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Ukraine Exposed the True Danger of Chinese Censorship

The Chinese public has been inoculated against outside information.

Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A resident watches a TV screen showing news about Russia’s war in Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, China, on Feb. 25.
A resident watches a TV screen showing news about Russia’s war in Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, China, on Feb. 25.
A resident watches a TV screen showing news about Russia’s war in Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, China, on Feb. 25. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

In the post-communist afterword of Roadside Picnic, the famous 1972 Soviet-era science fiction novel by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Boris goes to great lengths to detail the absurd limits imposed on the siblings’ work by their country’s obsessive censors.

The co-author insisted that the classic story they produced “contained nothing criminal; it was quite ideologically appropriate and certainly not dangerous” in any intentional or even readily discernible sense. But this did little to mollify the authorities who had firm and final say on what could and could not be published in the country and who insisted on repeated rounds of deletions, often aimed at what appeared to the authors to be mundane descriptive details.

When the Strugatskys complained, Boris said, it was explained to them that “science fiction necessarily has to be fantastic and on no account should have anything to do with crude, observable, and brutal reality.” It didn’t matter that the authors thought of themselves as writing an allegorical book about “decaying capitalism and triumphant bourgeois ideology” wrapped up in a tale about the hunt for artifacts left by mysterious visitors from outer space—the censors still insisted that the reader had to be “protected from reality.”

In the post-communist afterword of Roadside Picnic, the famous 1972 Soviet-era science fiction novel by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Boris goes to great lengths to detail the absurd limits imposed on the siblings’ work by their country’s obsessive censors.

The co-author insisted that the classic story they produced “contained nothing criminal; it was quite ideologically appropriate and certainly not dangerous” in any intentional or even readily discernible sense. But this did little to mollify the authorities who had firm and final say on what could and could not be published in the country and who insisted on repeated rounds of deletions, often aimed at what appeared to the authors to be mundane descriptive details.

When the Strugatskys complained, Boris said, it was explained to them that “science fiction necessarily has to be fantastic and on no account should have anything to do with crude, observable, and brutal reality.” It didn’t matter that the authors thought of themselves as writing an allegorical book about “decaying capitalism and triumphant bourgeois ideology” wrapped up in a tale about the hunt for artifacts left by mysterious visitors from outer space—the censors still insisted that the reader had to be “protected from reality.”

What this meant in substance is that the characters had to be drawn in inspiring shades. “The heroes of a novel shouldn’t ‘walk,’ they should ‘advance’; not talk but ‘utter’; on no account ‘yell’ but only ‘exclaim.’” Anyone familiar with the stultifying aesthetics of socialist realism will immediately get the flavor.

The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 left China as the world’s only major communist state. Feeling vulnerable and having just experienced a brush with existential crisis in the form of the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing expended extraordinary intellectual energy over a decade or more to study what had doomed its erstwhile Marxist-Leninist peer in Moscow. Boiled down to its essence, the conclusion was quite simple: The Communist Party of the Soviet Union had lost its nerve—or, rather, its will to hold on to power—and therefore doomed itself to disappearance.

This loss of nerve occurred with respect to various expressions of hard power, such as the failure to bolster Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and prevent their capitulation in the face of rising domestic opposition, or to crack down on dissent at home, which the Chinese had done with chilling resolve and great loss of life at Tiananmen. But it also meant softer things, like maintaining strict control over the Soviet Union’s information environment through the kind of compulsive, even senseless-seeming censorship that the Strugatsky brothers faced.

Beijing sees information as a central battleground in its ideological struggle with the West and judges that here, too, Moscow’s political resolve gradually crumbled. As seen in a documentary about Russian history that recently circulated among Chinese Communist Party members, the principal villains in this tale of Soviet leadership failure were Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom are criticized for relaxing the state’s vigilance against Western-sourced information and ideology.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been determined ever since to make no such mistake, and in pursuit of its own survival, it has applied many of the lessons it has derived from its neighbor’s demise. One of these key lessons, as George Washington University scholar David Shambaugh wrote in his book China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, is to continually ensure the renewal of the monopoly party’s relevance in the eyes of the citizens it rules over.

Chinese Presidents Jiang Zemin (CCP general secretary from 1989-2002) and Hu Jintao (CCP general secretary from 2002-2012) committed themselves to this effort by pursuing numerous reforms, including ones aimed at bolstering the party’s prestige through nationalism. China’s leaders weren’t about to abandon Marxism, but they understood its theories had little to do with the country’s economic takeoff (hence the proliferation of capitalists within the party itself) and, more importantly still, scarcely resonated in the minds of rising generations of increasingly prosperous and well-educated youth.

From the perspective of China’s leaders, the renewed emphasis on nationalism promised a few vital benefits, in addition to distracting people from the fading relevance of Marxism, which remains the formal ruling ideology. Nationalism allowed the CCP to tell the story of China’s rise in increasingly self-crediting patriotic terms. And it provided the public with handy boogeymen that the Chinese people could be actively encouraged to distrust and measure themselves against: the West.

