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Freedom of Expression: Country Studies - China

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 7 Political Rights, 6 Civil Liberties (Not Free)

(See also the China Country Study in Freedom of the Press 2007.)


The People's Republic of China (PRC) is the world's fourth-largest country in terms of area (9,596,960 square kilometers) and the world's most populous, with over 1.3 billion people in 2006 (more than four times the U.S. population of 300 million). There are 56 recognized ethnic groups, the most numerous and dominant group being the Han (approximately 92 percent of the population). In gross domestic product (GDP) measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), which takes into account factors such as inflation, the PRC has gained the status of having the world's second-largest economy (over $10 trillion in 2006), surpassing Japan. However, in 2006, the PRC ranked 102nd in terms of gross national income (GNI) measured by PPP, at $7,730, and 129th in terms of GNI per capita, at $2,010, reflecting the relatively poor status of many of its citizens.


China's history is dominated by repressive dynasties or kingdoms, civil wars, military government, and Communist totalitarian dictatorship (the latter for approximately the last 60 years). Since 1978, the Communist government has opened up the country to the global free market and allowed for the existence of private property, investment, trade, and business. The PRC has since dramatically increased its GDP, becoming one of the world's few economically successful Communist countries. Despite economic reform, however, there has not been a similar reform of the political system. China remains governed by the Chinese Communist Party, which monopolizes all government, legal, and social structures and still much of the economy. In 1989, massive demonstrations were organized in Tiananmen Square and around the country, calling for democracy and freedom. The government responded with a brutal crackdown that was seen around the world. Since that time, organized dissent has been met with force, arrest, expulsion, and various other forms of intimidation. Freedom House has consistently categorized China as "not free."


The Origins of Imperial China

Historians date the first known prehistoric dynasty in mainland China, called Xia, to the 21st century BC. The first confirmed historical dynasty is the Shang dynasty, which existed from 1700 to 1027 BC in the Huang He Valley and was founded by a rebel leader who supposedly overthrew the Xia leader. The Zhou dynasty was established following the overthrow of the Shang dynasty and ruled from 1027 to 221 BC. The Zhou dynasty was the first to espouse rule by divine right, called the "mandate of heaven." This doctrine remained the prevailing justification for successive dynasties until the last emperor, Puyi, was forced to abdicate in AD 1912. During the Zhou dynasty, China also saw the rise of warlords, who created their own independent states.

Tiananmen Square

From the time of the Zhou dynasty, Chinese history has been dominated by periods of violent disunity and attempts by new dynasties to unify a disparate country through centralized control. The first dynasty that succeeded in unifying the six major warlord powers was the Qin dynasty (221–06 BC), which marks the formal beginning of imperial Chinese history and the introduction of the term "emperor" for the Chinese leader. Although it lasted less than two decades, the Qin dynasty initiated many of China's early achievements and innovations aimed at consolidating a central state, including the building of the Great Wall of China and unifying a system of weights and measures, currency, a legal code, and the character language.

Stability and Instability

The Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) introduced Confucianism as the state religion and the foundation of Chinese imperial rule. The dynasty emerged from Confucius's disciples as a political, religious, and ethical system elevating ideals of political unity, knowledge, and virtue. However, Confucianism could not prevent the period of disunity and warlord warfare, which lasted for centuries and ended only with the rise of the Sui dynasty (AD 581–617), followed by the Tang dynasty (618–907). Under the latter, Buddhism was widely practiced, although Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism all became intertwined with traditional folk religion. When the Tang dynasty disintegrated, it led to another period of disunity in which China was divided into several smaller dynasties and kingdoms.

From a Golden Age to Mongol Invasion

In 960, the Song dynasty gained control over most of China, beginning China's Golden Age. This was continued even after the invasion by the Manchurian Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234). The Song, forced south to Hangzhou, agreed to accept the Jurchen as overlords. The Golden Age came to a full stop with the invasion of the Mongols, first started under Genghis Khan in 1209 and completed in 1279 by Kublai Khan, his grandson who established the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). During the period of Mongol rule, ethnic Han Chinese faced discrimination. Although Kublai Khan was the first non-ethnic Han leader of the Great Middle Kingdom, he ruled traditionally, instituting centralized control and reestablishing Beijing as the capital. After Kublai Khan's death, the Yuan dynasty was overthrown in 1368 by a rebel army led by the peasant Zhu Yuanzhang.

