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Human Rights & Social Issues

Chinese netizens’ response to the Notre Dame fire and the meaning of ‘freedom’

Notre Dame Fire on April 15, 2019 (photo from AFP, picture captured from

In China, “ … the trending Weibo hashtag #NotreDameCathedralLargeFire (#巴黎圣母院大火#) has been followed over 1.2 billion times, and over 500,000 netizens are discussing the topic ….” as reported by an April 16 article published on, most of the Chinese netizens feel sorry and sad to see the blaze and destruction to the historical building.

While many of them expressed sorrow by relating this devastation to the burning of the Chinese Old Summer Palace during the late Qing Dynasty, a few of them said something in a negative mood.

When these very few netizens “… referred to the cathedral’s burning down as retribution for the ravaging of the Old Summer Palace; however, many were quick to challenge those cynical remarks. ‘War is guilty, art is innocent. The guilty are the aggressors, not buildings,’ commented one person ….”

Furthermore, such a discussion has caused the official TV channel CCTV to issue an editorial on its own website to denounce this sort of negative comments immediately on April 16 (央视网评论:国耻不能忘却,但不应该落井下石). It says there is nothing comparable, and those who express that view are out of narrow-minded nationalism; and it reminds people of the doctrine that remembering history does not mean extending hatred (my translation).

Nowadays, hatred speech is everywhere on the internet worldwide. Even though Beijing has certain controls over them, words of this kind struggle to emerge here and there. Some people argue that there must be ‘freedom of speech’.

I tend to accept Nietzsche’s concept of ‘freedom’ that an individual has freedom if only if he/she has overcome certain obstacles. These obstacles include both the external difficulties and mindful self-revaluation. Freedom is to be earned, not born with, nor granted unconditionally. An insouciant man/woman who comments casually is not having any freedom, but merely abusing the social tolerance; in the Nietzschean sense, this human is a private person, not an individual (see Twilight of the Idols: Expeditions 38-9; The Will to Power 369).

The Chinese are neither better nor worse than other peoples. However, by living with censorship and persistent self-overcoming, more and more mainlanders have been able to realize the significance of Confucius’ teaching about ‘cautious speaking’ 慎言 (The Analects 18), thus capable of making correct strategic moves in international politics.

The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of China Daily Mail.


About keith K C Hui

Keith K C Hui is a Chinese University of Hong Kong graduate major in Government and Public Administration and the author of "Helmsman Ruler: China's Pragmatic Version of Plato's Ideal Political Succession System In The Republic" (2013).


6 thoughts on “Chinese netizens’ response to the Notre Dame fire and the meaning of ‘freedom’

  1. Frankly speaking, from my point of view many Chinese people seem to suffer from an inferiority complex if the threat of losing a world heritage and many priceless historical artefacts and the pain of not only the French people but of the Europeans triggers self-absorbed nationalists emotions ….instead of simply showing empathy. A very rare virtue in China from my experience in China.
    It also tells you a lot if the author utilizes this incident and link it to a discussion about freedom of speech and if it is appropriate to allow it unconditionally…and to question if freedom of speech is a birth right…or shall be provided by an undisclosed authority…with the power to introduce censorship.

    Freedom of speech is an essential part of human rights that don`t need to be provided by anyone. Of course, it is important to be educated, civilized, emphatic, tolerant and respectful if you exercise your freedom of speech. It is a matter of course not hurt or diminish others by expressing your opinion.

    I am German, no religious person (a critic of the Catholic church) and I was crying watching the news….and I am glad and thankful for each art piece and structure that was rescued.


    Posted by Weiss-Nix | April 17, 2019, 4:21 pm
    • We passionately treasure the historical buildings and heritage from mankind’s past on one hand, and also treasure the chance to speak and exchange views on the internet on the other.

      Liked by 1 person

      Posted by keith K C Hui | April 18, 2019, 9:48 am
      • Great…but utilizing Notre Dame and related Chinese online hate speech to question freedom of opinion is very strange.
        I cannot follow your train of thoughts.
        I wonder what’ s wrong with the growing nationalism and negative emotional state of mind in China. What is root-cause? Which role does public (equalized) education, governmental information dominance, censored media and propaganda play? It is no Chinese invention to create and cultivate external enemies to be blamed and to draw attention away from internal problems and mismanagement that could cause social unrest and claims for change.
        We can observe these tactics all over the world since beginning of time.


        Posted by Weiss-Nix | April 18, 2019, 1:34 pm
      • It is a too long story about “nationalism”, “emotional state of mind”, and whose “invention” etc. Here the focus is simply about ‘freedom’. Hannah Arendt, for example, is the most well known theorist promoting the idea of the freedom and right to speak in the public. First of all, I accept the necessity of ‘civil right’ or ‘civic right’, but disagree with concept of ‘Human Right’. No right is born with, even the right to life. Human right is something newly created around the WWI and WWII time. Read a history book about, say, the slaves in ancient Roman Colosseum. Secondly, when speaking in the public, each civilized member of a particular community has to take responsibility for what he/she has said. A consciousness of the possible consequences is needed for such a public speech, or otherwise it can be, occasionally, disastrous. From time to time, we have heard that some teenagers killed themselves because of some hatred speech against them. It is why, as what Nietzsche suggested, you have the ‘freedom’ only after you have overcome certain obstacles, and these obstacles include the external limitations and internal self-restraints. In our case here, because of the burning of the Old Summer Palace by the eight-nation joint armies (and of course no compensation and no repair afterward), the Chinese people can somehow regard themselves as the cultural victims of a war act. Yet, it has no where on any ground to justify any negative comment on the Notre Dame Fire. Not a single Chinese is entitled to say anything negative about this. The final point is, the government has a role to teach people this concept, to tell the public that we must differentiate the two issues. And obviously, the CCTV editorial has done a good job here. If you read more about Nietzsche’s ‘Over-man’ (Übermensch), you may understand why I support censorship. The damage to culture by the liberal universalist ‘herd mentality’ is worse than the damage done by the leaders in power. It is my “train of thoughts” in a very brief way.

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by keith K C Hui | April 18, 2019, 9:40 pm
  2. Well done, Hui!


    Posted by John Frymire | April 17, 2019, 10:17 pm
  3. Art has its own special place in society

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by travtrails | April 18, 2019, 1:40 pm

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