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George Orwell foresaw it in his classic 1984. Those who did not conform and kowtow would have to be re-educated to fit into either Communist or Fascist perfection. The word ‘kow tow’ is, in fact, of Chinese origin.
In some secrecy, China has been operating re-education camps for over five years. The BBC managed to get limited access to them, being watched every minute they filmed. On June 17 BBC News broadcast sequences showing life inside one of the camps. Smiling ‘prisoners’ said they had come freely so they could mug up on their Marx and Mao. There were even cheerful sequences of them dancing.
The justification for these camps is preventing terrorism. Those who need re-education are mainly ethnic minorities.
The United Nations and many international reports have claimed that more than 1 million people have been detained by the Chinese. The Pentagon has upped that to 3 million. Whether it is 1 or 3 million, the numbers detained by the Chinese dwarf all other re-education initiatives. In the West, attempts to re-educate have not achieved much success, never mind terrorists or Isis wives, we can’t get kids to stop using knives. The Chinese seem confident their methods will work, though. They are not hampered by democratic niceties such as independent judges.
Watching the BBC report brought back memories for me. In 2002 I co-produced with David Carr Brown a film about North Korea. Long before the current dictator, the country was a gigantic re-education camp. Tannoys blared propaganda messages on to the streets and there were subtler forms of propaganda too.
The North Koreans have always been keen on cinema and produce some 60 feature films a year. In a book on the cinema Kim Jong Il, the father of the incumbent leader, compared a film director to the sergeant of a platoon. It’s not a bad comparison and one which presumably would make Hollywood bosses generals. In a country where censors rule, these films were easily the best entertainment available even if they nearly always hammered home the message that North Korea was a happy country. They even make musicals. Imagine Oklahoma with a touch of Marx.
Communist regimes have often gone to extremes to stifle dissent. The East Germans rewarded people who denounced their parents and siblings. Therapists in particular should remember how the Soviets distorted psychiatry in the 1970s and 80s.
In 1989 I had an amazing stroke of luck. I had just made a film for ITV on mental health in Japan, India, Egypt and the United States. I discovered that in one hospital just outside Tokyo some 200 patients disappeared in mysterious circumstances. A KGB Colonel in London had a friend who liked the film because it showed capitalist Japan and America mistreating patients. The Soviet Union treated theirs well by comparison.
The Colonel gave me permission to film asylums in Russia, including two that held dissidents – the Serbsky Institute in Moscow and the Arsenalya in Leningrad as it then was. Channel 4 commissioned the film. What I filmed was shocking but I was given more freedom than I had imagined to shoot what was going on.
Compliant psychiatrists, including a relative of the great composer Shostakovich, were ready to diagnose dissidents as suffering from slow burning schizophrenia. They did not have any of the normal symptoms. But opposing Communists in a Communist state was proof of madness, one psychiatrist pointed out.
I was watched over by a minder as I filmed but I managed to win her over by promising her a shopping trip at the well-known Communist institution, Harrods.
The KGB Colonel was livid when he saw the film. He had been fooled. But there was nothing he could do. As Communism collapsed, Russian psychiatrists revised mental health laws and gave patients more protection. Today there is no evidence that Comrade Putin declares dissidents mad; he just occasionally imprisons them, and they usually end up in court.
It would be optimistic to suppose the Chinese Communist Party will do anything other than continue with its re-education camps. In the light of the camps, the protests in Hong Kong are even more understandable. Fight for freedom and the heirs of Mao will have you whisked off to an institution where you will change your mind. Or else.
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