Free Speech

Our Right to Criticize Governments and Countries,

whether the U.S., China, Israel, or anyone else.

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I wanted to step back a bit from the University of San Diego / Tom Smith / China controversy to make a broader point:

We must always have the right—not just as a legal matter, but as a matter of academic freedom and social mores—to criticize governments: American, Chinese, Israeli, Russian, Saudi, or whatever else.

Such freedom of criticism is necessary so that we can help influence our own governments' internal behavior. It's necessary so that we can help influence our own governments' behavior towards other governments. It's necessary so that we can figure out the perils that these governments might be posing, to us, to their own citizens, or to their neighbors.

Governments are powerful, important institutions. They need to be constantly subject to discussion, evaluation, and criticism. (The same is also often true as to other powerful institutions within countries, and as to the broad current of public opinion in countries, especially democracies.) Even if it ultimately turns out that the governments are being mistakenly accused, or their misconduct is exaggerated, we can only figure out if we're free to discuss it.

Of course, governments are also associated with people: their employees (e.g., individual police officers or other officials), their citizens, and often people who share an ethnic background with the country involved.

Because of this, criticism of the government will sometimes lead a small fraction of listeners to act violently against those individuals. Criticism of police departments could lead to some people shooting individual police officers. Criticism of Israel could lead to some people attacking Israelis, Israeli-Americans, and Jews. Criticism of China could lead to some people attacking people of Chinese extraction (or for that matter other East Asians).

But while of course we should condemn such crimes, that isn't a basis for suppressing or even condemning criticism of the governments. Much important speech may have a tendency to lead a few people in the audience to act violently. (Consider impassioned speech about animal rights, the environment, abortion, union member solidarity, and more.) Yet the speech must remain protected, both against legal retaliation and against retaliation by universities; and I think it also needs to be tolerated as a matter of social convention.

In particular, it's wrong to casually assume that all criticism of China must stem from racism towards the Chinese, all criticism of Israel (even harsh criticism) must stem from anti-Semitism (see this post and this one for my past statements about that), and the like. It is especially wrong to treat the use of the adjective "Chinese" (or "Russian" or "French" or what have you) as necessarily referring to the ethnicity, when in context it seems much more likely to refer to the government (as in the University of San Diego incident) or to the country. Debate about governments can't remain free if such references are simply assumed to be ethnically bigoted, in the absence of any concrete evidence.

Naturally, when the speech is mistaken, it should be substantively responded to. When there is specific evidence that a particular criticism of a government or country is actually based on racial or ethnic hostility, that should be pointed out. Likewise, if there is evidence that a government is being faulted for behavior that is commonly engaged in by other governments, that may be worth pointing out as well.

But that's not what I'm seeing in the criticism of the University of San Diego incident, or in other similar situations. Rather, it seems to me that the concern about the indubitable actual incidents of ethnic bigotry (and especially bigoted violence) is wrongly endangering eminently legitimate criticisms of governments—just as so many other worthy concerns (e.g., about Communism, about winning wars, and the like) have in the past wrongly endangered eminently legitimate criticisms of our and other governments.

NEXT: Univ. of San Diego Law School Investigating Professor for Post Critical of China

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  1. As anyone familiar with China should know, “Chinese” isn’t actually an ethnicity. Codified within their laws, the Chinese people are a disparate set of ethnicities recognized within China as being Chinese. China has ignored this in recent years after only paying lip service for decades and is currently in the process of making sure that “Chinese” only means “Han Chinese,” simply because they hold the power and are incredibly numerous. Not even all Han are safe, as the central government has begun putting pressure on Cantonese-speaking areas to begin using only Mandarin; some officials have been linking speaking Cantonese in Hong Kong with anti-government sensibilities and implying they should be barred from entering the new Hong Kong government system, for instance. Criticize the “Chinese” (the government or the private sector, they both do it) for their treatment of Uighurs and other minorities and suddenly one is attacked for “uncareful language” or racism, even though “Chinese” isn’t a race itself. It is scary how effectively China and its defenders glommed onto this idea, effectively proving that their methods really have worked and that they don’t need to worry about bad publicity anymore. Once everybody outside China assumes “Chinese” means “Han” who cares about what they do with the non-Chinese?

