China’s Freedom of Speech

Watch a video of this script on Youtube:

I hear it all the time that China has no freedom of speech and, to be honest, I believed it for many years. I guarded my own speech, when I sent messages, if I wanted to mention something sensitive I would misspell it so surveillance wouldn’t pick up on it. Then I started looking at the laws. I found the reality was different from the perception.

What I found was that Article 35 of the Constitution of China states that Citizens of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

Wow, my first thoughts were, it’s ok to say that but the reality must be different, because everyone knows free speech isn’t allowed in China, right?

Except Chinese people weren’t aware they were being restricted. I started asking my Chinese friends, some of whom are lawyers and they all told me the same thing. They can say and do what they like, they CAN complain, they CAN protest, they CAN demonstrate if they want to. Many of them told me something I already knew; each city has a “hotline” for what the city likes to call suggestions but really are for complaints. Just pick up your phone and dial 12345 and you will get through to a department of the government that isn’t controlled by local government but central and that department will handle your suggestion.

What Chinese people can’t do is much less complicated than some other countries. They can’t spread misinformation, if it’s wrong, and they cause harm to society, then they’ll be punished. If it’s right, nothing will happen to them. They can’t use hate speech, if it’s abusive, aggressive or even ridicule that might be offensive, they aren’t allowed to do it but usually, if they do, the worst that will happen is a warning not to do it again, if they do it again, then punishments can escalate.

They can’t incite violence, this seems fair and, if they commit an offence, they will probably be sentenced either to an administrative detention, which is usually 7 or a maximum of 14 days. This is what Amnesty International calls Punishment without a Crime, but is in fact, better termed, punishment without a conviction or, if a matter is serious or continues after warnings, then they might be put before a court.

People in China don’t get locked up for doing nothing, they get locked up for breaking laws. I’ve lived in China 18 years and never met anyone, except one foreigner who has received a custodial punishment and he was drunk driving. Even Wikipedia admits there are appeals to this process if someone thinks they’ve been wrongfully detained. It also goes on to say that in this so-called authoritarian regime of China, with 1.7 million, it has the second highest number of prisoners in the world. What it fails to mention is that, Number 1, with less than a quarter of China’s population, the US, has over 2 million in prison.

For the record, the US incarceration rate dropped during Trump’s era to 810 per 100,000 compared to China’s 121 per 100,000, so you’re four times more likely to be in prison if you live in the USA.

NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticise China for a law which they call: Picking Quarrels and Provoking Troubles. Pointing to it as a peculiarly Chinese thing but this law is also in English.

Over there, it’s called Breach of the Peace and, like China, people don’t usually go to court for it, but can be arrested and removed from the scene to avoid further breaches. It descends from a British law called “disorderly conduct”. What is disorderly conduct is it isn’t Picking Quarrels and Provoking Troubles? Unsurprisingly almost all of the US states have the same laws which are, according to the First Amendment Encyclopedia, designed to cover “conduct that is disorderly and disturbs the public peace and quiet of a community”. But over there it also includes homelessness and vagrancy, things that aren’t offences in China.

Once again we see hypocritical statements about alleged restrictions in China, not just mirrored in Western laws but amplified and extended.

The First Amendment is important because it says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Which sounds a bit like a reversal of Article 36 of the Chinese constitution which, after saying Citizens shall enjoy freedom of religion goes on to say: No State organ, social organisation or individual shall coerce citizens to believe or not to believe in any religion.

In other words, in the USA anyone can force or coerce you into a religion and Congress can’t make a law to stop them, while in China, you have free choice and no one, not even your parents, can force you into their system of belief.

The US first Amendment goes on to say: pretty much the same things as China’s Article 35. Americans have freedom of speech, press, and the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.

Nothing wrong with that, except, as they allege happens in China but doesn’t, protests are brutally clamped down on. Police arrive with riot equipment, tear gas and rubber bullets. Apparently peaceful protesters are met by quasi military style responses driving armoured vehicles, dressed as stormtroopers; as any online search will demonstrate.

I’m sure you all saw the demonstrations in China late last year, there were plenty of police officers but usually wearing normal uniforms, not armed and no tear gas or rubber bullets were used anywhere.

There’s an American website called The First Amendment Encyclopedia and its extensive, there are literally thousands of stated cases where people have fallen foul of free speech laws and it’s too hard to go into them all here but listen to this: Freedom of speech is not protected if you use:


Fighting words;

Defamation (including libel and slander);

Child pornography;



Incitement to imminent lawless action;

True threats;

Solicitations to commit crimes;

Treason, if committed verbally;

and Plagiarism of copyrighted material.

Do you notice, the same sorts of things which are forbidden in China are not protected in America by the First Amendment providing free speech? And here’s one last final point to leave you with.

In the United States there is a law enacted in 1954, preventing Americans from legally joining the Communist party.

I know there will be many people comment on this and say this law isn’t used — but believe me, it’s still there and will surely be used if America gets to a point where large numbers of people join the Communist Party of USA because the current form of democracy isn’t working. As one eminent sociologist reported and I quote: “there is no place in democracy for those who wish to abolish it even with a peaceful vote” So, even if the majority want it, democracy US style is not going to give Americans what they want.

While the USA has made the Communist Party illegal, and never repealed that law, they’ve NEVER written a law against being a member of the Ku Klux Klan and that, to me, says everything I need to know about the American legal system and its thoughts on inclusion and diversity.



I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences