Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Melbourne experiences China's propaganda machine

All nations practice propaganda and brainwashing of their citizens to some extent - the so-called "free world" governments are hardly innocent of this. But few excel in the art of propaganda as China's rulers.

Put it this way - remember the Tiananmen Square massacre, which horrified the whole world back in '89 as we watched the Chinese government unleash the tanks and soldiers on its own peacefully protesting citizens?

Well, the vast majority of people in China have no idea that this ever happened. That's how slick the Chinese Communist Party is. No matter what accusations are levelled at them, they just make like Shaggy and say "It wasn't me". And at least in their own territory, they mostly get away with it.

The decision by the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) to screen the film "10 Conditions of Love", about exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer (pictured), has brought the Chinese propaganda machine Down Under.

China claims that the 62 year old Kadeer, a millionaire businesswoman, mother to 11 children, and former political prisoner now living in the US, is a terrorist. They charge the organisation she heads, the World Uighur Congress, with orchestrating the riots in Xinjiang in July that resulted in the deaths of around 200 people, both Uighurs and Han Chinese. Whether Kadeer is a terrorist or a peaceful activist is a matter for conjecture. But perhaps the Chinese government's labelling of her as a terrorist should be taken with a pinch of salt, considering they also regard the Dalai Lama as a "wolf in monk's robes, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast."

So first the Chinese government protested about the film being shown. Fair enough, that is indeed their right, but of course MIFF was hardly going to give in to that and thereby lose all credibility. Next, all the Chinese filmmakers will features at MIFF withdrew their films in protest. How much choice they had over this is anyone's guess.

Next, the MIFF website was hacked by Chinese vigilantes. The site was forced to shut down temporarily, while the hackers also booked out all film sessions and replaced information about the festival with slogans and Chinese flags. When the site's administrators blocked all access to the site from China, diasporic hackers in other countries tried the same tactics. Even the Melbourne International Arts Festival website was targeted, apparently by hackers who confused it with MIFF.

Although it has been claimed that the hacking activity was directed by the Chinese government, it is clear that much if not all of it was by Chinese civilians who saw it as their patriotic duty. Likewise, the Chinese protestors complaining about the film's screening, like those who were seen recently scuffling with pro-Tibet demonstrators, seem to be acting purely out of nationalistic fervor.

And this is an aspect of China and its culture that many in the West struggle to understand. We were surprised at the joy felt by Hong Kong residents when the island city transitioned from British rule back to China's authoritarian grip. We all know that the Chinese government is a totalitarian dictatorship responsible for all manner of oppression and cultural genocide, right? Well, while that may seem obvious to some of us, there is an enormous level of patriotism felt by Chinese inside and outside of China which often leads them to believe the party line in a way that us cynical Australians will not. Tibet, Xinjiang (East Turkestan) and Taiwan? All irrefutably part of China, despite whatever the residents of those places may think - at least according to the average person in China. Oppression and discrimination against ethnic minorities? Never happened.

Of course, don't think this sort of thing is exclusive to China. If you want to see parallels, try putting forth the following arguments, which are generally accepted by most people:

* Try telling a Turk that his country was responsible for genocide against Armenians in the early 20th Century.
* Try telling a Greek that Macedonia is a country in its own right.
* Try telling an Indonesian that the occupations of East Timor and West Papua were brutal and unjust.
* Try telling an American about the amount of bloodshed their nation has indirectly caused throughout the Third World by the backing of violent coups by fascists.
* Try telling a Palestinian that Jews are, generally speaking, pretty nice people.
* Try telling a Serb that Bosnians and Kosovars have a right to self-determination.

And at least half the time, you'll have a passionate argument on your hands in which logic and facts won't necessarily count for much. You'll see how on some level, most of us are sucked in by propaganda and nationalistic brainwashing.

But I still maintain that when it comes to propaganda and nationalistic brainwashing, few do it better than the Chinese government. Kudos to those evil geniuses.

Oh, and "10 Commandments of Love"? Due to the media buildup around it, mostly due to China's kerfuffle, the film was a sellout at the festival. Plenty of people who had never heard of the plight of the Uighur people are now awakened to it.

So maybe even the experts in propaganda get it wrong sometimes.

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