SPEAKER: And we're very happy to have Professor Aminda Smith with us here, who is Professor of Modern Chinese History at Michigan State University. She works on the social and cultural history of the Chinese Communist Party and is co-director of the PRC History Group. They also publish their own journal, which she is editor of.
She earned her PhD from Princeton's Department of East Asian Studies in 2006, and recently in 2013 published a book, Thought Reform and China's Dangerous Classes-- Re-education, Resistance and the People. And the talk this evening is a related topic. The talk this evening is on brainwashing. She has promised to brainwash us while we're here. Welcome, Mrs. Smith.
AMINDA SMITH: Thank you for inviting me. I'm excited to be here to talk to you about a work in progress on brainwashing. I'm going to talk about that word and its strange and contested etymology in a minute.
But first, as many of you may know but some of you may not, in the late 1940s, one of the first things that the Chinese communists did as they were consolidating their power was to intensify their efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Chinese people by launching these intensive education campaigns, political education carried out in schools, offices, neighborhoods.
And as a part of that sort of national thought reform campaign, they also launched these large-scale internments to roundup and incarcerate, basically, for thought reform everybody they thought would pose a threat to the new People's Republic of China in some way.
So the targets of those internment included accused counterrevolutionaries, spies, prostitutes, beggars, itinerants, hooligans, monks, nuns, drug addicts, intellectuals. There are more-- fewer, though, in that last category of intellectuals, actually, in 1949. The large-scale incarceration of intellectuals happens in 1956, and '57, and after that. And that's really, really important, those dates, and I'll come back to that a little bit later.
But for now, the point is that by 1952, there were about maybe 1,800 incarceration-based re-education centers in China. And at the same time they were doing that, of course, everybody who was not incarcerated was undergoing intensive political education in the course of their everyday lives.
So as that project was launching, the Chinese had also established about 15 incarceration-based re-education centers as POW camps in Korea. The Chinese had gone in to aid their communist allies there.
And when the North Koreans and the Chinese divided up the way that they were going to handle prisoners of war, they basically decided that the North Koreans would deal with Korean soldiers and the Chinese would deal with soldiers sent by the United Nations, right? So mostly Americans, but also some soldiers from the UK, Australia, other places.
And what the Chinese did in those POW camps became front-page news all over the world. And some of the most shocking for people at the time of those reports came in 1953 and 1954, when 23 of those POWs refused to be repatriated to their home countries of the US and the UK, and they chose instead to accept the invitation to immigrate to China, where they received a hero's welcome.
Now, 23 is a small number, but many, many more had expressed sympathy for the Chinese communists and opposition to the American War, and they had done that in radio broadcasts. They've done it in personal letters home to their families saying, we want to stay. We want to stay for peace. The Chinese called these people progressives, these people in the camps who had sympathy for Chinese communism.
And in 1953, the US Department of Defense estimated that progressives made up some 60% or more of all Americans incarcerated in POW camps. So let's take a look at what these POWs were saying. This is a clip from a documentary film called They Chose China, which is really, really worth watching about these POWs.
- (SINGING) [INAUDIBLE] we rejoice to show the world that we [INAUDIBLE].
- Does anybody want to go home?
AMINDA SMITH: No.
- Corporal Vatchelor, now, how did you become a progressive?
- By reading several of the books that the communists had and newspapers. Gradually, little by little, I began to believe a lot of their charges against the UN side.
- My name is Harold Webb from West Palm Beach, Florida.
- My name is Aaron Wilson, from [INAUDIBLE] Louisiana.
- This is a very happy moment for me, for now I'm free, free from the McCarthyism.
AMINDA SMITH: Free from McCarthyism.
- The only way to stop fascism in America is to do as I have done, and stand up to fight for our rights.
- William T. White [INAUDIBLE] Arkansas. For the first time in my life, I've witnessed complete equality. Without Korean, Mexican, Filipinos, white men all mixed together.
- My name is Lewis Griggs and my home in Jacksonville, Texas. I stayed behind to escape the red bait of McCarthy, and I'm sure that I'll never again have to fight in another unjust war as I did in Korea.
- My name is Richard Tenneson, and I lived in [INAUDIBLE] Minnesota. People who hate war and stand up for their beliefs are faced with McCarthian [INAUDIBLE] house of American Activities Committee. I will return someday. When I can speak for peace lawfully, that's when I will return.
