Everyone by a supreme law of nature is master of his own thoughts.1
It’s the one thing they can’t do. They can make you say anything—anything—but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you.2
~Julia, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Those who have read Nineteen Eighty-Four will remember that Julia is proven wrong in the end—as it turns out, they can get inside you. Today the Chinese Communist Party is attempting the same feat, in defiance of Spinoza’s dictum. This is no secret. “We need to build a firewall in our brains,” as the country’s state media puts it bluntly.
Brainwashing has always been associated with the Communist Party, but in the days of Mao Zedong it was a relatively crude affair. Now it is far more sophisticated, which makes it all the more dangerous—indeed, the idea of firewalls in brains might soon seem quite ordinary. This indoctrination is a vital weapon in the Communist Party’s fight for global dominance. Whenever the Party’s leaders take offence at public comments or political narratives anywhere in the world, they can rely on the instant support of millions. The Party “pushes the patriotism button” and large sections of the population “rise up like zombies,” in the words of mainland musician Yang Yang. These millions have tremendous spending power, and so companies and universities usually back down, and the Party gets what it wants.
We can trace the beginning of this advanced mind control programme to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. With the dust still settling on the atrocities, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping began making alterations to the national education system in order to prevent Chinese citizens from organising any more mass protests. Perry Link, Professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, has identified the key principle at the heart of Deng’s new education: “In textbooks, museums, and all of the media, ‘Party’ and ‘country’ fused and patriotism meant ‘loving’ the hybrid result. China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics was a ‘great victory of the Party.’ Foreign criticism of Beijing was no longer ‘anti-communist’ but now ‘anti-Chinese.’ Conflicts with Japan, the United States, and ‘splittists’ in Taiwan and Tibet were exaggerated in order to demonstrate a need for clear lines between hostile adversaries and the beloved Party-country. Memories of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, in which scores of Chinese were butchered by Japanese troops, were revived … in order to provide a pool of emotion from which to pump regime support as needed.”3
Like a parasite, the Party began feeding off the emotional attachments that the people have to their nation.4 This is a shrewd deception. It has prevented not only a Tiananmen-style uprising, but also a Soviet-style dissolution. Once the Party’s crimes have been publicly admitted then its downfall will be inevitable, as we saw in the Soviet Union during the 1980s. But no such downfall is possible if the Party and the public are one and the same.5 This blurring of the distinction allows the Communist Party to retain (in theory) the loyalty of the masses, because any criticism of the government’s draconian measures can be interpreted as an attack on the people themselves.
Deng’s successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao continued with his great indoctrination project, drilling the various Holy Truths into young minds in schools and universities—the Party and the people are one, Taiwan belongs to China, Mao Zedong was 70 percent good and 30 percent bad, the country is still Marxist despite all the appearances of capitalism, and so on. Occasionally new heresies were added: under Jiang, the Falun Gong religion was denounced as an “evil cult.” Citizens were taught to look the other way when practitioners were rounded up in their thousands to be tortured and killed. Evil must be stamped out, after all.
The human mind is not meant to be ruthlessly programmed in this manner, and there have been some strange results. The journalist Kai Strittmatter recalls observing the behaviour of one young woman (a Communist Party secretary) upon being approached by a Falun Gong practitioner. She was with a group of Chinese tourists in Taiwan, and the man had offered her a brochure detailing the persecution his religion was suffering. As Strittmatter tells it, the woman shut her eyes, put her hands over her ears, and began stamping both feet up and down on the pavement, shrieking at the top of her voice “I don’t see anything! I don’t see anything! I don’t see anything!”6
There are plenty of similar examples, and yet the truth is that the results of this mass indoctrination have been decidedly mixed. State media is forever squawking about the “feelings” of 1.4 billion people, as if the Chinese nation were in total agreement on all political hot topics, but the reality is somewhat different. The system worked through sheer quantity: an avalanche of propaganda, some of which stuck and some of which didn’t. As a result, the views of the average citizen are usually an idiosyncratic mixture of their own opinions and those with which they have been indoctrinated. They might make no distinction between Party and country, but at the same time they may understand very clearly that Mao Zedong was a thug and a tyrant. They might believe with near-religious conviction that the independent country of Taiwan is actually a Chinese province, but suffer no similar illusion about that other “Chinese province,” Tibet (where the Party’s occupying troops have transformed the capital city of Lhasa into “the biggest prison in the world,” as one young woman from the mainland described it to me).
