Brainwashing still a global threat, new book on China says

Editors hope the Taiwan-published book will educate people about the ‘cognitive warfare’ waged by Communist Party.
By Hsia Hsiao-hwa and Huang Chun-mei for RFA Mandarin
2024.01.22
Brainwashing still a global threat, new book on China says
Photo: RFA

Brainwashing the public through mass propaganda campaigns by the Chinese Communist Party and other authoritarian regimes is a global threat, according to political scholars who recently published a new book on the topic.

The book, "Brainwashing in Mao's China and Beyond," takes an in-depth look, through the lenses of political science, sociology and international relations, at the kind of "cognitive warfare" waged by the Communist Party from the Mao era onwards, co-editor Xia Ming told RFA in an interview on Monday.

Xia hopes the book will be a “vaccine” against the propaganda pumped out by the party as a way to stifle dissent and shore up its grip on power.

Taiwan’s 23 million inhabitants got a heavy dose of cross-border Chinese propaganda in the run-up to the Jan. 13 general election, co-editor and Chinese-American Cultural Revolution historian Song Yongyi told a recent symposium. 

Song said the recent attempts by China to spook Taiwan's voters into complying with their constant negative messaging is just one among many examples showing that brainwashing is still being used, and still poses a threat to global stability.

While Taiwan is governed as a sovereign state under the 1911 Republic of China, whose leaders and officials fled there after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that Taiwan must be "unified" with China, and refused to rule out the use of military force to annex the island.

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The Chinese edition of "Brainwashing in Mao's China and Beyond" is seen in Taiwan in January 2024. (Hsia Hsiao-hwa/RFA)

"Communist regimes haven't been completely destroyed, and some totalitarian regimes have continued to develop in the post-Mao era, like Xi Jinping's regime," Song said, citing Russia under Vladimir Putin and its invasion of Ukraine.

"This is still a global problem today – it's not just a problem in China or Taiwan," he said.

Origin of term

The term "brainwashing" is a direct translation of the Chinese 洗脑 (xǐnǎo – "wash brains") that was first used in English by U.S. journalist Edward Hunter in 1950 to describe how the Chinese government got people to cooperate with them during the Korean War. 

Later research found similar processes at work in Nazi Germany, and among criminal organizations including human traffickers.

"Among the tactics used by the Chinese Communist Party to [try to] intervene in Taiwan's election was the claim that, if Taiwan allows the Democratic Progressive Party to come to power, there will be immediate war," said Song.

"The Chinese Communist Party has been spreading such pessimism for a long time, telling Taiwan it can't win," he said. "[The message is] if we want to defeat you, we can."

"Even some [political] leaders in Taiwan have accepted this brainwashing," Song said.

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Xia Ming, co-editor of "Brainwashing" and professor of political science at New York's City University, says the Chinese Communist Party has historically employed brainwashing as a way to stifle dissent and shore up its grip on power. (Hsia Hsiao-hwa/RFA)

Taiwan's Central Election Commission last week complained to TikTok about 105 videos posted to the platform it said were deepfakes targeting candidates in the Jan. 13 election. By Monday, TikTok had removed more than half of them.

The Chinese-owned video-sharing platform has been repeatedly described by Taiwan officials and national security personnel as a "threat to national security," accusing it of peddling "digital opium" to the island's young people.

The book includes chapters from Pei Yiran on the Yan'an Rectification Movement, Ding Shu on the 1958 "Confess to the Party" movement, Wu Guoguang on brainwashing, propaganda and "cognitive warfare," and from Yu Maochun on the impact of Chinese Communist Party propaganda on the international community.

There are also contributions on its use in prisons, textbooks, literature and movies, with links to similar practices under Kim Jong-un and by fascist regimes.

Suspicion of the U.S.

Suspicion of the United States is a key theme of propaganda and infowars originating in Beijing, Xia said, citing a chapter contributed by Li You-tan and Yang Xiujing.

Such themes have previously been used to target previous elections in Taiwan and undermine its democracy, while belittling the United States, he told RFA in an interview on Monday.

"When [scholars in] Western countries study brainwashing, they actually help each of us to resist brainwashing … to protect the independence of our thoughts."

"The Chinese Communist Party does the opposite," Xia said. "They take the best and worst things in the world and throw them into the vat, to use against its people."

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Li Youtan (right), one of the authors of "Brainwashing" and a professor at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, speaks at the Jan. 20, 2024 symposium. (Hsia Hsiao-hwa/RFA)

"We need medicines to deal with this [thought-]virus," he said. "This book hopes to contribute by offering everyone a vaccine against it."

Li You-tan, professor at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, said one example of Chinese government brainwashing is referring to aspirations to independence as "poison."

"According to the manipulative language of the Chinese Communist Party, independence is the same as poison," Li said. "This is a form of brainwashing."

"The manipulation here is aimed at 1.4 billion [Chinese] people, because Taiwan already is independent."

Same family

Another buzzword used by Beijing to bolster its territorial claims is the description of Taiwanese and Chinese people as coming from the same "race" or "family," suggesting that anyone who works against "unification" is betraying their ancestors, Huang Ching-Lung of the Taipei Trust in Democracy Association told the symposium.

"Some people really take this on board," Huang said, citing comments by former Kuomintang president Ma Ying-jeou during a trip to mainland China last year.

Political YouTuber Mr. Shen said Chinese people have been brainwashed since childhood, including through the use of textbooks during compulsory education.

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The symposium for the launch of “Brainwashing” is held in Taipei, Jan. 20, 2024. (Hsia Hsiao-hwa/RFA)

"A lot of people criticize those of us who oppose he Communist Party by saying we have been brainwashed by Western forces and Western media," Shen said. "But that completely distorts the definition of brainwashing."

"There is one prerequisite for brainwashing, and it is this: it must prevent you from getting hold of any other information," he said. "But in the West, the information we see is diverse and conflicting, so whether you believe what the left or the right says becomes a matter of personal choice."

Shen said he managed to rid himself of his early brainwashing, which included the belief that Taiwan could never be independent, by reading widely from overseas sources.

"When I had received that different information, I digested and analyzed it in my own mind, and formed my own independent judgment," he said. "That's how I avoided being brainwashed."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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