Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing on February 10, 2020. Photo: Liu Bin / Xinhua via AFP / Getty

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.”

Quite rightly, Twitter’s executives appeared unmoved by this appeal. Never has it been more important to allow Beijing to say exactly what it wants.

Through free speech, the Beijing government is ruining its own credibility in the international community. In Europe and the United States, the backlash against China’s propaganda is palpable. Last month, the European Union’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell rebuked the “global battle of narratives,” including the “struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity.’”

More than a dozen senior politicians in Britain’s governing Conservative Party have called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “rethink and reset” London’s relations with China. The Henry Jackson Society, a British think-tank, argues that London should sue Beijing for US$437 billion because of damage caused by the coronavirus epidemic.

On April 14, the Chinese envoy in Paris was summoned by the French Foreign Office over his accusations that the French government was allowing its elderly to die. While Lu Shaye, the ambassador to France since August 2019, is considered something of a “hardliner” among Beijing’s foreign representatives, he is part of an ascendant cohort of so-called “wolf warriors” of Chinese diplomacy.

As the South China Morning Post noted this month, “the pandemic appears to have lent further support to a younger generation of Chinese diplomats, many of whom often have become increasingly strident and combative, to the surprise of their overseas counterparts.” With Beijing’s rhetoric now growing more extreme, it reveals a backs-to-the-wall mentality as Beijing engages in a public relations melee that, if unsuccessful, could radically alter its place in the world once the crisis ends.

Even within autocratic governments that have enjoyed cordial relations with Beijing over the years, there are signs of an anti-China backlash. Iran’s Health Ministry spokesman criticized China’s official infection tally this month, while Brazilian Education Minister Abraham Weintraub, a close ally of President Jair Bolsonaro, wrote in a later-deleted Twitter post that China was using the crisis to “dominate the world.”

In many ways, this entire episode reveals our faulty understanding of free speech. All too often when debate turns to whether someone with dangerous, incorrect or just unpleasant opinions should be allowed to voice them freely, the focus is on the rights of the speaker. Of course this is correct; those with the least mainstream opinions need more protection, unless free speech simply means freedom for those who think like us.

But free speech is not just the right of the person to speak; it is also the right of others to listen and to hear. By denying someone else the right to speak, you make yourself and others a prisoner of your own opinions. More than that, by allowing people with odious opinions to air them openly, listeners are exposed to those opinions, and allowed to make their own determination about whom they wish to hear, without a filter – say, for instance, by how a journalist chooses to report those opinions.

Why should an average reader have to take my word on Chinese propaganda when he or she can read it directly? As such, today the entire world is coming face-to-face with the lying and propagandizing that the Chinese people have been subjected to for decades.  

Of course, there are some, like the aforementioned US lawmakers, who reckon Beijing’s propaganda needs censoring. No doubt they are concerned that it could imperil the health-care responses in other countries, but there’s an element of cynicism, too.

There appears a lingering suspicion that Beijing’s propaganda might be successful; that citizens of Western democracies might actually believe the disinformation. This is doubtful, but if Beijing were to win over much of the world through its lies and disinformation, it would reveal something about the condition of democracy that we may not have previously appreciated and which we cannot ignore. (Perversely, it would also demonstrate the power of free speech, though that lesson would be lost on Beijing’s censors.)

Yet, at the end of the day, one cannot have it both ways; one cannot desire Beijing to be censored for expressing ideas that some in the West consider dangerous and, at the same time, demand that Beijing respects the freedom of its own citizens to express thoughts that the CPC considers dangerous.

After all, if there were free speech in China, then there might have been a good chance that information about the coronavirus in December would have spread faster, perhaps limiting infection rates by an order of magnitude and potentially containing the virus in one Chinese city.