Freedom of speech vs. speaking rights

« previous post | next post »

Bill Holmes, who is familiar with the language of Chinese law, writes:

With greater frequency over the past ten-odd years, I have run across the phrase “话语权", typically in commentary on (more or less sophisticated) mainland websites. This phrase can be put into English, clumsily, as “speaking rights” — though I believe it extends to written as well as oral communication. I have wondered whether this is a Chinese neologism, or an import — it doesn’t seem to resemble (older) Chinese usages with which I am familiar. Insights appreciated.

This is a very interesting question.  Superficially, huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak") resembles the old expression yánlùn zìyóu 言论自由 ("freedom of speech"), but it also has obvious differences.

As soon as I started to poke around to see how this odd-sounding expression huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak") is actually used, who uses it and in what circumstances, and how it arose, it was evident that this is a highly politicized expression coined by the PRC government for specific polemical purposes.  In other words, there is a world of difference between huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak") and yánlùn zìyóu 言论自由 ("freedom of speech").

The first order of business is to give two Ngrams, one for huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak") and one for yánlùn zìyóu 言论自由 ("freedom of speech"):

From the Google Ngram simplified Chinese corpus:



The difference could hardly be more stark:  huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak") is a product of the last 25 or so years, appearing out of nowhere in the early 1990s, followed by a meteoric rise up to the present, whereas yánlùn zìyóu 言论自由 ("freedom of speech") was introduced already by the late 19th century, as we would expect from the intellectual currents of that time, then proceeds with various ups and downs, and even a noticeable break of nearly 20 years, that closely mirror political events during the 20th century.

Sidenote on Chinese Ngrams:  This is the first time I've done them, and I must say that the results are marvelous in terms of verifying the general impression one gets from reading the press.  One thing that i found both intriguing and encouraging from this experience is that, if you treat yánlùn zìyóu 言论自由 as a single string without a break, the Ngram tool will not give you a reading.  But if you break it in the middle at the word boundary, it works!  I like very much the fact that whoever designed this tool realized that Chinese has words, and that they are useful for serious analytical purposes.

Back to the business at hand.

There's no need to spend time discussing yánlùn zìyóu 言论自由 ("freedom of speech"), because it has a much longer history, is well established, and is relatively unproblematic, as may be seen from the Wikipedia articles on it in Chinese and in English.

In contrast, huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak") is fraught with tendentiousness from its very inception.

Chinese Wiktionary:

jiǎn yán zhī, jiùshì shuōhuà quán, jí kòngzhì yúlùn de quánlì
("put simply, it is the right to speak, the power to control public opinion")

English Wiktionary:

the power of speech; the right to express one's opinion

You will see such definitions all over the web.  Sometimes they are augmented thus:

huàyǔ quán bāokuò huàyǔ quánlì hé huàyǔ quánlì liǎng gè fāngmiàn
话语权包括话语权 利和话语权力两个方面
("speaking rights comprise the two aspects of the right to speak and the power to speak")

The true thrust behind the invention of the term huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak") is revealed in its expanded or fuller form, guójì huàyǔ quán 国际话语权 ("international speaking rights"), which is often seen in public discussion of global affairs.  It is in this context that we can understand the rationale for the creation of the notion of huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak"), since China repeatedly uses this idea to belabor the point that the West (particularly the big nemesis, America) has all the speaking rights and hence can determine global opinion.  Naturally, China wants to turn this around, to gain more speaking rights, and hence to have greater control over global opinion concerning things that matter to it, such as the South China Sea, human rights, Tibetan and Xinjiang affairs, and so forth.  To gain those rights and their related power, China exerts tremendous effort in expanding its overseas propaganda and in building up its military.

My hunch is that some ideolog ensconced in a CCP think tank came up with this brilliant notion and that they received a handsome bonus for their efforts.

I should also note that huàyǔ 话语 is usually rendered as "discourse", though it can also mean "(spoken) words; utterance; speech; remarks".  On the other hand, yánlùn 言论 is thought of as "opinion (on public arrairs)", "(the expression of one's) opinion (on political affairs)", "remarks".

