Unquestionable Truths

Posted: April 4, 2013 in Politics

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:

  • Taiwan, Tibet and every other disputed territory must be an inalienable part of China. Anyone who believes differently simply can’t understand the indisputable evidence in China’s favor, or they have ulterior motives.
  • While it may not be absolutely perfect, the Communist Party is the only group capable of leading China’s social development and defending its national honor. Any system that doesn’t involve its overriding authority would lead to chaos and humiliation.
  • Minority regions like Xinjiang and Tibet have truly benefited from and been civilized by the Party. Therefore, any opposition to the Party within these regions is the result of a conspiracy of agitators with ulterior motives (usually backed by “hostile outside forces”).

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.”

Comments
  1. Still I think the same, no matter what the only explanation to not stand up in front of people that is establishing a truth that you know is not right is cowardice, or apathy. Most of the cases though are about a combination of those and an extreme attachment to comfort forgetting the well of all human kind. So, maybe your friend know more than you in many subjects, and maybe he is more intelligent than you in some matters, but if he eats the truth told to him without digesting them he is not really so intelligent, neither so brave.
    Anyway, communist party is not different than any other organization with a lot of power around the world. It is, after all, a very common behavior around humans, that thing of imposing a trend, and reject whoever opposes to it. there is disco and rock for example. we behave like this for silly things like “what is cool”, of right, in highschool, and if we don’t agree with that, most of us just shut up and follow. but the great people, are those that have opinions and know how to communicate well without hate, and with enough intelligence to actually open space for a healthy evolution. anything different than that, just makes you another sheep, which is sad because we should encourage each other to develop the greatness of our individuality in post of a better world.
    there is no excuse to stay as a sheep if your nature is to be a homo sapiens.

  2. FOARP says:

    My last comment never showed up, so:

    “There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them.”

    — George Orwell

    This quote is often used against academics and high-flown intellectuals by people who are, at least in their own view, rather more down-to-earth, and it is not always used wisely. However, the essential message it encapsulates is that certain beliefs are so ridiculous that belief in them can only occur as part of a system of logic that is otherwise fine but requires that ridiculous thing to be true for the rest of it to be true. Having taken the time to study and internalise an entire system so completely, the intelligent student, when faced with an inconvenient inconsistency, grabs on the most simple way of accommodating it without over-throwing the rest of the system. There is no percentage in recognising the contradiction.

    • sinostand says:

      Arg, sorry. I don’t know why it always eats your comments. Doesn’t show up in spam folder either. Better copy before posting.

  3. Yang Chen says:

    Communism is a philosophy, as is religion, as is Atheism. All philosophies are accused of suspending their disbeliefs. You see that so clearly in the philosophies that you abhor but can’t see it in your ownbeliefs. Which leads to you stepping over the line in confronting what you believe is racism in the actions of an old man who dares to call you a foreign devil or your incessant and needless campaign against religious people. Enough is enough, you’re a good writer, do what you’re good at and move on from this Sissiphian bigotry that you’re carrying.

    • XuXing says:

      I’m really sorry, but I don’t understand your point. Please forgive me if you think me rude as it is often very difficult to write coherantly in another languge.

      “Communism is a philosophy, as is religion, as is Atheism” Sorry to nit pick, but I think you have slightly misunderstood what (a) philosophy is. (http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Definition_of_philosophy)

      ” All philosophies are accused of suspending their disbeliefs. ” could you please rephrase that? I think your meaning is that logical fallacies are inherant to all belief systems.If so I recomend you read “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn” it has a excellent Chinese edition and might help you, as it did me, define your understanding of the matter.

      Your following points seem a little disordered and on the surface seems to be a deductive fallacy. Perhaps you could rewrite it?

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