Human diversity has persisted, despite the Party’s best efforts. I’ve met fully signed-up members of the Chinese Communist Party who secretly hate the Party, and I’ve met mainlanders who refuse to join the Party on principle and yet repeat its propaganda at every opportunity. There are some who wear a nationalistic mask at first: a mask which slips over time to reveal the heretic underneath. On occasion, it seems, “brainwashing” is a surface phenomenon. There are some who laugh at every word of the propaganda—usually in private, of course. Others gain a new perspective as a direct result of studying overseas. The journalist Louisa Lim recalls a Chinese student standing up after one of her talks at an Australian university and announcing to the room: “I spent 18 years of my life in China, and I realise now that I know nothing about my own country’s history. I went to the best schools, the most well-regulated schools, and I know nothing about anything.” In my own years of observation the most successful piece of propaganda seems to be the denial of Taiwanese independence, while the least successful idea is probably Xi Jinping’s status as a wise and benevolent leader. In fact, many Chinese view him as a dangerous extremist.
However, these diverse opinions all belong to adults—these are people who went to school in Hu Jintao’s China, or Jiang Zemin’s China (both odious authoritarians, to be sure, but nothing like today’s leader). It is Xi Jinping’s enormous shadow that now falls across the country’s schools and universities, and he wants to blot out all possibility of heterodox thought in the future. He wants to create a China where every citizen thinks alike on every issue. This is the man who would build firewalls in minds—indeed, his metaphors are forever invading the human body. He will spread Party ideology to “the very nerve endings” of students; he will “carve (it) into their brains.”
And so high school has become one long test of loyalty to the Communist Party. Xi has transformed the nine-hour college entrance exam (the ‘Gaokao’), ensuring that essays are now scored highly for displays of nationalistic pride and frequent use of CCP propaganda terms—ideally Xi’s own terms. The analyst Nick Taber reports that national history textbooks no longer refer to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s (during which 2 million were killed) as a mistake, but rather a “detour.” References to pro-democracy figures from the dynastic past, such as Lu Xun, are routinely scrubbed. Meanwhile the Party has now completely taken over the regulation of film, press, and publishing. Soon enough anything that smacks of “Western values” will be cut before it can reach Chinese eyes and ears (and by “Western values” the Party means such universal concepts as democracy, civil society, the free press, and so on). No hint of the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square Massacre will make it past the new film and publishing censors.
The Party’s indoctrination project relies heavily on the so-called “Great Firewall of China”: the country’s massive online censorship system. The Firewall makes it impossible to search for banned topics—and there are many of these, ranging from the great dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo all the way through to the cartoon bear Winnie the Pooh (censored for his supposed resemblance to Xi). Curious netizens are forced to use virtual private networks in order to “jump over the wall.” But the sociologist Eric C. Hendriks explains that the censorship still succeeds, largely because it emphasises a degree of isolation that already existed:
The Firewall shields off an area that forms a natural language bubble. China is a vast country, and Mandarin has little similarity with foreign languages. Yes, Taiwan prevents a mainland monopoly on mass-mediated Mandarin. But compare China with Arab countries, where, thanks to regional channels such as Al Jazeera, there is much more political narrative coming in from abroad in the native Arabic.
And so the Chinese population is effectively separated from the rest of the world: sealed off by firewalls of mind and internet.
Another of Xi’s tools is the now-infamous Social Credit System, which is due to be fully implemented next year, following dry runs in selected cities. All citizens will be assigned a score based on their behaviour, and as part of this process the People’s Republic of China is to become the most extensive surveillance state the world has ever seen. Almost all actions and transactions will be recorded by an elaborate network of cameras, artificial intelligence, and facial and vocal recognition software. Much of this surveillance is already in place, and it grows more sophisticated every year—in April 2018, a young man wanted for “economic offences” had his face identified from a concert crowd of 60,000.7 Around the same time, the Party installed cameras on Shenzhen metro trains to monitor every inch of every carriage in ultra-high definition. Each movement a passenger makes is now captured and transmitted instantaneously, including subtle changes in facial expression.
