Saturday, September 02, 2006

Open Secrets of Chinese Mind Control

The Chinese government's propaganda artifacts have never needed to incorporate much subtlety—after all, when you exercise complete control over most forms of media, as the state did until recently, there's not much need to camouflage your intentions. Still, I couldn't help but be taken aback by this recent report:

BEIJING, Aug. 31 — When high school students in Shanghai crack their history textbooks this fall they may be in for a surprise. The new standard world history text drops wars, dynasties and Communist revolutions in favor of colorful tutorials on economics, technology, social customs and globalization.

Socialism has been reduced to a single, short chapter in the senior high school history course. Chinese Communism before the economic reform that began in 1979 is covered in a sentence. The text mentions Mao only once — in a chapter on etiquette.

Nearly overnight the country’s most prosperous schools have shelved the Marxist template that had dominated standard history texts since the 1950’s. The changes passed high-level scrutiny, the authors say, and are part of a broader effort to promote a more stable, less violent view of Chinese history that serves today’s economic and political goals.

[ . . . ]

“Our traditional version of history was focused on ideology and national identity,” said Zhu Xueqin, a historian at Shanghai University. “The new history is less ideological, and that suits the political goals of today.”

It's interesting to me that although most educated Americans, if pressed, would admit that our public-school history curricula serve a similar purpose, it'd be tough to find anyone trumpeting that fact to major news outlets in national education articles. We prefer to operate under the fiction that the histories we learn in school are technocratically detached from political imperatives, or at least to keep quiet about it in polite conversation, while the Chinese have no problem owning up to their intentions. The policy itself is a problem, since controlling what constitutes people's stock of background knowledge is a time-honored propaganda technique in authoritarian states (it's tougher in the US, since the state doesn't control the media and "free speech" is, though expensive, still technically free). However, the fact that the authorities are so up-front about what they're doing makes it that much easier to expose and oppose.

There are at least two conditions that must obtain to prevent governments from secretly or openly foreclosing political alternatives in the minds of their peoples: 1) alternative media sources must be allowed to promulgate ideas without fear of prior restraint, and 2) the people must never under any circumstances be allowed to forget the failures, transgressions, atrocities, and falsehoods of the powers-that-be. China's matter-of-factness about the reasons behind its efforts to mutilate its own national history betrays a utilitarian view of human beings as mere means, and the relative lack of sanctioned information alternatives makes the situation even worse. We can only hope that the Internet's inherent tendencies toward knowledge-promiscuity will continue to outflank the elite censors and plant the seeds of communication policy liberalization.