Is free speech a human right? An examination of China.

By Erica Christoffer

Patrick Burkhartzmeyer of Minneapolis lived in Shijiazhuang, China for 10 months teaching English at Hebei University of Science and Technology. During his time in China he couldn’t access Hotmail, view most blogs, or use search engines to find information on China’s history.

What Burkhartzmeyer encountered has become known as “the great firewall of China.”

But with more young Chinese students learning English, Burkhartzmeyer said some are beginning to find ways around those censored barriers.

“It is becoming easier for them to access English news websites. This could, perhaps, greatly change the way Chinese understand their country and the world,” he said.

The Chinese government runs a censorship system targeting information related to politics, religion and public criticism. Despite some finding ways around the “great firewall,” censorship still impacts the 1.4 billion people living in China in other ways – which many call human rights violations.

Human Rights Watch, a non-profit that investigates and exposes human rights violations, said in its 2006 report, “How Censorship Works in China,” that China’s Internet regulations are among the most extensive and restrictive in the world.

The Chinese government censors specific websites and keyword searches through a sophisticated series of filters in Internet routers, Internet access providers and Internet service providers. And, there are at least 12 different government agencies in China that have some authority over the Internet.

Peter Li, 21, from Shanghai, China is one such student who found ways around the censorship. Li attends college at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He has experienced website censorship, especially in the Chinese versions of foreign media, such as the BBC.

“My generation is particularly tech-savvy and there are tools available to bypass the firewall. The English version of foreign media outlets are rarely blocked anyway,” said Li, who admits that most of his friends use proxy servers to access pages that are blocked. Proxy servers are used to navigate around censors by masking IP addresses.

“Censorship greatly influences the people of China because they are unable to understand what is really happening. The government controls all media outlets so the information that is passed is usually framed based on the image it portrays,” Burkhartzmeyer said. “I would consider it a human rights violation, but I think it is important to note that this happens in more places that just China.”

Reporters Without Borders ranked China 163rd out of 169 countries in its 2007 worldwide press freedom index, a ranking of news in terms of freedom and accessibility. The U.S. was 48th. Iceland came in on top.

Every one of China’s thousands of publications and publishers is subject to direct editorial control by Chinese authorities. And, China currently has more bloggers and Internet-using dissidents in prison that any other nation in the world, with a total of 50.

Michelle Tam of Chicago, whose parents emigrated from China to the U.S. before she was born, said older students in China have a better understanding of the problems associated with censorship.

“The Internet started as they were growing up and [they experienced] more volatile events such as Tiananmen,” said Tam who attended the University of Southern California where she met several Chinese international students. “I’ve noticed that some of the younger Chinese international students aren’t as aware of or care much about this issue as those in the later age group; mostly because they’ve grown up in basically the most prosperous time of their country.”

It’s possible some don’t realize they’re being censored in the first place, according to Kristen Shaffer, an English teacher now living in Austria who taught in China for two years. She said Chinese students mainly use the Internet for watching T.V. shows, social networking and checking up on sports scores.

“Rarely is it used to access information, or do research, as we’re used to it – even at universities,” Shaffer said.

Human Rights in China, a non-profit watchdog group, found that the majority of China’s Internet users are well-educated men under 30 who live in cities. While going online to chat with friends, download music or play games is popular, going online to discuss politics is not.

“I think the Internet will always remain censored in China but the amount of regulation will relax as China develops and her government feels confident enough to take criticism,” said Li. “A right of this kind needs to be balanced with the needs of society. Information can be just as dangerous as a gun. China has a 1.4 billion population and still lacks the political and social development to facilitate such a right. I think she is too vulnerable.”

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One thought on “Is free speech a human right? An examination of China.

  1. Reporters Without Borders ranked China 163rd out of 169 countries in its 2007 worldwide press freedom index, a ranking of news in terms of freedom and accessibility. The U.S. was 48th. Iceland came in on top.

    —I’m surprised. I though US would rank number 1.

    China is a big country, so sometimes I find it really ironic how the censorships are implemented–it’s a logistical nightmare to implement censorships properly. And perhaps that’s where the problem lies: the quality control of censorships… maybe it’s just a one size fits all thing, and a lot of people are oppressed because of this.

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