In sum, we can see that the dynamics of huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak") and yánlùn zìyóu 言论自由 ("freedom of speech") are completely different.  The former is focused on control or limitation of speech, while the latter is concerned with the open expression of opinion.  Huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak") has to do with nations or other large social and political bodies; yánlùn zìyóu 言论自由 ("freedom of speech") is preoccupied with the individual and his or her privilege as a citizen of a nation or the member of a society to speak his or her mind.

Now, to close this post, I'd like to pose a few questions for which I do not have the answers:

Does China have a legal or constitutional provision for freedom of speech?  If so, what do they call it?   Yánlùn zìyóu 言论自由?

If not, do they have something else similar or analogous?

I'm hoping that Chinese legal and constitutional specialists listening in will know the relevant provisions off the top of their head.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer for help with the Ngrams]


  1. WSM said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 3:08 pm

    Another one you'll see is 发言权 – the right to speak on a specific issue, such as the South China Sea controversy.

  2. JS said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 5:37 pm

    Part of the problem is whether quan2 权 in hua4yu3quan2 话语权 and other words is to be understood to mean quan2li4 权力 'power, authority' and/or quan2li4 权利 'right', the latter apparently a relatively recent coinage (late 19th century?). This ambiguity is addressed in the last Chinese definition provided above, but it seems clear that in general the answer is the former.

    For example, fa1yan2quan2 发言权 (mentioned by WSM), now thoroughly vernacular, points usually not to a "right", but to an authority-to-opine earned by virtue of some special experience or status (= Eng. "… so she can talk.") Essentially as Prof. Mair concludes, usage suggests that hua4yu3quan2 话语权 means "power to guide/influence/control discourse."

  3. Joshua Rosenzweig said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 6:31 pm

    Art. 35 of the Constitution of the PRC:


    Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

    YMMV, as they say.

  4. john burke said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 6:34 pm

    Is "speaking rights" roughly similar to the concept of "having the floor," in parliamentary procedure? The speaker is recognized from the chair–i.e. permitted to speak by the authority in the given context–and moreover has the floor to the exclusion of any other speaker, for as long as the chair permits, but not if ruled out of order.

  5. cameron said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 6:39 pm

    It's probably not the case, but it sounds almost as if this "right to speak" concept is a Chinese translation of a term of art borrowed from a thinker influenced by Foucault. I can imagine "discursive hegemony" or some such phrase being translated that way.

  6. tangent said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 5:14 am

    Those graphs' frequency axes, the 0.0002% on one is three zeroes after the decimal point, whereas the other's 0.00000002% is seven zeroes. The term that sparked this post is about ten thousand times rarer than the other one, is that correct?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 6:08 am


    Excellent observation! This underscores all the more that huàyǔ quán 话语权 ("speaking rights; the right to speak") was created and circulated by the government and that it has not caught on among the populace. This is in contrast to yánlùn zìyóu 言论自由 ("freedom of speech"), which is something that people have been talking and writing about for more than a century.

    This is an additional advantage of the Ngrams that in evaluating usage of terms: they provide information on relative quantity as well as change through time.

  8. The suffocated said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 6:42 am

    "发言权" indeed sounds odd, but it doesn't mean "the right to speak". It actually means "say", as in "you have no say in this matter". A Hong Kong columnist 古德明 has explained this very well. See

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 9:45 am

    The term fāyán quán 發言權 / 发言权 does not occur in the article cited by "The suffocated". The article is actually about "話語權 / 话语权" (the main topic of this post), concerning which it has some very interesting things to say, such as this:

    "Huàyǔ quán" què jì fēi Yuèyǔ yě fēi Guóyǔ yòngcí, míngxiǎn yòu shì Xiàndài Hànyǔ, jí bù Zhòng bù Yīng de Zhōnggòng huà.「話語權」卻既非粤語也非國語用詞,明顯又是現代漢語,即不中不英的中共話。("'Huàyǔ quán 話語權' is neither a Cantonese nor a Mandarin term, yet it is obviously a term in modern Sinitic. It is a Chinese communist expression that is 'not Chinese and not English'".

    NOTE: bù Zhòng bù Yīng 不中不英 (lit., "not Chinese and not English") is a curious expression that can yield various translations depending upon the context: "double talk: Chinglish; neither fish nor fowl"

    As for fāyán quán 發言權 / 发言权 ("say [in the sense of 'have a say in the matter']; say-so; right to speak; [have the] floor; voice"), it has been around a lot longer than huàyǔ quán話語權 / 话语权 and is more widely used, esp. in parliamentary or other settings where it refers to the right to speak in a debate or discussion on a matter of particular importance.

