Excerpts from Chinese dissident and 1989 Tiananmen Square student protest leader Hu Ping’s seminal 1980 essay, translated for the first time into English. With an introduction by fellow dissident and Tiananmen student activist Wuer Kaixi.
Photo by Nick Dawson
If the history of the world in the twentieth century were to be recorded in two pages, it would no doubt focus on two major campaigns: the one against fascist aggression and the other against communist totalitarianism, both carried out under the flag of democracy.
Despite the fundamental differences between fascism and communism, and the fact that they have historically opposed each other, the similarities between them are astonishingly many. They both stand on the opposite side of basic humanity, both claim ideological superiority, both suppress dissent, and both carry this out by means of a great deal of brutality. And the campaigns against them shared the same difficulties. The first involved years of world war and cost tens of millions of lives; the second lasted decades in the form of cold war, and caused even greater damage to humanity.
According to history, in the case of both campaigns, democracy was victorious. But the struggle for democracy in China is not yet done.
Hu Ping’s 1980 essay “On Freedom of Expression” is one of the most influential founding documents in the history of the contemporary Chinese anti-communist, anti-totalitarian movement. This profoundly important essay has stood the test of time for more than three decades, as China has undergone what is possibly one of the most astonishing transformations in human history.
My friend and mentor Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace laureate who is still in prison, stated the following in 2007 to commemorate the essay’s thirtieth anniversary: “Hu Ping is my enlightener, my mentor. His passionate call for freedom of expression has strongly excited and enlightened me since when I was still in college. It is through this passionate and well deliberated long article that I was able to more clearly understand the great significance of freedom of expression, and I then started looking for literature on the subject to read… This was also the time I had my initial idea of fighting for freedom of expression in China and exercised the very belief into words and deeds in public.”
As for the impact of this essay on me personally, a very close friend of mine, Pu Zhiqiang, who was also one of the student leaders in 1989 and is one of the most important human rights lawyers today in China—he is known as the Chinese “first amendment advocate”—has stated it so well. I believe his words best represent the entire Tiananmen generation: “Hu Ping’s ‘On Freedom of Expression’ has influenced me the most; it helped me to decide the path of my life. I found my cause that I am willing to pursue and sacrifice for.”
Liu Xiaobo echoed, as I do here, Hu’s words: “Freedom of expression is the Achilles’ heel of a totalitarian society. Establishing freedom of speech is the first step in defeating totalitarianism, and is also the last step.”
The principle of freedom of speech was promulgated largely by the bourgeois revolution. As China never experienced a period of mature capitalism, no small number of people lack an understanding of the real meaning of freedom of speech. In fact, many of our comrades understand democracy to be nothing more than a particularly enlightened dictatorship, and freedom of speech to be nothing more than a feudal society that is particularly tolerant of criticism. There are some points that must be raised here.
A feudal society that is tolerant of criticism is not at all the same thing as freedom of speech, since the bounds of allowed speech are still determined by the will of the emperor. Differences in historical conditions or in the character of various emperors will lead to the loosening or tightening of those accepted bounds. No matter what, the bounds exist. Whether a country enjoys freedom of speech is not a matter of its rulers being willing to hear and permit critical opinion, but of its rulers lacking the power to punish those who hold those opinions.
No matter how high a kite flies it is not free, because the other end of the string remains gripped in the kite flier’s hand.
Some emperors—to consolidate the support of talented ministers; or in the tentative first days of a new reign; or out of consideration for their historical reputation; or out of magnanimity at the height of their power—may treat critical or even opposing opinion with tolerance. But it would be an essential error to label this attitude “freedom of speech.” It is only enlightened dictatorship. The fact that some emperors employ their power with relative wisdom does not change the fact that their power, under the feudal system, is by nature unlimited. Nor does it mean that the people enjoy a freedom of speech that cannot be stripped from them. And in the long history of feudal societies, these enlightened dictatorships have been exceedingly rare. Furthermore, they always seem to be the immediate result of the bankruptcy of one extreme dictatorship, and the preparation for the birth of another. No matter how high a kite flies it is not free, because the other end of the string remains gripped in the kite flier’s hand. No matter how great the space for speech in a dictatorship it is never truly free, because the emperor retains the power to limit it.
