How Brainwashing Works in China

By Chang Ping, published: August 30, 2014


(This is Chang Ping’s third rebuttal, declined publication by Deutsche Welle, to Frank Sieren’s defense of the Tiananmen massacre and the “right to forget“  (links in German) in the Sieren vs. Chang Ping debate earlier this year in DW about the June 4th massacre in 1989 in China. Read Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, and Without the Right to Remember There Can Be No Freedom to Forget, Chang Ping’s first and second rebuttals to Sieren. – The Editor)


In his article, “From Tiananmen to Leipzig,” Frank Sieren reproaches Western media with “unilaterally exaggerating the facts in reporting the incident,” the “incident” in question being the Tiananmen massacre. After Chinese commentators, including myself, raised objections, the example Sieren gives in response turns out to be brainwashing. “I would like to re-explain what I meant. I believe that titles such as ‘Communist Party Succeeds in Brainwashing,” or ‘Unprecedented Brainwashing of the Chinese People,’ and “Imposed Collective Oblivion’ are all complete exaggerations of the facts.” In other words, he tosses out a completely new topic.

It is quite difficult to quantify the level of success the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) achieves at brainwashing, and reasonable people may well differ in their estimates. However, from Mr. Sieren’s reasoning, we can gather that he is completely ignorant of the brainwashing juggernaut at the service of the CCP and its significant evolution since 1989. From where he is sitting, he sees some people travel freely and have access to diverse points of view from around the world, and concludes that brainwashing is impossible. Acknowledging that the Internet is under tight controls in China, throwing up “multiple barriers,” he believes that “nonetheless, people can easily and cheaply get around censorship using VPNs.”

“Scaling the Great Firewall” Is neither Easy nor Cheap

A Chinese online commentator retorts that Mr. Sieren’s conclusion is not too far from claiming that “the Berlin Wall is no big deal, since East Germans can just dig tunnels around it.” Mr. Sieren may see this as another “unfair accusation against the Chinese government,” given that using VPNs is necessarily “easier and cheaper” than digging tunnels. The only problem is that this is not true. VPNs regularly break down during upgrades of the Great Firewall – some of the most sophisticated censorship mechanisms around. Technical interference is common, and in the worst cases VPNs put their users at risk of arrest. In addition, the authorities may camouflage viruses as popular circumvention software, and hapless users who install them find their computers hijacked or broken down.

Nor should we ignore the psychological impact of political taboos. Once censorship makes such terms as “Tiananmen massacre,” “Taiwanese independence” and “Falungong Sect” politically sensitive, even in safe personal conversations, people tend to steer clear of them. The same dynamic is at work when many people turn down offers of free VPNs, seeing circumvention of censorship as something the government does not allow them to do.

The Immense System Engineering of Brainwashing

It is even more important for us to realize that the blocking of foreign websites is but a part of the immense infrastructure devoted to brainwashing, whose mission is the unabashed engineering of hearts and minds. Its other parts include education, propaganda, publishing and pop culture.

With regard to education, as early as kindergarten, children are taught to sing songs that are either nationalistic or inculcate love of the Communist Party. They are directed to draw pictures of Tiananmen Square and the red flag, symbols of New China. Elementary school curriculum, in order to meet political needs, contains so much fabrication that several scholars have published research to enumerate the fallacies. A main subject on which the all-important college examination depends, Political Thought, focuses on developing unquestioning patriotism in aspiring students.

It is a well-known secret that the CCP propaganda organs issue a variety of customized, up-to-date censorship orders on a daily basis. Again, this is only one part of the whole. Ranging from industry access, operating permits and certification to shadowy controls on the personal and professional lives of Communist cadres, the workflow of news censorship, and financial penalties, the infrastructure is integrated and well-coordinated. The system did come under strong challenges when the Internet first entered China, but ultimately proved resilient after thoughtful tinkering, and now manages the Internet in a highly effective way.

The curbs placed on publishing are even stricter. One comparison would suffice. We all know that underground publications known as samizdat played a vital role in the expression of dissent during the Soviet era; this is altogether impossible in today’s China. While some websites with a critical bent are allowed to operate, there is little to rival the unfettered rebellious spirit of the samizdat.

Mr. Sieren may have an inkling of what goes on inside the notorious censorship of broadcast media and films. The insolence of this particular form of censorship is, moreover, quite arbitrary. Before May of this year, Chinese Internet users would never have believed that the powers that be would bar them from watching American dramas that are neither political nor pirated.

“Justice-free Education” After Tiananmen

The evolution of awareness among those of my generation took a drastic turn in college [in the 1980s]. Coming into contact with Western culture for the first time, we realized that we had been consistently lied to, and felt great anger. However, both education and propaganda have been transformed since then in a process of what I call “justice-free.” To summarize, if the government had posed as righteous upholders of justice, now they openly swagger as nihilistic thugs, teaching Chinese people that nowhere else are things any different.

To further these trends, thinkers were sidelined and eggheads given the limelight in the intellectual arena, and the distribution of university research funding also toes the party line. The consequence of political pressure and bribing is a degraded educational system focused on utility, weakening the capacity of the youth for critical thinking.

Spinning on Truth, not Just Blocking It

This vast, cumbersome and complex system is not without internal contradictions. For example, even as it preaches the need to “cast off the baggage of history and look forward,” it shows no aversion to the seeking of truth, busying itself with frequent “unveiling of the hypocrisy of Western democracies” where “the truth about the US/Germany is told.” Therefore, even those under its influence are not necessarily as anxious “to forget history” as Mr. Sieren portrays.

The brainwashing juggernaut solves its crisis by a selective and interpretive approach to the truth, which it deems more important than simply blocking information. Just how successful this strategy proves is clear when we see how many Chinese graduate students abroad continue to show sympathy towards the government even after seeing the gory documentary evidence of the Tiananmen massacre for the first time. They have accepted the spin from the government, namely, that China’s rise as an economic powerhouse is contingent upon the crushing of lives under tank treads twenty-five years ago.


Chang Ping. Photo from DW site.

Chang Ping. Photo from DW site.

Chang Ping (长平) was the  former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend (《南方周末》).  He writes columns for the South China Morning Post, Deutsche Welle, and a number of Chinese language websites. Forced to leave China and then Hong Kong, he currently lives in Germany.


(Translated by Louisa Chiang)

Chinese original

9 responses to “How Brainwashing Works in China”

  1. […] of the Chinese Government, Without the Right to Remember There Can Be No Freedom to Forget, and How Brainwashing Works in China, Chang Ping’s first, second and third rebuttals to Sieren. – The […]

  2. […] Change has translated a series of responses to Sieren’s column by Chang Ping. Chang is also a DW contributor, but the organization declined to publish his rebuttals. In the […]

  3. KL says:

    The funny thing is that doesn’t work in China without a VPN. So if Mr Sieren is accessing it, he is committing a crime. May be some chinese friends may invite him for some tea, or want to read his house water meter… It is weird when you find people that consider “appropriate” for other issues that they will not consider equally appropriate or themselves, including those on human rights, basic freedoms and dignity.

    • jixiang says:

      I live in China, and I am accessing this. In general it isn’t dangerous to use a VPN in China, and most foreigners do so quite happily.

  4. 5656hh says:

    Why was my comment removed? I merely asked if anyone had more information about some research Mr Chang mentioned in the article. I find it rather odd that my comment disappeared.

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