Published: 22:59, June 6, 2024 | Updated: 09:27, June 7, 2024
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Freedom of speech in East and West isn’t as different as one might imagine
By David Cottam

In the West, freedom of speech is a recurring theme in differentiating between the tolerance and liberalism of democracies and the intolerance and oppression of authoritarian regimes. 

Indeed, it is often used as a yardstick with which the West judges the legitimacy of other countries. China is well-used to being on the receiving end of Western free-speech moralizing, and since the introduction of its new security laws, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has also been placed on the West’s “naughty step”.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks they shouldn’t be allowed to speak their mind, so it’s an appealing narrative that people living in Western democracies should be thankful they live in “the free world”, rather than in some other countries where they would feel muzzled. However, this Western narrative is not as black and white as it may seem. With freedom of speech, as with most areas in life, there are shades of gray everywhere.

Despite freedom of speech being an article of faith in the West and one of the key pillars of liberal democracy, it doesn’t exist anywhere in its pure form. Limitations on free speech have been imposed by all Western governments, often with good reason. Nowhere is free speech deemed to be so desirable that it always trumps other considerations. National security, social harmony and personal privacy are all factors that limit freedom of speech to some degree everywhere in the world.

The case of Julian Assange is but one illustration of how national security limits freedom of speech in the West. His WikiLeaks publication of secret US military files in 2010 and 2011 exposed alleged US wrongdoing and war crimes. His right to freedom of speech in publishing what he deemed to be in the public interest has not prevented him from being indicted with criminal charges of espionage and the publication of classified information.

In the UK, the right to freedom of speech is similarly curtailed. Under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act of 1998, “everyone has the right to freedom of expression”. However, the law goes on to say that this freedom “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”. These may be “in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”. This is a very broad list of possible free speech exclusions.

The situation with “hate speech” is even broader. Section 4 of the UK Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offense for a person to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviors that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”. This also covers language that is deemed to incite “racial and religious hatred”, as well as “hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation”, and language that “encourages terrorism”.

All of the above may seem perfectly reasonable, but they can be interpreted extremely broadly and are clear limitations on freedom of speech. Indeed, there now seems to be an interminable list of words, phrases and points of view that are deemed to be so inappropriate that accusations of hate speech are commonplace. Even the once-revered Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, has been demonized by some for expressing her heartfelt views on feminism and trans issues. This is amplified by the media and social media, using terms such as “politically incorrect”, “woke” or “cancel culture” to either attack or defend her.

Similarly, the laws of libel in the West, intended to protect people from being unfairly defamed, often have the effect of muzzling freedom of speech, not least because of the exorbitant costs of the legal system. Notoriously, in the Jimmy Savile pedophilia case, it was only when the threat of legal action by him disappeared, after his death, that people were prepared to speak out.

So the revered concept of freedom of speech is definitely not the black-and-white issue it’s often portrayed to be in Britain, the United States or anywhere in the West. There are always varying shades of gray. This is equally true in places like the Chinese mainland and now Hong Kong, which the West likes to denigrate as “oppressive” and “hostile” to free speech.

In reality, freedom of speech in China is guaranteed by the 2018 Constitution, subject to not inciting criminal acts or undermining the interests of the State. Of course, both of these provisos can be interpreted very broadly — exactly as they are in the West. In China, the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is particularly vague, but so is “hate crime” in the UK.

In the HKSAR, freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Basic Law and is a fundamental right protected by the independent judiciary. As in the West, this is limited by national security and other legislation, covering crimes such as treason, sedition, secession and terrorism. However, so long as you’re not inciting criminal action, you’re free to say whatever you want. This is not the impression given by the Western media, who love to portray Hong Kong’s new security laws as the “death knell” of free speech, despite them mirroring Western laws. This was recently brought home to me when an old friend, now living in Britain, refused to undertake his annual visit to the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament because he feared being arrested for something he might say. Such media-induced paranoia about one of the safest places in the world is quite baffling to anyone living here.

I often reassure Western friends that free speech is alive and well in Hong Kong, and that so long as I’m not breaking the same sort of laws that exist in the West, I can discuss Chinese mainland or HKSAR government policies as much as I want without any fear of recriminations.

For example, I have been critical of the HKSAR government’s policy of offering rewards of up to HK$1 million ($128,000) in pursuing a few exiles in the UK and elsewhere to face charges over the 2019-20 riots. I realize that offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of fugitives is common practice for authorities around the world. However, in this case, irrespective of the legal justification, I don’t believe that the pursuit of a handful of fugitives is really worth the negative publicity that it is attracting in the West. To be exiled from one’s home city and separated from one’s family was seen in Ancient Greece as a fate worse than death. This still remains a strong punishment today, especially when leaving a city like Hong Kong to lead a life of exile in a country such as Britain, where anti-immigrant rhetoric and hostility are so prevalent. If the fugitives ever return, they will face a fair trial. Until then, I urge the government to accept their exile as a self-inflicted punishment, stop giving them the oxygen of publicity, and thwart the West’s attempt to portray Hong Kong as vindictive and intolerant.

I don’t really expect these comments to make any difference to government policy, but I also don’t expect to be labeled as a subversive and clapped into jail for exercising my freedom of speech in this way. If you’re reading this in China Daily, then that itself is a testament to freedom of speech in this part of the world.

The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, an international secondary school in Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.