    1. is currently in the process of making sure that “Chinese” only means “Han Chinese,” simply because they hold the power and are incredibly numerous. Not even all Han are safe, as the central government has begun putting pressure on Cantonese-speaking areas to begin using only Mandarin; some officials have been linking speaking Cantonese in Hong Kong with anti-government sensibilities and implying they should be barred from entering the new Hong Kong government system, for instance.

      Let’s see if a loudmouth in Hollywood with a movie about to come out speaks to this.

  2. I view the Chinese people as victims of the CCP not co-conspiritors or complicit, however that doesn’t mean we can’t sanction China, impose tarrifs, or take other means to make them feel the price for their treatment of the Uighars, Hong Kong, extraterritorial aggression in the South China Sea, repression of Falun Gong and other religious minorities, Tibet, history forced abortion and sterilization, eating shark fins, Pangolins and Bats, etc.

    But for the record I got no problem with eating dogs or cats, they are not endangered and if they are a disease vector then eating them isn’t going to increase the risk.

  3. Is this about the ‘wave of antiasian hate’ meme I never heard about until the media made it an thing and now everytime an asian is killed its because of antiasian white supremacy?

    1. Asians aren’t buying the “white supremacy” bit. To be sure there are many asian progressive democrats ready to run with it and weaponize it, but nobody buys it.

      Here is a recent story from San Francisco about the proper way to handle random attacks against Asians. I guess he didn’t have enough justification to shoot him, but maybe next time.

      1. I remember back in the 90s and early 2000s when the Asian vote was up for grabs but the Repubs were so incompetent they did nothing to keep the bloc from falling to the Dems. Its really a shame. Like whites Asians get absolutely zip from the Left and in many cases are actively harmed but many, especially in the younger generation are inexplicably leftwing anyway.

      2. I think most Asians aren’t buying the ‘white allies’ act either when they fail to prosecute blatant attacks on elderly asians. And it’s not a case of insufficient evidence because the perp filmed the attack himself and posted it on instagram.

        SF DA Chesa Boudin withdraws charges against defendant in attack on Asian man

        The video shows a man swinging a metal bar at the victim along Oceola Lane while apparently robbing him of his large collection of cans as onlookers record the attack on their phones.

      3. Good for him — that is the type of immigrant that we NEED!

        1. Seems like a good guy, but I will point out it’s very likely he not only votes democratic, but also constitutes generously to democratic candidates.

          Why am I so sure? He has a concealed weapons license in San Francisco. You’re going to have to earn that with more than just some cock and bull story about running a business in a high crime zone.

      1. In 16 major cities it went from 40 to 122. Meaningless stat. They also don’t bother to say how they determined that something was a hate crime. Is it automatically considered a hate crime if the victim is Asian?

        1. It’s only meaningless if you assume some kind of confirmation or sample bias in that grouping.

          What would be the mechanism of either of those?

          1. I would call it systemic bias rather than assuming confirmation or sample bias. And the mechanism that I would be most worried about is the documented change in the categorization of what counts as a hate crime during the study period.

          2. “It’s only meaningless if you assume some kind of confirmation or sample bias in that grouping.”

            Beg to differ. It can also be meaningless if the sample is too small or noisy.

            Did you know there is a 99% correlation between the divorce rate in Maine and per capita margarine consumption (4th chart down)? Spurious results aren’t limited to funny ones; they can also happen with hot button topics near and dear to your heart. Always remember the old adage ‘Cave quando data concordant cum mentem roborat’, meaning ‘beware when the data agree with your worldview’.

            (which isn’t all that old, I just made it up and plugged it into google translate)

            1. I see.

              My thesis is not that these statistics are determinative, only probative.
              And that said probity makes dismissiveness with nothing more a pretty bad strategy.

