses such as corruption, environmental damage, or public health threats, thereby compelling political decision-makers to acknowledge and address the problems exposed.
The concepts of freedom of expression, public deliberation, and people’s participation in political affairs have been theorised by numerous Chinese thinkers during different periods of China’s history, from ancient times to the present day. King Liu De (160-129 BC), quoted by historian Ban Gu (32-92), was already insisting on the need to “seek truth from facts.”
Two millennia later, the intellectual and journalist Liang Qichao (1873-1929), one of the great inspirers of the reformist movements of the early twentieth century, drew on the same principles, asserting that a civilisation could not prosper without “freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.” Whatever their differences, the nationalist revolutionary movements, nationalist in 1911 and communist in 1949, both claimed this heritage.
Charter 08, published in 2008 by Chinese human rights intellectuals and activists, and largely drafted by Liu Xiaobo, the future Nobel Peace Prize laureate, inherited these principles when, in Recommendation 11, it called on the Chinese authorities to ensure “the right of citizens to information and oversight of public affairs.”
A historical demand
Whenever they had the opportunity, the Chinese public expressed with strength and without ambiguity their aspiration for the full exercise of human rights, including the right to information. The revolutionary movements, nationalist in 1911 and communist in 1949, both enjoyed some popular support because their initiators promised to implement these rights.
In recent Chinese history, from the beginnings of the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” in 1957 to the Canton Manifesto against the Cultural Revolution in 1974, from the Beijing Spring and its Democracy Wall in 1978 to the democratic movement of 1989, the Chinese public’s demand for freedom of expression, and its corollaries the right to information and freedom of the press
the right to information and its corollaries, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, has continued to resurface.
The Tiananmen Square movement protesters called for political and democratic reforms in which this right was centre stage, and even the bloodiest of crackdowns has not managed to discourage this legitimate aspiration in the long run.
The spontaneous movements of resistance to online censorship in the 2010s, and the “blank paper” protest movement in 2022, have confirmed the consistency of the Chinese public in asserting their fundamental rights, with the right to information at the forefront.
A right enshrined in the Constitution
The first Chinese constitution, promulgated in 1908 by imperial edict, already proclaimed in Article 11 “freedom of expression and writing, and freedom of the press.” The Constitution of the Republic of China, the first Chinese constitutional text adopted by an elected Parliament in 1923, reiterated the same principles of “freedom of expression” and “freedom of publication” in Article 11.
Despite systematic violations of the right to information, the communist regime in power since 1949 has nevertheless maintained the principles of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in its successive constitutions adopted in 1954, 1975, 1978, and 1982, as well as in the official rhetoric of the party-State to this day.
Texts of constitutional value
The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, adopted in 1982 and last amended in 2016, dedicates Article 35 to “freedom of speech, the press, and publication” and guarantees in Article 41 the “right to criticise and make suggestions regarding any state organ or state employee.”
The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which came into effect in 1997, and the Basic Law of the Macao Special Administrative Region, which came into effect in 1999, both guarantee “freedom of speech, the press and of publication” in their Article 27.
The Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party, adopted in 1982, states in its General Programme that the Party “will encourage the free expression of opinions.”
A political promise
China’s National Five-Year Action Plan for Human Rights
China’s National Five-year Action Plan for Human Rights, adopted by the People’s Republic of China on 21 September 2021, dedicates Chapter 2 to the “rights to be informed, to participate, to be heard,” the obligation for the State to provide citizens with “diversified and convenient channels to express their views,” and to “encourage the media and citizens to exercise supervision through reporting.”
White Paper “China: A Democracy That Works”
The white paper entitled “China: A Democracy That Works,” published on 4 December 2021 by the Information Office of the State Council of China, reaffirms the right “to be informed about, to be involved in, to express views on, and to supervise the state and social affairs,” to “criticise and make suggestions regarding any state organ or public servant” within the exercise of “freedom of expression, [of] the press.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the United Nations (UN), of which China is a founding member, proclaims in Article 19 the right of all human beings to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas.”
Treaties and conventions
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), signed by China in 1998 but not yet ratified, provides in Article 19 for the “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”
The Constitution of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), adopted in 1945 and to the drafting of which China made significant contributions, calls in its Preamble and Article 1 for the “unrestricted pursuit of objective truth, and the free exchange of ideas and knowledge” and the “free flow of ideas by word and image.”
