Thought Examinations, Indoctrination Meetings and Struggle Sessions
How totalitarianism obliterates free thought
Note: last month I took a deep dive into the mechanics of Mao’s rise to power, as told in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s book “Mao: The Unknown Story.” In this second post on the book I cover Mao’s mechanics of terror: the tools which he and totalitarian regimes in general use to turn passionate young idealists and the populace at large into an unthinking machine.
It may be tempting to think that you could survive a totalitarian regime by complying with its demands. I’m afraid it won’t work. It won’t work because this course of action rests on a mistaken assumption that what totalitarianism wants is compliance. But totalitarianism doesn’t want you to comply. Totalitarianism wants to break down your will to the point where compliance is no longer necessary, because you no longer have the capacity to resist. Whereas your run-of-the-mill tyrant might want to coerce the people into supporting him—or at least into not actively trying to dethrone him—a totalitarian ruler wants to eliminate free thought altogether and transform the people into an unthinking machine.
Totalitarianism begins the process by dividing the people into us and them, comrades and enemies, allies and foes. This is done by means of ideology. An ideology is, in the words of Hannah Arendt, a kind of key to history. What she means by this is that ideology is a series of assumptions that explain the causes and direction of the process of history (and indeed the very assumption that history itself is a process that is going somewhere). For example, the communists explain history as a struggle between the working class and the capitalists. The Nazis explained it as a struggle between races. Once you accept the initial assumptions, everything else, every single event or process, can be explained through them, interpreted through them. An ideology thus acts as a kind of straight-jacket, restraining the thoughts of those who follow it by binding everything to a single cause and a single explanation. But for the naïve, it is a revelation. Their new “key” gives them an inflated sense of understanding, makes them think that they are possessed of deep insights into the hidden workings of the world—insights to which the uninitiated masses are blind.
Next, the party drives a wedge between the us and the them. Dostoevsky’s novel Demons was inspired by such a wedge. In 1869, a radical by the name of Sergey Nechayev incited his group of underground revolutionaries to murder one of their own comrades. Just like a gang initiation—which is exactly what it was—the loyalty of the members of his secret group was sealed by the spilling of blood. Those with only a tentative interest in an ideology can still change their minds and leave, but once they are coerced into committing a crime, parting ways no longer becomes an option. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implemented this on a grand scale. When, in 1927, the CCP began building its own armies and taking territory, the Party decreed that to get the peasants “to join the revolution, there is only one way: use Red terror to prod them into doing things that leave them with no chance to make compromises later with the gentry and bourgeoisie.” When the following year an army led by Zhu De was driven out of the territories it had taken (and razed), “thousands of civilians went with him.” They were “the families of the activists who had done the burning and killing,” and who thus “had nowhere else to go.”
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the citizens of Orwell’s fictional dystopia have to make their way daily to what is known as a “Two Minutes Hate” session. In these sessions, the participants are made to express their hate and fury by screaming and shouting at a film of their ideological enemy. Well, the CCP had their own “Two Minutes Hate” called dou di-zhou—“struggle against the landlords”—which lasted more than two minutes and involved real “enemies,” whose crime was not that they were necessarily landlords, but that they were better off than the rest. “Those designated as targets were made to stand facing a large crowd, and people were psyched up and organized to come forward and pour out their grievances against them … Village militants and thugs would then inflict physical abuse, which could range from making the victims kneel on broken tiles on their bare knees, to hanging them up by their wrists or feet, or to beating them, sometimes to death, often with farm implements.”
Similar sessions were also used to motivate new army recruits. When the CCP seized Manchuria, it began the process of transforming the defeated 200,000-strong army of the Manchukuo puppet regime into their own Red Army. After purging those who showed defiance, the rest of the soldiers were taken to “speak bitterness” rallies, where they were made to publicly vent their hate at the landlords and the rich who had mistreated them in the past. The rallies would get so intense that one soldier even passed out from his rage. “People who went through the process testify to its effectiveness,” writes Jung Chang, “even though they find this hard to believe when they reflect in a calmer state of mind.” On this point Orwell made an especially keen observation (emphasis mine): “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary.”
