Misleading: Popular freedom of speech quote in China and Hong Kong is not from Plato
A quote about the suppression of free speech attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato has been circulating widely on social media in Hong Kong.
On WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, LIHKG and Weibo, the same quote has attracted thousands of likes, shares and comments.
It is written entirely in Chinese but some users are also sharing the roughly translated version in English, which reads:
“If sharp criticism disappears completely, mild criticism will become harsh. If mild criticism is not allowed, silence will be considered ill-intended. If silence is no longer allowed, not praising hard enough is a crime. If only one voice is allowed to exist, then the only voice that exists is a lie.”
The quote does not belong to Plato, who believed the ideal state was a republic with a top-down hierarchy of philosopher kings, soldiers, and lower class producers. Plato is often accused by academics of propagating totalitarianism in his advocacy for a single ruling class without opposition.
Annie Lab found that the passage was likely to be taken from a 2015 essay by Zhang Xuezhong, an outspoken Chinese legal scholar who has criticized the political oppression and lack of rule of law in mainland China. Zhang’s essay was influential and cited by many others at the time.
Although his writing does not use the exact words and phrases found in today’s popular quote, the wording and structure of his expression parallel the passage entirely. An article written by a geography professor in Nanjing also reached the same conclusion about the quote’s origin.
In Annie Lab’s investigation, the Chinese version in question first appeared online in 2019, distilling and paraphrasing Zhang’s ideas into their current form. The last sentence about the only voice allowed being a lie was added and misattributed to Plato in January 2020.
The quote went viral after the death of Li Wenliang, a medical doctor in Wuhan who was silenced by Chinese authorities when he tried to alert others to the coronavirus threat in December 2019.
He died from Covid-19 on Feb. 7; soon afterward, the quote about freedom of speech began spreading on Weibo. Some influencers in the country (for example, this actor and this blogger) also shared the passage as a tribute to Dr Li, who became a hero for some Chinese netizens.
The quote again became popular on messaging apps in Hong Kong in late May when Beijing’s National People’s Congress decided to bypass the local legislature to introduce a national security law.
Critics have voiced concerns over how the bill will affect Hong Kong’s rule of law and human rights such as freedom of speech. The bill has also sparked a fresh round of protests with thousands on the streets.
In May, the likely original author of the ideas expressed in the quote, Zhang Xuezhong, was taken away from home by the authorities in Shanghai after criticizing the government’s handling of COVID-19 epidemic and sharing an open letter demanding a new constitution and release of political prisoners, according to media reports.
The original quote in Chinese reads as follows: