Sunday, June 7, 2015

Casualties as Tools of State Propaganda

A few days ago marked the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident, and as usual, the mainland Chinese news outlets are busy with other matters in order to cover up the event.  Interestingly enough, this year there indeed is something tragic going to distract the attention of the masses.  The rapid sinking of the ""Eastern Star," a massive tourist cruise ship on the Yangtze River, brought about the death of hundreds of elderly passengers and once again put forth the doubts of the whole world on safety (in general) of living in China.

As morbid as it sounds, perhaps because of the need to cover up for the sensitive 26th anniversary, Chinese media outlets did not shy away from covering front-and-center the whole ship-sinking incident in great detail.  In particular, many emphasized the scale of human causalities in the sinking, as well as the (supposedly timely and immediate) arrival of rescue crew and the country's Prime Minister to expedite the rescue efforts.  Mostly just facts, and not much of the usual propagandist political messages are put forth in these news reports.  

At the same time, China is also at grips with another annual event that probably take away the masses' abilities to follow news to begin with: it is the time of the year for the gaokao, the one-day-long college entrance exams that in many ways decide the college pickings and the entire professional career for many of the millions of final-year high school students in the country.  Many will surely try to prepare for the test and boost confidence in whatever way they could, but many will come out of the grueling exams with sore disappointments.  

The three things, reported (and not so much), deadly (and not so much), and important for all involved bring together a common theme.  That is, if there is no large amount of causalities, broadly defined as people who face significant personal harm, in a particular incident, the incident often does not become enough of significance in itself to worth reporting.  And in the case of something as historically well-known and impacting as the Tiananmen Square Incident, a cover-up will require something that is even more attention-grabbing through the power of mass causalities.  

Thankfully, the modern world is one where lasting peace has relegated the probability of humans inflicting harm upon one another to be much much lower than that of nature.  Certainly, it cannot be denied that the likes of Rohingyas still face extremely inhumane treatment that make their livelihoods extremely difficult, to say the least, but when compared strictly in terms of immediate deaths and injuries, natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis have claimed human lives much faster and much more immediately (such packing a bigger shock factor) than humans have.

That is both a blessing and a curse for governments like China that try to use large-casualties events to cover up other ones like Tiananmen Square Incident.  The government's fairly successful reaction to earthquakes and floods of recent years have drawn some praise, and its ability to protect overseas citizenry from war (as shown in Libya and Yemen) have gave it a source of pride that than can be used to create a message that it has quietly changed since June 4, 1989.  It helps the people "help" themselves when it comes to forgetting something the government take pains to erase.  

But the curse is that to ensure that forgetting process goes smoothly, more casualties need to be suffered in a highly visible fashion.  People will be force-fed the tears of those who lost loved ones in sunken ships, or the tears of those who had their dreams crushed with low exam scores, just so they can no longer distinguish the difference of suffering that happen on the rivers, in the exam rooms, or in public squares.  Casualties, they are quietly reminded, are equally painful, no matter what is the original purpose and the method of incidence.  There is no need to specifically think about one.

Indeed, thought of in this fashion, it could be said that the Chinese propaganda machine has matured over the past years.  No longer feasting on the news of blood and glory as people's interest in heroic deaths of wartime past wane, it has chosen to desensitize casualties of both the physical and mental kinds as commonplace, a non-event that everyone simply lives through.  It is as if the media has gone back to the old Stalin quote: "having one victim is a tragedy, but having a thousand is just statistics."  When one belittles death, then death can no longer hurt one.  

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