Western media got all excited when word got out that Chinese television had recently shown the British movie “V for Vendetta.” Based on a graphic novel, the film is set in a future Britain ruled by a dictatorship and deals with various forms of resistance to the oppressive government. The movie is noted for one particular bit of dialog; “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” The Western media generally could not understand how the Chinese government, which is still very much a communist dictatorship, would allow a film like this to be available to the entire population.
Actually, China often allows films like to be shown openly. That’s because the rulers there know that when they liberated the economy from central planning three decades ago they could no longer try to control everything that people said. This became particularly true when cell phones came along in the 1990s and the Internet became widely available a decade later. The government was very pragmatic about the “free speech” issue. What it came down to was people could say just about whatever they wanted as long as they did not criticize the national government or call for removing the Communist Party as rulers of China. This was emphasized in 1989, when the government carried out a bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations.
After 1989, Chinese had no illusions about what could be said and what you had to stay away from. Talking about democracy in China would get you into trouble. Talking about local corruption by communist officials was OK (although those officials might arrest or even murder you). The national government quickly got behind anti-corruption efforts but it was forbidden to say or imply that national leaders were corrupt (and most are).
In China people are sometimes afraid of their government and their government is not afraid of Chinese who criticize the top leaders. But since such people are usually jailed, killed, or driven into exile, there are not enough of these critics around to seriously threaten continued communist rule. With that in mind, Chinese sit back and enjoy just about any film they want. Except porn, the government is afraid of pornography. But that’s another story.