“Ignorance isStrength,” exhorted the fictional Party in George Orwell’s novel 1984. In today’s Chinese CommunistParty, this axiom is alive and well. In addition to outright censorship andblocking sensitive news, the state propaganda machinery puts together a mosaicof half-truths and one-sided reports. The result is that the consumers of such“news” form what seem to be their own opinions while being controlled by thestate. The misinformation is not limited to the masses. Even China’shigh-ranking officials are fed and deceived with filtered news. They becomenarrow-minded, and consequently are unable to gain individual perspective ormake sound judgments based on the situation’s development. The reason DengXiaoping issued the order to “shoot to kill” during the June 4thmassacre in 1989 might have a lot to do with the exaggerated reports on the“turmoil” by the Beijingmunicipal authorities. The media blockage and filtering of overseas news duringthe past few years have further aggravated the problem. To investigatethe problem, I conducted two case studies: the state media’s spin of the SARSoutbreak and coverage of the Taiwanelections. During the SARS outbreak last year, there was a commonsuspicion in the outside world that the Chinese government was covering up thereal situation, which the Chinese government repeatedly denied. Furthermore, onApril 3, 2003, the Health Minister at the time, Zhang Wenkang, declared that China hadeffectively contained SARS. Zhang’s statements indeed boosted everyone’sconfidence. In order to find out if the government reports on SARS wereobjective, I read over 400 articles posted on xinhua.net since the beginning ofthe year up until April. Here are some "facts" that werereported:
• When SARS broke out, specialists from the Central Government to the localgovernments conducted joint diagnoses and treated the patients together. As aresult, the patients were discharged from hospitals and regained their health.
• Bad elements stirred up panic, yet the government put a timely end to therumors and provided a stable environment.
• An extremely small number of anti-Chinese forces overseas suspected that wehave covered up the facts, yet the majority of countries and people in the worlddo not believe what they say, and the Guangzhou Trade Fair this year will seethe largest number of overseas trading partners than ever.
• Tourists from overseas are providing testimony to prove that it is safe totravel to China.
• Experts from the WHO also stepped forward to praise China for effective cooperation andtaking the proper measures.
• There is no significant problem, though later on I found that while the Chinesemedia deceived the experts, they made use of the polite encouragement from theexperts and removed the warnings from the same people.
• The borders are open, and overseas experts have been granted permission tovisit Guangdong Province, though later I found out that permission was delayedfor another 20 days.
The reportsmake everything seem so transparent. One is made to think, "Whatnews can the Chinese government be hiding?” Also, one would feel a strong senseof pride for the responsible attitude the Chinese government took towards thepeople’s well being. In retrospect, when I read some reports from theoverseas media at the time, I really did feel that some of the reports had“ulterior motives.” This lasted until April 20th, when the StateCouncil announced that SARS had broken out on a large scale and dismissed theHealth Minister and the Mayor of Beijing. Only then did I realize how much Ihad been deceived. In the case of the Taiwanese election coverage,instead of outright lies, the state media used a variety of news items to painta picture of panic and despair surrounding the election. The immediate andobvious goal was to put down Taiwan,but on a deeper level, the goal was to discredit the institution of democracythrough blaming and associating various social issues and unpleasant thingswith Taiwan’selections. The following are some of the headlines on the Chinese XinhuaNews Agency website’s “Important News from Taiwan” section leading up to andfollowing the election.