Truth does not develop like bamboo, where new clumps always grow on top of old ones. It grows like a clumping grass, with new shoots often emerging beside the old branches, or sprouting up in a new place altogether. Thus, even those who hold many truths cannot announce that, henceforth, all new truths must simply extend in the same direction as their old truth. Likewise, they have no right to appoint themselves supreme judges over those new truths. And so, in suppressing opinions which we believe to be false, we may be suppressing the appearance of new truths.
Only when those in power do not have the ability to punish dissenters is there real freedom of speech. Only when the people’s right to speak exists independently, without the protection of a benevolent and enlightened prince, is there real freedom of speech. Only when the people learn to resist the incursions of power on their speech, is there real freedom of speech.
The purpose of the present text is to argue in favor of freedom of speech—a somewhat peculiar task. Where there is no freedom of speech, it is generally impossible to articulate arguments on its behalf. But where there is freedom of speech, such arguments often appear redundant. This peculiarity leads to a common misunderstanding: that the existence of freedom of speech depends entirely upon the will of those in power. This misunderstanding in turn often leads to the neglect of theoretical discussions of freedom of speech, resulting eventually in the complete stifling of the value and vitality of the principle itself.
A regime which has the power to ban all critical opinion will forever have the support of the “people,” because it has defined all dissenting opinion as being not of the “people.”
Of all the political rights given to citizens by the constitution, freedom of speech comes first. When an individual loses the right to express his or her wishes and opinions, that individual is bound to end up a slave or a pawn. Of course, to have freedom of speech is not necessarily to have everything, but the loss of it will inevitably lead to losing everything. Everyone knows the importance of the principle of the fulcrum in mechanics: the fulcrum itself may do nothing, but only by its virtue is the action of the lever possible. They say that Archimedes, the discoverer of the principle of the lever, once said: “Give me a fulcrum, and I will move the world.” In political life, is not freedom of speech just this sort of fulcrum?
What is “freedom of speech”? It is the freedom to express all manner of opinion. If we suppose the freedom of speech to be permitted only within bounds established by those in power, then which nation in all of history cannot be said to have freedom of speech? What point would there be to including it in our sacred constitution?
A governing power has reason to exist only as it acts in accordance with the wishes of the people. This necessarily demands that, at the very least, the people have the right to express, with no reservations, their true attitude toward that power. A regime which has the power to ban all critical opinion will forever have the support of the “people,” because it has defined all dissenting opinion as being not of the “people.” Imagine for a moment a regime that swears service to the people, but arrogates to itself the right to define who belongs to the “people” and who does not—is this not a perfect example of circular logic? Supposing this logic held, there would not be a government on earth that did not have the support of its “people.”
The destruction of any thing begins at its fringes. The suppression of speech always starts with that which is sincerely believed to be counter-revolutionary by a majority at the time. In this way, the majority is not only insensitive to the illegality of the suppression—on the contrary, it supports it, even participates in it. Suppression could never begin without the consent of a majority of the people. Once the people have taken part in this illegal deprivation, however, a mortal blow has been struck, and from then on suppression worsens by the day. As the people inflict illegal punishment on others, they strip themselves, tragically, of the protection of the law. The more they participate in suppressing others’ right to speak as they wish, the more they themselves lose that right, and the more they are caught up in the repression. The result of this vicious cycle can only be a tightening of the screw, a sinking into quicksand.
Modern authoritarianism differs from that of ancient times—when rulers were openly inimical to their people—in that it claims to exist as a direct expression of the will of its people. The secret basis of its rule is not violence so much as it is deception, because its use of violence, at root, depends on the deception of those whom it employs to unleash violence.
This deception exists on two levels. The first is that, as the autocratic monster was being born, it tricked a majority of the people into giving it their sincere support. The second level is that it uses the suppression of speech to prevent people from sharing their experiences among themselves, thus preserving the false impression that it still enjoys the support of the majority.
As our forefathers were struggling for democracy, they made a fatal mistake. They failed to impress the most fundamental principle of democracy—freedom of speech—on the hearts of the people. The majority—including some highly knowledgeable and capable individuals—has never completely grasped the principle’s full significance, which has left a crucial window open for authoritarianism. Freedom of speech is both the first requirement for democracy, and also its last line of defense. With this inner sanctum protected, democracy can win the field, and the process of democratization will be unstoppable.
