How Can Censorship Impede Democracy?

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Censorship is a pretty challenging task in this day and age with the advances of the Internet. Censorship is the act of denying access to any material, speech, public announcements, or information that is in opposition to the lawmakers, acting government, institutions, or corporations putting the censorship rules in place. It has almost always throughout history been used by governments to protect their beliefs and values and to try and prevent opposition. A great modern-day example of this would be China. The government of the People’s Republic of China puts massive restrictions on the Internet, books, movies, television, and even speech. Take Tiananmen square for example. An incident in history that would surely be remembered and a day that would be mourned. China denies it ever happened, and unless you, a Chinese person, were alive when it happened you would never know such atrocities had been committed. Tiananmen square sparked a series of communist reforms around the world, which leads me to my question- How can censorship impede democracy?

Some of the reforms sparked by Tiananmen square went rather quickly and quietly. This is partly due to an overthrow of government censorship by means of peaceful demonstrations. There are two great examples of this in Central Europe- the Czech Republic and Poland. In November 1989, the Czech Republic known at the time as Czechoslovakia had an uprise of students peacefully demonstrating for human rights and the right to vote for who led their country. It was called the Velvet Revolution, and it was extremely successful. On November 17th, 1989, just 5 months after Tiananmen square, riot police had beaten students peacefully demonstrating in Prague, the country’s capital. After eleven days of peaceful demonstrations with numbers up to a million in a country with a population of only 16 million; the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia gave up its power and allowed the communist government to collapse. An underground resistance to the communist party called Civic Forum had been growing for decades and was in part led by playwright Vaclav Havel who then became president of a newly democratic Czechoslovakia. (1)

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In Poland, the anti-communist movement started much earlier. There had been demonstrations by workers and students as early as 1956. In 1956, workers took to the streets of Poznan, the 4th largest Polish city, and demanded economic and political changes. Their demonstrations were quickly ended by communist authorities with over one hundred deaths. Almost the same thing happened in 1970, with workers demonstrating in major coastal cities for higher wages and economic reforms. Thousands were wounded and forty-five were killed. In 1979-1980, anti-communist groups started to gain some traction. Pope John Paul II visited his home country of Poland and, on live state TV and radio, spoke about human rights and the right to freedom of expression and conscience. In the summer of 1980, a massive group comprised of workers, intellectuals, students, members of the Catholic Church and peasants went on strike all across the country. This led to the creation of a free trade union called Solidarnosc, or Solidarity. The government caved to the group’s demands and legalized the movement in September of 1980. Membership grew to almost 10 million, 29% of Poland’s population at the time, and included 80% of state employees including communist party members. Then, in December of 1981, fearing Soviet military intervention due to the size of the revolutionary movement, the Polish government declared martial law. Hundreds of leaders of Solidarity were arrested and thrown in jail. The movement regrouped underground, now significantly weakened. By the end of 1988, strikes and protests were increasing in frequency and volume, and the Polish government agreed to re-legalize Solidarity. In early 1989, an agreement was struck between Solidarity and the government to hold a free election in the summer of 1989. By August, Poland had its first noncommunist prime minister, who quickly began economic, social, and judicial reforms. (2)

How can censorship indoctrinate citizens? A perfect modern example of this is China. In China, there is a censorship campaign known as the Golden Shield. The Golden Shield is the formal name for the Great Firewall of China, but it encompasses much more than that. The Golden Shield is not only responsible for blocking access to the free internet (That’s what the Great Firewall does) but monitoring, tracking and maintaining a database of all internet users within the country. China began its construction in 1996, and it was fully implemented in 2008. After the rapid increase in users when the Internet was implemented in China in 1995, the communist government of China wanted to control what its users could have access to. This blocked access to anything the Chinese government considered to be unsuitable for their citizens, including pornography, obscene content, anything criminal in nature, and anything defamatory to the Chinese communist government. (4) The censorship of China’s internet is an incredibly massive operation and its estimated 50,000 people are employed by the government to actively monitor internet use and maintain order. When I was in China, I asked a few citizens for their opinion on the ethics of this. Some refused to answer, but others told me they had no idea the internet was more than what China makes it. Of course, my sample size was very small and the age demographic much younger than China’s average citizen age, but it was obvious to me they had never heard of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. China hasn’t given them a need to look for these things, because they have devised their own versions. Sina Weibo is one of these, Weibo meaning ‘microblog’ in Chinese. It’s essentially Twitter. You can post text and images, comment, chat, and video chat. It’s also similar in that companies can pay Sina to advertise on their site. Also important to note, Weibo and all other platforms operating within China have to abide by a set of censorship rules. This includes automatically filtering out any text to do with Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Taiwan, and anti-CCP (China Communist Party) groups. Overall, China is very protective of what its citizens see, do and say on the Internet, and I think it will be a very long time before we see that change. I believe it is unethical for Chinese people to be unable to access the free, uncensored Internet, but I see why China censors so much. They are afraid the communist regime will be overthrown by people because they looked at something on the Internet. (4) (5)

In conclusion, censorship has many facets of impeding democracy. Modern China makes its citizens believe there is no other way, and that China is superior to everything else because it is a communist dictatorship. Although it is not technically a dictatorship, there has been absolutely no opposition towards the current president, Xi Jinping, 7 years into him leading China. I don’t think China will reform into a democratic country anytime soon, as they have had great success under communist dictators in the past (think the Great Leap Forward). Censorship in China continues to be a hot topic around the world, while it is not talked about in China except for in the government. In other countries in the past, censorship has only worked for so long, and it was typically held together with force. Eventually though, especially in the cases of both Poland and Czechoslovakia, there were simply too many people to try and censor and the communist governments imploded. Freedom of speech, thought and expression are human rights, and communist governments are often quick to take them away. China says they promote these things, however, if someone whispers anything about China being bad, they are dealt with either by force or by stripping of privileges. Censorship not only impedes democracy, but it also makes it impossible if it is held up by strong opposition.

In conclusion, censorship has many facets of impeding democracy. Modern China makes its citizens believe there is no other way, and that China is superior to everything else because it is a communist dictatorship. Although it is not technically a dictatorship, there has been absolutely no opposition towards the current president, Xi Jinping, 7 years into him leading China.

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