Please State Your Reasons

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Four of China’s most prominent and provocative public intellectuals have written an open letter to the mega-portal sina.com challenging the site’s censorship policy and in particular its lack of transparency. Their letter has been translated at you can find it along with Roland Soong’s commentary at EastSouthWestNorth.

The authors all work in fields related to the law, they all have important ideas about the future of their country and they all write blogs that have been censored. He Weifang, one of the first legal scholars trained after the Cultural Revolution is a professor of constitutional law at Peking University who enjoys a rock-star-like status on campus. Through a combination of his authority and subtlety as a scholar and his mischievously sharp wit, he remains on good terms in and way out of official circles despite his often critical take on various government policies.

Pu Zhiqiang is the country’s leading media rights lawyer. He is outspoken, unflinching and brilliant. He’s defended many of the country’s best publications against charges of defamation (often for having exposed official misdeeds) and he is frank, to a very rare degree, about his views on human rights. He is also funny, sarcastic and terrifically fluent writer.

Xu Zhiyong teaches law at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. Outside the classroom, he runs the Open Constitution Initiative, a combination legal-aid/research institute aimed at promoting the rule of the law and democracy. Xu has been involved in the cases of a number of death-row inmates, as well as the blind-activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng. He has also been for several years a legislator representing the campus of his university in his district assembly. Unlike most people who hold such positions, Xu was elected to this post (twice) in an open, contested election–that is not one in which candidates had been pre-approved by the Communist Party. Xu is probably the person most committed to public service that I’ve met in in China, and possibly in my whole life.

Xiao Han, a classmate of Xu’s at Peking University Law School is also an idealistic legal-scholar. I met him a few years ago when he was petitioning the government to review the constitutionality of a very ugly system of detention. Xu was working on the same project and the system was ultimately abolished.

All four of these men are idealists and patriots trying to play a role in their country’s social and political transformation. As someone who knows them, and as someone who dabbles in blogging herself, I can sympathize with how frustrating they must find it to have their blog posts scythed by people they’ve never met, can’t argue with, and whose criteria for removing stories are a secret. This would drive me insane or make me stop writing altogether. These four, who have all grown up with censorship and know it well. Their Internet has given them a kind of refuge (albeit an imperfect one) from the censorship they face in traditional media–which is also mostly totally opaque.

I haven’t talked to any of them recently, though, so I don’t know exactly why they thought that this was the moment, tactically speaking, to write this kind of a letter. They’re unlikely to get a response to the questions they ask of the portal:

Sina.com, please tell us: Why did you violate our freedom of speech over and over again?

Sina.com, please tell us: Why did you feel that it is your right to delete blog posts? Or even your power?

Sina.com, please tell us: Why do you feel that you do not need to negotiate with (or even notify) us before you delete a blog post?

Sina.com, please tell us: Why do you even believe that willful deletion corresponds to your commercial interests?

Sina.com, please tell us: On which article of law, or which agreement, or which department’s tongue-cutting order are your actions based?

Sina.com, please tell us: How dare you be so barbarous? Please state publicly your reasons for censoring.

They know, as well as anyone, that these are not questions to which public answers are given in China; everyone sort of knows the answers anyway. A big part of the efficacy of China’s censorship policies comes from their opacity. The chill created by vague rules about what is and isn’t allowed, keeps people constantly censoring themselves, constantly afraid they’ll step over some line they can’t even see. (Rebecca MacKinnon points out that a blog on Sohu.com, Sina.com’s rival portal, has posted the letter, and censored it.)

Moreover officially, China’s constitution protects freedom of speech, the media reports freely etc. The gulf between the official reality and the actual reality is so much a fact of daily life that most people don’t bother to remark on it. But controls on journalism and free expression have tightened up in recent months and maybe that’s why the authors of the letter felt this was an important time to point a finger at the man behind the curtain.

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