- He supposedly has rejected this country, but I don't believe that that was brought about through his own decision. My estimation of this situation is that he's a victim of brainwashing.
AMINDA SMITH: OK, so the clips are a little hard to hear, because it's old footage. But you get the idea, right? They're all against the US. They are sympathetic to China. But one, at least, mother thinks that her son has been the victim of brainwashing.
And these are old clips, but interestingly, there are still important similarities in the way that these events are usually read and understood. The verdict still tends to be that while the Chinese communists and their mouthpieces-- in this case, the POWs-- might say all these incredibly positive things about the Chinese side, that really, this is just for show, right?
That life in the POW camps was much harsher. We know that it was, in fact. And that the brainwash was maybe had much more sinister motives than world peace, or whatever. And in fact, this is the way that we tend to read communist sources more broadly, right? We think that yes, they may say that they have all of these lofty ideals, and that they made things better for people, but we actually know, right, that there was a darker reality in those early years of the Chinese Communist projects.
So I would argue however, that we don't actually have to type a cynical approach to these sources in order to understand what was happening both in brainwashing and more generally. I don't think that we need to do that to account for those darker realities.
I think that we can take the Chinese communists and the POWs largely at their word, although as critically as we take all of our sources, and we actually get a much more illuminating analysis, which both helps us make better sense of the brainwashing episode, but also of Maoism more broadly, and why it developed the way that it did during the early 1950s.
And one of the very first and kind of last people to actually try to understand Chinese brainwashers in Korea, really on their own terms, was the foremost theorist of totalitarianism and later atrocity, Robert Jay Lifton, who was an Air Force psychiatrist in 1953 when he was sent to intercept-- he and a bunch of other psychiatrists-- to intercept these returning POWs to try to figure out what had happened.
The Department of Defense was really concerned about the high number of so-called progressives in these camps, and they wanted to try to figure out what was going on, and they wanted to make sure that there was no security risk posed by what seemed to be this incredibly effective Chinese mind control technique.
So they sent these psychiatrist. Liton was one of them. He interviews all of these POWs, and in the course of doing that, becomes really interested in what the Chinese are trying to do, and he devotes a number of years to researching and writing about it.
And so many Americans in the 1950s and '60s, if they knew anything about brainwashing, they knew it from Liton's work or from a slightly more sensational source, a CIA operative who was undercover in Hong Kong as a journalist who also had an opportunity to interview people who had been in re-education centers. And he made a career, basically, by telling people about Chinese brainwashing.
And he claimed that he actually was the first person to coin that word in English. The Oxford English Dictionary still cites him as the first person to use this word in this way in English. And he claimed that it was his direct translation of this Chinese word xi nao, which he said that he had heard from his informants.
For anyone familiar with the history of Cold War anticommunism in the US and the Chinese brainwashing episode, this is all very familiar territory, right? A lot of people know this story.
And in fact, when I tell people that I'm working on brainwashing, they often sort of go, what more is there to know about that, right? It was a few people in Korea. That's kind of stupid. What more do we need to know? And in fact, I'll give you an example of something that happened really recently. I was giving a talk, and I was really excited because somebody who I respect tweeted about my talk.
And it got like five retweets, so it wasn't a very big deal, but I was excited anyway. Someone tweeted about my talk, but then I saw this. It gets one comment, and the comment is, "But was there anything new? Hunter, Lifton, kind of old hat?" So I'm obviously not over it, but--
But that's not why I bring it up. I bring it up because I actually think that this tweet is instructive, because it gets at a lot of the things that the new PRC history really is trying to do. OK, so he's right on the one hand that this is old stuff.
And that's a trend in PRC history right now is to go back to these old topics, topics that were rightly sidelined, either because they got way too much exposure for their relative importance to the history of the PRC, and/or because they were overly politicized, too much a part of this Cold War rhetoric and these Cold War narratives that scholars were really rightly trying to dispel, right?
But 60-odd years later, we're now going back with the benefit of all the new methods and all the new sources that have emerged in the intervening years. So for example, I use all kinds of archival sources which wouldn't have been available, obviously, to Hunter and Lifton.