    2,270,000 ghits

    In comparison, huàyǔ quán話語權 / 话语权 ("speaking rights; right to speak; say [in the sense of 'have a say in the matter']"), has a much shallower time depth, but it was designed very much with international affairs in mind.

    455,000 ghits

  10. Boursin said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 11:02 am

    In Finnish, we have sananvapaus 'freedom of speech' (lit. 'freedom of the word'), but puheoikeus 'speaking rights' (lit. 'speech right') is a completely ordinary and common compound noun too.

    Puheoikeus sometimes means something quite similar to freedom of speech, to the extent that the two words could well be used interchangeably in many contexts. But at other times puheoikeus means the right to speak on the particular matter at hand, e.g. in a public meeting (the New England town hall meeting depicted in Norman Rockwell's Freedom of Speech comes to mind). I don't know the history of the word, but this may have been the initial meaning.

    I thought that puheoikeus might be a 19th-century back-construction from Swedish talrätt or talanderätt, but to my surprise, these get only a tiny handful of hits in Google, while puheoikeus gets tens of thousands.

  11. The suffocated said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 12:55 pm


    Thanks for the catch. I meant "話語權 / 话语权", not "发言权", but cut and pasted the wrong word. I really need some coffee.

  12. ohwilleke said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 2:46 pm

    The "right to speak" phrase's meaning would I think usually be expressed with a the word "voice" or a phrase containing that word, in academic discussions about that concept.

  13. JK said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    I'd be interested in a Language Log discussion of 普选 (puxuan), the term that came up a few years ago when Hong Kongers protested for what some people called "universal suffrage" or "one person one vote," but also has other connotations such as a nation/region-wide election in which many people participate. Interestingly, in official PRC history, the PRC has had two puxuan, the first was for the first National People's Congress, and the second was to form the first Tibet Autonomous Region government, and Deng Xiaoping also stated he believed China would have puxuan in the future, so it is not a term foreign to the mainland either. But Hong Kongers and mainlanders may have different conceptions of what it actually means.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    July 16, 2016 @ 11:39 am

    From Donald Clarke:

    As one of the comments shows, the legal/constitutional term for “freedom of speech” is 言论自由. Everyone understands what this means; when the government locks someone up for a speech act, they typically say that 言论自由 is not unlimited, and that the speech in question went beyond the permitted bounds.

    I have always (without ever actually researching the matter) understood 话语 to be a neologism coined to express the term “discourse” as it is used by the po-mo lit-crit crowd: as part of a theory that the powerful can maintain their power by controlling language and rules of argument, thus making it impossible to frame thoughts and arguments that would challenge their power. My guess is that it came into Chinese not as a result of any Party propagandist’s insight, but rather as a result of some Chinese academics wanting to import that theory into Chinese academic, um, discourse. The CCP and its defenders then discovered the utility of this idea to explain why it is being criticized and what it needs to do to fight back: to counter the West’s hegemonic control of the terms of the conversation, and to substitute for it its own hegemonic control of the terms of the conversation. So what 话语权 is about is the right (really, the power) to control the terms of a particular discussion (and thereby win any arguments within it). It’s not a legal term like 言论自由.

  15. Jacob Li said,

    July 16, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    I think a more accurate and succinct translation of 话语权 is "control of discourse". Wherever I encounter this phrase, the "权" is always that of 权力/power rather than that of 权利/right. "Right of speak" is too far off.

    As for freedom of speech, see Article 35 of PRC Constitution: "中华人民共和国公民有言论、出版、集会、结社、游行、示威的自由。" ("Citizens of PRC have freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, demonstration and protest.") Source:

