Following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week, Chinese state media quickly propagated the “American chaos” in celebratory fashion. As major U.S. social media platforms banned President Trump’s accounts for his role in stoking the chaos, state media has seized on the situation to make the case that all speech has limits, and to highlight American hypocrisy and flaws in democracy. The New York Times’ Li Yuan reports on netizen comments, fueled along by state commentary, taking Trump’s side in the controversy:
“A country as big as the United States can’t tolerate Trump’s mouth,” another popular comment said. “U.S. democracy has died.”
The comments were solicited by Guancha.com, a nationalistic news site, which created the hashtag #BigUSappsunitedtosilenceTrump# on Weibo. They were echoed by Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the Communist Party.
[…] “Some people may believe Twitter’s decision to suspend the account of the U.S. president is a sign of democracy,” Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, wrote in an opinion piece with the headline “Twitter’s suspension of Trump’s account shows freedom of speech has boundaries in every society.”
It would be tough for the United States to come back and play the role of “the beacon of democracy,” Mr. Hu added in a Weibo post. [Source]
Also at The New York Times, political scientist Maria Repnikova argued that the ongoing upheaval may ultimately demonstrate the resilience of America’s democratic institutions, rather than their fragility, noting some online comments from China already making similar arguments. Li Yuan’s piece highlighted another dissenting view noting that “He Weifang, a renowned law professor at Peking University, wrote a long post on WeChat supporting the restrictions on Mr. Trump. The article has since disappeared.” CDT Chinese has archived Professor He’s WeChat commentary, which is translated in full below:
He Weifang: On the U.S. President’s Twitter Freedom
Many people on the internet are furious about Twitter and other social media platforms banning U.S. President Trump, believing it to be an act that stifles the freedom of speech. However, these accusations are questionable.
1) Twitter is a private media platform, Trump is the President of the United States, and it is unusual for a private company to limit the speech of the president. Traditionally, people focus on freedom of the press by cautioning against the government placing limits on people’s speech, not the other way around. Therefore, Twitter’s restrictions against Trump are difficult to understand from where we are. To give a rough analogy, this is like Sina Weibo banning the official account of Xinhua News Agency. I just want to remind people that this is a difference that deserves the attention of everyone who values the freedom of speech.
2) As privately-owned platforms like Twitter have gained wide social influence, they undoubtedly have the characteristics of a public forum. However, public forums are not public restrooms: not all are welcome. Traditional media platforms like The New York Times and CNN also have to obey the basic ethics of journalism, which both protect freedom and guard against abuse. Therefore, these platforms also need to fulfill the duty of screening. For example, it is necessary to warn those who openly call for racial hatred, incite violence, or spread rumors, and to ban those who do so repeatedly.
3) Controversy will arise in managing social media platforms. If it comes down to whether limitations on the freedom of speech are unconstitutional, then the door to the court is open.
4) Among modern U.S. presidents, Trump is the one who most favors direct communication on social media. Former presidents have mostly communicated with the press, either personally or through the White House press secretary, and the press then reports and comments. But Trump changed this. He arguably started his own “Trump Daily,” sometimes sending out dozens of tweets a day to millions of followers. This is a new phenomenon in the traditional structure of American journalism. The American government, based on certain principles, may issue briefings, but may not run media outlets, which would be an unusual monopoly harmful to freedom and the oversight of public power. I want to clarify that just because social media banned Trump doesn’t mean he has lost the traditional methods of speaking to the people.
5) As for the relationship between Trump’s tweets and protesters’ attack on the Capitol on January 6, Trump’s biggest problem is that as a sitting president seeking reelection, he had repeatedly alleged election fraud and accused Biden of stealing his victory. He continued with accusations and even encouraged various forces to overturn the election, despite recounts in contended places that confirmed the original results, dozens of lawsuits brought by his lawyers in state and federal courts which were dismissed for lack of evidence or merits, and his own attorney general concluding after investigation that there was no widespread election fraud. Trump called on his supporters to come to the capital city to pressure lawmakers as they certified the electoral college votes on January 6. It is unprecedented for the head of the executive branch to obstruct and threaten the legislature in this way. In view of his responsibility, it is not improper for the platforms to ban his accounts, nor is it a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. [Chinese]
Translation by Yakexi.