In its supposedly autonomous northwest region, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has waged a brutal security onslaught since 2014 in response to sometimes lethal violence claimed by Uighur Muslim insurgents. The crackdown is an effort to force China’s Han majority, who make up the bulk of the population in Xinjiang, to adopt their language, culture, and political allegiances.
British politicians from all ideological stripes, including John McDonnell and Iain Duncan Smith, have condemned Beijing’s brutality in the aftermath of claims of widespread forced sterilisations and drone footage showing bound inmates being herded onto trains in Xinjiang. Exiled Uighurs have provided evidence to the International Criminal Court in order to demand that Chinese officials be held accountable for crimes against humanity and genocide. Sanctions on four senior CCP officials for systematic human rights violations have been announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is coming to life on the pages.
The parallels between 1984 and today extend far beyond the widespread usage of monitoring technology. Numerous Uighur Muslims in the area have been sent to what the CCP refers to as “transformation-through-education training centres,” according to organisations like Human Rights Watch, which has been reporting on this since 2017. Initially denying the reports, the Chinese government now maintains that the centres are appropriate defences against Islamic extremism and political secession. The state claims that teaching “students” about state legislation, Mandarin, and employment skills, help them become better citizens. However, in addition to claims of rape, torture, and forced sterilisation, detention survivors have detailed being forced to criticise themselves, confess to false crimes, and memorise the ideological tenets of Xi Jinping’s dictatorship. The similarities to 1984 in Xinjiang are not accidental, regardless of whether this is primarily about power or a sincere effort to alter the Uighurs’ mentality.
By the time Orwell was imagining the ruthless re-education of Winston Smith, communists in China had already created strategies that sought to accomplish this in reality. Orwell could not have realised this when writing his modern classic.
On June 8, 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four was released. Three weeks later, in a speech titled “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship,” the revolutionary leader of the CCP, Mao Zedong, declared that once the Chinese “people’s state” was established, its citizens would be able to “educate and remould themselves,” “shake off the influence of domestic and foreign reactionaries,” and “rid themselves of the bad habits and ideas acquired in the old society.” Mao established the new People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing in October, while Orwell was dying of illness in London. The new leadership in China prepared to remould its new inhabitants, to squeeze them empty and fill them anew, as readers recoiled at Winston’s miseries.
The May 4th Movement of 1919 and the large rallies at Tiananmen Square that preceded the June 4th Massacre of 1989, which is reminiscent of another book by George Orwell, can be used to contextualise Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement of 2014 as part of a protest tradition.
The Orwellian expression “boot-on-the-face” conjures up the 1989 massacres in Chengdu and Beijing, which resulted in fewer casualties among students and other socioeconomic groups. Another Orwellian term, “memory hole,” is pertinent when considering the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) efforts to erase memories of 1989, as described by Louisa Lim in her aptly named book The People’s Republic of Amnesia. The sentences listed above are from Orwell’s 1984, but Animal Farm also has some odd parallels to China.
Yes, in a time when world events have made its dystopian vision seem newly pertinent for considering many regions of the world, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the book that is currently receiving the most attention. Yes, the term “newspeak,” a classic Orwellian expression first used in 1984, describes perfectly many of the things CCP propagandists have said and still say about the people depicted in two of Joshua Wong’s tweets. In contrast to non-violent civil disobedience in response to local complaints, Beijing’s state media depicted the Tiananmen clashes in 1989 as “riots” instigated by “foreign forces,” and they repeated this when the Umbrella Movement occurred a quarter-century later.
The PRC is currently governed using a hybrid of the strict authoritarian methods Aldous Huxley foresaw in Brave New World in the 1930s and Big Brother techniques. The issue arises when the Nineteen Eighty-Four meets Brave New World concept is applied to 1919. These two volumes discussed a phobia of powerful, well-organized states. In comparison, China a century ago was weak and ruled by rival warlords. However, a recurring issue in Animal Farm—that after a significant political transformation, it could appear that only minor adjustments have been made—applies equally to the May 4th Movement and the Tiananmen and Umbrella movements.