Attempting to secure freedom of speech by making bold statements of opinion is, in fact, simply using the right to speech to try to secure the right to speech.
Practically every newly established nation claims to be a democratic republic, and comes equipped with a constitution that leaves nothing to be desired. And yet, if we observe their record of putting those constitutions into practice, we find to our sorrow that very few make the grade.
Few newborn nations have discovered the importance of freedom of speech for themselves. They merely copy the relevant lines into their constitutions, and most of their people remain ignorant of free speech’s significance. Given this, how can we prevent it from being ignored, distorted, or trampled upon?
We have never lacked champions with the courage to state their dissenting opinions, but the fact is that, in the past, nearly all those champions have paid a heavy price. The real pity is that their sacrifices bought very little real progress. The reasons for this are simple: when so many still believe that speech should be punishable by law, when those in power have a monopoly on all fora for speech, the question of whether or not to punish those who state bold opinions obviously depends entirely on the values and characters of the rulers. So many of those who have spoken out for justice have overlooked this point, and suffered for it. Attempting to secure freedom of speech by making bold statements of opinion is, in fact, simply using the right to speech to try to secure the right to speech. The unspoken assumption is that everyone already understands the significance of freedom of speech—treating an unsolved problem as though it were already resolved. It thus becomes impossible to draw the attention of the majority to the truly crucial issues, or to achieve the primary goal of raising the awareness of the masses.
Since the root of the tragedy is that we have never discovered the principle of free speech for ourselves, we ought to address this lack. Since we ourselves only came to understand the rationales behind freedom of speech after passing through ten years of trouble, and experiencing the bitterness of having our own words turned against us, we should speak from that experience, and be eminently reasonable as we attempt to convince those who do not understand this principle. As we strive for freedom of speech, we must realize that the meaning of this “striving” is to help more people fully grasp it.
Democracy demands courage, but it cannot rely on courage alone.
The first quality required for human enterprise is courage. Realizing freedom of speech will mean resisting the attempt of power to stifle speech, which means a contest of wills. No matter how clear the law is, no matter how perfectly the organs of government are structured, they are not themselves capable of action—their only motive force is the will of the people. Democracy is a bothersome business; it is not the labor of an hour. It must be continually striven for, and it must forever be protected.
Democracy demands courage, but it cannot rely on courage alone. On the contrary, only when democracy can be realized without the shedding of blood can it be said to have truly stable foundations. In the process of democratization, intelligence is of the utmost importance. We must not only dare to uphold truth, we must also be wise in how we do it. In a certain sense, our ability to work for truth and democracy in an intelligent fashion will be crucial to the smooth progression of democratization, particularly in its early stages.
Taking an intelligent approach means finding a principle that people can grasp without the recondite learning, and can uphold without extraordinary courage. It will be a principle that is so self-evident in its correctness that the vast majority of people—regardless of their difference of opinion in other matters—will readily assent to it, and dare to express their support for it. At the same time this principle must lend itself to long-term, incremental advancement, laying a path for future development. Most people feel that, faced with political power, they have only two choices: either all-out resistance, or passive acceptance. We should—in a certain sense, we must—provide a principled stance to those people who are upstanding, kindhearted, and possessed of common sense, but who may not be very deep thinkers, and who while wishing for justice may not be prepared to sacrifice themselves for an ideal. We must give them a principled stance that will help them form a Great Wall in defense of democracy, rather than becoming accomplices to authoritarianism, or leaving them content to be spectators on the sidelines. If no such principle can be found, the limited struggles of an elite minority will never avert the greater tragedy. Democracy would rely on chance opportunity to come about, and would never withstand the storm.
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 democratization. It should provide a foundation for the entire people, one that will never collapse. As I see it, that principle is the freedom of speech.
What is the connection between democracy and modernization? Many comrades at present believe that “without democracy there can be no modernization.” How we wish that this argument were correct… A rough survey of history indicates that this slogan can produce good results, helping convince those who are interested primarily in material advancement that democracy is nevertheless necessary. Yet rigorous theoretical consideration raises many questions against this claim.