The Longest Uninterrupted Rule

Zhu's victory reasserted Han rule and marked the start of the Ming dynasty, which lasted until 1644, the longest uninterrupted rule of any unified dynasty. The Ming dynasty adopted neo-Confucianism, an offshoot of Confucianism characterized by scholasticism, xenophobia, and a rigid belief in hierarchy. The Ming dynasty focused on agricultural production, but not trading. It banned slavery—among the first major states in the world to do so—and encouraged the growth of independent farming and the cultivation of new crops, as well as landownership. It developed new industries (porcelain, textiles, and the mass production of books well before Europe) and finalized the Great Wall of China. Its powerful navy gained foreign tribute as far away as Africa, but protected China from foreign intrusion and trade.

The Manchu Dynasty

The Ming dynasty fell to invasion by the Manchus from the north in 1644 (also known as Jurchen, who had earlier defeated the Song dynasty). They installed the Qing dynasty, which lasted until the abdication of Puyi in 1912, remaining in power nearly as long as the Ming. The Manchu dynasty imposed heavy-handed foreign control. Only Manchus could serve in the army and administration, and Han identity was brutally repressed. Under penalty of death, the Qing enforced the Manchu queue hairstyle (shaving the hair in front but leaving the rest in a long ponytail) and dress code (what is today considered traditional Chinese clothing). In other ways, however, the Manchu ruled traditionally through an imperial style, adopted neo-Confucian norms, and ordered the compilation of a complete dictionary of Chinese characters and a list of all Chinese books.

The Qing dynasty, technologically superior to its Asian neighbors, fell behind Europe, especially in the area of weaponry. Beginning in the 18th century, the Qing dynasty agreed under threat of force to open itself to trade with the West, especially in opium. The Chinese defeat in the First Opium War (1839–42), which was a trade war between China and Great Britain, forced China to grant the British special trade privileges as well as Hong Kong. The Taiping Rebellion (1851–64), which was a peasant revolt against the Qing dynasty and foreign rule, was more momentous and cost approximately 30 million lives. The revolt was led by Hong Xiuquan, a Christian convert who claimed to be the new messiah and Jesus's younger brother. The rebels sought to abolish private property and slavery, although they were eventually put down with the assistance of British and French forces.

In response to these calamities and to China's loss to France and Japan in respective wars, the young emperor Guangxu adopted the "Self-Strengthening Movement" and in 1898 declared the "Hundred Day Reforms." Both campaigns aimed to modernize China, as Japan had done, within traditional structures. However, the emperor's adopted mother and regent, the Empress Dowager Cixi, marshaled imperial traditionalists to have Guangxu declared mentally deranged. The empress then supported the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, a movement to expel foreigners and foreign influence that was defeated by an eight-state alliance led by Great Britain and the United States.

The End of 2,000 Years of Imperial Rule

A new modern national movement arose in the 1890s inspired by the revolutionary ideas and writings of Sun Yat-sen, who was opposed to the Qing and espoused an ideology of the "Three Principles of the People": nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihoods. After a series of uprisings that began in Wuchang in 1911 and spread to the rest of the country, a provisional republican government was established in Nanjing on January 1, 1912. Delegates from provisional assemblies across China declared the establishment of the Republic of China and appointed Sun Yat-sen as president. In Beijing in 1912, Yuan Shikai, the head of the imperial army, negotiated the abdication of Guangxu's successor, the six-year-old emperor Puyi, in exchange for his life. This brought a formal end to more than 2,000 years of Chinese imperial rule.

Sun Yat-sen
The Collapse of the Chinese Republic

To achieve a united government and avoid civil war, Sun Yat-sen agreed to resign as president in favor of Yuan Shikai. He moved the capital back to his center of power, Beijing, and abolished the nascent national assembly elected in 1913, mainland China's first free national election. He then attempted to establish a new dynasty and was forced out in 1915 (he died of natural causes in 1916). Although a government remained in Beijing that was recognized internationally, after Shikai's death, various warlords and armed factions competed for political control.