There are elements of the Xi Jinping era that make it attractive to revisit a political allegory that cleverly uses zoological imagery. The back and forth between individuals who find Xi’s reign unsettling and the censors who work to keep the Internet free of their messages are frequently referred to as a “cat and mouse” game. A portly Winnie the Pooh was used as a stand-in for the portly leader of the CCP, who as of March 2018 has the potential to continue serving as President of the PRC for the rest of his life, by critics of the status quo or simply those who want to make fun of a political figure who is the object of official veneration.
It’s important to first consider how exactly Orwell’s well-known novella with barnyard animals can be used to make sense of the May 4th Movement, which was brought about by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and occurred well before he focused on the issue of oppressive systems of government. The May 4th Movement’s participants had in mind, in addition to diplomatic efforts to hand over German possessions in China to the Japanese, actions President Yuan Shikai had taken a few years prior to pushing the Republic back in an imperial direction by establishing a dynasty. This fact is frequently overlooked in discussions of the movement. Progressive students and intellectuals, already enraged with Yuan for failing to confront Japan as forcefully as they had hoped he would early that year, mounted protests against him and published articles denouncing him when the warlord declared himself emperor in the latter part of 1915. It muddied the distinction between the old order and the new order for a Republic established by the anti-dynastic Revolution of 1911 to revert to an imperial style of government, much like what happens at the conclusion of Animal Farm when it becomes difficult to distinguish between the farmers who used to be in charge and the farmers who led the charge against the pigs.
What about 1989, which is now frequently recalled as an attempt to introduce new political ideologies to China? There was a lot of conversation back then about the need for new things to happen in the streets and manifestos, but there was also a lot of discussion about going back to the way things had been, ala Animal Farm. Posters mocking Deng Xiaoping depicted him as an Empress Dowager-like character who ruled from behind the throne while others held official positions of authority.
In addition, Wang Chaohua, a veteran of the Tiananmen Square incident, emphasised that when Hu Yaobang was demoted in 1987, the fact that he was seen as a proponent of liberal trends was just one of the factors that caused members of her generation of students to grieve him. They also believed that China should be moving out of the Mao Zedong era, which Deng claimed to be achieved by instituting policies of “Reform and Opening,” where the country’s most powerful man would occasionally withdraw support from the person who was supposed to follow him. Mao would designate one heir apparent after another, only to act in opposition to the choice he had made. Deng appeared to be planning to act similarly in 1987, and he did act similarly once more in 1989 by putting Zhao Ziyang, who had risen when Hu collapsed, under house arrest. The CCP was criticised for being a corrupt organisation where a few families had all the power during the Tiananmen era protests. This charge was previously levelled against the Nationalist Party immediately before Mao’s troops beat the Chiang Kai-forces Shek’s and the PRC was established.
The argument for interpreting the Umbrella Movement in terms of Animal Farm is even more convincing—and not just or even primarily because protesters used zoological symbolism to criticise the despised Hong Kong Chief Executive of the time, C.Y. Leung, portraying him as a bad wolf, a play on the lupine sound of his last name. During the demonstrations, a well-known passage from the book—”All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”—was cited in different contexts and went well with the numerous posters depicting vilified Hong Kong CEO C.Y. Leung as a wolf.
Hong Kong was governed by colonial powers from the 1840s to the Handover, and London personally selected the senior official there. In Beijing’s official media, the Handover was hailed as the end of colonialism. The CCP’s influence over the selection of candidates for the position of Chief Executive Officer of Hong Kong was one of the main targets of the Umbrella Movement. Protesters asserted that as long as that arrangement was in existence, the person in charge of the SAR would be answerable to Beijing’s authorities. They implied, and occasionally stated openly, that domination by one far-off capital had merely been supplanted by control by a slightly nearby one. This was a change from the government of men to the rule of pigs with human-like qualities, or, to use Orwell’s metaphor from Animal Farm, a fake transformation that was passed off as the real deal.
While both of Orwell’s most well-known books are available there in Chinese translation, it’s important to note that “Animal Farm” briefly became a name that was forbidden in the spring of 2018. After the Constitution was altered so that Xi Jinping would not be limited to just two five-year terms as President, this occurred when a competitive game of cat and mouse broke out. Some compared this to Xi declaring himself the emperor. Images of Yuan Shikai and Winnie-the-Pooh wearing a crown as well as references to Animal Farm that had been posted were removed during the back-and-forth between critics and censors that followed.