Posts Tagged ‘Mao’

Modern History of Information Control in China

June 27, 2018

This is the second post based on Margaret E. Roberts’ “Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall.”

Censorship under Mao (1949-1976)
Under Mao the Chinese government exercised authority in all areas of citizens’ lives. The Party regarded information control as a central component of political control, and Party dogma, ideology, and doctrine pervaded every part of daily routine. Propaganda teams were placed in workplaces and schools to carry out work and education in the spirit of party ideology and to implement mass mobilization campaigns. Ordinary citizens were encouraged to engage in self-criticism—publicly admitting and promising to rectify “backward” thoughts.

Under Mao the introduction of “thought work” into everyday life meant that fear played a primary role in controlling information, and each citizen was aware of political control over speech and fearful of the consequences of stepping over the line. Everyday speech could land citizens in jail or worse.

During this period China was closed off from the Western world in an information environment completely controlled by the state, had among the most “complete” control of information a country could muster, akin to today’s North Korea.

Even with ideological uniformity and totalitarian control based on repression, both the Communist Party and the Chinese people paid a high price for highly observable forms of censorship that control citizens through brainwashing and deterrence. Citizens’ and officials’ awareness of political control stifled the government’s ability to gather information on the performance of policies, contributing to severe problems of economic planning and governance. The Great Leap Forward, in which about thirty million people died of starvation in the late 1950s, has been partially attributed to local officials’ fear of reporting actual levels of grain production to the center, which led them to report inflated numbers. Even after the Great leap Forward, the inability of the Chinese bureaucracy to extract true economic reports from local officials and citizens led to greater economic instability and failed economic policies and plans.

This extensive control also imposed explicit constraints on economic growth. Large amounts of trade with other countries were not possible without loosening restriction on the exchange of information with foreigners. Innovation and entrepreneurship require risk-taking, creativity, and access to the latest technology, which are all difficult under high levels of fear that encourage risk-aversion. Millions of people were given class levels that made them second-class citizens or were imprisoned in Chinese gulags that prevented them from participating in the economy. Frequently, those who were persecuted had high levels of education and skills that the Chinese economy desperately needed. The planned economy in concert with high levels of fear stifled economic productivity and keep the vast majority of Chinese citizens in poverty.

Even in a totalitarian society with little contact with the outside world, government ideological control over the everyday lives of citizens decrease the government’s legitimacy and sowed seeds of popular discontent. Mao’s goal of ideological purity led him to encourage the Cultural Revolution, which was a decade-long period of chaos in China based on the premise of weeding out ideological incorrect portions of society. In the process this killed millions of people and completely disrupted social order. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution combined with resentment toward the extreme ideological left in the Chinese political system that had spawned it created openings for dissent. In 1974, a poster written in Guangzhou under a pseudonym called explicitly for reform. Similar protests followed. During the first Tiananmen incident in 1976, thousands of people turned out to protest the ideological left. Several years later, in the Democracy movement in 1978 and 1979, protesters explicitly called for democracy and human rights, including free speech.

Censorship Reform Before 1989
In 1978 when Deng Xiapong gained power, he initiated policies of reform and opening that were in part a reaction to the intense dissatisfaction of Chinese citizens with the Cultural Revolution and the prying hand of the government in their personal affairs. A hallmark of Deng’s transition to a market economy, which began in 1978, was the government’s retreat from the private lives of citizens and from the control of the media. Leaders within Deng’s government realized the trade-offs between individual control and entrepreneurship, creativity, and competition required by the market and decreased government emphasis on ideological correctness of typical citizens in China. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rehabilitated those who had been political victims during the Cultural Revolution. Class labels were removed and political prisoners were released, thus enabling more than twenty million additional people to participate in the economy, many of whom had high levels of education. It has been noted that the “omnipresent fear” that had been common in the Mao era lessened and personal relationships again became primarily private and economic. At first citizens began to criticize the government and express dissatisfaction privately, but later more publicly.

Not only did the government retreat from the private lives of individuals to stimulate the economy and address dissatisfaction, but also loosened its control over the media in order to reduce its own economic burden in the information industry. As other aspects of the Chinese economy privatized, the government began to commercialize the news media to respond to citizens’ demands for entertainment and economic, international, and political news. This proved to be extremely lucrative for Chinese media companies. This lessened control also allowed Chinese media to compete with the new onslaught of international information that began to pour in as international trade and interactions increased, and Chinese media companies were able to innovate to retain market share in an increasingly competitive information environment.

In the 1980s there was an increasing decentralization of the economy from the central Party planning system to the localities. As the government began to decentralize its control, it began to rely on the media to ensure that local officials were acting in the interest of the Party. Watchdog media could help keep local businesses, officials, and local courts in check. Investigative journalism serves citizens by exposing the defective aspects of its own system. Freer media in a decentralized state can serve the government’s own interest as much as it can serve the interests of citizens.

The CCP did take significant steps toward relaxing control over the flow of information in the 1980s to loosen enforcement over speech, particularly with respect to the Maoist era. By 1982, the Chinese constitution began to guarantee free speech and expression for all Chinese citizens, including freedom of the press, assembly and demonstrations. Commercialization of Chinese newspapers began in 1979 with the the first advertisement and gradually the press began making more profit from the sales of advertising and less from government subsidies. Radio and television, which had previously been controlled by the central and provincial levels of government, expanded rapidly to local levels of government and was also commercialized.

In April 1989 the death of Hu Yaobang sparked the pro-democracy protests centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. These protests spread all over China, culminating in an internal CCP crisis and a large-scale violent crackdown on protesters on June 4, 1989, that was condemned internationally.