The First United Front

By 1921, Sun Yat-sen had gained control in the south. Rebuffed by Western powers, in 1921 he established an alliance with the Soviet Union to unify China and also formed an alliance (the First United Front), joining his Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party with the smaller Chinese Communist Party (CCP). When Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, he was succeeded as head of the Nationalist Party by General Chiang Kai-shek, a protege who led the Whampoa Military Academy (aimed at eliminating warlord influence through a professional military). Chiang united south and central China and gained the tentative support of northern warlords to form a central government with the capital in Nanjing in 1927.

The Long March, Japanese Invasion, and the Second United Front

Facing a Communist-inspired left-right split within Nationalist ranks and even Communist-instigated attempts on his life, General Chiang Kai-shek renounced the United Front and undertook to defeat the Communists. The Kuomintang forced the Communists to abandon their self-declared Communist Soviet Republic and then put down a series of peasant revolts organized by Mao Zedong. In 1934, the Long March (a military retreat by Communist forces to escape the Nationalists) saved the Communists from total defeat and allowed the CCP to establish a guerrilla base in Shaanxi province. The Japanese takeover of Manchuria and Japan's other incursions diverted Chiang from pursuing the Communist forces. Then, in 1936, two of Chiang's own generals kidnapped him to force him to agree to a Second United Front at the outset of the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45).

Mao Zedong's presence in modern China
Resumption of Civil War

The Nationalist-Communist alliance deteriorated as early as 1940, but civil conflict resumed outright in 1947 after the breakdown of talks brokered by the United States under General George Marshall. By 1949, the People's Liberation Army had gained control on the mainland, and Nationalist forces retreated to the island of Taiwan, claiming legal continuity as the Republic of China (ROC). The People's Republic of China was formally established on October 1, 1949, supplanting the ROC on the mainland. Armed hostilities ended in 1950, but the PRC remains technically at war with the Republic of China, which it considers part of a single China. After a period of dictatorship under the Kuomintang, Taiwan has emerged as a stable multiparty democracy with a successful free-market economy. The ROC constitution still claims to be the legitimate government of all China, but most leaders refer to the country as Taiwan.

To deal with the fact that China was largely a peasant country, Mao introduced a distinct variant on Marxism-Leninism, a "dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants."
The People's Republic of China

In contrast with Taiwan, the People's Republic of China has failed to introduce a democratic political system. Following the Soviet model, the constitution of the PRC established the Chinese Communist Party as the leading and unchallengeable political force. As chairman of the CCP and the effective leader of the People's Liberation Army, Mao Zedong assumed full political powers. To deal with the fact that China was largely a peasant country, Mao introduced a distinct variant on Marxism-Leninism, a "dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants." The totalitarian system based on democratic centralism was unvaried. The CCP's control was systematically implemented, using various ideological campaigns, such as the "Anti-Rightist Campaign" and the more neutral-sounding "Three Anti" and "Five Anti" campaigns. These campaigns set out to eradicate warlords, landlords, property owners, Nationalists, and any open critics of the CCP. Hundreds of thousands of people were rounded up in each campaign and either executed or placed into a new system of concentration and labor camps (laogai).

The Hundred Flowers' Campaign

In 1956, Zhou Enlai, Mao's second in command as premier, had expressed concern at the lack of critical comments expressed within the bureaucracy. Mao agreed and announced a policy "to let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend." The response, at first minimal, grew into an avalanche, with millions of letters pouring into the premier's office expressing outright opposition to the CCP's policies. Intellectuals were prominent among the responders. Fearing the ramifications, Mao quickly declared the response beyond "healthy criticism." He blamed intellectuals for encouraging anti-rightist thought and ordered the campaign ended. There began a new Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957, in which millions of people were dismissed from their jobs, imprisoned, or executed, all based on their criticism of the CCP.