So work reports written by rank and file re-educators, instructions and directives from their superiors, all of this stuff was mostly classified, and so it wasn't available. I also use oral histories.
I buy old government documents from flea markets, where I also buy things like letters that re-educatees sent home to families, or the dossiers of re-educatees. And how do I get these? Well, because somebody threw them out at some point, , and recyclers picked them up and they made their way into the hands of antique dealers, used book dealers. And so you can buy all that kind of stuff.
And so part of what's new here, Twitter guy, is a massive amount of new sources. But crucially, one of the things that all of this material, this new material really makes clear, is that this stuff is not old hat, Hunter and Lifton. There is a lot that we can still really get by going back to those sources, those sources that were written by people who watched these things unfolding in the '50s.
So recently, in an issue of the PRC History Review, Elizabeth Perry noted that one of the most important lessons she learned while writing her recent book on UN was, quote, "A new appreciation for an earlier generation of Western social scientists studying Mao's China."
Although I enjoyed access to a wealth of primary materials not available to that pioneering cohort, I found myself returning again and again to their publications, and I have found absolutely the same thing to be true. The more I dig into these newly available sources, the more I'm just struck by how much Lifton really understood about what was going on, and even to a lesser extent, Hunter, right?
And so I find that they were really the last people who actually saw brainwashing of POWs in Korea as a crucial part of understanding Maoism on its own terms, right? And they were right about that, and they pointed it out. But as I said, they were really some of the last people to see it that way as a topic that mattered to the study of China.
So in the recent historiography in the PRC, in the history of Chinese communism, in the history of Maoism, by which I mean the stuff that's been written in, like, the last 35 years, this has not been a topic of study. There's no scholarship in Chinese or English that takes this seriously.
Now, there is scholarship that takes it serious, and I'll talk about it in a minute-- I mean, by people who feel that expertise is China, right? In the China field, there's not stuff that takes this seriously. There are some popular treatments in Chinese. There are some memoirs written by POW camp re-educators. There are some journalistic accounts, but that's about it.
And I think that it's partly because we in the China field have a tendency to just sort of roll our eyes when we hear the word "brainwashing," right? Many in the China field rightly point out that if you look at the written records of the Chinese Communist Party, you will not see the words "xi nao." You will not see the word "brainwashing," right?
When they talk about the thing that Edward Hunter was calling brainwashing, they call it sixiang gaizao, right? They call it thought reform. Usually, it's translated as thought reform. So this is true.
And so a lot of people will tell you that xi nao is actually just a Chinese translation of an English word invented by Edward Hunter. He probably just made it up, right? But anybody who's actually looked at these primary sources more closely is not so sure that xi nao wasn't originally a Chinese word.
Yeah, Robert Lifton is not so sure. The Chinese intellectual and human rights advocate Hu Ping who writes a lot about thought reform has pointed out that we know that the metaphor of washing and of bathing was absolutely key to the rhetoric about thought reform campaigns. The Chinese Communist used it all the time. They used it in their documents.
He points out that the word [SPEAKING MANDARIN], or to bathe, or to shower, as it's variously translated, but with that same xi, is used all the time as a direct synonym for thought reform, right? Intellectuals have to wash.
And in the sources that I've looked at, I also see things that are really, really close metaphorically, right? So in 1952, "The People's Daily," so the communist party's own propaganda newspaper, published a letter that was ostensibly written by a re-educated prostitute who'd become a factory worker, and this is what she supposedly said.
She said that, "Like dumping foul water out of a bottle and refilling it with fresh water, thought reform leaves the mind clean and clear," right? So you definitely are getting a brainwashing kind of a metaphor there.
Similarly, interestingly, in 1971, when a group of American scholars visited China and met with [INAUDIBLE], Joe uses the word "xi nao." And he used it to talk about the American accusations. But then he said, "I'd like to wash my own brain, because sometimes, I still have old ways of thinking in my mind."
So clearly, this word, "xi nao," was obviously consistent with the official meaning and the phraseology about thought reform. It was so consistent that it's almost surprising for a second when you think about it that it didn't become part of the [INAUDIBLE], right? Part of these official rules about like what kinds of words you can use for what kinds of subjects within the party.
But, of course, Hu Ping points out there's probably an obvious reason why that was the case, which is that, so, OK. It's probably floating around. Lower-level padres are probably absolutely using it. It's another version of the rhetoric that they're told they're allowed to use about washing. It's happening.
