All entries for Friday 24 August 2018

August 24, 2018

Going Viral: How a Dictatorship Suppresses Ideological Infection

Writing about web page https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/infected-08082018173807.html

Sometimes it is said that a popular image or tweet or a video clip has "gone viral." That means that it has been shared from person to person many times, like an infection.

When we use this image, we think of ideas spreading on an epidemiological model. Some people have little resistance and so they are highly vulnerable. After just one exposure, they are taken over by the idea and become carriers. Then, they pass it on to more people like themselves who are also of low resistance. A pool is formed of people who pass the idea in question backwards and forwards and, in the process, expose many others. These others might be more highly resistant, and are captured by the idea only after repeated exposure, which happens over a period of time. Eventually, as more and more people are exposed more and more times, the infection will spread to everyone who is not for some reason immune.

The same model, according to which ideas spread like a disease, is often found in the practical thinking of authoritarian regimes. Such regimes often prescribe a particular set of ideas as "healthy" -- for example, obedience to the state and loyalty to the ruler, each embodying or personifying the nation. A source of danger to the regime is then the spread of "unhealthy" ideas, which might encourage disrespect of authority or public demonstrations of discontent. They worry that ideas about free speech or the accountability of rulers, if unchecked, might go viral, undermining the stability of the regime.

The epidemiological model also prescribes the remedy. Risks to public health are contained by keeping the community under continuous surveillance, by quickly identifying outbreaks of disease, and stepping in immediately to isolate the people who have become ideologically sick, preventing them from passing on their infection more widely.

This remedy can be seen at work today in China's province of Xinjiang, where the Chinese state is trying to manage the largely Muslim ethnic minority of Uighurs. On August 18, The Economist reported:

During the past year campaigners, academics and journalists have been shedding light on the detention for “re-education” of vast numbers of ethnic-Uighur Muslims in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang. On August 13th the topic was raised at the UN, when experts undertaking an audit of China’s policies towards ethnic minorities said they had heard that as many as 1m Uighurs are being locked away.

The Economist's report went on to cite a recording by the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region communist party youth league, made last year and published on WeChat. The full transcript can be found on the Radio Free Asia website, and that's where I have taken the following excerpt:

In recent times, amid a growing heavy crackdown, a small number of people—particularly young people—have gone to re-education camps to study. However, their parents, friends and relatives, and the general public don’t understand the benefits of re-education, and as a result they are worried and fearful. So let us give answers to their questions and their concerns today.

Members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient. In recent years, there have been violent incidents occurring in Xinjiang, one after another, instigated by the “three evil forces [of “terrorism,” “religious extremism,” and “separatism”], which has threatened the safety of people from all ethnic communities and caused serious damage and losses. These terrorists have one thing in common: they were infected by religious extremism and a violent terrorism disease.

The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine which confuses the mind of the people. Once they are poisoned by it, some turn into extremists who no longer value even their own lives … If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.

Although a certain number of people who have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology have not committed any crimes, they are already infected by the disease. There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public. That is why they must be admitted to a re-education hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind. We must be clear that going into a re-education hospital for treatment is not a way of forcibly arresting people and locking them up for punishment, it is an act that is part of a comprehensive rescue mission to save them.

In order to provide treatment to people who are infected with ideological illnesses and to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment, the Autonomous Regional Party Committee decided to set up re-education camps in all regions, organizing special staff to teach state and provincial laws, regulations, the party’s ethnic and religious policies, and various other guidelines. They mobilized the public to learn the common language [Mandarin Chinese], complete various technical training courses, and take part in cultural and sport activities, teaching them what is correct and incorrect … so they can clearly distinguish right from wrong … At the end of re-education, the infected members of the public return to a healthy ideological state of mind, which guarantees them the ability to live a beautiful happy life with their families.

Ideological illnesses are the same as physical illnesses, in that they must be treated in time, and should never be ignored and allowed to become serious. Otherwise, later we will regret it, as it will be too late … Being infected by religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology and not seeking treatment is like being infected by a disease that has not been treated in time, or like taking toxic drugs … There is no guarantee that it will not trigger and affect you in the future. If people don’t attend re-education class because there is no one to take responsibility for the household chores, or if they choose to run away from re-education, that can be considered being very irresponsible to themselves, their families and society.

You can see that the Chinese communist party youth league's model of the spread of ideas, expressed in this long quotation, is not intellectually consistent. The unhealthy ideas are sometimes called a "virus," sometimes a "poisonous medicine." But the general idea of ideological infection could not be clearer: "Ideological illnesses are the same as physical illnesses."

One feature of this perspective is that people who have been infected are not to blame (unless they refuse treatment). Another is that they are not seen as lost to the community; they can be saved (or they must help to save themselves). Nonetheless, as long as they are inflected by unhealthy ideas, they are a danger to the community as well as to themselves -- even if they are legally innocent of any crime. Therefore, compulsion is justified to treat them.

PS

Why am I interested? In another context, the Soviet KGB (security police) used the terminology of "unhealthy" ideas and behaviours, and of methods of "prophylaxis" (a medical term for prevention), all the time in internal correspondence and reports. If you would like to read more about this, there are some human-interest stories and more discussion in my book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear, especially chapter 5.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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