              Sorry if I did not make that clear.

              1. S0,
                They may even fail at being probative without an adequatte description of how the statistics were collected and whether each entry in the database has the same meaning.
                You certainly would not accept even a suspicion of a physical effect without that information given. Certainly an experimentalist would not.

                1. Inferring sample corruption without a mechanism is all well and good if you’re doing science, but until actually rebutted it’s still probative.

      2. “This isn’t made up.”

        Here is what you get if you click through to the data.

        If you scroll down to the table on the ?third? page (grrrr…put in page numbers … it’s the table that compares the change in various categories between 1 and 5 years). If you look at the right column, comparing the pairs of time periods, what that screams to me is ‘lumpy data’. There is a limit on what you can pull out of small numbers.

        Secondly, as Donojack says, you want to be really careful that the likelihood of something being reported hasn’t changed over time. The ‘Summer of the Shark’ in 2001 didn’t actually have any more shark attacks than normal years.

        1. That’s why I posted 2020 statistics.

          Yeah, maybe it is narritivism. But people already dismissing it as such need to do some work, given that the current preponderance of statistical, non-anecdotal evidence is on the other side.

          1. test

            trying to post a no-html reply and keep getting errors

            1. part 5:


              link you posted qualifies as ‘the current preponderance of statistical, non-anecdotal evidence’?

              I think that’s pretty weak sauce. What you have is some congenial numbers selected by ‘The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism’. They may be the very soul of academic integrity, or they might have an axe to grind (e.g., do you take Lott’s ‘More Guns, Less Crime’ as the gospel? Lots of pretty charts in that). What have you done to vet your source?

              Secondly, let’s assume they are completely unbiased. Look at their chart. For example, in New York city overall hate crimes are down 38%, yay!!, but anti-asian crimes are up 833%. That is 16 times the increase in Seattle. It’s 4 or 5 times the increase in any other city.

              What’s the theory there? New Yorkers are particularly racist, unlike the people in Chicago where there wasn’t any increase at all? Or consider the pair of San Francisco and San Jose. Very different numbers there, for both crimes in general and anti-asian. Why the difference?

              My (default and in general) reaction is ‘looks like noisy data’. If you want your thesis to be persuasive, give me a narrative that explains those anomalies.

              The reason I’m going on about this is not to call you out personally – you are doing something that is ubiquitous: people find a quicky analysis of data that happens to be congenial to their worldview, and then proclaim it as ‘See! Science agrees with me!’. We have a misconception that statistics can extract truth from thin data, but it really can’t. If you don’t have robust data and a robust analysis, it’s better to just say ‘We don’t know at this point’.

              1. Assuming bias is just ad hominem.

                You’re requiring a ‘resolves the issue entirely’ bar. That’s not what I’m going for – I’m going for a ‘more evidence than your scoffing dismissal has.’

                1. ” I’m going for a ‘more evidence than your scoffing dismissal has.’”

                  Fair enough.

                  That report just really sets off my ‘they are inferring way too much conclusion from sketchy data’ radar. The unexplained anomalies internal to their data just aren’t confidence inspiring.

                  1. Maybe they are.

                    I just think it’s clear calling it a meme is incorrect.

          2. OK, will try posting in segments to see what the problem part is …

            BTW, error is “Block Reason: A potentially unsafe operation has been detected in your request to this site”

            part 1:
            “the current preponderance of statistical, non-anecdotal evidence”

            Do you have a link to that by chance?

          3. part 2:

            OK, I’m pulling your leg.

          4. Part 3:

            I presume you think the …

          5. Ooops, got the order messed up there. Anyway, I will email EV the offending phrase for his information.

            1. Huh. What a bother.

              We were talking past each other a bit anyhow looks like.

          6. ” preponderance of statistical, non-anecdotal evidence is on the other side.”