And then all of a sudden, Edward Hunter picks it up, and it becomes the center of his international anti-communist smear campaign in which he tells everybody that the Chinese communists are using brainwashing to turn everybody in the world into communist robots, and then the party can't touch it with a 10-foot pole right after that. So that's what Hu Ping thinks. That's what makes a lot of sense to me as well.
And then Mao starts claiming that the word is a Western smear tactic, and that becomes the party line, which is very well summed up in a late 20th century Chinese dictionary, which defines "xi nao" as, quote, "A word originally used by antagonistic elements to slander our country's early 1950s campaign of thought reform."
Now, as I just said, I don't agree with that definition. But, again, I think it's instructive because it sets up the very divide that we see in the scholarship in the secondary scholarship. So thought reform is a Chinese concept. It's a Chinese word. That's a Chinese subject of study. Brainwashing is a foreign concept. It's a foreign subject of study, and specifically American.
So historians who work on China have written a lot about thought reform, some on intellectuals, a lot on intellectuals, a bit about accused spies and counter-revolutionaries. And then a couple of people, including me, have worked on the way that it related to other groups, in my case, the lumpenproletariat.
But the studies of thought reform, including my own earlier study, don't really intersect that much with the literature on the Korean War, or POWs, or any of that stuff, of which there is a larger literature. And they don't even really intersect with each other, actually.
People just study their own little group of thought reformees, and they don't really think about the fact that this was a holistic project, that it was going on all over China. And at the same time that the new state was incarcerating all of these people in re-education centers in China, that same state was becoming infamous around the world for its supposedly sinister mind control tactics.
And that topic, those accusations of these sinister mind control tactics, that has mostly been taken up by Americanists, right? And they have looked at what this means for American history, of course, why Americans reacted the way that they did. And sometimes, they also look at, were the Chinese techniques similar or dissimilar to what the Americans were doing in their own POW camps in Korea, where they were incarcerating soldiers from their enemy forces and essentially brainwashing them in the other direction, or attempting to, right?
And this stuff in American history is great, and it's key to understanding the brainwashing episode. But, you know, it's US history, so it doesn't use Chinese sources, and it doesn't really take the Chineseness or the Maoistness of thought reform as its central subject. And, again, the last person really to do that was Lifton, right?
But it's an analytical mistake not to see these things as a holistic program. I mean, you just saw in the sort of contested etymology of these words the really entangled histories that we're dealing with here, right? So these things are entangled factually, for lack of a better term, but also in the ways that we recover and retell these histories.
The Chinese communists' own choice of words that they use in their own domestic campaigns was clearly affected by the international dimension of that campaign and the way that their Cold War enemies reacted to that work, right? So we have to look at these things together. Maoism doesn't make sense without the brainwashing episode and the brainwashing episode doesn't make sense without Maoism.
Now, I'm not saying, of course, that I'm the first person to point out that we should study Chinese communism in its international context. Obviously, there's been some really good stuff on Maoism as world history recently.
What I'm adding to this is that the Korean War brainwashing episode is crucial to understanding Chinese communism and Maoism, and it's crucial because it's the international dimension of thought reform, and thought reform is the foundation of Maoism. It is the absolute core of Maoist praxis.
And that praxis was internationalist, which is why we have to think about all of the international dimensions of that work, and there are lots more. The brainwashing episode is just one. But we have not looked at these things as part of the thought reform story.
But the thought reformers themselves, from Mao down to the lowest-level re-educator, the lowest level cadre, they absolutely envisioned their work in this way.
So one recently radicalized propagandist who had just finished a degree in English at a Chinese university was sent to Pyoktong POW Camp-- oops-- in 1951. And she recorded her experiences. She wrote about what she was doing there.
And one of the things that she said was, quote, "During our interrogations, we listened to the autobiographical narratives of the prisoners, and we got a look at the vast gulf between the upper strata and the ordinary people in the US, and we realized that many of these soldiers were similar to our own volunteer army soldiers. They came from poor families and had experienced a great deal of suffering in their lives. It turned out they had just as much reason to oppose the American imperialists as we did."
