Edited by Mike McConville and Eva Pils
Chapter 16: Resolving the ‘endless narrative’: criminal defamation and expression rights in China
In April 2009, Chinese public opinion was filled with discussion about the need to protect the right of citizens to criticize the government. Some of the nation’s more daring newspapers had revealed details of three separate cases in which individuals had been jailed over online allegations made against local officials. These were not the first such cases in China, nor would they be the last. But both the way these cases were revealed one after another and the overall timing of the revelations created a sense of crisis and urgency about a criminal statute that, it was felt, could be so easily abused by those in power to silence voices of legitimate criticism. The focal point for this discussion was the offence of criminal defamation and, more specifically, the use of its provision authorizing public prosecution when defamatory statements constitute ‘serious threat to social order or national interests.’ Under this provision, law-enforcement officers have been mobilized against those whose criticisms threaten to cause embarrassment to local authorities or the government. Even if these prosecutions sometimes go nowhere, derailed by public exposure or a flimsy basis in law, the possibility of winding up behind bars has a chilling effect on those who might make allegations of corruption or other serious wrongdoing by local officials.
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