According to today’s New York Times, two Chinese women, both in their 70s, have been sentenced to reeducation camp. The charge? Applying for a permit to protest, in accordance with rules previously established by Chinese communist authorities. The women wanted to protest the eminent-domain taking of their homes in Beijing for the purpose of economic development (which, of course, brings to mind the Kelo decision which upheld the same sort of thing here in the United States).
The Chinese experience holds three valuable reminders for Americans with respect to freedom of speech and other fundamental rights.
First, if someone has to ask government officials for permission to exercise a “right,” then it really isn’t a right at all. Instead, it’s a privilege bestowed by government, which can be revoked at any time.
As Jefferson pointed out in the Declaration of Independence, such fundamental rights as life, liberty (which includes freedom of speech), and the pursuit of happiness, do not come from government. They are endowed in people by God and by nature. They preexist government.
Government officials exist as servants to protect, not destroy or infringe upon, people’s fundamental rights. Thus, no one has to be grateful to government officials for free speech or any other fundamental rights
Moreover, these principles are universal. As Jefferson pointed out, all men are endowed with these fundamental rights. That includes the Chinese, Americans, Russians, Cubans, and everyone else.
Second, Americans should bear in mind the reason that our American ancestors insisted on passage of the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from infringing on freedom of speech. Our ancestors knew that in the absence of such an express prohibition, U.S. officials would do what the Chinese officials are doing — punishing people for criticizing the government.
When the Bill of Rights was proposed, there were those who claimed that it was unnecessary. They argued that since the Constitution set up a government of limited powers, there was no danger that U.S. officials would infringe upon freedom of speech (and other fundamental rights) because no such power was delegated to the federal government in the Constitution.
Proponents of the Bill of Rights argued that an express enumeration of fundamental rights and guarantees would serve as an insurance policy, just in case federal officials began ignoring the limited-powers doctrine. In retrospect, they proved to be right because in the absence of the Bill of Rights, who doubts that U.S. officials, both in Congress and the executive branch, would be running roughshod over such rights as free speech, gun ownership, and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures and cruel and unusual punishments? After all, look at the things federal officials are doing Cuba, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where they argue that U.S. constitutional constraints don’t apply.
The third lesson is important for all Americans, but especially for libertarians. There is a reason that the totalitarian rulers in China shut down protests, demonstrations, dissent, and criticism of government policies. They fully understand the power of ideas, especially ideas on liberty.
The Chinese communist regime is one of the most powerful and omnipotent governments in history. Its political stranglehold on the Chinese citizenry is virtually complete. Chinese citizens don’t own guns (because it’s illegal to do so). There are no free elections. The possibility of violent or peaceful overthrow of the regime seems impossible.
So, why do Chinese officials fear freedom of speech? Why not simply let people have their protests? Because the Chinese authorities know that ideas on liberty are so powerful that they can inspire people thirsting for liberty to risk their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to bring down even omnipotent, totalitarian regimes.
Thank goodness for the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They provide guideposts for people all over the world, including here in the United States, seeking a free and prosperous society.