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Sunday, March 08, 2015

Why does the Chinese Communist Party Suppress Speech with which It Agrees?

The Chinese Government celebrated International Women's Day today by detaining several Chinese feminists to prevent them from holding rallies to draw attention to the sexual harassment of women on public transportation. I am new here to China, having been teaching constitutional law in Shanghai for barely over a month now: It is not a big surprise, therefore, that I am baffled by the Communist Party's suppression of public speech with which the Party basically agrees and that is not directed against the Party itself.

The Party leadership, after all, holds no brief for sexual harassment. They have made suppression of domestic violence one of their regulatory goals. The campus where I now teach in Shanghai has brought in feminists like Catherine MacKinnon this term to speak to lecture halls crowded with their students about the evils of prostitution in China and elsewhere, without any murmur of discontent from any party official. Moreover, Li Maizi, one of the detained feminists, is not, to my knowledge, especially anti-Party: Her public demonstrations mostly focus on the bad behavior of private males, not governmental officials -- the same bad behavior, in fact, that those officials have tried to suppress. Why, then, detain Li rather than enlist her?

There are no shortage of hypotheses explaining this odd Party tendency to bite the hand that agrees with it. The problem is that every hypothesis seems no more plausible than its opposite, and data are scarce to falsify or confirm either. Perhaps Party leaders just do not like any unlicensed private speech from any NGO, regardless of its message, because such examples could encourage wider disorder. (But why not believe that speech can reduce social tensions just as well as inflame them?) Perhaps Party leaders look on any public protest about conditions in China as a threat to the CCP's collective "face" or reputation. (But what could be a worse blow to mianzi than the detention itself and the blowback that the detention invites?) Perhaps Xi Jinping's effort to tie the CCP to traditional Chinese values has made traditional patriarchy an unspoken norm of the Party.

As I say, I really have no idea, but I am interested in anyone else's thoughts -- especially if they have something better than the just-so stories that I (or anyone else) can easily invent but not really confirm.

Posted by Rick Hills on March 8, 2015 at 12:16 PM | Permalink


Organized popular behavior not under direct Party control freaks them out. It's the threat of grassroots organization rather than the content.

Posted by: David Law | Mar 10, 2015 8:44:29 PM

This fascinating empirical paper by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts at Harvard suggests that the Chinese government is less interested in suppressing antigovernment speech than speech that may lead to collective action (especially rallies): http://gking.harvard.edu/publications/randomized-Experimental-Study-Censorship-China

Posted by: Sam Baumgartner | Mar 10, 2015 9:17:11 AM

Not a testable hypothesis as such, but you asked, "why not believe that speech can reduce social tensions just as well as inflame them?" I think that frames the issue in the wrong way. The question is not whether you or I would find a counter-hypothesis that speech can reduce social tensions rather than inflame them to be plausible; it is whether high-ranking officials in the Chinese Communist Party are more likely to hold that belief or instead believe that speech inflames social tensions. And if high-ranking officials in authoritarian regimes have an established tendency to believe that non-Party sponsored speech is likely to reduce social tensions, I'm not aware of it.

Posted by: TJ | Mar 9, 2015 7:41:09 AM

You ask "But what could be a worse blow to mianzi than the detention itself and the blowback that the detention invites?" but this assumes that people know about the detention, and I am guessing that most people within China do not know.

Posted by: DW | Mar 8, 2015 2:27:42 PM

A charge of hypocrisy also be a blow to face. So the CCP can't be seen as allowing some unlicensed public protest and disallowing some unlicensed public protest. Plus, wouldn't they be less worried about external criticism of the detention than the exposure of internal conditions?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 8, 2015 1:53:56 PM

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