當年今日

Is defending WeChat about freedom of speech?|Wang Dan

蘋果日報 2020/09/24 11:59


The controversy surrounding the ban on WeChat has been raging in the U.S. for quite some time. The most vocal opponents to the ban include American Chinese and Chinese expats living in the U.S.. This seems understandable. After all, the majority of WeChat users are Chinese. Banning the app or banning the use of the app to conduct business activities will indeed cause inconvenience to these people. Last week, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued an official ban on the Chinese app. Then, five Chinese lawyers quickly formed a team to sue the department. The campaign has attracted a large amount of donations from Chinese Americans. Less than a day before the ban took effect, the District Court in San Francisco entered an order halting the WeChat ban after it accepted the claim in a motion that the ban violates WeChat users' First Amendment rights concerning freedom of speech.

A group of Chinese lawyers

Some people celebrated the court’s move, saying it is tantamount to Chinese Americans' success in their civil rights movement. Some others say freedom means everyone has the right to make their own choices, and even though they know WeChat has censorship problems, it is people’s right to choose to use the app and such a right should be protected by the U.S. constitution. Therefore, they believe the court’s decision is right. In theory, such an argument is not wrong. Besides, what is written in the court’s order does conform to the spirit of the U.S. rule of law and independence of the US judiciary. But take a deep look at the offensive and defense surrounding the ban, and one can see that the issue is not so simple.
First, one key rationale cited by the five lawyers in the court case against the Department of Commerce is that the WeChat ban restricts freedom of speech. This may sound righteous but is actually a chilling accusation. The five all come from mainland China. If they really attach great importance to freedom of speech, they should know that China is guilty of the most serious kinds of violation of freedom of speech in the world, and many acts of violations are related to the way WeChat controls people’s freedoms.
Last week, a friend of mine was briefly detained by a local police station in China because of some comments he posted on WeChat. He was forced to write a letter of regret. The five lawyers are surely aware of this kind of violation of freedom of speech, and yet they turn a blind eye to that and choose not to protest against it. Do they really care about freedom of speech? Of course not! Freedom of speech is a universal value. If you only care about freedom of speech in the U.S. but are callous to suppression of such freedom in other places, you would be practicing a double standard. The Chinese lawyers surely have the right to oppose the WeChat ban, but they are downright hypocritical if they cite the need to safeguard freedom of speech as the reason for their opposition.

WeChat violates freedom of speech

Second, the San Francisco court’s decision against the ban on grounds of the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution may make legal sense. But logically the ruling can hardly be justified. As it is known, the First Amendment is meant to protect freedom of speech. We also know that WeChat prohibits the use of many sensitive words and systematically disseminates fake news. All that poses great harm to freedom of speech and amounts to an affront on America’s democratic system. In this regard, isn’t it self-defeating to use the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution to protect a social media platform that violates the precise spirit and principles of the First Amendment?
I believe the San Francisco court’s ruling is based more on another reason, which is that there is insufficient evidence that WeChat jeopardizes America’s national security. In other words, the court wants the U.S. Department of Commerce to come up with more adequate evidence of WeChat’s violation of freedom of speech. One can only say the department has not been well prepared to deal with the legal proceedings. It has decided to appeal against the District Court’s ruling and it will surely present more proof in the legal battle. Thus, it is too early for those Chinese in
America to celebrate the removal of the ban. And in any case, it is simply ironic that these people to claim that by blocking the WeChat ban, they have successfully safeguarded their freedom of speech.
(Wang Dan is founder of the think tank Dialogue China.)
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