• Taipei County: Man Shot Blind on the Street[03-29 15:58]
• Most College Students Think Elections AreAbusing Power and a Waste [03-29 15:05]
• Five Hundred Thousand People Gather to Protest against Unfair Election [03-2721:49]
• Earthquake of 4.8 on the Richter Scale Hits Jiayi, Taiwan[03-26 14:14]
• Taiwanese Continue to Protest against Unfair Election. Stock Prices KeepDropping [03-26 09:48]
• TaiwanElection Chills Tourism [03-26 08:59]
• Taiwanese Fishing Ship Wrecked Near
• Guns and Bullets Seized in Yunlin,Taiwan [03-2611:01]
• Hunger Strike Starts to Protest against Election [03-25 19:07]
• Under Unstable Political Situation, Taiwan Businessmen Buy Real EstateOverseas [03-25 15:30]
• Taiwan Businessmen Buy RealEstate in Shanghai and HongKong after 3.20 [03-25 10:53]
• Taiwanese Emigrate after Election [03-24 13:29]
• Pessimism and Bad Economy after TaiwanElection [03-24 16:32]
• Number of Mental Disorders Soars after Taiwan Election [03-24 14:52]
• Warning of Taiwan Health Department: Enterovirus Infection on the Rise sinceMarch [03-24 09:59]
• Two Dead, Six Injured at a TaipeiConstruction Site [03-24 09:07]
• Kaohsiung:Bribery Case Going to Court Next Month. Make-Up Election Made Possible [03-2313:59]
• After effect of Election: Four Suicides on the First Workday [03-23 12:27]
• TaiwanOfficial Announcement: 4.61% Unemployment Rate in Feb. Almost Five HundredThousand Unemployed. [03-23 09:34]
• TaiwanStock Plunges, Hits Eight-Year Low [03-23 09:32]
• 560 Rifles Missing from a Police Station in Tainan [03-23 09:28]
• Instant Loss on TaiwanStocks Reduces 47.5 Thousand yuan (about $5.7 thousand)of Assets Per Person[03-23 08:27]
• Taiwan:Sixty-Nine-Year-Old Man Dies from Heart Attack in Voting Station [03-22 15:44]
• Most TaiwanBusinessmen Pessimistic about “Three Exchanges” and Feel Alienated afterElection [03-22 15:07]
• Taiwanese Protest against Unfair Election and Request Recount [03-22 11:17]
• Taiwan:Psychotherapy Patients Increase by 50% [03-20 08:36]
• Taiwan Police SeizeGang’s Ammunition [03-19 10:40]
• Strange Disease during TaiwanElection: Swollen Gums and Chin Pain [03-19 16:14]
• Hong Kong Media: Chen Said “TaiwanCannot Lose.” But TaiwanHas Lost for the Past Four Years. [03-18 16:37]
• Families against Each Other and Unhealthy Mentality during Taiwan Election[03-18 10:08]
• How TaiwanElection Affected My Life: “I Cannot Escape from Political Farce” [03-17 08:23]
• Suicide Rate Soaring in Taiwan.Government Hurries to Find Solution. [03-16 12:44]
Theculmination of these articles is an impression in the reader’s mind thatdemocracy and free elections lead to a higher suicide rate, plunging stockmarket, increase in strange diseases, mental disorders, emigration, pessimisticattitudes, a bad economy, accidents at construction sites, earthquakes,shootings, protests, and general chaos and turmoil. When stated outright, theconclusion seems ludicrous, but the continuous propaganda over the course ofmonths and years has proven to be quite effective. This is exactly wherethe danger lies in an environment of misinformation and self-deception.Everybody, including the masses, officials at various levels of government, themedia themselves, and even the central leadership, are deceived by the virtualreality mutually created on the foundation of bias and one-sided information.
Furthermore, the likeand dislike of the leaders will reinforce the bias of the media and newsreporters. In the end the situation will further deteriorate when people startto deceive each other; the authorities are deceived by reports from theirsubordinates, and the subordinates are misled by the instructions from higherauthorities. The result is a web of lies woven on top of lies, creating asociety that is detached from reality. During the short history of the ChineseCommunist Party, many things have happened that look rather ridiculous fromtoday’s perspective. Years later, people wonder how such things could havehappened, but while it was unfolding, everything seemed so natural. One of thereasons for this is that people were all living an all-encompassing, fraudulentexistence during the events, and could not perceive that anything was amiss.
Sima Tai is a freelance writer inWashington D.C.