Yesterday Yaxue posted a piece entitled “An Angry Father,” in which she asked the question – How can a parent protect their child from the poison of the Party’s propaganda? Yaxue also mentioned the feeling of guilt and anger that she experienced as she told a friend not to interfere with the system for the sake of his child. These two ideas I think deserve closer examination.
Poisoned By Propaganda
This last week as I visited rural villages in central China, I was struck by the pervasive nature of propaganda. In the countryside slogans were either neatly stenciled on the sides of buildings, or simply scrawled with a paintbrush in the poorest areas. The campaigns seemed relatively harmless, encouraging parents to accept boys and girls as equals, and informing them of the value of education. In the cities bright red banners and bus stop billboards though told me to “Learn from Lei Feng” and develop a harmonious society. At times it reminded me of the pictures I had seen from the Cultural Revolution when China was ruled by hollow mottoes, and made me question if it still is. Then I stepped into the churches that eek out a space in China’s crowded urban areas, each greeted me with the slogan “爱国爱教” (aiguo aijiao – Love the Country, Love Religion), with religion always second to the state.
Even in China today, State propaganda is pervasive, intruding in every aspect of life. From the number of children you have to where their loyalties should lay. But propaganda does not silence opposition, it aims simply to yell the loudest and drown out competing voices. To Yaxue’s friend though I say, let them shout. Consider the fact that even with the resources of the State, an untold number of Party backed supporters, and complete control of the media, they are still unable to counter the rumors that people spread in their spare time out of a desire for freedom or maybe just entertainment. Even with Party offices in every school, every public institution, and even in some hotels the Party cannot convince netizens that the system is really as transparent and democratic as they claim.
As we are seeing with outspoken dissidents like Yu Jie, Ai Weiwei, Murong Xuecun and dozens of other authors and artists, being poisoned by propaganda does not guarantee death, in some cases after long term exposure it makes one more capable of stomaching its ill effects in ever larger doses.
Cowardice or Patience?
Yaxue regretted writing her friend to tell him, “Please don’t get into an argument, I’m so afraid that they will mistreat your child in school as a result.” I know this feeling as well; I wrote Yaxue months ago asking whether or not she still had family in China to consider after publishing one of her posts. I still feel ashamed of that message, but it felt like something that needed to be said (As you can see though, it didn’t cause her to back down and I’m thankful for that). I would guess that many of those active in human rights in China have experienced this same sickening feeling that comes from cautioning friends before they cross too far over the line.
From one view point though, Yaxue’s advice was probably the best advice. If her friend W. had complained to the higher authorities, at worst it would have resulted in some very negative effects for his child, and in the best case would have come to an interesting conversation. In all likelihood, these school programs are probably scheduled by those even higher up than W. can reach.
However, W. did not simply remain silent on the issue. He confronted a teacher and then reached out to Yaxue, who in turn reached out to us, and created a conversation on a problem that requires further reflection. Yaxue’s mother warned her “Beware of people—you never know what a complicated web exists among people and what trap you might step into,” but at the same time we never know who might secretly agree with us unless we occasionally bring up uncomfortable conversations with friends as well as strangers.
I’ll leave you with this story from my recent trip- In the ’80s there was a mid-ranking party member who had secretly become a Christian. While at work one day, a minister came in and asked if Mr. Wang was there (not his real name). The man said he was. The minister then whispered, “Is it true that he is a Christian?” To which the man loudly proclaimed, “Yes, I heard Mr. Wang is a Christian.”
“Shh!” the minister said, “You’ll get him in trouble.” The man however said he didn’t care if anyone else heard him. “Things aren’t so safe now for Christians,” the minister urged, “you should be careful.” To which the man replied “I don’t care who knows Mr. Wang is a Christian because I am Mr. Wang.” The minister was simply looking for a fellow Christian to converse with, but that day started something bigger.
Shortly after that exchange Mr. Wang quit his job and discarded his Party membership to start a church. After 7 years of hard work he had attracted fewer than 10 members. Today though, his congregation has nearly 1,500 members. It is the result of both a single conversation and thousands of other conversations that followed with strangers.
Our quiet conversations may prove to have results beyond our expectations.