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China Reacts Differently to Charlie Hebdo Free Speech Debate

Supporters of French magazine Charlie Hebdo, carrying placards reading "I am Charlie", stage a silent protest outside the Foreign Correspondent Club in Hong Kong, Jan. 8, 2015.
China Reacts Differently to Charlie Hebdo Free Speech Debate
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The attacks on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo have led to many protests in support of free speech. Large crowds demonstrated in France and other countries.

Smaller protests have denounced the magazine for its cartoon. Some Muslims consider those images blasphemous.

In China, the government is officially atheist. The government does not recognize religion unless it is under state control. China also places heavy restrictions on speech. For this reason, the demonstrations around the world have led to a different reaction in China.

Charlie Hebdo has now produced more than seven million copies of its first edition since gunmen killed eight of the magazine’s workers. The huge number of printed copies shows that many people support the magazine. They see buying a copy as a rejection of the violent effort to silence Charlie Hebdo.

Some Muslims, however, feel renewed anger over the magazine’s cover, which shows a cartoon of the prophet Mohamed. The image is considered offensive to Islam.

Free speech: a tense issue

This tense divide over free speech has also reached China. There, the government keeps tight controls over all publications and the Internet.

For Chinese officials, the attacks in Paris proved the dangers of a free press. China’s official Xinhua news agency published an editorial saying, “There should be limits to free speech.”

“If people would put limits on themselves when venting ‘freedom,’ and respect others,” Xinhua continued, “there would be fewer tragedies in the world.”

William Nee is a China researcher at Amnesty International. He says the Chinese reaction to the attacks also shows the government’s position on national sovereignty.

“As they put it, the world is diversified and every religion and culture has its own core values. So I think that what they want to do is solidify this idea that different countries and civilizations have their own core values that other countries need to respect.”

China has long rejected criticism from foreign countries of its restrictions on political freedoms. China says other countries should not tell it how to govern its citizens.

William Nee says the Charlie Hebdo incident shows how China also believes that other nations have the right to restrict speech. He says China sees a similarity between its rejection of foreign criticism and the reaction from Muslims who consider the magazine’s cartoons deeply offensive.

An editorial in the state-supported Global Times newspaper criticized western nations for their guarantees of free speech. It warned of more violence and conflict in Europe because of unrestricted freedoms of speech and the press.

Opinions a product of the country's educational system

One Chinese observer says China’s opinions on freedom of speech are a product of the country’s political and educational systems. Cheng Xiaohe is a professor of international relations at Renmin University. He says China’s political and education systems do not center on the history of civil society in other countries. He says that is why reaction to the Paris attacks is so different in China from the rest of the world.

Some online commentators in China have expressed support for free speech after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Other commentators ask why they cannot march like the million people in Paris? China bans such gatherings.

However, China also has experienced terrorist attacks in recent years. Officials blame the attacks on Islamic extremists fighting against the state. Last year, a group of men and women stabbed 30 people to death in a train station in Yunnan Province. The government said “Muslim terrorists” carried out the attack, which many called “China’s 9/11.”

Rachel Lu is a writer who studies China’s social media. She says some online commentators have slowly turned against expressing sympathy after the Paris attacks. She says they are instead asking why China’s terrorist incidents have not produced a similar reaction.

“At the same time, China has suffered its own terrorist attacks and why didn’t the U.S. and Europe have the same kind of outpour of sympathy for the Chinese victims? Is there a double standard?”

FILE - Riot policemen lead men who are about to be executed into a police van in an unknown location in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
FILE - Riot policemen lead men who are about to be executed into a police van in an unknown location in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Critics of China’s policies in the Xinjiang area say terrorist attacks there are likely a reaction against unpopular government policies. China’s government says hundreds of people from its Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang have attempted to join Islamic State fighters in Syria. For China, preventing future attacks within the country are more important than protecting speech or holding demonstrations against terrorism.

Xuetong Yan is Dean of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Shandong Province. He questions the usefulness of anti-terror demonstrations like the one in Paris. He says gaining the public’s support does not always mean holding a mass demonstration. What is more important, he says, is the willingness of the public to provide governments with information. The effects of a demonstration, Mr. Yan argues, do not last long. However, if the public provides information on possible attacks to officials, then the long-term effects on society are worth it.

China argues that western freedoms led to the attacks in Paris. However, Uighur activists are among those who say China’s limits on freedom of speech and religion are the cause of protests and people leaving the country. The dispute shows that China, too, has difficulties in communicating with its Muslim citizens at home.

I’m Mario Ritter.

This report was based on a story from reporter Shannon Van Sant in Beijing. Mario Ritter wrote it for VOA Learning English. The editor was George Grow.


Words in This Story

blasphemous - adj. showing great disrespect for God or something holy

atheist - n. someone who does not believe that God exists

religion - n. the belief in god or a group of gods

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