            Statistics = Many anecdotes run through a mathematical blender.

            1. Oh, that’s just sad. Don’t

              Statistical methods allow you make general statements about a group based on a surprisingly small sample of that group.

              Anecdotes only make you feel like you can.

  4. They don’t actually believe all criticism stems from racism. Totalitarians just like launching attacks on people to try to bully everyone. They’ll say [anything] is racism or [anything] is white supremacy or [anyone] is a Nazi. It’s a tactic to convince others into letting totalitarians wield power.

    “Concern” is mostly phony. They’re happy to dismiss or belittle anyone else’s “concern” whenever they see an advantage to doing so.

    Any talk of any sort of principle is Alinsky-esque battlefield preparation to attack others: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules”. You are supposed to believe in rules so they can use your belief to attack you — usually very dishonestly.

    Meanwhile the guys standing next to them on their side use all manner of slurs and are often violent. They pretend not to see it, deny, lie, and then change the subject in order to launch more attacks.

    1. Conservatives could defuse that approach by ditching their diffuse bigotry.

      I don’t think they have it in them to try, though.

    2. Remember Ben’s very recent lamentations about ‘division.’
      Yeah, as I said then, they were as fake as a three dollar bill. He loves division.

      1. ^ note: nothing to offer except attacks.

        1. Ben, your ENTIRE 5:43 pm post was an attack, so I don’t know where you got your high horse.

  5. I love how Prof. Volokh says we “must” have the freedom to criticize the Chinese government. There isn’t a university administrator in the land, and precious few faculty members, who believes that. There is no must about it. Everyone understands that unless you have tenure, you can’t have or keep a job at any American university or company if you criticize China.

    1. Which only means that he doesn’t understand the extent of the problem…

    2. “In particular, it’s wrong to casually assume that all criticism of China must stem from racism towards the Chinese”

      These attacks on anybody who criticizes China aren’t based on an assumption they stem from racism towards the Chinese. They stem from college administrations being on the Chinese government’s payroll.

  6. This statement from the post is true, but incomplete

    “Because of this, criticism of the government will sometimes lead a small fraction of listeners to act violently against those individuals. Criticism of police departments could lead to some people shooting individual police officers. Criticism of Israel could lead to some people attacking Israelis, Israeli-Americans, and Jews. Criticism of China could lead to some people attacking people of Chinese extraction (or for that matter other East Asians).”

    The real problem is that criticism of government will cause government to conduct violence against those doing the criticizing. This in fact is the point of the post and it is unfortunate that the point is diluluted to some degree by the above quote.

  7. A politician in my town decried criticism of the Chinese government as “racist” and then spoke without any sense of irony about the need to get white men out of elected office. This is mainstream politics in suburban Boston, the kind of voice the local NPR station goes looking for to fill in its two minutes of local news after the national news segment every hour.

    As for racial politics, I recall a Taiwanese shop owner in Mountain View bending my ear at length about how his people came here the legal way while so many Hispanics cheated. The progressive platform of the Democratic Party is a construct of its leaders, not its members.

    1. One former co-worker of mine is from Zambia, although of Indian descent. (He perhaps has a better claim of being African-American than Kamala Harris does….) For the six or so years I worked with him, he only had his green card, and was working towards US citizenship. He has since become a citizen, but he was very annoyed at how illegal immigrants were getting the benefits of US citizenship without all the efforts he was taking — because he wanted to do it “the right way” and follow the prescribed rules.

      1. Yes, I know that the following is off point:
        Certainly neither your Zambian colleague nor Ms Harris are deserving of reparation payments given their background. But who is? and how is that to be substantiated.

  8. “We must always have the right—not just as a legal matter, but as a matter of academic freedom and social mores—to criticize governments: American, Chinese, Israeli, Russian, Saudi, or whatever else.”

    Someone should inform the editors and right-wing followers of the Volokh Conspiracy concering that point, in particular with respect to criticism of the one of those governments.

