In recent weeks, China has been abuzz with talk about protecting the rights of citizens to criticize the government. To date, the Chinese media has given extensive coverage to three separate cases involving the use of criminal-defamation charges to silence individuals who aired criticisms of alleged local government misconduct on the Internet. These press reports have generated considerable public sympathy for the victims of these abuses of power and may represent an initial push toward reforms that would create space for some—but likely not all—those who dare to voice opinions critical of the Chinese government.
[…] Though exposure of three separate criminal-defamation cases over the course of two weeks is certainly remarkable, it would be an oversimplification to blame a new, concerted effort to impose new restrictions on free speech in China. But the increased use of both civil- and criminal-defamation litigation to fight back against criticism in recent years is reflective of changes that have taken place in China over the past decade. Chinese state control of the media has long ensured that officials and institutions are rarely subjected to public criticism. But today’s media environment features a increasingly commercialized press with more editorial freedom and, especially, an expansive Internet that, while routinely censored, nevertheless provides an unprecedented platform for individuals to express opinions on a range of subjects. And for local officials, online criticism like that posted by Wang Shuai, Wu Baoquan or Deng Yonggu does not simply embarrass; if it leads to an investigation from above, it could mean the loss of a job.