On fear and self-censorship
In 1957 America, Ayn Ran released her pièce de résistance ‘Atlas Shrugged’. It was an instant hit, perhaps unsurprising in a country with an entrepreneurial nature and a fierce dog eat dog approach to the world. One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Eddie Willers, the every-man character, describes his fear of a shifting darkness he couldn’t quite describe. A faceless blob that followed him around, making him scared to step out of line. The passage illuminated his fear of a society that was becoming increasingly collectivist.
When deciding whether to start writing about East Asia in my loose and humble capacity, some of the irrational fears I held included whether my musings could ultimately come back to haunt me. This idea that if I write one thing that mildly ‘upsets’ the CCP mainstream thinking, I would never be able to return to China again.
It’s not just me. When Nigel Ng, whose well known Uncle Roger skits are popular in the UK and parts of Asia, accidently included someone in his videos who had made ‘past incorrect remarks about China’ (his words, not the CCPs) he removed it from YouTube the next day. The man in question, Mike Chen, whose only crime had been to point out human rights abuses in China ultimately didn’t blame the comedian. He suggested instead that China uses ‘soft power to get people to self-censor because they are afraid of losing business in China or offending Chinese people’.
But we shouldn’t believe this is simply a Chinese phenomenon. Nowadays, in actions scarily reminiscent of the ‘violent struggles’ that defined the Cultural Revolution when those that committed heresy against Mao were hauled in front of thousands to be abused, any ill-thought out phrase uttered on social media over the course of one’s lifetime may come back to haunt even the best intentioned people. Top academics like Niall Ferguson, well renowned and well respected with 15 books to his name, have mentioned how in recent years he sometimes suffers from anxiety whose cause is the ‘mortal dread of public humiliation’. ‘One faux pas’ he writes ‘one off the cuff comment deemed by some group of militant victims to be “offensive”, and the digital mob is on your case’. He goes on to point out that ‘some careers have been terminated for transgressions that were committed long ago and violated no law’. This begs the question, how many future politicians or business people have already made comments on a Facebook post or Twitter feed perhaps meant in jest or require context that some journalist will unearth and use to end their career? The line between what is actually wrong to say and what is deemed wrong to say by the angry mob is becoming thinner and thinner by the year.
Perhaps the worst that can happen in China, being thrown in a filthy jail and having to take part in forced labour is worse than what can happen in the West, but losing your job, relationships, social status and being ostracised from the mainstream of society certainly isn’t without its own consequences.
All that happens in the end in both countries, however, is an unwillingness to engage anymore. In China, the majority of the population go along with the CCP because it’s better than speaking out. In the West, the majority go along with whatever is deemed correct to say by the established groupthink because the alternative is losing friendships and social status. This is why Trump’s victory five years ago took everyone by surprise, nobody had realised that the unwillingness to engage by ordinary people didn’t mean they’d lost their political views, only that they didn’t air them as openly. On a more positive note, however, this also suggests that China’s people are not necessarily as pro-CCP as you might think. And just like Trump’s election victory seemingly came from nowhere, a movement for more democracy in China may also spring from out the blue.
The premise of Atlas Shrugged is that great women and great men - the engineers, the doctors, the thinkers, the artists, the teachers, the inventors - all share in holding the world aloft. The idea behind the book is that they see the world becoming more collectivist and as the title suggests, give up on it because they can no longer work to the best of their abilities. They ultimately choose to start society once again from different principles. The book is by no means flawless in its logic and it is incredibly unrealistic in parts about its black and white, dystopian vision of society, but it was and remains a stark warning that the faceless blob which makes you self-censor is by no means simply a Chinese phenomenon.