Dispatch

China’s Brainwashed Youth

China’s Brainwashed Youth

SHANGHAI — Ever since the 1970s, I have known that the Chinese people are the freest and most democratic people in the world. Each year at my elementary school in Shanghai, the teachers mentioned this fact repeatedly in ethics and politics classes. Our textbooks, feigning innocence, asked us if freedom and democracy in capitalist countries could really be what they proclaimed it to be. Then there would be all kinds of strange logic and unsourced examples, but because I always counted silently to myself in those classes instead of paying attention, the government’s project was basically wasted on me. By secondary school and college, my mind was unusually hard to brainwash.

Even so, during my college years, I still hated Japan. I felt that the Japanese had killed so many of my countrymen, the vast majority of them civilians, that it wasn’t enough that they had eventually surrendered. It was only after studying Japanese and reading additional historical materials that I gradually understood the true face of history: When the Japanese army invaded China in 1931, Mao Zedong, in those days still a guerrilla fighter, turned and ran. Chiang Kai-shek, China’s nominal president at the time, stayed behind to fight the Japanese in his wartime capital of Chongqing, but Mao’s Communist Party fled to the north to establish a base of anti-Japanese resistance in the provinces of Shaanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia, where there was no Japanese army at all.

Today’s youth are repeating the same growth experience I had, but unlike my generation, whose hatred of Japan remained at the verbal level, they have taken the streets to demonstrate.

Even though China’s constitution permits demonstrations, the government prohibits them except in special circumstances. Anyone familiar with Chinese history knows that when Chinese law says one thing, it might mean the opposite. For example, Chinese law says that everyone is equal before the law, but in fact Hu Jintao and his colleagues are more equal than everyone else.

So, Chinese young people today ought to thank the Japanese government, for if it hadn’t purchased the Diaoyu Islands, the Chinese government wouldn’t have opened the net a little, allowing them to take to the streets last week. The demonstrators chanted monotonous and boring slogans, like telling the Japanese to get the hell out of the Diaoyu Islands; plainclothes cops intermingled with the marchers, keeping in nervous contact through their earpieces. Protesters even carried images of Mao, who died in 1976, though I wish he had died much earlier.

Many of the young marchers were terribly excited. For decades, TV shows about the Anti-Japanese War of 1931-1945 had distorted historical facts and turned the Japanese into a stupid, aggressive, cruel race of cockroaches that needed to be exterminated. Amusingly, the Chinese actors portraying those Japanese devils only spoke Chinese, bowing and scraping shamelessly, their every move no different from those of corrupt officials throughout China today.

Now, the Chinese government feels that it’s not enough to smear the enemy through television alone, and the time has come to allow young people to demonstrate, a chance young people welcome because through their patriotic actions they can prove their worth in this world. Many of them are ordinarily very humble, drawing a low salary and struggling in expensive cities. They can’t afford to buy homes, have a family, raise children, or take care of their parents, and no one pays any attention to them. But now, these trampled marionettes have finally made the leap to the center of the political stage, so they willingly allow their strings to be pulled.

But the Chinese government’s brainwashing education is more sophisticated than this. For a red regime to stand so long, to match Western countries in capitalistic indulgence, it needs to surpass the crude Soviet model. And sure enough, after the smashing and burning, the propaganda machine flung out the slogan "rational patriotism": It’s the same old follow-the-party’s-instructions, but it’s a different era and the party must be hidden, which means that it must emphasize the fashionable word "rational." The Communist Party and its Propaganda Ministry have always kept pace with the times.

In this delicately authoritarian society, "rational patriotism" means respecting the rules set up by the totalitarians. This sort of rationality, and this sort of patriotism, would be familiar to Joseph Goebbels. Yet the brainwashed patriotic youth of the mainland don’t understand this. The Hong Kongers who protested the "patriotic education" imposed by the mainland government really know how to protest — unlike on the mainland, their demonstrations were truly spontaneous and did not have government support. No wonder domestic news outlets did not report on them.

Strangely, on the microblogs, a surprising number of well-known intellectuals strongly supported the rational patriotism slogan. I found this baffling at first, but then it hit me: When they sat in ethics class in primary school, they must not have had my fondness for counting to really high numbers.