Next comes the process of atomization—the process of breaking down relationships between people and isolating them. Here Mao managed to surpass both Stalin and Hitler. Whereas a Stalin would send people off to the Gulag, Mao turned his very institutions into a kind of Gulag. At the end of the Long March, Mao made the small provincial town of Yenan in Shaanxi province into his base of operations. A successful propaganda campaign led to an inflow of young, idealistic recruits. Once they were in Yenan, however, they were forbidden from leaving. Worse, they all had to undergo “screening” to prove they weren’t Nationalist spies, in which the recruits would take turns as interrogators and prisoners, torturing others and being tortured themselves. “Turning ordinary organizations into virtual prisons was a significant innovation of Mao’s … he converted people’s colleagues into their jailers, with former colleagues, prisoners and jailers living in the same premises. In this way, Mao not only drove a massive wedge between people working and living side by side, he greatly enlarged the number of people directly involved in repression.”
In Orwell’s fictional dystopia, the protagonist’s room is under constant surveillance, but, due to its unusual geometry, there is an alcove on the side with a little desk, which the camera of the telescreen cannot wholly see. Hiding himself in the alcove, the protagonist begins to write a kind of diary entry, trying to gather his shattered thoughts into something coherent. This process helps him think. Unfortunately, such luxury was impossible in Mao’s China due to something called “thought examinations,” which turned the process of writing to cultivate thought into the process of writing to destroy it. This particularly malign exercise involved the writing down of one’s every sin against the Party—not just the things you did, not just the things you’ve said, but the things you’ve thought. “Get everybody to write their thought examination,” decreed Mao, “and write three times, five times, again and again … Tell everyone to spill out every single thing they have ever harbored that is not so good for the Party.”
But your own sins were not enough—you were also expected to write down what other people said that was “not so good for the Party,” which the CCP called “small broadcasts.” The confessions were naturally reviewed so they could not be avoided, and, because the criteria of “not so good” was so vague, people wrote more to be on the safe side. “Through forcing people to report ‘small broadcasts,’ Mao succeeded to a very large extent in getting people to inform on each other,” writes Jung Chang. “He thus broke trust between people, and scared them off exchanging views not just at the time in Yenan, but in the future too. By suppressing ‘small broadcasts,’ he also plugged the only unofficial source of information, in a context where he completely controlled all other channels … Information starvation gradually induced brain death.”
The assault on free thought was relentless. “All forms of relaxation, like singing and dancing, were stopped.” Free time was filled up with exhausting “indoctrination meetings.” During the civil war, “Children were used as sentries, and formed into harassment squads, called ‘humiliation teams,’ to hound people into joining the army.” After the Nationalists were defeated, a “nationwide system of concierges called Order-Keeping Committees was established in every factory, village and street,” which “kept an eye on everybody, not just political suspects and petty criminals.” It became easier not only to keep quiet, but to stop thinking altogether.
The term “political correctness” first appeared in the Soviet Union as a way to criticize and denounce anyone straying from the so-called “party line.” It was adopted by Mao as a tool to condemn whole groups of people, along with other similarly loose terms like kulaks (a Russian word meaning a rich peasant who owned land), “anti-Bolsheviks” (AB) and “counter-revolutionaries.” The words were nothing more than a way to mark political opponents as enemies, either to scare them into siding with you, or, if their support was impossible or unnecessary, to initiate a purge. Thus, for example, when in 1930 Mao stole the Red Army unit at Jiangxi, he crushed those who resisted the takeover by condemning and consequently purging the lot as enemies of the Party: “The entire Party [there] is under the leadership of kulaks … filled with AB … Without a thorough purge of the kulak leaders and of AB … there is no way the Party can be saved.” Or, when, at the end of the Long March, Mao approached the Red base ran by a man called Liu Chih-tan, he remarked that the leadership there “does not seem to be correct.” Party HQ initiated a purge, Chih-tan and his men were removed from command, and Mao took over.