Not surprisingly, this June 4 crisis marked a turning point in government strategy with respect to the media and the press. There was widespread consensus among the Party elites after the crackdown that the loosening of media restrictions had aggravated the student demonstrations. During the months of protests reformers within the Party had allowed and even encouraged newspapers to discuss the protests. In the immediate aftermath of the crackdown on the protesters and clearing of the square on June 4, 1989, censorship ramped up quickly. This large-scale crackdown on journalists, activists, an academics reintroduced widespread fear into the private lives of influential individuals, particularly among those who had been involved in the protest events. China was returning to the model of media serving the Party and expressing enthusiasm for government policies.

Post-Tiananmen: Control Minimizing the Perception of Control

Although the belief among government officials that free media had contributed to unrest prevented the CCP from returning to the extent of press freedom before Tiananmen Square, Deng did not return to the version of pre-reform information control that relied on fear-based control of individuals’ everyday lives and instead quickly reversed the post -Tiananmen crackdown on speech. Instead, government policy evolved toward a censorship strategy that attempted to minimize the perception of information control among ordinary citizens while still playing a central role in prioritizing information for the public. The government strengthend mechanisms of friction and flooding while for the most past staying out of the private lives of citizens. A few years after Tiananmen Square, the CCP returned to an apparent loosening of control, and commercialization of the media resumed in the mid-1990s. After Deng’s “Southern Tour” in 1992, meant to reemphasize the economy, broader discussions and criticisms of the state were again allowed, even publicly and even about democracy.

Even though the government did not return to Maoist-era censorship, the government tightened its grip on the media, officials, journalists, and technology in a way that allowed targeted control: by managing the gatekeepers of information, the government could de-prioritize information unfavorable to itself and expand its own production of information to compete with independent sources. The government strengthened institutional control over the media. The CCP created stricter licensing requirement to control the types of organizations that could report news. They also required that journalists apply for press cards, which required training in government ideology. In spite of extensive commercialization that created the perception among readers that news was driven by demand rather than supply, the government retained control over the existence, content, and personnel decisions of newspapers throughout the country allowing the government to effectively, if not always explicitly, control publishing.

The government proactively changed its propaganda and strategies after Tiananmen Square, adapting Western theories of advertising and persuasion, and linking thought work with entertainment to make it more easily understood by the public. The CCP decided to instruct newspapers to follow Xinhua’s lead on important events and international news, much as the had done with the People’s Daily doing the 1960s. In the 1990s, the party also renewed its emphasis on “patriotic education” in schools around the country, ensuring that the government’s interpretations of events were the first interpretations of politics that students learned.

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Thinking About Politics

July 11, 2017

This is the ninth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Thinking About Politics is a chapter in this book.

HM remembers when the Affordable Care Act was being debated, a woman was asked what she thought about it. She remarked that she was strongly in favor of it. However, when she was asked about Obamacare, she said that she was strongly against it. Such is the state of politics in the United States. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation in April 2013, found that more than 40% of Americans were not even aware that the Affordable Care Act was Law (12% thought it had been repealed by Congress—it hadn’t.)

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach write that public opinion is more extreme than people’s understanding justifies. Americans who most strongly justified military intervention in the Ukraine in 2014 were the ones least able to identify Ukraine’s location on a map. A survey out of Oklahoma State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics asked consumers whether the labeling of foods produced with genetic engineering should be mandatory. 80% of the respondents thought that it should. But 80% also approved of a law stating that there should be mandatory labels on foods containing DNA. They believe that people have the right to know if their food has DNA. So these respondents thought that all meats, vegetables, and grains should be labeled “BEWARE HAS DNA.” But we would all die if we avoided foods that contain DNA.

We all need to appreciate how little we understand. The authors write, “Taken to its extreme, the failure to appreciate how little we understand combined with community support, can ignite really dangerous mechanisms. You don’t have to know much history to know how societies can become caldrons in an attempt to create a uniform ideology, boiling away independent thinking and political opposition through propaganda and terror. Socrates died because of a desire for ancient Athenians to rid themselves of contaminated thinking. So did Jesus at the hands of the Romans. This is why the first crusades were launched to free Jerusalem of the infidel, and why the Spanish Inquisition drove Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity or leave Spain between 1492 and 1501. The twentieth century was shaped by the demons of ideological purity, from Stalin’s purges, executions, and mass killings to Mao’s Great Leap Forward: the herding of millions of people into agricultural communes and industrial working groups, with the result than many starved. And we haven’t even mentioned the incarcerations and death camps of Nazi Germany.”

The authors write, “Proponents of political positions often cast policies that most people see as consequentialist in values-based terms in order to hide their ignorance, prevent moderation of opinion, and block compromise. They note the health care debate as a perfect example of this. Most people just want the best health care for the most people at the most affordable price. This is what the national conversation should be about how to achieve this. But this might be technical and boring. So politicians and interest groups make it about sacred values. One side asks whether the government should be making decisions about our health care, focusing the audience on the importance of limited government. The other side asks whether everybody in the country deserves decent health care, focusing on the value of generosity and preventing harm to others. The authors say that both sides are missing the point. All of us should have similar values: we want to be healthy, we want others to be healthy, and we want doctors and other medical professionals to be compensated, but we don’t want to pay too much. The health care debate should not be about basic values, because in most people’s minds basic values are not the issue. The issue is the best way to achieve the best outcomes.

Ideologies and ideologues are the bane of effective government. They constrain alternatives and blind us to obvious solutions. As mentioned in the second post in this series, other advanced countries have effectively addressed the problem of healthy care with a single payer system in which that single payer is the government. There are already proven examples from which to choose. But in the United States, ideology has deemphasized the role of government, and the single payer system is regarded as a radical solution.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.