And other sources made similar links. I could read you lots of these examples. Also, propaganda manuals that were distributed to people who were supposed to be propagandizing and brainwashing foreigners listed a bunch of recommended topics.
And one of the things that they said they should tell POWs and other foreigners about were the re-education efforts that were going on in China at that time. So they said, talk about prostitutes. Talk about beggars. Talk about petty thieves. We're proud of these projects. They're working. They're re-educating people in China. Let's talk about them.
And likewise, propaganda manuals domestically certainly said that they should talk about what was going on with POWs, right? That was a part of domestic propaganda at the time.
In addition to that, the language and the conceptual frameworks that reformers used to talk about their work were very similar across the international and the domestic contexts, and I mean extremely, extremely similar. I'll give you some examples in a minute, and you will see the ways that in some of these work reports, you really could almost just replace, like, the word "POW" with the word "prostitute," and you could replace some of the identifying information, and you would get a really similar story, and the narrative would still fit.
And when I first started looking at these sources and I noticed how similar they were in structure, but also in content, I thought, OK, well, that's a little bit problematic, and there are a couple of possible explanations. The first is that the cynical reading is actually right, right? Like, this is all just for show. It's lip service.
Therefore, it's totally possible to just like drape this rhetoric over whatever it was they were really doing in these camps and re-education centers, which was basically incarcerating people who they felt threatened by, right? And that probably is a large part of what they were doing in these camps.
But as someone who has been really working through sources, Chinese communist sources from this period for a really long time, I'm just no longer convinced that you can treat that rhetoric as mere propagandistic whitewashing, right? It's not whitewashing. It's something else. It doesn't necessarily always correspond to the reality, but it's not whitewashing.
So I wanted to try to give these sources a sincere reading, but then I was struck by other problems. I was like, well, if they actually think that they developed a one-size-fits-all method of reforming people's minds, that seems to me to be really inconsistent with what Maoism posits about the nature of the human mind, right?
So if you think about it, the people who were theorizing, who were the important theorists in the beginning, the early years of Chinese communism, people like Mao, people like Leo [INAUDIBLE], people like [INAUDIBLE], those people's idea of the mind was that it was almost completely a post-birth construction, right?
Like, you're not born with all the ways of thinking that you're going to have. That is stuff that is constructed based on your material and social realities, right? So your relationship to things like the mode and the means of production, and then also your place in the various sort of social and political hierarchies that are associated with those things.
And if that's true, which they thought it was, then it doesn't seem to make sense, right? How could they think that the same method could change the mind, could turn a prostitute into a factory worker, say, as could turn an American POW into a defector, right? What kind of a method could this possibly be?
And so while I was trying to figure out how there could be some consistency here, I spent most of my time looking for ruptures in these narratives, right? So I looked for, well, what difference does it make that these experiences are gendered, that they're classed, that they're raced?
I looked at all those categories we generally look at for the kinds of ruptures in these analyses, right? And in the larger book that I'm writing about this, that analysis is really important. It does help us understand the brainwashing episode.
But for today, I actually want to highlight that as I was doing that, I became less and less concerned with this idea of a one-size-fits-all model. It became clearer and clearer to me that that wasn't actually nearly as problematic as I had thought it was, and the reason that I thought it was problematic at first is because I had been misreading what thought reform was really supposed to be to these thought reformers.
Because what they were actually claiming in the early 1950s when making these arguments about this one-size-fits-all re-education method was that they saw their task primarily as one of deprogramming, OK?
So we always think of brainwashing as a sort of a process of positive indoctrination, trying to make people think stuff that they didn't think before. And it obviously has that component, but that's a much later stage. And actually, when you look at the praxis and the theory of this, that's far less important.
Key thing, the thing that they actually thought would really change people's minds wasn't what they told them after. It was the stripping away of the ideological indoctrination the Chinese communists believed people had already received.
So Clarence Adams was one of the 21 American POWs who moved to China, and one of the most famous Chinese re-educatees as a result of that, and he put it this way. He said, "The Chinese didn't brainwash me. They unbrainwashed me." And you see this understanding of thought reform as unbrainwashing all through the primary documents.
But I would say that the un, actually, is only there because of those entangled histories that I talked about earlier. Because actually, what they're talking about here is-- oh, the x is in the wrong place, but you get it. It's supposed to be over the un, right? It's not so dramatic when it's not in the right place.
