Free speech comes with consequences

Alice Cheung, the new head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, is shocked at the reaction to her statements about the national anthem law. But in the digital age, free speech is a double-edged sword

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 1:43am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 1:49am

People rightly value freedom of speech. It protects you from state sanctions and censorship. But it offers you practically zero protection if what you say provokes a backlash – or “flaming” in online lingo – from social and mainstream media. That’s because naysayers, too, are exercising their freedom of speech. 

That’s what media is about – reflecting public opinion and the moods of society. 

I am often amazed that so many Hong Kong people think they can say anything in public and not suffer consequences just because we have legislation to protect free speech.  

‘Undesirable’ for court to define anthem insults: Law Society on Legco bill

The new head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Alice Cheung Sin-ying, has expressed surprise and alarm that she has become the target of online flaming, on YouTube, Facebook and numerous other local blogs and internet forums.

This came after she took part at a public hearing on the proposed national anthem law early this month at the Legislative Council, where she said the Chinese national anthem made her ill every time she heard it. This happened at an early age, she said.

“Whenever the anthem is played on TV, my family members and I would rush to change the channel,” Cheung told the legislature.

“It makes me want to vomit every time I hear it … When I was young, I would lower my head and mourn whenever the anthem was played at school. For I was not so stupid like everyone. I was taught at home at an early age that the Chinese communist regime was a murderous one that had killed countless Chinese.”

Cheung has every right to say what she said to express her disgust at the proposed anthem law – and at the anthem itself. After all, that was the whole purpose of the Legco hearing, to gauge diverse opinions from the public.

Intention key to determining if national anthem insult merits jail

On the other hand, if you say something so controversial and offensive, you should be the last person to be surprised at a backlash. An article on the website of state-run CCTV has declared her “an enemy of the Chinese people”.  

And while some negative posts are no doubt sent by wumao, the “50 cent” people who allegedly get paid that much for each online post to go after anti-China critics, it’s hard to dismiss all her critics as mouthpieces of the Chinese state and wumao.

“My family are worried about me,” she told Agence France-Presse. “I feel under pressure”.

What did she expect?