      1. The Volokh Conspiracy’s deficiencies and partisan hypocrisy in these contexts are easy to identify.

  9. The classic example is the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

    While it is generally accepted as having happened, the Turkish Government — to this day — denies that it did. And American Armenian communities take issue with that denial, and vocally dispute it.

  10. This seems lazy to me, not distinguishing between irresponsible criticisms bound to feed hate and those that are not.

    “Israel should stop just looking out for Jews and also vaccinate the non-Jews it controls” is at least borderline irresponsible, it plays on tropes of Jews watching out for other Jews more (as DB points out).

    “The Chinese/Wuhan/Hong Kong Flu” is similarly irresponsible.

    Hiding one’s head to the empirical question of if any particular speech on this actually leads to harm of innocents is risible.

    1. Except for conflating coronavirus with influenza, why is calling it the Wuhan Flu “irresposnible”? (No one expects the Spanish Influenza, of 1916-1918. The Hong Kong Flu was in 1968-1969. Many diseases are named after places, sometimes — as in the case of Spanish flu — places where we strongly believe they did not originate.)

      1. Most professionals will refer to a infectious illness by the technical medical name. In many cases these illnesses take on common names often associated with places. Think Colorado Mountain Spotted Fever or La Crosse Encephalitis. There are also as you mentioned Spanish Flu and Honk Kong flu. Sometimes the infection is named for a animal host swine flu or equine encephalitis. But in all cases those common names are developed as a short hand or layman term without prejudice.

        The problem with now is that there is an attempt to associate the Covid19 infection with a location and in doing so to associate blame. We did not blame the Spanish or the people of Honk Kong for the flu. Those pushing to rename Covid19 are doing so with and agenda. Now the Chinese government may have some culpability in the pandemic, but certainly not the people of Wuhan. The effort to name the flu for China or Wuhan is not an organic movement that just happened and that is the difference.

        1. “The effort to name the flu for China or Wuhan is not an organic movement that just happened and that is the difference.”

          We’re remembering different epidemics. I’ll give just a couple of early examples, one from CNN, one from Wired. Do you think those are example of right wing mouthpieces trying to rename covid->wuhan virus to stir up ethnic hatred?

          CNN from 21Jan20.

        2. One matter of blame is that the CCP hide information about SARS-Cov_2 for at least two months while allowing people in Hubei to travel to places outside of China.
          The manipulation of the WHO is another reason to be highly suspicious of the CCP government’s motives and interests.

          1. Blaming the Chinese government is a good deal different than blaming the Chinese people. There is simple too much of an attempt to paint issues with a broad brush that sweeps up people who have little to do with the issue.

  11. “Rather, it seems to me that the concern about the indubitable actual incidents of ethnic bigotry (and especially bigoted violence) is wrongly endangering eminently legitimate criticisms of governments”

    Concerns about actual harm to ethnic bodies must bow to the abstract right to criticize governments in ethnic terms!

    1. Do not use hyper emotionalism to make an argument.

    2. Then how would you recommend referring to the government in order to levy criticism against it? No other adjective readily comes to mind. Are you really going to argue that a phrase like “Chinese propaganda” should be rephrased with the kludge “propaganda from the government of China”? Are “Chinese firms” now only to be called “firms headquartered in China”? Making the only commonly used adjective for a country verboten really strains the natural flow of the English language. And how many hate crimes do you expect it to prevent? Given that all asians are getting lumped into the current rhetoric on hate crimes, the assumption seems to be that hate crime perpetrators are unable to distinguish between different asian ethnicities. That being the case, it seems quite unlikely that such perpetrators can understand the concept of separating ethnicity from the government controlling the area the ethnicity originated from, even if the grammar was made fully unambiguous.

      BTW, “Chinese” isn’t even an ethnic term; China has people representing multiple ethnicities, so which ethnicity that lives and originated within China would Chinese be referring to?

  12. Agree. But how do you square this with your stance that state governments should be able to squelch the BDS movement?

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