But anyway, "They brainwashed me," is what I want that to say. Because if you go back to that original meaning, of washing the brain, that is absolutely what they thought they were doing. They really were trying to brain wash people, to bathe away the old ideas. And this is the way that they narrated their project from start to finish.
So it generally goes like this. Work reports from all aspects of thought work generally always begin with these kind of long accounts about how anybody they tried to re-educate fought them hard. Anti-communists hated the communists, screamed, fought, one, because they were being incarcerated, but also because they just didn't like communism, right?
And this resistance was rhetorically necessary to these accounts, though, because it basically proved to the communists that these people needed to be re-educated, right? So the way that they saw it was people are fighting the communists not because they're true supporters of pre-revolutionary governments or imperialist regimes, but because they have been swindled into acting against their own interests.
So one POW re-educator wrote, "As we interrogated the captives, we discovered that almost all of the ordinary soldiers had been tricked into going to war, tricked by senior officials." Another report elaborated, noting that most of the soldiers had been lured into enlisting, with promises of a lifetime of veterans benefits after a quick tour in Korea.
Similarly, so just to give another example-- there are lots of examples, but just to give another one-- beggars and pickpockets in Beijing, their re-educators said that, well, a lot of them had been tricked by crime bosses and beggar kings. They'd been tricked into thinking that they, too, could become crime bosses and beggar kings. And so they were willing to endure near starvation conditions because they thought it was, quote, "their path to getting rich."
And on top of that, according to re-educators, these exploiters, such as high-level military officials and crime bosses, they not only convinced people that they should deal with these really terrible situations, but they also had further hurt ordinary people by spreading vicious rumors about the communists, and saying that communism was the thing that you had to fear, right? So this was yet another thing that the exploiters did so that those people would then fight savagely against communists and communism.
As one POW re-educator said, quote, "The POWs were all so confused. They actually thought we were the enemy. They just could not see who their true enemies were." Re-educators cited example after example.
So in 1949, in Beijing, these cadres are trying to reform prostitutes, and they're like, don't you guys want to fight against those brothel owners who exploited you? And the prostitutes are like, no, not really. And they were like, no, come on. I mean, they exploited you. Don't you want to just do something about it?
And they would even find prostitutes who would be like, yes, I was exploited. I had a terrible life. But no, I don't want to fight against the brothel owners.
And then finally, after round and round like this, one of the women being re-educated just sort of sighed, and threw up her hands, and reportedly said, quote, "Oh, don't you get it? That's just the way things are. How else could it possibly be? Those of us in this line of work, we can't blame other people for what's happened to us. This is our fate. That's all there is to it."
Similarly, a re-educator in Korea reported that he got into a similar kind of, like, argument with this POW. Come on. Don't you think it's wrong that those high-level officials started this war but they're making you fight it? And the POW said, quote, "It's not a question of right or wrong. That's just the way things are."
So the task, then, for these re-educators was to brainwash these people, right? To show that POW that, well, maybe it is a question of right or wrong, who fights wars and who starts them, to show that prostitute that actually, maybe she did have somebody else that she could blame for what had happened to her.
And they invoked the Maoist mass line style of leadership when they did this, noting that those truths should come from the re-educatees themselves. So according to re-educators, the proof that the communists were right was already there in the re-educatees' own experiences. All the re-educators did was try to get those people to reinterpret the facts that they already knew in a different light.
And so it was just like consciousness raising with the ordinary masses, right? They went around, and they asked people to speak bitterness. If you know anything about Chinese communists, you know this is what they do. They go around and they say, narrate your experiences for us. Just tell us about your life.
How did you become a beggar? How did you get stuck here in Korea away from your family? How did you become so poor you can't pay rent? Who was responsible for this? You just tell us your story. Just talk to us.
And why did they do this everywhere from farms, to housewives' meetings, to factories, to POW camps, to prostitution re-education centers? Because they thought that once people narrated those events and really thought about them, it would be completely obvious who the exploiters were and who the victims were right there in those stories. And actually, it's kind of hard to argue that they were wrong when you listen to some of the things that people said, right?
