If you can control what people know, then you can control what they think. And if people think only what the government wants them to think, then the government can maintain the order it wants. The problem, of course, is that what benefits the government may be detrimental — even deadly — for the populace.
When the first cases of coronavirus presented in the city of Wuhan, in late December, Chinese authorities immediately tried to control the narrative. Reports of the virus were deleted from media outlets, social media posts about the state’s efforts to control the story were also removed, and reporters for state-owned media outlets were swiftly dispatched to downplay the severity of the epidemic. The government claims it was merely trying to limit unfounded “rumors” and stem the potential for panic, but in so doing, it also denied Chinese citizens accurate information about the fatal virus, which allowed it to spread even more. This NPR story explains the full context.
Unfortunately, this latest episode of censorship in China was hardly surprising to anyone who has followed the country’s relationship to free speech and the press in recent years. Although the ruling Communist Party of China (CCP) calls the country a “socialist democracy,” China is more accurately an authoritarian dictatorship. The CCP along with President Xi Jinping, who is also chairman of the CCP, exercise unilateral control over the Chinese people, most notably through the media, for the simple reason stated above. If people were free to consume or produce any information they want, then the CCP’s ability to control them would quickly erode.
This is precisely why we’ve seen so many protests in Hong Kong in recent years, specifically the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 and those that have been going on since last summer. Hong Kong, unlike mainland China, actually has a free and functioning press. Its citizens know far more about China than the people actually living on the mainland, and consequently they know about the human rights abuses and corruption that exist there. Moreover, they are allowed to share what they know and to speak out, to protest and to challenge those in power.
In mainland China, Muslims and other religious minorities, as well as members of the press and human rights organizations, are routinely subjected to imprisonment and torture without any notice; they simply “disappear.” Transparency International, the global authority on corruption, gives China a score of 41 out of 100 on perceived corruption, with 100 indicating “very clean” and 0 indicating “very corrupt.”
While Hong Kong residents know all this, people in mainland China are kept in the dark, which helps to ensure that they remain docile and subservient to the ruling party. And as we’ve seen with the coronavirus, this can have serious–even deadly–consequences for everyone in the country.
In this way, China is more akin to North Korea or Russia than it is to its own “special administrative region,” as Hong Kong is designated. In those countries, media is also tightly controlled by the state to safeguard against popular uprisings and civil unrest. As we saw in the Arab Spring of 2011, when citizens are empowered with knowledge about abuses of power, they are likely to revolt.
The best way to prevent that is to simply limit what they know. And if people in China die as a result, only those outside of China may ever know why.