The violent storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 brings into focus many characteristics of the present age. While general distrust of the government is very common in many countries, in America it has gone beyond the limits of reason. Most of the individuals who supported and took part in the storming were upright, dutiful, patriotic and even exemplary citizens, fundamentally driven by a desire to save America. The incident goes beyond mere differences in political convictions and points of view. It reflects the conflict between parallel realities.
With regard to the results of the presidential election, there are the rulings of over 70 federal judges, including ones nominated by Donald Trump himself; the Supreme Court’s repeated refusals to hear the case for election fraud; the independent certification by all 50 states and Washington DC; and acknowledgement on the part of the Republicans’ own senate majority leader as well as high-ranking Republicans in Congress. Yet it seems to some that none of these can be trusted or amounts to anything. Trump’s fans willingly accepted their president’s “alternative reality”, so much so that they passionately answered his call to “stop the steal”.
When people with the same views gather together, the conditions for creating multiple parallel realities emerge. As we have seen in the case of Donald Trump, such realities are not just real to their adherents but also claim a monopoly on truth. Social media not only aggrandise and strengthen the groups that champion their own brand of truth, but also serve as powerful tools for their movements. Once these people believe in their self-created reality, they will no longer be swayed by any facts presented to them, because that reality has become part of their lives and identity.
Clashes in America with shades of China’s Cultural Revolution
QAnon, a group that peddles a mix of conspiracy theories, played a prominent role in the assault on the Capitol Building. Its followers are firmly convinced that they hold the truth, and that justice is on their side. The “truth” they believe in includes the idea that Hillary Clinton led a child sex trafficking ring, and now Joe Biden is implicated too. We can be certain that the presidential election of 2020 will always be a subject of controversy, destined to be a perennial motif for novels, history books, Hollywood movies, TV dramas and video games, such that it is no longer important what the historical facts are.
Trump has long planned to build his own media empire. If he succeeds, we can imagine how America would be virtually divided and sink into a deplorable quagmire à la China’s Cultural Revolution.
The overall result of the 2020 presidential election was 74 million votes to 81 million, an almost fifty-fifty split. That means there are at least two parallel realities in the US, and numerous other parallel worlds on a sub-level. In the American mainstream media, the anti-Trump camp has always had an overwhelming advantage. As Trump wholly relied on new media to convey his messages and interact with his supporters, his being banned across several social media platforms was a fatal blow to him.
Trump has long planned to build his own media empire. If he succeeds, we can imagine how America would be virtually divided and sink into a deplorable quagmire à la China’s Cultural Revolution. In that scenario, two camps of political forces would stand as mortal enemies to each other, each reciting Quotations from Chairman Mao maniacally, so to speak, each grounded in their own “factual basis” and thus confidently poised to engage with the other with physical violence. The eventual result would be as seen in the Cultural Revolution: an all-out civil war.
Obviously, the growth of entropy in the American model of governance is speeding up dramatically, with no solution in sight presently. What lessons, then, can China draw from this turn of events?
Lessons for China: moral authority needs to be preserved
Firstly, humanity is entering a post-reality, post-truth era. Instead of facts, it is often the attention and subjective desire of the public that determines what is true or false, right or wrong. Focusing the public’s attention on something could turn it into “fact”; even if it is made up, it can be given “ironclad” credibility and have the power to dictate people’s thinking and actions. The shifting sands of malleable “facts” can very easily lead to unrest and disputes, with hardly any way to reach a decisive verdict on anything. The management of public opinion is becoming a crucial component of public administration.
In a diverse society with no moral authority, where different groups of people insist on their own ways, something like the 6 January incident is bound to happen sooner or later.
Secondly, moral authority with credibility is an extremely precious yet rare asset in the post-reality, post-truth era. A country that possesses this asset will enjoy a huge advantage in governance. Such authority can take many forms, such as that of a government, the media, a religious organisation, panel of elders, technical establishment, judicial or arbitrative body, etc. In the case of China, the government is the only real option there is, thanks to the country’s historico-cultural legacies, as well as the realities of its contemporary politics. For the said authority to work, however, it must have a good reputation and command the moral high ground. Only then would it be able to mediate conflicts of interest effectively, roll out policies and solutions that make a difference, and maintain great executive prowess.
The American government had such reputation and authority back in the days before the 1970s, but those are almost entirely gone now. This is true even of its Supreme Court, which had been respected for such a long time. As the US Congress hit new lows in polls in recent years, taking an anti-Washington stance (exemplified by Trump’s call to “drain the swamp”) became the way to go for an election campaign. One of the underlying causes behind the recent assault on the Capitol was distrust of and disdain for the politicians. In a diverse society with no moral authority, where different groups of people insist on their own ways, something like the 6 January incident is bound to happen sooner or later.
In this post-reality, post-truth era, there may be situations where facts and truth have to be dictated authoritatively so as to avoid catastrophic consequences and ensure effective governance. For such authority to work, it has to have high standards. It must have a long track record of being fair and just, of having served the state, nation and people selflessly.
Establishing common ground
Thirdly, no effort should be spared towards establishing a social consensus, and then arriving at a social contract based on that, which would be constantly renewed in tandem with social development. Only with a common understanding can there be standards for right and wrong — moral standards that everyone can accept, that is. Only then can authoritative judgements be effective.
