In a highly ironic statement, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that people should have the right to speak their minds on the internet. The statement came just two days after a prominent free speech activist in China was put on trial for a series of seven posts on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. President Xi is the same man who regularly censors his country’s internet, which is largely dubbed the “great firewall of China”.
While he was speaking at a major conference on the internet, President Xi said that it was very important that the 670 million internet users in China enjoy online freedom. However, internet in China isn’t exactly a shining symbol of freedom, as the country blocks many foreign websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and Instagram.
President Xi declared, “As in the real world, freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace. Freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee of freedom. We should respect internet users’ rights to exchange ideas and express their minds, and we should also build good order in cyberspace in accordance with the law as it will help protect the legitimate rights and interests of all internet users.”
Meanwhile, Chinese civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang is facing eight years in prison for seven posts he made on Weibo. The posts made by Pu criticized the country’s Communist Party. Pu’s trial started on Monday in Beijing. Legal analysts believe that it will be a landmark freedom of speech case that will greatly determine what exactly is allowed on Chinese internet in the future. Since his arrest, the Chinese government closed all of his online social networking accounts. Pu had more than 138,000 followers on Weibo.
During his 25 minute speech at the internet conference, President Xi made no reference to Pu. He also hinted that the country would maintain its stance on internet censorship, despite the importance of “freedom”.
The Chinese President said, “Cyberspace is not a place that is beyond the rule of law. Everyone should abide by the law, with the rights and obligations of parties concerned clearly defined. Cyberspace must be governed, operated and used in accordance with the law so that the internet can enjoy sound development under the rule of law.”
Ironically, the speech from President Xi was live-streamed on YouTube. But people in China couldn’t watch the stream because YouTube is blocked in China. Meanwhile, Chinese citizens complained about their president.
Earlier this year, Chinese citizen Du Yanlin spent a month in jail after he posted a selfie of himself at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Du said, “He says he respect our rights, but what he does is the exact opposite. All his high-sounding rhetoric doesn’t have any meaning. He says he respects our rights, but Pu Zhiqiang is facing jail simply for writing seven posts on Weibo. I can be placed under detention simply for tweeting from Tiananmen Square.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang added, “Under Xi Jinping there has been a very aggressive assault on internet freedom which includes the imprisonment and detention of outspoken opinion leaders. People are becoming much more fearful to share their thoughts online.”
So while President Xi can say whatever he wants about the importance of freedom, his words are meaningless unless major changes are made.