One of the arguments many people in the West used to denigrate the HK and Mainland government in support of the Umbrella movement was that the rioters had a right to block streets and shut down districts to get their message out. When some Hong Kongers – siding with HK and Mainland government – pushed back that while freedom of speech grants them the right to protest but not a right to shut down entire districts, they were ridiculed and shamed by the Western press.
Of course, as we know, when the occupy movement flamed across the Western capitals of the world, those governments acted very differently. The police (even paramilitary forces) soon cracked down and order was soon restored. But in China, so-called rule of law quickly gets tossed aside in the name of mob rule (I mean “democracy”). All this reinforced in my mind how “political” “free” speech is. It is “free” when the politics is palatable. But when it’s not, the “costs” – be it national security, social peace, whatever – gets framed as the main (only) issues.
This reminds me of another story last year when the Pope visited the U.S. If people remember, the pope got a “rock star” reception from the media – with the press trumpeting how popular, socially and morally in tune the pope is, especially compared to China’s President Xi (also visiting the U.S. around the same time) who allegedly got a stiff and cool reception.
It turned out that same rock star pope also decided to canonize Junípero Serra during the trip. Unfortunately, many native Americans see Junípero Serra in a very different light. Instead of a saint, they see a sower of genocide, one who helped to impose a sad, tragic chapter on the native Americans.
When a few brave souls decided to graffiti and deface a statute of Junípero Serra where the pope had announced the canonization, the media reported the incident as vandalism. There were uniform reports of the “crime” and perhaps some “embarrassment,” but no talks about one’s right to “freedom of speech.” No talks of historical wrongs. No talks of the Catholics’ churches bloodied hands. Preemptively, in the middle of the night, the police would wound up those vandalizes away, and there would be no further reports…
At the end of the day, the needs of the Church – to have shiny statutes – outweighs the need of the descendants of a murdered people to express their anger and thoughts.
In Hong Kong, when foreign-sponsored activists protest, we are of course talking about damages that are a lot higher than defaced statutes. Yet, in the West, it’s consistently reported as a “freedom of speech” issue – not a criminal issue.
This is not per se double-talk (although it is, of course, in so many ways…): it is the essence of “Freedom of speech.” You see, absolute freedom never exists because its premise doesn’t exists. If speech were just “speech,” then of course it should be “free.” No one would bother to restrict or regulate it. If it were about action – inciting hatred, uprising, violent dissent, terrorism, extremism, radicalism, or imposing a threat to national security or social peace – well then it is action and not “speech” and thus can be restricted.
Ultimately, Speech is free when it is desirable or imposes little costs. But when the costs becomes real, speech is never free. The issue becomes of peace and security, not freedom. Within the middle range where there is a “dispute” between “mainstream” political factions, then there are (muddled) talks of a “balance” between “freedom” and “security.”
When Western people talk down to China about lack of freedom of speech, we are thus rarely arguing about “freedom” per se, but “costs.” But for so many of these Westerners, what are “costs” to China are actually “desirable” to them. Alas it’s rude and counterproductive to say: hey, I don’t actually care if your society get brunt down the way I would care if it were my society. It’s much better to spew out noble-minded talks of “freedom” instead….