So one POW reportedly told the following story. Quote, "I'd been looking for work, but I couldn't find it. The recruiters told me that I'd be paid to fight and that there'd be a job and more money after the fighting was over. They also told me that this would be a short war, that I'd be home with my family in time to celebrate Christmas." And we know that they said that, right? "But Christmas has come and gone, and I don't know how my family is faring." That's the end of that quote one.
Beijing [INAUDIBLE] a beggar and a pickpocket, reportedly said something very similar, but in a different context. He said, quote, "When I was young, my family was very poor. My father and I cultivated land for other people to make our living. But every year, the grain that we got wasn't enough to pay rent. When the landlord asked for the rent, my father didn't have it, so the landlord killed my father, leaving me alone, roaming the streets begging in order to survive."
And re-educators editorialized as they wrote down story after story after story like this that you didn't have to give them much of an analytical framework to make sense of that story when someone just pointed out to them, well, who's the enemy in this story and who's the victim?
And so after they recorded these stories, re-educators would invariably add some version of the following statement. This one was written by a cadre working with prostitutes. Quote, "As internees told their stories, they recognized who our true enemies were, and their minds gradually became clear."
And that use of "our" and "we" is really common, as is re-educators in these reports linking themselves to the internees in other ways, especially by talking about how everyone has to go through thought reform, not just re-educatees.
So one re-educator who worked at the [INAUDIBLE] POW Camp in North Korea recalled, quote, "I remember thinking that it had been party cadres who educated me so that I could raise my consciousness. And now, I could in turn educate these American soldiers so that their consciousness could also rise."
So now, re-educators certainly argued that soldiers from enemy countries and that people who committed crimes in China had ideological problems that were more severe than members of the ordinary masses, but they saw that as a difference of degree, not type.
In type, these people were all very similar, at least in one key respect, which was that they were all members of that sort of key Marxian category, the oppressed masses, which is an international category because of the way, in this formulation, systems of oppression, capitalist, imperialist systems of domination, are interlocked, certainly in the wake of imperialism, and so they create a sort of shared history of suffering for a global majority.
But one of the key things about this way of understanding things is that very few of those oppressed people actually ever recognized that they were oppressed, right? And they didn't recognize that because they had been duped, according to this formulation.
And so Engels used the word "dazzled." But people talk about this all the time, about how we're all sort of brainwashed to use the newer meaning of that word, to not understand the ways that we are being taken advantage of by elites.
And so as a result, people are certainly not going to recognize themselves as part of a global brother and sisterhood that included everyone from Chinese prostitutes to American soldiers. But again, in that Marxian understanding, the primary reason that they didn't see those truths was because they had been dazzled.
So the first step in inciting revolution is thought reform, right? That's why it's the core of Maoist praxis. It's the first step. The first step is to wash people's brains to clear away the effects of the indoctrination that the Chinese communists thought people had already received from elites whose profits depended on laborers and customers not fully recognizing the extent to which they were being used for someone else's gain.
So in this sense, one of Edward Hunter's most paranoid-sounding claims wasn't wrong, once you strip it of its bamboo curtain, and all that kind of stuff. The Chinese communists did see their campaign as all-pervasive.
They did see it as wanting to bring every man, woman, and child under the sway of communist ideals to make them give up all the things they held dear and embrace a whole new way of thinking about the world. That is exactly what they wanted to do.
But one of the things that Hunter and other Cold War observers got wrong was that they imagined that this was supposed to be a homogenizing process, right? It was going to turn everybody into robots, that it sort of erased the individual.
But the Chinese communists didn't see it that way. Yes, they wanted to unite everyone, but the practice that was supposed to unite everyone was deeply particularizing and individuating, right?
Chris Connery has noted this about Maoism more broadly, calling it, quote, "A kind of universalism in reverse," because the very reason that it is thought to possibly be able to work as a global praxis is exactly because it works through situated events and experiences. It's very local. It's very located. It's very contextualized.
And in a Maoist thought reform sense, the expression of this is that you teach people that they're united by having them delve into their own self, their own individuality in detail. They narrate their own experiences. They spend a lot of time navel gazing, really, really trying to think through what their experiences say about their lives and their position in the world.
And re-educators were as aware as we are that those experiences were gendered, that they were raced, that they were classed, that they were affected by all of these categories that did matter to re-educators, right? And they used those to help people understand the very particular nature of their oppression.
