Under pressure from Beijing, Hong Kong is extending its COVID-19 lockdown through June 4, which happens to be the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of peaceful protesters by the Chinese military. The annual Hong Kong vigil is typically the largest such gathering in China, and the new restrictions leave in doubt its residents’ ability to commemorate the 1989 tragedy.
In addition to using the pandemic to crack down on this year’s anniversary observances, government censors annually block Chinese citizens from searching online for keywords related to the massacre. Even terms as simple as "June 4” are blocked on the mainland. Now Beijing is pushing to amend the de facto constitution of Hong Kong, granting mainland authorities broad power to classify protest and free speech activities as “subversive” to national security. This has implications for protesters, journalists, and everyday citizens who simply express dissatisfaction with Beijing.
Leveraging the current pandemic for repression is cynical and manipulative. But it is also ironic. The Communist Party justified its actions 31 years ago, and continues to justify censorship of the massacre, by saying it’s necessary to “immunize” the country against turmoil.
Despite years of censorship, people still remember. Top-down restrictions on the free flow of information can’t crush an idea any more than they can kill a virus. In China and elsewhere, these restrictions do more harm than good both for civic health and public health.
Beijing is hardly the only government on Earth responding to dissent with censorship. It has plenty of company exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to impose draconian restrictions on speech and assembly. Even though it makes disease outbreaks worse, authoritarian countries — and some not so authoritarian — are silencing journalists, health officials, and human rights groups under the guise of addressing misinformation in the name of public health.
Hungary, Iran, and others have imposed new and more stringent sanctions for sharing what officials deem to be false information. Hungary’s measures criminalize sharing “falsehoods” or “distorted truths” about the government’s handling of the pandemic and risk further silencing members of the press and academy. Iran’s approach has resulted in arrests of several journalists who challenged official claims of the virus’ spread.
Legal protections are much stronger in America, compared not only with authoritarian regimes but even to other democracies. But as partisan tensions rise and ‘us vs. them’ mentalities stifle discourse, opportunities for open dialogue diminish. The more we talk past each other instead of with each other, the less likely we are to sustain the idea that others have a right to disagree with us.
It’s a dangerous trend.
Two years before the Tiananmen Square massacre, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in a famous essay about the necessity of creating “an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas.”
We must be able to sustain the tension between those two notions and to apply them as needed. To do that, contrarian speech must be protected.
That doesn’t mean every idea has equal value. But it does mean that it will be much more difficult to find the ones that do have value, to separate the wheat from the chaff, discrediting the bad ideas and popularizing the ones that improve the world.
Skeptical scrutiny and openness to new ideas are what we need right now.
“The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future,” Sagan continued. “And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.”
But not just for science. In Hong Kong, in Beijing, across America, and around the world, well-functioning intellectual machinery is essential for the health of each and every one of us.