Victor Fic, a veteran freelance journalist in Toronto, recently interviewed Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor at the University of California, UC Irvine Department of History and the author of China in the 21st Century: What everyone needs to know.
Fic asks: Is China veering towards Orwell or Huxley? Perhaps both at the same time, Wasserstrom says.
A boot in the face…narcotizing drugs and entertainment…does the repression that Goerge Orwell depicted in 1984 describe China? Or is it closer to Aldous Huxley’s vision of control through distraction and entertainment as per Brave New World? Or neither?
Q: What is the ‘take-home’ message of 1984?
A: Orwell famously compared political and social control to a boot stomping on a face. Rule is exercised through fear – and brainwashing – propaganda. Victims believe, or at least state, that two plus two equals five -- the government’s official line.
Q: How about Huxley?
A: His future elite rules largely by keeping people happily distracted and contented, offering appealing consumer goods, entertainment, etc.
Q: The two writers critiqued different social and political models, correct?
A:Orwell illustrated the dangers of Communist Party rule while Huxley debunks capitalist materialism. To day’s China is one setting – among others – that suggest it is too simplistic to divide things that neatly.
Q: How is China most Orwellian?
A: Many party propaganda statements have a two plus two equals five feel. Beijing insists that in today’s China harmony prevails between ethnic groups and it pretends that no massacre occurred on June 4th, 1989. The boot on the face falls on groups that organize to challenge the party.
Q: Which ones smack of Huxley?
A: Note the takeoff of consumerism in China, curiously under a communist party with enormous malls and booming sales of luxury goods. The sharp divide between different social groups’ incommensurable lives and the proliferation, as elsewhere, of distracting online entertainment is more BNW.
Q: Explain how you think regionalism factors in?
A: This is crucial. The Orwell versus Huxley question is most relevant regarding which parts of China resemble which mode of dystopian rule. In Tibet in the northwest and Xinjiang in the far west, any call for change likely gets the boot response. Things are most Orwellian there.
Q: Where is China least 1984?
A: It is one section of the southeast: Hong Kong. It is now formally part of China like Beijing and Shanghai, but its mechanisms of control are generally more Huxleyan. In Hong Kong, but nowhere else in the People’s Republic of China, you can demonstrate to honor those slain in 1989 and bookstores openly sell works praising the Dalai Lama.
Q: So Hong Kong is not entirely oppressed as per Orwell or totally narcotized following Huxley. Is it a combination?
A: Hong Kong’s protests, as you say, add an extra dimension to my model. It is farther from 1984 than other parts of China. But sometimes the party intimidates direct challengers. Note the formal efforts – so far blocked by popular push back – to introduce Orwellian and also the Patriot Act – like new laws against sedition. And very disturbingly, although the details are still unclear, independently minded journalist Kevin Lau, ex editor of Ming Pao, was knifed.
Q: How do the two control methods change through phases?
A:Political controls ratchet up toward past Orwellian patterns in China before a pivotal political event such as party leadership looms. Beijing and Shanghai, unlike Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, are more BNW ‘soft authoritarianism’ but with 1984 moments.
Q: But you are not pollyannaish about the trends…
A: In the last few months, worrisome signs have indicated these moments are extending. Many expected less censorship after Xi Jinping became party head and president. Instead, we observe disturbing controls on free expression, with more arrests and hassling of civil society activists, independent minded academics and crusading lawyers.
Q: Huxley’s controllers know they manipulate people. My question might – unfairly – demand that you read the party’s mind: does it think of itself as using BNW methods?
A: Party elites are savvy enough to think in those terms, though perhaps not thinking specifically of Huxley. Deng Xiaoping and leaders after him periodically praised the control methods in Singapore. Science fiction writer William Gibson once famously likened it to “Disneyland with the death penalty.” That city-state has long combined one-party rule and prosperity, which some think recalls BNW.