  16. william holmes said,

    July 18, 2016 @ 10:02 am

    Having put the 话语权 bee in Victor’s bonnet, I offer some reactions to various insightful comments.
    Perhaps it might be helpful to make a rough distinction between universal rights/universal values (as developed in the modern West) and the status-derived rights which were (and are) found in “pre-modern” traditions (including the pre-modern West). I would put 话语权 in the latter category.
    If, as Victor’s two graphs would seem to indicate, 话语权 is a new-ish neologism, then it is tempting to speculate as follows. In pre-reform China, the CCP being the sole hierarchy (nominally, if not at all times in fact), 话语权 was a party monopoly (I put aside issues of factional wrangling). Increasingly over the reform period new non-party claimants to hierarchical status have emerged, with resultant confusion over pecking order: who has superior 话语权 in a given context/over a given issue? One example that comes to mind is from the run-up to the 2011-12 CCP leadership turnover, when 汪洋 , then party secretary in Guangdong, was reportedly nixed for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee by the Ye clan (i.e. Ye Jianying progeny) exerting its (unofficial) 话语权. Another example is from a recent conference addressed by three retired law professors in which speaking order was apparently determined by age (先生). Several metrics at work!
    As regards 话语权 in foreign policy matters, I would agree that it would represent a departure from 韬光养晦 . At the same time, I would ask those versed in SunTzu: doesn’t a “seat at the table” offer more strategic options than just talking? Cf. South China Sea.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    July 18, 2016 @ 8:27 pm

    From Jichang Lulu:

    I was delighted to see you address such a peculiar bit of CPC-(n)ese as 话语权. As you and some commenters say, the term only superficially (and, I'd wager, by design) resembles 'freedom of speech', while being much more about 'discourse control'.

    The concept is crucial to state media attempts to influence global public opinion. A number of media organs are involved in that enterprise, but the theory behind China Radio International 国际台's contribution to it can illustrate the reasoning. Wang Gengnian 王庚年, who's been head of CRI for at least a decade, and now also sits on the SA(PP)RFT 广电总局 Party committee, has justified his organisation's expansion abroad as a means towards gaining an international 话语权 for the Chinese government. A 2009 article by Wang uses the word some sixty times:

    (The link is to Qiushi's website, but the article appeared originally in Zhongguo jizhe. The fact a text mainly about 话语权 was reproduced by such an august publication still shows how much importance is attached to the concept.)

    A year ago I wrote about what CRi's 'right to talk' foray looks like in practice:

    Later, CRI's activities were featured in a Reuters report you might have seen:

    I think Wang's theoretical writings and their implementation exemplify how 话语权 is purely about government spin and has little to do with individual rights.

    Here's what Zhang Zhizhou 张志洲, an academic who has often written about the huayuquan concept, had to say in '09 about possible English equivalents:

    在现实社会中,权力的表现方式无疑是多种多样的,但“话语权”作为一种关于权力的概念,却 是近些年才被我们普遍认识到的。它成了进入我们日常生活的一个新词,一个流行词,甚至被滥用。一些文章望文生义,认为话语权就是指说话的权利,甚或认为 “话语权”的英文对应说法是“have a voice”和“have a say”,显然是不准确的。话语权的本质不是“权利”(right),而是 “权力”(power)。换言之,话语权不是指是否有说话的权利,而是指通过语言来运用和体现权力。从话语中发现权力本质,或将话语作为权力来理解,从知识源头上说无疑是受了法国哲学家米歇尔·福柯“话语即权力”著名命题的影响。

    (Emphasis mine.) The text comes straight from the Party's mouth:

    Notice the Foucault connection, also suggested by a commenter to your post.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 8:27 pm

    From Bill Holmes:

    Lulu’s contribution on 话语权 confirmed your hunch that it was an official concoction for 对外 purposes. Plumbing my (leaky) memory on my past encounters with the term, I only come up with the vague recollection of it being used for 对内 purposes — thus, indicating a kind of flowback via the conduit of party-talk (including 求是magazine).
    On the general subject: I had missed For. Minister Wang Yi’s display of 话语权 at an Ottawa press conference on 6/1/16. This NYT link also has video —

    From the huayuquan chain mention of 权利 I was inspired to get out 王力’s list of Japanese imports-into-Chinese and — not finding it there — to check Sansom’s Western World and Japan, where S says in a footnote (pg. 446) that the usage was created by a Japanese scholar (unnamed) and used in his 1886 Treatise on Western Law. Presumably then on into Chinese. Don’t know if this is a generally accepted thesis.

    On the subject of party-talk as an incubator for vague-tendentious neologisms, I thought of a couple recent examples from macroeconomic policy-making. First, after the Great Recession there was party-speak’s borrowing of “new normal” as “新常态“; and, second, the more recent borrowing of “supply side economics” as “供给侧改革“。 The latter in particular has provided an occasion for much confusion and much debate (and shadow-boxing), still unresolved.

RSS feed for comments on this post