Surveillance cameras are focused on all individual students in Hangzhou classrooms, analysing faces and moods. The data is sent to a terminal for each student’s attitude to be assessed. In such an environment, citizens will soon learn to self-censor.8 But this is not enough for the Party. It wants to “know in advance who is planning to do something bad,” even if they don’t yet know it themselves, as the Deputy Minister for Science and Technology has explained.9 Once again, the nightmare started with Deng Xiaoping (a man whose rosy reputation needs urgent reassessment). It was under Deng’s leadership in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the Party began to view technology as a tool of social management.
Beneath the watchful gaze of the Party’s million eyes, students are reading textbooks that teach them to be suspicious of the notion of objective truth. They are encouraged to focus on the perceived usefulness of a historical narrative, not its accuracy. Louisa Lim discovered this when she gave a talk to an Australian university class on the legacy of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Several Chinese students objected to her presentation, but not because they denied her version of events. Rather, one student complained that the knowledge itself could be “harmful,” while another worried about the impact of this information on China’s “perfect society.” Lim realised that history had been reduced to the status of an ideological tool, with episodes emphasised or ignored depending on the light in which they cast the Party.
Back in China, historian Hong Zhenkuai famously ran into trouble when he expressed his misgivings about one such episode: the legend of a group of military heroes who chose to jump off a mountain rather than surrender to Japanese occupying forces in the 1940s. Hong was sued for his doubts, and his extensive research into the incident was disregarded. Instead the court focused on the “damage” his scepticism had caused to “the Chinese nation’s spiritual values.” The Party is creating an environment in which honest academic enquiry will never be safe. “In a world where the distinction between truth and lies has been abolished,” says Kai Strittmatter, “the dominant values are not morality and a sense of responsibility, but usefulness and profit. If you do see the truth, it will do you no good to tell it; in fact, it’s dangerous. Best of all is to acknowledge the lie as true and embrace it passionately… The next best thing is deliberately to avoid learning the truth, to live a life of benumbed ignorance—and if you do happen upon the truth, keep quiet and pretend you haven’t.”10
As mentioned earlier, the human mind is not designed to bear this kind of burden. Many of China’s young people are now “hopelessly lost,” in the words of an older Chinese acquaintance of Strittmatter’s.11 “Their thinking isn’t joined up any more,” he was told by another of his contacts, a grammar school teacher in Beijing. Today, when this teacher gives English history books to his students to read, “they look at me helplessly. They don’t have any background knowledge.”12 What are they supposed to do with this new history, they wonder? Is it the “right” kind of history, or the “wrong” kind? How does it relate to the Communist Party?
With the loss of their independent thinking comes something much more dangerous. The government can push its patriotism button and summon an army of zombies, as Yang Yang puts it, but this army is also in the habit of rising without being summoned. When Chinese tourists waiting at Tehran airport in January 2018 were informed of a last-minute change of accommodation, the group of several hundred began angrily chanting “China! China!” Perhaps they thought that the airport staff had deliberately inconvenienced them due to anti-Chinese sentiment—or then again, perhaps they thought they deserved better treatment than ordinary customers, due to being Chinese. Much the same thing happened a few days earlier at an airport in Tokyo: a delayed flight prompted thunderous renditions of the Chinese national anthem. There were similar scenes among Chinese tourists at an airport in Sri Lanka, also in January 2018.13 More recently, onlookers at Montreal’s Pride parade were shocked when Chinese participants ruined a minute of silence for HIV/AIDS deaths. The group chose that moment to belt out their national anthem, presumably in reaction to the ongoing Hong Kong protests.