Unfortunately, mute compliance was not enough to save you from being purged. The curious thing about totalitarian purges is that they are based on quotas. In this way, they can be thought of as a continuation of the methods of coercion listed above. The point is not just to eliminate actual enemies of the regime—though that is one of the goals—but to inflict psychological damage. In fact, actual spies were arrested in secret and “taken care of without a fuss,” meaning a “speedy, secret and noiseless execution.” The innocent, on the other hand, would be publicly denounced, tortured and killed to produce maximum terror. In 1955, Mao even included a purge quota as part of his “Five-Year Plan”: “We must arrest 1.5 million counter-revolutionaries in five years … I am all for more arrests … Our emphasis is: arrest in a big way, a giant way …” Two years later, talking about one province, Mao cheerfully announced that Hunan “denounced 100,000, arrested 10,000, and killed 1,000. The other provinces did the same.”
Mao’s final triumph was the corruption and destruction of the education system and culture. In 1966, Mao started a decade-long terror campaign called the Cultural Revolution. The first phase turned students at schools and universities into political activists by forming them into paramilitary units known as the Red Guards. “These students were told to condemn their teachers and those in charge of education for poisoning their heads with ‘bourgeois ideas’—and for persecuting them with exams, which henceforth were abolished.” Many were eager to take part. This was their first chance to participate in politics in a country where every form of political action was forbidden. Being able to form groups and take public action allowed them to experience the thrill of real power. On 13 June 1966, Mao suspended schooling. “Violence broke out within days. On 18 June, scores of teachers and cadres at Peking University were dragged in front of crowds and manhandled, their faces blackened, and dunces’ hats put on their heads … Similar episodes happened all over China, producing a cascade of suicides.”
“Stuff ‘human feelings’!” said one Red Guard poster. “We will strike you to the ground and trample you!” said another. The most impressionable and most energetic group of people in the country were mobilized and incited to commit atrocities. The predictability of the results did not make them any less shocking. “On 5 August, in a Peking girls’ school packed with high officials’ children … the first known death by schoolchildren by torture took place. The headmistress, a fifty-year-old mother of four, was kicked and trampled by the girls, and boiling water was poured over her.” After further torture involving bricks, belts and wooden sticks studded with nails, she collapsed and died. The Red Guards reported to the authorities. Instead of being arrested, they were encouraged to carry on.
Culture followed. “On 18 August, Mao stood next to Lin Biao on Tiananmen while Lin called on Red Guards throughout the country to ‘smash … old culture.’ The youngsters first went for objects like traditional shop signs and street names, which they attacked with hammers, and renamed.” The mob then swarmed onto the Peking Writers’ Association, where the they used belts to attack the country’s best known writers. Mao explicitly forbid the army and the police from trying to stop the violence, ordering that they must “absolutely not intervene.” Names and addresses of writers and artists were given to the Red Guards, who proceeded to ransack their homes, destroying books, paintings and musical instruments, and beating up their owners in the process.
Violence spread like wildfire across the whole of China. Thousands of monuments were destroyed, 4,922 in Peking alone. It was no longer just the intellectuals who had to worry about being raided, but the public at large. The terrorized population responded by doing the work of the censors themselves. “Fearing that the Red Guards might burst in and torture them if ‘culture’ was found in their possession, frightened citizens burned their own books or sold them as scrap paper, and destroyed their own art objects.”
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist,” observed Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” The biggest casualty of totalitarian terror is not the unprecedented amount of physical destruction, but the even greater amount of psychological devastation. By crippling and corrupting the minds and spirits of the people, it maims society on a civilizational level. Once their task was done, the violent Red Guards were no longer useful. In 1967, the army was called in to put an end to the chaos, and the Red Guards were mercilessly crushed. The youth who thought that they were burning down the relics of their oppressors did not realize until it was too late that they themselves were the fuel that was being burned.