Coronavirus News Asia

Why we need free speech for dangerous ideas – even China’s

Starting this week, David Hutt will be filing a regular column for Asia Times called “Free Thoughts.” A political journalist, Hutt is a regular contributor to Asia Times and is Southeast Asia columnist at The Diplomat. He also writes for Foreign Policy, Nikkei Asian Review, South China Morning Post, World Politics Review, and other international publications. Now Europe-based, he reported from Southeast Asia between 2014 and 2019, and from Central America between 2013 and 2014.

It is as true today as it was when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote it in the 19th century: “Despots themselves don’t deny that freedom is a wonderful thing, they only want to limit it to themselves.”

As the ruling Communist Party of China – already one of the world’s most repressive regimes – engages in yet another crackdown to silence public criticism of its handling of the coronavirus crisis and to suppress dissent as China’s economy is expected to plunge to low growth rates not seen since the 1970s, it is exercising its own freedom of speech to carry out a global propaganda and disinformation campaign.

Beijing is trying to spin a narrative that presents itself as a role model for other countries and a reliable partner to the rest of the world, such as through its so-called “mask diplomacy.” Behind this propaganda are often insinuations that democracies have been weak and ineffective in their responses to the Covid-19 outbreak, while authoritarian states have been far more proficient.

But these more placid (though questionable) elements of Beijing’s propaganda campaign are underwritten by its vindictive spreading of conspiracy theories that claim the coronavirus actually came from American labs or the streets of Italy.

Zhao Lijian, the spokesman and deputy director general of the Information Department of China’s Foreign Ministry, has become the most well-known purveyor of such nonsense, though he is far from a “lone wolf” in Beijing. The CPC’s interlocutors are also busy deceitfully exaggerating how badly other nations, namely those in the democratic West, have handled this crisis. 

As might be expected, there are calls to censor Beijing. In the US, Senator Ben Sasse and Representative Mike Gallagher last month urged Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey to remove accounts related to China’s communist regime from the social network.

“It is clear that Chinese Communist Party officials are using Twitter to disseminate propaganda in the midst of a dangerous global crisis,” they wrote in a statement. “Even worse, this propaganda obscures and confuses users over the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and potentially undermines efforts to contain and control the outbreak.”

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