Last week a Tibetan in Gansu self-immolated, bringing the total number of those who’ve done the same since 2009 as a protest of the Chinese government to 114.
As the toll consistently climbs higher, the government just as consistently increases its security presence, locks down certain areas and institutes a raft of Orwellian regulations. The thinking seems to go that more repression will somehow end protests against repression.
It’s natural to stand back from afar and think how ridiculous and self-defeating the government is being. But this is thinking very big, when it’s perhaps more useful to think small.
About a year-and-a-half ago I was speaking with an acquaintance that has a mid-level position in the Communist Party propaganda apparatus (not high, but he has been on speaking terms with Politburo members). At that time there had been a string of Tibetan self-immolations. Naturally, the Party blamed the Dalai Lama, and by extension, his Western anti-China backers. In this routine narrative, the Tibetan people are uniformly happy unless misled by these forces who want nothing but to see China collapse.
I asked my acquaintance if anyone in the Party leadership actually believes this narrative – that there’s really this vast underground conspiracy that’s single-handedly causing all the Tibetan unrest.
He replied, “They believe it because it’s 100% true.”
At the time his response shocked me, but it was incredibly enlightening. This man is very intelligent. I have no qualms about saying he’s much more intelligent than myself. He’s often spoken about the need for transparency and reforms in the Party and harshly criticized nationalists. But on this issue, from the bottom of his heart he bought the Party line.
This, I believe, is because joining the Party in a context where you’ll actually wield power within the government or any of the bodies under its direct control is much like joining a religion. When joining, the key is to be incredibly humble and praise the Party to almost a farcical level (See this music video on joining the Party, which, according to some Party member friends of mine, isn’t much of an exaggeration on what you have to say when applying).
Once you’re a member though, there are many things up for debate; like how much democracy there should be, or how much media freedom. But like religion, there are certain areas where suspending your disbelief is crucial; not only to be accepted within the group, but also to justify membership to yourself. Questioning these fundamental “truths” amounts to blasphemy.
Here are some of these truths for the Communist Party:
It’s much like people in the West who, in spite of extensive education and otherwise impeccable reasoning capability, can believe dinosaurs and humans co-existed at the dawn of time 6,000 years ago. Believing otherwise would knock down the core pillars of the doctrine they’ve based their lives on. Being part of this group, by definition, requires them to suspend their disbelief on many issues.
There are of course people within the Communist Party’s ranks that have their doubts about the “unquestionable truths,” but they keep those doubts securely locked away in the back of their minds. Letting these doubts venture outside would subject them to severe censure from their peers, or worse.
But unwaveringly believing these things isn’t just a matter of self-preservation within the Party. More importantly, it’s a matter of being able to sleep at night.
Like the heavenly rewards and social circles that religion offers, being a Party member with authority provides many famous benefits. Even those who aren’t corrupt can count on a very comfortable life. But being able to enjoy those benefits (or the promise of them) requires belief in the fundamental truths.
Very few people within the Party will think, “Well, what I’m doing with my authority is evil and wrong, but by going along with the crowd, I’ll get a boatload of money and women!”
No. More likely it’s, “What I’m doing with my authority is absolutely correct and righteous. And because of that, I’m entitled to this boatload of money and women.”
Few people are fundamentally evil and totally embrace the fact that they’re evil. It’s all a matter of rationalizing. Believing in those three fundamental truths is critical for powerful Party members in being able to rationalize their place in life.
So imagine a group of leaders sitting around a table deciding what to do about the Tibet self-immolation issue. The instinct is to double down on security and “stability maintenance.” If anyone disagrees, they’ll find themselves very isolated. But more likely, nobody will disagree. Admitting that the repression is wrong and that it’s government policy leading to the immolations rather than hostile outside forces could be a slippery slope toward all three of those fundamental truths crumbling. And that would make it a lot harder for the people around that table to rationalize the power and very comfortable lives they’re leading.
Upton Sinclair said it best. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”