Monday, April 14, 2008

China: How to explain the impact of indoctrination after Tiananmen?

It seems that in today's China, one should never trust the opinions of anyone under thirty.* Matthew Forney writes in the NY Times:
It is received wisdom in China that people in their 40s are the most willing to challenge their government, and the Tibet crisis bears out that observation. Of the 29 ethnic-Chinese intellectuals who last month signed a widely publicized petition urging the government to show restraint in the crackdown, not one was under 30.
Forney, a foreign correspondent living in China, observes:
Educated young people are usually the best positioned in society to bridge cultures, so it's important to examine the thinking of those in China. The most striking thing is that, almost without exception, they feel rightfully proud of their country's accomplishments in the three decades since economic reforms began. And their pride and patriotism often find expression in an unquestioning support of their government, especially regarding Tibet.

The most obvious explanation for this is the education system, which can accurately be described as indoctrination. Textbooks dwell on China's humiliations at the hands of foreign powers in the 19th century as if they took place yesterday, yet skim over the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s as if it were ancient history. Students learn the neat calculation that Chairman Mao's tyranny was "30 percent wrong," then the subject is declared closed. The uprising in Tibet in the late 1950s, and the invasion that quashed it, are discussed just long enough to lay blame on the "Dalai clique," a pejorative reference to the circle of advisers around Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. . .

Recent Chinese college graduates are an optimistic group. And why not? The economy has grown at a double-digit rate for as long as they can remember. Those who speak English are guaranteed good jobs. Their families own homes. They'll soon own one themselves, and probably a car too. A cellphone, an iPod, holidays — no problem. Small wonder the Pew Research Center in Washington described the Chinese in 2005 as "world leaders in optimism."

As for political repression, few young Chinese experience it. Most are too young to remember the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 and probably nobody has told them stories. China doesn't feel like a police state, and the people young Chinese read about who do suffer injustices tend to be poor — those who lost homes to government-linked property developers without fair compensation or whose crops failed when state-supported factories polluted their fields.
The real question, to me, concerns why the early indoctrination continues to prove effective. Part of the answer, which Forney provides, relates to the material well-being of the new generation.

However, material abundance alone cannot fully explain why early indoctrination remains effective, long after a generation of students have left school. In the attack on the Western media, we saw that many Chinese -- when confronted with a campaign to expose "Western media lies" -- were reluctant to exercise skepticism in regards to the evidence presented by their conspiracy-minded compatriots (I blogged about this here). That fairly inconclusive evidence provoked widespread netizen outrage suggested to me that a major problem facing China is not state propaganda itself, but the way people process information. With respect to the recent "anti-cnn" hysteria, I saw two factors at play. First, a reluctance to practice critical thinking in regards to supposed evidence. Second, an hesitance to exercise the imagination by putting oneself in the shoes of the Other: whether it be the foreign news agency attempting to operate during a state-imposed news black-out, or a long-suffering ethnic minority group, such as the Tibetans.

Propaganda takes root where cognitive habits are receptive to it. But in fairness to young Chinese, the two factors I mention are in short supply not only in China, but scarce anywhere. Yet these qualities are indispensables; golden keys to any resilient ethic of global citizenship.
* In the 1960s America, one mantra of the youth counter-culture was "never trust anyone over 30". Arguably, in today's China, the reverse may contain a grain of truth.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting.. the same thing happened in Thailand a generation ago, I think.


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