Poster promoting the Great Leap Forward
The Great Leap Forward

Soon, Mao undertook a new campaign. Impatient at the pace of socialist advancement, he ordered the Great Leap Forward (also known as the Second Five-Year Plan, which covered the years 1958–63). The plan was a national effort to develop collectivized agriculture and industry in parallel, including the use of agricultural collectives and households for a new form of state industrialization (the "iron rice bowl"). Initially, in 1950, the government had encouraged peasants to join in cooperative-style organizations controlled by party cadres. The initial phase of collectivization had already created food shortages and famine in the early and mid-1950s. As in the Soviet Union, this third "leap" of total collectivization proved to be disastrous, but on a greater scale because of China's larger population. Historians differ on the level of the catastrophe, but most demographic experts now believe that approximately 20 million people died from hunger as a result of the Great Leap Forward.

Under the People's Republic of China, all media became controlled by the state.
The Cultural Revolution

The disaster of the Great Leap Forward, which the regime publicly blamed on natural disasters, resulted in a brief curtailing of Mao Zedong's powers. Although still chairman of the CCP, he was replaced as chairman of the PRC by Liu Shaoqi, while Deng Xiaoping assumed the position of general secretary within the party. This, however, presaged yet another of Mao's campaigns, the Cultural Revolution, which began in May 1966 in a speech by Mao calling for the eradication of the "Four Olds" (old customs, culture, habits, and ideas) in areas of religion, education, culture, tradition, and even within Communist institutions. Red Guards (radical student paramilitary groups) along with other supporters of Mao rampaged throughout China to find anyone engaged in anti-Communist thoughts and practices. Mao used the campaign to have Liu Shaoqi arrested and Deng Xiaoping sent to a work collective, while Mao loyalists were placed in the state apparatus. Millions of people were expelled and dismissed from institutions, universities, workplaces, and appointed positions. Millions were also sent to prison or forced to work on farm collectives. Formally, the Cultural Revolution lasted until the 1976 arrest of the Gang of Four, led by Jiang Qing (Mao's wife), shortly after Mao's death. The Gang of Four is officially blamed for the "excesses" of this period.

The Rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping: The Period of Reforms

Deng Xiaoping's political rehabilitation by his longtime mentor, Premier Zhou Enlai, led to his assumption of control of the state after 1976. From that time, Deng introduced a new approach to development and initiated a hybrid capitalist-Communist economy that has quadrupled China's gross national product and put it on a path toward surpassing the United States as the world's dominant economic power (and the model for other authoritarian regimes like Vietnam [see Country Study). But while there has been much opening up in the economy and even the culture, there was no political opening under Deng or his successors. Indeed, part of China's economic miracle is its artificially low labor costs based on the suppression of free-trade unions and workers' rights. Overall, the CCP remains in total control of politics and the state. In 1989, when millions of people took to Tiananmen Square in Beijing and in regional capitals throughout the country to demand reforms to liberalize the political system, the army and police suppressed the demonstrations with tanks and guns. Tens of thousands were imprisoned, expelled from universities, and forced into exile. Ever since, the state has tried to prevent any recurrence of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations by strictly limiting political dissent.

Freedom of Expression

Imperial China

The history of freedom of expression in China reflects its overall past. Emperors as well as warlords of individual states often imposed rigid systems of loyalty, sometimes to their detriment, since leaders had to rely on manipulative or even conspiring aides for key information. Chinese emperors were the first to establish a list of censored books in the ninth and 10th centuries AD, at the time that book printing in multiple copies was initiated. Scholarship focused on studying and interpreting Confucian texts, a practice that grew more and more rigid and scholastic over time. Unlike in Europe, where a religious Reformation fostered intellectual differences, in China, all religious tendencies were absorbed into a single state system. There are many examples of Chinese intellectuals speaking out, achieving scientific discovery, and developing new means of expression (woodblock printing and movable type, for example). But none of these overcame the longer tradition of repressive dynasties.

The Period of Republican China

In the late imperial period, there was a spark of intellectual and political ferment among Chinese, especially those exiled and living in Japan, Southeast Asia, and the United States, where independent media existed. Free newspapers existed in all of these communities, and many Chinese émigrés were influenced by Western thought. It was in this milieu that Sun Yat-sen developed his "Three Principles" ideology of nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihoods. He gained financial support and was able to inspire political followers within China. Even in the chaos of the Republic of China, there emerged a culture of intellectual vibrancy and diversity. But the Western liberalism professed in the 1919 May Fourth Movement (an anti-imperialist movement) was ultimately overcome, first by Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1920s and second by the CCP in 1949, which put an end to the development of intellectual freedoms.