It gets worse. We might expect familial loyalty to be stronger than these national ties, but apparently this is not the case. Yang Yang has described how his support for the Hong Kong demonstrations is estranging him from his family. They now consider him to be “anti-China,” and before he left for a recent trip to Japan, they told him they hope that he dies there. Chinese society has seen this kind of thing before, of course. The lawyer Zhang Hongbing was one of the teenage Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and today he carries with him the heaviest of burdens from that period. At the peak of the Revolution his mother privately suggested to him that perhaps Mao should be replaced as head of state. In his fury Zhang wrote to the local Revolutionary Committee, asking that his mother be executed. The Committee agreed, and carried out his wish.14
The instinct for tribalistic behaviour may run deep in the human psyche, but it is possible to subdue it,15 and it could be argued that we have a responsibility to make the attempt. Instead, the Communist Party is actively coaxing a monster to the surface. There is no reason to believe that the Party’s leaders would know what to do if the monster broke loose. And break loose it will—we had early warning signs of this back in 2012, immediately before Xi took office, when a series of anti-Japan protests and riots erupted across China. The riots were fuelled by tensions over which of the two countries is the rightful owner of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Protesters vandalised Japanese cars and attempted to storm Japan’s consulate building in the city of Guangzhou. Toyota, Honda, and Panasonic closed their Chinese factories, and Japanese expatriate workers began fleeing the country.
The authorities barely maintained control of the situation. They were taken aback by the emotion on display, and they seemed oddly removed from it all—no one was talking about the Communist Party. Ordinary citizens had been consumed with a passionate need to defend “China,” and the government found itself relegated to the position of an uneasy bystander. The people and the Party, so artificially fused together, had broken apart. China’s leaders were hardly comfortable with the idea of condemning pro-China protests, but they could not tolerate a situation in which national sentiment was no longer under their control. And so the police began quashing the protests with characteristic brutality. However, this only succeeded in turning the authorities into a smaller enemy of the nation. The Communist Party had become a vague irritant; a buzzing insect that was preventing the people from getting at their real enemy—a different nation.
As we’ve seen, Chinese nationalism is much stronger in 2019 than it was in 2012. The passions on display in the anti-Japan riots will rise again, and when they do, the Party could be overthrown. Evidently Xi believes that his indoctrination programme is foolproof, and he trusts that the Party-country fusion is now secure in citizens’ minds. But this is a dangerous experiment to run. Some observers have suggested that peasants and migrant labourers are likely to revolt even as things stand, but if we were to see a large economic crash then this would become a certainty. Is Xi so far removed from reality that he cannot see this? “My integrity fills the universe,” he declared at a press conference in 201716—a peculiar, jarring statement that only made sense to me when I came across the following analysis in a book by political scientist Kerry Brown:
Looking at Xi outside the context of the Party. … means that you are looking at something that in a sense doesn’t exist. Xi, unlike Mao, never grew into the Party, but always belonged to it. He has no existence separate from the culture of the Party, and no autonomy from it. … Looking into the eyes of Xi Jinping, you look into the eyes of the Party itself—the personification of its ambition and spirit, its most faithful and truest servant, and someone … who, for all his outward exemplification of influence, persuasion, and force, would almost certainly object to the claim that he is pursuing his own interests and indulging the narcissism of power.17
It was the Party’s integrity that Xi was talking about, not his own—he considers himself a mere vessel. He is a fanatic, a man ideologically possessed, and for such a man there is no room for doubt and no possibility of failure.
1 Baruch Spinoza – Tractatus Theologico-Politicus 20
2 George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin, London, 1989 edition, orig. 1949), p174
3 Perry Link, foreword to Rowena Xiaoping He – Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014), xii-xiv
4 Kerry Brown – CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019), p22
5 Slavoj Žižek – Living in the End Times (Verso, London, 2011 edition, orig. 2010), p440
6 Kai Strittmatter – We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State (Old Street Publishing Ltd., Exeter, 2019), p230
7 Ibid., p171
8 Ibid., p7
9 Ibid., p13
10 Ibid., p19
11 Ibid., p89
12 Ibid., p90
13 Ibid., p152
14 Ibid., p116
15 Robert Kurzban, John Tooby, & Leda Cosmides – “Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 98 no. 26, 2001, 15387-92
16 Strittmatter, op. cit., p131
17 Brown, op. cit., pp. 230-1
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