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, signed and ratified by China in 1981, guarantees in Article 5 “the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
Programme of Action
The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted in 1993 at the World Conference on Human Rights by 171 states, including China, emphasises “the importance of objective, responsible, and impartial information” and “encourages the increased involvement of the media, for whom freedom and protection should be guaranteed within the framework of national law” (Article 39).
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, unanimously adopted by 189 countries, including China, at the 4th World Conference on Women on 15th September 1995 [“ensure women’s equal access to (…) information, communication” (Article 35)].
Universal Periodic Review commitments
During the 2018 United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, the Chinese government accepted 284 recommendations, including to “protect and guarantee respect for freedom of information and expression, in particular by journalists”, and to “ensure a safe environment for journalists”.
Free access to information: An absolute necessity for China’s development
For political development
Free access to information, far from representing a threat to China’s social order, is, on the contrary, an absolute necessity for the harmonious political and social development of the country. In China, as in any human community, public access to reliable information, facilitated by the existence of a free, independent, and pluralistic press, is an essential condition for the full exercise of democratic processes, including deliberation, election, decision-making, and accountability.
The free flow of information, by exposing abuses of power, contributes to greater accountability of elected representatives and strengthens the public’s trust in its institutions. Only journalism, working as an uncompromising reflection of Chinese society, can enable it to analyse its past, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and invent the future that best suits it.
For economic, scientific, and technological development
In our globalised world, the development of a sustainable, equitable and environmentally-friendly economy cannot be conceived without absolute transparency and free access to information for all parties involved. Chinese and international investors alike can only engage or invest under the best conditions if they have complete confidence in the integrity of the information they access.
In the areas of scientific and technical innovation, the pooling of knowledge is also a crucial point. Since its opening at the end of the 1970s, China has greatly benefitted from the free flow of information in the world and now finds itself one of the world’s leading players in the field. But whatever its current power, it risks losing its lead if it isolates itself from international trade.
For international influence
In just a few decades, China has become one of the world’s leading economic and diplomatic powers, sharing with other nations of the world the responsibility to facilitate communication among individuals, cultures, peoples, and nations, in order to contribute to the sustainable development of our planet, taking into account the rights and interests of future generations.
Only by defending and strengthening free access to information, both within its borders and globally, by encouraging its diplomatic and trade allies to do the same, and by demonstrating its respect for the principles of pluralism and the integrity of information, can China truly play its role as a global power.
We call on
Chinese civil society
To champion the people’s legitimate demand for the full exercise of freedom of expression, and its corollaries the right to information and freedom of the pressthe right to information and its corollaries, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, by making known to the public the Chinese resources on the right to information so that they perceive this right is not the monopoly or property of foreign countries;
To provide all possible support to Chinese independent journalists and media who are defying repression to enable the Chinese public to be informed despite censorship; and to do its utmost to push back against these restrictions and promote the free flow of information;
To exert as much influence as possible in the public debate in China to defend the right to information and, wherever possible, to press political decision-makers to take greater account of this right in their decision-making.
To strictly enforce Article 35 of the Constitution, which proclaims “freedom of expression, the press, and publication,” and to ensure that none of the laws and regulatory provisions in force in the country contravene or weaken this principle.
To dismantle the legal and technological apparatus that enables the repression of journalism and to shift public policies to create the conditions for an open public debate free from any form of censorship, surveillance, or propaganda.
To immediately release all currently detained journalists, political commentators, and press freedom advocates.
To facilitate the development of free, independent and pluralistic journalism in China by abandoning all forms of pressure and establishing an economic and regulatory environment that guarantees effective protection for media workers.
To ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights signed by China in 1998, article 19 of which provides for “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”
The international community
To put pressure on the Chinese authorities to strictly apply Article 35 of their Constitution, which provides for press freedom; to dismantle the legal and technological apparatus that allows censorship and repression against journalists; and to release all currently detained journalists, political commentators, and press freedom advocates.
To provide all possible support to Chinese civil society and journalists so that they can continue and expand their activities to promote the right to information and independent journalism in China and fully contribute to the exchange of information between China and the international community.
To firmly combat narratives denying the Chinese public’s legitimate aspiration to enjoyexercise their fundamental rights, including the right to information, in the name of so-called “relativism” of cultures that denies the universality of human rights.
This Declaration was adopted on 12 September 2023, in Paris at the conclusion of the inaugural symposium of Circle 19 for the Right to Information in China.
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