The People's Republic of China

Under the People's Republic of China, all media became controlled by the state. Censorship was introduced almost immediately, and various political campaigns effectively enforced ideological uniformity. The social mobilization of the PRC's citizens further discouraged any dissent. Beginning in the late 1960s, the Cultural Revolution reinforced the penalties for deviating from the established orthodoxy through an ongoing and terrifying ideological campaign.

Blog posting blocked by China

Although private enterprise has been promoted, marking a departure from Communist orthodoxy in economic matters, there has not been a similar relaxation in terms of freedom of expression. The great increase in broadcast and print media outlets and their commercialization (there are over 2,000 newspapers, over 650 radio stations, and over 3,000 television stations) has taken place mostly within the framework of state ownership or state-sponsored ownership. More important, the media still operate under the strict supervision of the state's enormous propaganda and censorship apparatus. Nearly all significant appointments of editors, broadcasters, and senior journalists remain controlled by the party's nomenklatura system (appointment based on loyalty to and position within the CCP). Editors and journalists must attend ideology reinforcement conferences, and all media are required to comply with "propaganda circulars" issued by the Central Propaganda Department of the CCP and its local branches. Other state institutions further contribute to the web of controls. Editors and journalists who go beyond the direction of the party in reporting local corruption are severely punished and face dismissal, exclusion from the profession, or even arrest. Some are prosecuted according to the Protection of National Secrets Law, which is detrimental to press freedom because the actual violation of the law is often never known to avoid revealing the supposed state secret. (See "Speak No Evil: Mass Media Control in Contemporary China" by Ashley Esarey, Freedom at Issue Special Report, February 2006.)

Editors and journalists must attend ideology reinforcement

Clearly, such policies run contrary to the functioning of a free economy as well as of a free society. The restrictions on media have not, in fact, silenced freedom of expression, and there are thousands of organized protests, spontaneous demonstrations, and even strikes based on dissatisfaction with officials, scandals, corruption, official policy, or working conditions. However, none of these are reported on, and all are quickly put down or dispersed by state security forces. Even the internet is strictly controlled, with new restrictions placing even greater controls on what the country's 137 million users are allowed to access (with the active cooperation of search engine companies like Google and Yahoo!). Many websites that are considered by authorities to be politically or socially dangerous are beyond the reach of Chinese users.

Hong Kong: A Threatened Haven of Freedom

Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to China in 1997, is governed under a formal agreement with the United Kingdom guaranteeing respect for Hong Kong's self-governance and separate system of laws—a policy called "one country, two systems." This has allowed Hong Kong to retain a measure of relative freedom. Notably, in 2003, 500,000 citizens demonstrated against a proposed antisubversion law that was withdrawn as a result of the protest. Media outlets in Hong Kong have operated independently, and there are currently 16 privately owned newspapers, only four of which are funded by CCP supporters. This relative freedom is threatened by targeted arrests of Hong Kong journalists by Chinese government authorities, including the 2005 arrest of Ching Cheong, a journalist for Singapore's Straits Times, on espionage and state secrets charges, probably because of the journalist's efforts to obtain interview texts of former premier Zhao Ziyang, whose death raised the issue of the Tiananmen Square massacre. A number of popular broadcast journalists have resigned due to pressure by Chinese authorities.


In 1989, protests in Tiananmen Square spontaneously grew to over 100,000 people and spread throughout the country. In each place, demonstrators sought greater freedom and democracy. These events show that Chinese society has not ignored the great advances in liberty made in many countries over the last century. Certainly, the contrast between Taiwan (the Republic of China) and mainland China (the People's Republic of China) in the area of freedom indicates that Chinese society is not condemned to perpetual dictatorship. But any hope for change is dampened by the current regime's suppression of attempts to express opinions outside of approved subjects and to report facts outside the government's level of tolerance. Even informal publications not widely distributed or discussion clubs with few members are targets of regime crackdowns. The regime's control over the internet has shown the limits of the hope that technology can easily transform a dictatorship.