The Chinese Communist Party’s boasts about improvements in its human rights record are a lot like the Beijing “revolutionary operas” composed by Madame Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Then, the target for indoctrination was limited to the Chinese people, and citizens had no escape. Now, the target is the world, the emptiness of the gestures visible for all to see, and participation is voluntary.
The case of maverick human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng illustrates the trend. Gao, whose high profile disappearance more than a year ago drew international attention, was recently reported to have been staying in a retreat in a mountain range for the last six months. It was the crescendo of a series of risible claims about his condition, ranging from his having “gone missing” while out walking, to having been gainfully employed in the remote western Xinjiang Province.
Parallels come easily between the recent, obviously absurd, suggestions about the subject of one of the most sensitive and high-profile political repressions in China in recent times, and the equally farcical “revolutionary operas” staged by the CCP during the 1960s. In both cases the nonsensical nature of the Party’s pronouncements is on full display.
During the Cultural Revolution, arias from the “eight model operas” were broadcast across every medium, as Huo Wang (1998) recounts in Xing Lu’s “Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” published in 2004 : “Model operas are the only art form left in the whole of China. You cannot escape from listening to them. You hear them every time you turn on the radio. You hear them from loudspeakers every time you go outside.”
The traditional (called “bourgeois”) Beijing opera was transformed (see warped) by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, to fulfill the CCP’s ideological obligations. The operas had three goals, according to Lu. The first was to “affirm the correctness” of Mao’s theory of “the armed struggle of the masses”; the second was indoctrinating the Chinese people with the idea that there had always been a class struggle between the proletarian and the bourgeoisie; and the third was to present a “heroic characterization of workers, peasants, and soldiers.”
In a similar way, the CCP’s pronouncements about its adherence to the rule of law and improvements in its human rights record aim at persuading the world that the CCP should be ruling China and leading it into the future, and that progress toward civil society is being made.
Forcing Gao Zhisheng to make a phone call in the presence of friendly agents from the Public Security Bureau is another example. It perpetrates the obvious falsehood that he is free and has been for six months, and moreover, free to the extent that he could take time out to collect his feelings in the serenity of an ancient mountain range. It is performance of a similar order to the politically encoded displays of revolutionary opera: supposed to convince observers of an idea that is obviously untrue, with the threat of repercussions for non-acceptance.
In the global modern context “non-acceptance” means Western government’s public criticism of China’s human rights and civil society record; repercussions by the regime include the threat of “damaged relations.”
Today the CCP continues to indoctrinate and subordinate the Chinese people. This relies on a combination of increasingly sophisticated propaganda that weds the Party-State to the idea of China as a nation, and the underlying possibility of coercion, also sophisticated, ranging from difficulties in obtaining cooperation from the state in business affairs, to labor camps and dungeons of torture as experienced by Gao.
The farce is also exported to the world in pronouncements of progress, and carefully scripted public drama, like having Gao pretend he is free. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people had no choice but to nod in agreement. Today, the world can see clearly the games that are being played, but still, often, nods in agreement.
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