Q: Writing between WW 1 and WW 2, Huxley caricatured American materialism. But the US lacked a permanent political party pushing top-down distractions to maintain power. Its materialism derived from immigrants. Movies and jazz hailed from popular culture. Does the US during its boom years resemble China?
A: Huxley would see the ostentatious displays of wealth among the nouveau riche, for example, a Chinese real estate tycoon building a replica of the White House. How bizarre but it recalls the Hearst Castle.
Q: How about the mass participation spectacles both societies love?
A: The US was the first non-European country to host World’s Fairs – in the late 1800s – and then the Olympics. They lavishly announced that it had joined the club of top tier nations – with a flair of one-up manship. The parallels to the 2008 Beijing Games and 2010 Shanghai Expo are clear. Tokyo had the 1964 games. But the Beijing opening ceremony had a beat- anyone air. China bragged that the 2010 Expo bested the attendance record of the previous one…in Osaka.
Q: Jeff, again we see the two control principles combine. The Olympics were BNW distraction with 1984 boots. Please comment.
A:We saw limited protests during the Olympics and only in Beijing. Were people swept up by the spectacle and patriotism? Or did the state stress that protests were intolerable at that moment of national significance?
Q: Huxley’s moral vision is mixed. His controllers use narcotics, sex and engrossing movies to govern. But their techniques abolished war. Implicitly, it means people support them. Can the party extol humane feats to win real allegiance?
A: The Communist Party took power after a long stretch when China was bullied by imperial powers and then Japan invaded. Certainly, it argues that only it was determined to rescue China. It tells that positive story repeatedly through every media.
Q: Another Huxley nuance: one controller loves pure, nonpolitical science. But the system permits only “social control” science like genetic engineering. BNW quietly signals that people jettison ideals for comfort, power amid justifications of the higher good…does that apply to Chinese dissidents?
A: Clearly, some brave Chinese honor their ideals such as the recently imprisoned crusading lawyer Xu Zhiyong. Others, though, are variously bought or their originally rebellious spirit supports the status quo, such as Zhang Yimou. He once made edgy films testing censorship but then played state choreographer for the 2008 Olympics and a 2009 massive celebration of the PRC’s 60th birthday.
Q: Is Orwell sold in China?
A: You can buy 1984 openly in bookstores, unlike in Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. That says much about how the country has changed to Huxley. Officials happily offer intellectuals distracting consumer goods, thinking satisfying people’s pleasures is more important than strictly limiting free thinking.
Q: How do Chinese intellectuals evaluate it?
A: I imagine differently. Some would say that Orwell’s key unlocks how the party still works. Others might assert it was relevant earlier, not now, but describes North Korea.
Q: Is BNW retailed there?
A: It is not nearly as famous, though Chinese editions are sold.
Q: Amplify your idea that the novel The Fat Years shows Huxley’s reach.
A: It is a dystopian novel by Chan Koonchung, now based in Beijing. The Chinese edition is sold in Hong Kong but no other part of the PRC. It is sometimes described as China’s counterpart to 1984, yet it lacks direct allusions to Orwell. Huxley gets a shout out. It portrays China in the near future. Dissidents are bullied by a powerful state. The mass public forgets recent suppression. Also, the water is laced with a drug that induces forgetfulness and a sense of well being like the narcotic Soma in BNW.
Q: Orwell inveighed against politicized language. The party’s mantra is now ‘market socialism’ – assess it.
A: He deftly shows how government spokesmen twist words' original meaning. He also satirized earnest but nonsensical political slogans, for instance "War is Peace." Today's China brims with such locutions spanning "Reform is Revolution" to statements denying contradictions between Marxism and markets or extolling the perfect harmony among ethnic groups. Confucius is celebrated as a national saint alongside veneration for Mao. But he denounced Confucius as a "feudal" thinker whose vile ideas crippled China. That is equivalent to the "Newspeak" or double-speak that Orwell skewered.