In the Ukraine crisis, the histories of Russia and China come together in powerful and somewhat unexpected ways around this very question of nationalism. Under President Xi Jinping, the CCP has lost almost all the reformist momentum his predecessors created, while leaning heavily on two surviving pillars, one new and one old. The new, or at least revived, pillar, out of use since the time of Mao Zedong, is a cult of leadership built almost exclusively on the image of one person, Xi himself. The other is nationalism.

The only way to keep a system in which legitimacy is derived from a cult of personality and fervent nationalism functioning is to exert stringent control over information.

Recent weeks have brought this Chinese reality home to me in powerful ways through the casual commentary and questions that have come to me from friends in China. These are ordinary Chinese citizens—not journalists, but well-educated people who live comfortably within the margins of the system. From a vantage point of cautious credulity, they have asked me whether it is true that Russia is fighting in—i.e., not invading—Ukraine because of rampant Nazism in that country.

I have treated such conversations gingerly, both to avoid censorship myself on China’s leading social media platform, WeChat, and out of a wariness that too strenuous a refutation of one of the many untruths about the Ukraine war promoted in Chinese media to condition the public to side with Russia—say, the idea that the civilian corpses, seen in news photos, littering besieged cities were planted and even bound by the Ukrainians themselves—might mark me, even in the minds of friends, as a witting or unwitting pawn in a Western conspiracy. That is how well the Chinese public has been inoculated against outside information.

The other topic that brought to mind the increasingly stark control of the news in China involves the recent spread of coronavirus infections in various parts of that country following two years of remarkable success in suppressing the virus’s spread through the country’s “zero COVID” campaign. The most important site of recent outbreak has been Shanghai, one of the world’s largest cities and a place where I lived for six years during the 2000s.

Last week, after I sent a vaguely worded message of concern about the COVID-19 outbreak there to a friend in another part of China, I received a response asking if it was true that things were becoming bad there. This struck me as odd on a number of scores, not least because this exchange followed at least two weeks of increasingly detailed reports in Western media about gigantic quarantine efforts in Shanghai, the fast-growing case numbers, and the difficulties many residents have faced in obtaining medical care, food, and water. After I shared some examples of deeply reported but sober newspaper accounts, this friend wrote back both astounded and dismayed: “We cannot see news from the outside. So sad.”

Another gauge of the scope of information control came to me even more recently from a Chinese person just starting out in journalism. She is outside her country now and wants to work as a reporter abroad for a few years before returning home. How can she write about international issues, she asked me, without feeling that any criticism she conveys is a betrayal of China? She had numerous topical examples, but COVID-19 was at the top of her mind. If one writes that China is having difficulty with COVID-19 now, she asked, isn’t that pulling China down?

Here was the essence of the problem: Under the reign of nationalism, thinking independently and critically about the country or its leaders’ policies and actions has become an internalized taboo. And I can say from countless conversations that this sort of sentiment is extremely widespread.

With little ideological basis to his long and highly personalized rule, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to recover some of Moscow’s Soviet-era power and authority through increasingly stringent control of his country’s news and information ecosystem. He has a long way to go until he can match China’s achievement in this regard, of course. But one of the most striking things about the war in Ukraine is the apparent success Putin has had so far in keeping his people on board with his actions by closing down independent publications, keeping out international news, and pumping the public with propaganda—including the preposterous story that the war is about fighting Nazism.

What all this should tell us is that one of the most dangerous elements of the emerging U.S. rivalry with China has nothing to do with the possibility of being surpassed soon in economic size or with competition in militarized areas, from arms to space to artificial intelligence. Potentially more dangerous than all these is the degree to which the Chinese public is shielded from exposure to the perspectives of others and is readily mobilized by one-sided nationalistic arguments. As Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York, recently tweeted, “When people ask me how info environment within the Great Firewall is like, I say, ‘imagine the whole country is one giant Qanon.’”

This has always been a problem throughout history. One need only remember the Vietnam War-era American slogan: “My country: Love it or leave it.” But never have we seen a country of China’s wealth and size where this sort of thinking has been adopted so widely, nor where countervailing views have been so thoroughly circumscribed.

Of all the ways one can imagine a future conflict between Washington and Beijing, none is more likely than a war to defend Taiwan from an armed takeover by China. What makes this prospect especially frightening is precisely China’s firm molding of its people’s perspectives on Taiwan, to the total exclusion of all other points of view. Russia has had to labor domestically to maintain the pretense that Ukraine is a fake nation, a place without its own history or culture, and an irrevocable part of Russia.

Swap out the names Russia and Ukraine and replace them with China and Taiwan, though, and where Taiwan is concerned, China’s work is already done. There is no space in the country’s scrupulous tended information ecosystem for sympathetic arguments about the self-governing island’s democracy, its will for self-determination, or the fact that in the long span of history, China has scarcely ever governed Taiwan. Whatever China does, almost no one in that country will consider it an invasion, and millions will be lined up to pitch in.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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