But the thought reformers also believed really strongly, or at least argued really strongly, for what we would now call intersectionality, right? Because they thought that when people saw their own very specific experiences in their own lives, they would also be able to see what the causes of those oppressions were, and then they would be able to see the way that all those oppressions were linked, precisely because of who the enemy was in the first place.
OK, so one brainwasher who worked at the Pyoktong POW Camp explained it well in 1995 when an interviewer asked him whether or not the Chinese had developed a particularly effective indoctrination method at this time, and he laughed.
And he said, quote, "Look, it's simple. At that time, Western countries, and in particular, the United States, were terrible places for ordinary working people like enlisted soldiers. We didn't have to use any special methods. Most of these prisoners were poor guys who hadn't had much choice but to become soldiers, and now they were stuck there, away from their families. It wasn't hard to convince them that they were getting a bad deal, and it wasn't hard to show them that the ordinary Koreans and Chinese they were fighting were getting the same bad deal. We asked them to think hard about their lives, and their experiences, and the fairness of a system that not only forced the poor to fight, but insisted they be honored to do so. We tried to show them that another kind of world, another kind of system was possible. That was really our main goal."
Some of you might be irritated at this point, thinking, OK, right, but we have heard from people who were in these thought reform camps, and we know that these thought reformers were not just leading these consciousness raising sessions, where everyone was like, oh, I had a bad life.
No. We know that there was a much darker reality inside these places. We know that people were beaten. We know that people were tortured. We know that people were murdered. We know they didn't have food. We know they were forced to labor.
And you're right, but I'm not denying any of that, and the key point is that neither were these thought reformers. Even in these carefully constructed reports, they always admitted that they used harsh methods, always. And admitted isn't even the right word. I mean, they stated it as a matter of course, right? It was in the newspapers. It was not a secret that they were using harsh methods in re-education camps.
And part of it was in this key distinction that they made, which we already heard in the way that they're talking about other things that they're doing, they make a distinction on the one hand between people they see as members of the oppressed masses and people they see as the oppressors, right?
And if you were in that group of oppressors, then you always were going to be subject to harsh methods. The process was going to be the same. They were still going to try to unbrainwash you, right? Show you that you were wrong, show you had to change your ways. But obviously, you profited from the system, so they didn't think you were just going to accept that. They knew they were going to have to use harsh methods on you.
But there's also plenty of evidence, even in those reports that I just quoted, to suggest that they also admitted to using harsh methods even on people that they saw as members of the oppressed masses, or the revolutionary masses. Sometimes, this was accidental, right?
Like, POWs actually who were even classes as progressives would later say things like, yeah, well, a lot of the thought reformers themselves, they were true believers. They were nice. They were pretty nice to us. But some of the other soldiers, they weren't true believers. They didn't care. They're the ones who beat us and stuff. So you see that kind of thing, right?
But I don't even think you have to look that far to see how this idealistic rhetoric and the sort of darker reality of harsh practice really go together hand in hand. I think that we get a better reading if we just take these re-educators largely at their word, if we accept that many of the communists really believed in their undazzling mission, that they really thought that they were nothing more than un-brainwashers.
That yes, at some point, they'd have to replace the stuff they washed out with something else. But in the meantime, they argued you wouldn't actually really even have to use harsh methods on people who were members of the oppressed masses, because if you can just show them that they do not benefit from the current system, which they clearly do not, as they admit themselves, of course they're going to want to rise up in revolution, because it is so clearly going to be in their own interest.
And this is not a bizarre thing for these re-educators to have thought. Many of you probably still use the same logic when you try to understand why people vote differently to the way that you do, right? I do. I think about things that way all the time.
And we all sort of assume that people who don't think like we do are either dumber or that they are less able to really understand how economics work. They don't really get it, right? If we could just show those whoever you don't like, how it really is. Ah, just a little bit of education would convince them. See, we're all true believers. And I think that these re-educators were as well. It's a pretty common way to think about things, but it's also a really dangerous one.
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Aminda Smith, Professor of History at Michigan State University, investigates the methods of thought reform used on foreign POWs and disadvantaged groups in China during the Cold War era. She details how its facilitators and targets contributed to an emerging ideology on brainwashing. Recorded Nov. 9, 2015 as part of East Asia Program’s Cornell Contemporary China Initiative (CCCI) Lecture Series.