One of the important reasons why social consensus has fallen apart in the US is that ideology has failed to keep up with the times.
When it comes to fostering a common understanding, the conditions in China may be better. One of the important reasons why social consensus has fallen apart in the US is that ideology has failed to keep up with the times. In the new era, freedom of speech may not necessarily bring forth fairness and justice. On the contrary, its power to stir up conflicts, tear society apart and give rise to identity politics is clear for all to see. Voting is not the real solution to the problem. A case in point would be Donald Trump, who hardly disguised his approach of working only for his half of America’s voters. Joe Biden promises to be a president for all Americans, yet close to half of the voting population disapprove of him to varying degrees. Compared to a contentious culture, a cultural tradition of mutual accommodation and understanding makes it easier to achieve social consensus and harmony.
Avoid silos and let opinions flow
Fourthly, cocooned cliques of various persuasions are a hotbed of parallel realities and conflicting truths in the age of the new media. The way to deal with this is to let people be more exposed to all sorts of information and points of view. Algorithms for media content placement should be made to avoid one-sidedness. Exchanges between various online communities and groups should be actively promoted. People should have constant exposure to different information instead of being immersed in their own self-reinforcing bubbles, resulting in the degeneration of their knowledge and capacity for discernment.
The same principle applies on the level of the state. There is the old way of forcing the desired point of view on the populace and cracking down on everything else that differs, and threatening people into self-censorship. This worked on the illiterate masses of the Maoist era. Today, however, the common folk are much better educated and widely well-informed. To continue with the old way is to deceive oneself.
Closing off the domestic population from outside news and websites has already caused China’s netizens to form erroneous interpretations with regard to international affairs and other countries.
When Chinese experts go on Chinese television, they tend to hold the same views and pay each other compliments. The best practice in the rest of the world is to invite guests with different perspectives to express themselves and then let the audience judge for themselves. Closing off the domestic population from outside news and websites has already caused China’s netizens to form erroneous interpretations with regard to international affairs and other countries. This gives rise to blind nationalistic sentiments, which have a negative impact on foreign policy and international exchanges, and may even lead to conflicts.
Regulating public discourse with a light touch?
Fifthly, the post-reality, post-truth era grants a certain legitimacy to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) oversight of public opinion. Even strongly liberalist countries now have no choice but to adopt certain measures to deal with the new problems of this age. The CCP’s enormous publicity machine has gone a long way towards keeping discourses in check and forging a common understanding, but the risk of evoking an opposite reaction and losing reputation is also always present. The guiding philosophy and management model of the whole system are both due for bold reforms.
In its guiding philosophy, the management of public opinion should be treated as part of public management. The important thing here is to establish long-term reputation and moral authority, rather than meet the political needs of the moment. The media should be society’s department of conscience, and always stand on the side of social justice. It should also be a trustworthy source of information, such that people who feel lost in this chaotic world would gladly find a sense of direction and moral courage through it. The media should interact closely with public opinion in an effort to purify the social and political ecosystem. History shows that effective oversight of the government and its officials is the best way to build trust and moral authority.
As for the management model, there should be two relatively independent departments to take charge of political publicity actions on one hand, and the establishment of credibility and moral authority on the other. The former mainly serves the party and the government, while the latter mainly serves the society. The national interest is consummately served when the two complement each other. The CCP already has a whole set of modi operandi in place for the former. I will briefly talk about the latter.
The Americans’ distrust of the media is almost on par with their distrust of the Congress. For China, the official media has to maintain its non-profit nature and resist commercialisation. Only then would it be able to keep itself from being hijacked by interest groups.
Overhaul of government publicity departments needed
The first thing to highlight is the issue of talents. The truth is, cadres are often unwilling to serve in the CCP’s publicity arm. All the high-quality talents hope to be assigned elsewhere. It is said within the party that “you’ll make progress every year when you go with the Organisation Department; but you’ll make mistakes every day when you go with the Publicity Department”. The power structure, operational procedures and organisational culture of the publicity department are such that they do two things: (1) turn brilliant talents into mediocre drudges; (2) build up an extensive accumulation of mediocrities when cadres are turned into overly cautious, short-sighted, dull workers who run on ossified thinking and avoid risks like mindless machines.
When there are high-quality talents and superior policies at the publicity arm, the resultant effect on the government’s credibility and moral authority is most direct. Conversely, the mediocrity, hypocrisy and artificiality of the said department would also harm the ruling party most directly. Given that the publicity department has strategic significance for the long term and for the big picture, the topmost talents ought to be assigned there, so as to bring innovation into the organisation and its culture.
Another thing to note is that commercialisation is one of the major reasons for the decline of Western media in recent years. The Americans’ distrust of the media is almost on par with their distrust of the Congress. For China, the official media has to maintain its non-profit nature and resist commercialisation. Only then would it be able to keep itself from being hijacked by interest groups. There would also be no need for it to pander to the crude taste of the public. This means it would be able to defend common sense, generally accepted principles and good conscience with perseverance, not following any vogue and yet keeping abreast of the times. This ideal situation requires the backing of the state’s power resources. Ultimately, however, what it serves goes beyond the government and the ruling party. Its aegis extends to cover one’s state, nation and people, and indeed, all of humanity itself.
Related: Capitol siege: Is American democracy doomed? | Can America find its way under Biden? | Heritage, CCP traditions & liberalism: Three fundamentals of China's new social contract