Fear of the truth is characteristic of all authoritarian regimes. 4 June is the day when this fear is exemplified in both China and Russia. It may be no coincidence that the governments of both countries have ambitions to take control of land outside their current borders. And along with these ambitions come suppression of freedom of speech.
On 4 June 1989 the Chinese government crushed peaceful protests in Beijing with tanks and troops killing hundreds of people in Tiananmen Square, who were peacefully protesting, demanding freedoms of association, of speech and of journalism, all of which were being suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party.
But the events of June 4 have been erased from the history books in China. Public commemoration of the massacre is banned. Any discussion of the crackdown is strictly censored and controlled. As a result, on 4 June 2023 police in Hong Kong detained several pro-democracy activists, some for simply holding unlit candles or wearing yellow clothing, the colour of the now-dismantled pro-democracy movement.
China has ambitions for what President Xi Jinping has called “reunification” with Taiwan. He has not ruled out the possible use of force to achieve this. Clearly freedom of speech might hinder progress towards this ambition.
Meanwhile, in a prison cell in Russia, opposition leader, lawyer, and Founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation Alexei Anatolievich Navalny celebrated his 47th birthday on 4 June 2023. He is serving 9 years in a maximum security penal colony after being found guilty of large-scale fraud and contempt by a Russian court. He had previously survived poisoning by a Novichok nerve agent.
He sent thanks and greetings on his Instagram account to his 3 million followers. He wrote that the tenacity of other political prisoners in Russia, Belarus and other countries is a particular inspiration to him. It is, he added, particularly important to be honest with oneself on one’s birthday, and that he can honestly say that his frame of mind is good, because he sees imprisonment as a necessary part of the important work he has chosen to do.
Russians gathered in cities all over the world to demonstrate for his release. Erevan in Armenia, for example, and Tbilisi in Georgia have become hubs for Russia’s anti-war diaspora.
Back home, despite the risks, hundreds of Russians staged one-person pickets in a dozen or more cities. There were more than 100 arrests. In Moscow, one young woman was hauled off by police for walking across Pushkin Square carrying a balloon. The young woman in the photograph was on Red Square; her sign reads “Freedom to Political Prisoners!” and carries a picture of a cake with candles. It was a birthday party, after all. In Vladivostok, someone set off fireworks.
Russia’s response to its illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was to ruthlessly escalate repression and censorship of free speech. The authorities adopted new censorship laws which, among other things, criminalized “dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of Russian Armed Forces,” and set out penalties ranging from fines to up to 15 years in prison.
Freedom of speech and the power to criticise government is the most effective weapon against nationalistic aggression. The Universal Declaration of Human rights says that
disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.
This article first appeared on the Coventry City of Peace website.