Free Speech & the Pandemic in China

Guest Contributors Anubhav Das and Winy Daigavane, National University of Advanced Legal Studies

In January 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was reported. In the five months since, it has spread all over the world. Around the world, public health officials have enacted stringent measures to mitigate the impact of the virus. However, deaths continue to be on the rise, and countries face insurmountable challenges in recovering from the dual impact of the pandemic and the economic crisis. China, the place of origin of COVID-19, responded to the outbreak by taking aggressive public health safety measures such as the complete lockdown of Wuhan and its nearby cities in Hubei province. It also tried to control the narrative of COVID-19 by by portraying themselves as the global leader in the fight against COVID-19.     

China has led a policy of censorship by using specific statutes to gag COVID-19 related information, destroy evidence, and even silence doctors who tried to warn the world. Reports have claimed that China knew about the outbreak since August 2019 and misled the world by downplaying the catastrophic impact of the virus. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that China has suppressed such information. The country acted similarly in the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002 by misleading the world and reporting false numbers claiming the SARS outbreak is under control.

Historically, China has always prioritized economic growth over freedom of speech. They have, time and again, silenced dissent and criticism of the regime. It is unsurprising that China dealt with the threat of COVID-19 the way they did; however, what position would the world be in today if a degree of free speech existed in China? Especially as global COVID-19 cases surpass 10 million, and curves that were proclaimed “flattened” in various countries have scooped upward once again, it is worthwhile to revisit the proliferation of the virus and account for the political factors that allowed its silent proliferation across the world. If free speech existed in China, lines of communication between Chinese citizens could have been used to pressure the Chinese government into releasing accurate information to the world. Internal media reports from independent news agencies could have verified Chinese government reports and data, and ensured that all of this was done in a timely manner. But due to the lack of free speech in China, the aforementioned steps could not be taken. 

Under international law, damages in lieu of breach of obligations may be recovered from China by way of monetary compensation, but that does not suffice as a measure to avoid future non-occurrence. The possible consequences of demanding monetary compensation from China were explored in a study by Observer Research Foundation’s fellow, which demonstrated that legal action would only disincentivise other countries from sharing information regarding future outbreaks in fear that it will compromise their national interest. The pandemic is one illustration of the dangers of curbing free speech, and there can be many more. Hence, possible steps need to be taken to ensure the prevention of such incidents in the future, and for that, the Chinese internal policy of censorship needs to be replaced by adequate freedom of speech. If this opaqueness prevails, along with China’s geopolitical aggression, there might be a shift in world power in favour of China, which will most likely pose a serious threat to the future of world politics. 

While the impact of the coronavirus in countries having free speech, like the USA, Italy, India, inter alia, was even more devastating than in China, it must be understood that when a new contagious virus starts spreading, the information received from the country of origin is extremely essential. They are the first to respond, research, and gather information and communicating it to the world can facilitate in devising effective strategy. But if censorship policy is in place, the possibility of receiving accurate information is slim. 

In public health emergencies, free speech enables constructive criticism of a state’s policy that is being used to battle such pandemics.. Additionally, the world can learn from the measures taken by the country of origin (which in this case is China) and can modify their strategies appropriately.

At this juncture, the implications on Chinese free speech in the post-COVID era can be forecasted by drawing parallels to the Chernobyl incident, which happened in the USSR in the year 1986. Similar to China, the Soviet government also followed a policy of heavy censorship. When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred, the government had no intentions of telling the world about it. Only after the detection of nuclear radiation in several parts of Asia and Europe were they forced to disclose information. This Soviet cover-up prompted a demand for free speech and resulted in tremendous distrust towards the Soviet government, creating acute pressure from the international community. This was followed by the disintegration of the USSR, as well as the induction of freedom of speech in newly formed Russia. Similarly, the possibility of having free speech in China, post-COVID-19 is not a far-fetched idea. It can turn into a reality if the world governments strategically take measures to hold China accountable. 

Notably, the process of taking measures in this aforesaid direction has already begun, and international pressure has started taking shape gradually. It seems that COVID-19 has only emboldened China to flout international agreements and assert its power in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, Tibet, regions of the South China Sea, and of course, in Hong Kong. The international backlash from these incidents, coupled with pandemic-induced outrage, has been increasing rapidly, thereby growing an anti-China sentiment internationally. Reports of proposals being drawn for taking retaliatory action against China for the poor handling of coronavirus by the US have surfaced. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against China, and the US Government has also announced the need to take unprecedented action against them. Australia has started pushing for an independent inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19 and even India has warned China of the impact on its ties, owing to China’s international actions. Furthermore, demands from Chinese people for free speech have also been revived.

An analysis of these international reactions coupled with the internal uprisings would abundantly clarify that the community’s pressure on China is brewing.  Moreover, China’s geopolitical bully tactics along with its non-transparency on COVID-19 could prompt tremendous external pressure for China to revisit its aggression and freedom of speech policies. However, owing to China being central to the global supply chain of many industries, many countries rely heavily on China and might not be willing to exert pressure on the Chinese government. As the world was never as reliant on the USSR’s economy as it is on the Chinese economy, this key difference in economic dependance will play a vital role in determining the international community’s future course of action.

The Chinese defence to any steps being taken by other nations would be to rely on the principle of state sovereignty under international law and Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter to support its political independence, thereby arguing for the non-interference of other nations in its internal policy. But this internal issue of China (being lack of the basic human right of free speech) has attained a transnational colour owing to the increased globalisation and has had a destructive impact on the right to life of individuals (in the world), protected by various international instruments. The U.N. Charter also provides for encouraging respect and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. Inspirations can also be drawn from John Mill’s harm principle in legal philosophy, which justifies “the need to take measures to prevent an individual’s right from being invasive of other individual’s rights.” This harm principle, if applied in the context of international affairs and the current scenario, would justify the need to take measures to prevent China’s internal policy from being invasive of the rights of other nations.

The pandemic has highlighted the strong interconnectedness of the world. Therefore, to safeguard the future against such incidents originating from China, stringent measures must be taken to bring legislative changes in China in favour of free speech by providing a mechanism that fosters transparency, especially in the health care sector. An exception needs to be made to the rule of state sovereignty to ensure reasonable interference in the internal policy of a nation by the world. This also fits in with the mission of the recently formed inter-parliamentary alliance on China that is formulating measures to counter the growing threat of China’s influence on the democratic values of other nations. It may seem tough to implement such a proposition due to China’s stronghold in the international political realm and its ability to influence other nations not to pursue such measures. However, the current changes in the international scenarios are a first step towards the aforementioned possibility. A phased approach of taking economic measures to minimize reliance on the Chinese economy can be adopted to make the international community more self-reliant, thereby affecting China’s holding in the international realm.

In furtherance of the application of the utilitarian theory, nations should be encouraged to enforce the collective interest against China’s self-interest. Such enforcement can be possible if nations continue pursuing the measures that have been initiated by them and also include the imposition of measures like unconditional sanctions and economic embargoes in return for free speech in China. This international pressure, coupled with the needs and demands of the people of China shall, in effect, act as a first step in the direction of the proliferation of free speech in China. At present, the international polity may highlight that the world needs China more than China needs the world. However, only by taking steps in the direction of self-reliance, the international community will be able to change this and pave the way for bringing socio-political change in China. 

Leave a Reply