Admittedly, under the authoritarian feudalism of the “Gang of Four,” modernization would have been impossible. But we must realize that the “Gang of Four” was not only the most extreme model of authoritarianism, it was also the most crude and incompetent. History shows us other models of authoritarianism that were less extreme and more effective—even some that were equally extreme, yet quite competent. Under these regimes, modernization was hardly impossible; many argued that it was in fact facilitated.
We do not deny the historical examples of modernization without democratization, but we raise the following two criticisms:
1. Economic development under authoritarianism causes suffering, as it is inevitably accompanied by cruel repression. It is deformed, because it tends to sacrifice broad prosperity to narrow vanity. It is short-lived, because it does not rouse the people’s innovative spirit. It is incapable of effective self-adjustment, and thus results in the gradual strengthening of the alienating authoritarian machine. The ultimate result of this type of development is the creation of a military state.
2. Does humankind truly desire nothing more than economic development? Can it be that we have no other, higher demands? Democracy has the advantage of promoting production, but it also has value in and of itself. Human dignity, human rights, and the free development of the human spirit—these are not empty words. Abandoning democracy in favor of pure economic advancement is sure to have disastrous consequences.
In the past, we have had little success in the incremental introduction of democracy. On more than one occasion, movements undertaken in the name of expanding democratic rights have backfired, often leaving us worse off than when we started. It is these historical lessons which have forced us to recognize that, once a direction is chosen, specific solutions become the key to success or failure. As we see it, freedom of speech is the first step in the entire process. So long as our comrades work to accomplish this, we will have sufficient footing to break free of the historical vortex that has us spinning in place, and to move firmly toward our future.
An unprecedented historical regression provides unprecedented opportunity for historical progress. The people of China have only just emerged from years of turmoil, and the wounds still bleed.
All the ink we’ve spilled here has been spilled to convey one single idea: we must realize true freedom of speech. We must enshrine this principle in the hearts of the people. No matter how widely opinions on democracy may diverge, no matter what reservations are expressed about democracy’s implementation, and no matter how people may disagree about other matters, we hope that on the question of freedom of speech there would be no doubts. Readers need not agree with every aspect of our argument, but we hope that they will support our final conclusion. The most important task we are faced with now is to expound, in depth and with resolution, on the principle of freedom of speech, so that it might take firm root in the hearts of the Chinese people.
Looking back over the past few years, China’s repression of speech has been horrifying in its depth, breath, and intensity. An unprecedented historical regression provides unprecedented opportunity for historical progress. The people of China have only just emerged from years of turmoil, and the wounds still bleed. They are deeply resentful of authoritarianism, highly optimistic about democracy, and feel a deep outrage toward the fascist methods of criminalizing speech. We are glad to see that the people are not engaging in blind optimism about a future of peace and prosperity, and they remain cautious and alert.
History provides ample opportunity, but in reality there are few who are able to recognize that opportunity. Nothing is fated to happen, and nothing happens unless the people work for it. Progress may not triumph over regression unless we have a grasp of the fundamentals. If we try to accomplish too much at once, our strength will be divided and we will accomplish nothing. Likewise, if we fail to persevere in our efforts, we will fall short of achieving even that which is eminently possible.
Exposition of freedom of speech is neither as simple as some say—they who claim that it shouldn’t require any great efforts—nor as complicated as others believe, who think it can never be realized. We hope that all right-thinking people who are concerned with the future of the nation will lend their support to the cause of 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.
Hu Ping, a pro-democracy activist since 1979, received a master’s degree in philosophy from Beijing University in 1981. He is former chairman of the Chinese Alliance for Democracy, the New York-based editor of the Chinese-language magazine Beijing Spring, and is a member of the board of directors of Human Rights in China.
Wuer Kaixi was a major student organizer in the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. He is best known for being filmed censuring Chinese Premier Li Peng in his hospital gown, having been hospitalized from the effects of a hunger strike he coordinated. He represented Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in 2010.
Eric Abrahamsen is a translator based in Beijing. He is the recipient of a PEN translation grant for Wang Xiaobo’s My Spiritual Homeland and a NEA grant for Xu Zechen’s Running Through Zhongguancun.