China’s Draconian restrictions on freedom of speech aren’t just affecting those living and working in China — they are also impacting U.S. citizens.
Chinese Americans and even non-Chinese Americans who use Chinese-made apps such as WeChat and TikTok are being censored or even having their accounts deleted simply for stating their opinions on controversial topics such as the recent protests and elections in Hong Kong and China’s horrific treatment of Uighurs in the northwest part of the country.
Some would say that it is easy for people who are censored on Chinese social media websites to switch over to other sites. Indeed, a number of Chinese Americans who were censored on WeChat for talking about the recent elections in Hong Kong did start a group on WhatsApp in order to discuss politics without interference. However, many Chinese-Americans still need to use Chinese social media sites in order to stay in touch with their relatives and friends. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and other Western social media sites are blocked in China.
Chinese social media sites aren’t just used for chatting. WeChat, for instance, is also a leading payment platform, and those who are kicked off the site in the U.S. would find it difficult to get around in China should they return for a visit. Social media sites operating in the United States are supposed to adhere to First Amendment freedom of speech rules. Pointing out that pro-China parties lost big in the recent election in Hong Kong shouldn’t be grounds for censorship. WeChat’s lame excuse for taking down the posts is that the users had Chinese phone numbers in the past, and so the system applies “Chinese” censorship rules to them instead of “American” ones.
TikTok, however, cannot make the same excuse. Seventeen-year-old Feroza Aziz in New Jersey isn’t Chinese, but her video was taken down by the Chinese social media site because she dared to tell viewers to use Google to look up what China is doing to its Uighur population. The video, which initially started as a make-up tutorial, was intentionally marked as such with the goal of helping those who would not normally look into China’s totalitarian policies to do so. TikTok initially tried to justify taking the video down, stating that Ms. Aziz broke the platform’s rules on a previous TikTok account, but was then forced to concede the video has been taken down in error. TikTok put the video back up, apologized and said that it would conduct a broader review of its content moderation policies.
While one would hope that such a review would allow American users full freedom of speech on the website, it’s hard to believe that this would actually be the case. Various events this past year show that China is cracking down on American individuals and companies alike in an effort to make everyone agree with its policies. The NBA took a lot of heat a few months back when a head coach tweeted support for the protestors in Hong Kong. A professional video game player was punished by the video game’s publisher when he likewise voiced support for the Hong Kong people.
Freedom of speech, thought, assembly, and the press is the foundation of any free nation. Allowing a foreign nation to erode this foundation sets a dangerous precedent. As one Chinese-American who was censored on WeChat aptly noted, the “red line” denoting what is and is not acceptable is moving all the time.