Democracy and the Freedom to Criticize

Three millennia ago the ancient dynasty ruling the then-emerging Chinese state had a bulletin board – not for the regime to post notices to the people but for the people to post criticism of the regime! Time passed, governance declined, and by the fall of the Ch’in dictatorship, this wonderfully modern democratic practice had been replaced by laws against “slander and magic incantations”—laws so severe that they scared even officials into silence. (Sima Qian, Emperor Wen)

When Liu B led his army to overthrow the Ch’in and set up the new Han dynasty, this man-of-action focused on the immediate military needs of reestablishing peace and evidently gave little thought to the issue of freedom of speech. The more reflective emperor Wen who headed the post-rebellion generation, however, gave serious thought to the quality of governance…