The Myth of Political Brainwashing (4)

In an October 11 (The Myth of Political Brainwashing [1]) reply to my recent piece on the genealogy of “brainwashing,” Professor Magnus Fiskesjö of Cornell takes issue with my critique of the term’s Cold War misappropriation. He asks, in particular, “if you don’t like the term ‘brainwashing,’ then what will you call the violent conversion therapy currently practiced on hundreds of thousands of concentration camp detainees in Xinjiang?”

At several points in his reply, Dr. Fiskesjö seems to imply, inaccurately, that my tracing of the origins of the Chinese term xinao was intended as a commentary on current events—specifically, as some kind of defense of ongoing Chinese state practices in Xinjiang and elsewhere. “I would have thought that it should be impossible,” he writes, “for any scholar … to touch on this topic of brainwashing today without touching on these dramatic current developments.” This leads into a subsequent charge of “intellectual dishonesty.”

In this brief response, I will not dwell on the question whether it is fair to raise such weighty charges over a piece focusing on the origins of a Chinese word, written under space constraints, and beginning with events in Hunan in the 1890s, solely because it does not go on to extensively discuss 21st century events in Xinjiang that many describe by using that word.

Instead, I would like to offer Dr. Fiskesjö an earnest answer to the question cited in the first paragraph above. The ongoing campaign in Xinjiang is in many respects in violation of China’s obligations under international (and domestic) law, and it is best described in such terms—in reference to concrete actions, effects, and violated norms. Most obviously, it operates via arbitrary detention, at times without any legal process and at other times via courts’ application of overly vague charges such as manifesting “extremism.” Once detained, prisoners are reportedly often dealt with very harshly, in ways amounting to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment including withholding of food and rest, lack of ability to practice one’s religion or speak one’s language, etc., not to mention allegations of severe physical abuse.

Finally, the campaign as a whole bears important hallmarks of an attempt at cultural genocide, the standard for which is still subject to debate, but which was already discussed during the drafting process of the UN Convention on the Crime of Genocide of 1948 (see UN Doc. E/447). Though cultural genocide was not ultimately included in the Convention due to opposition by (especially) colonial and settler colonial states, there are strong arguments that there is today a binding international prohibition against any state’s engaging in such behavior.

These legal standards, unlike the vague and contentious Cold War pulp term “brainwashing,” refer to concrete acts and imply concrete forms of responsibility. They provide a more appropriate lens for discussion of Chinese policies in Xinjiang. Notably, Chinese authorities and state media do not use xinao to refer to their own practices; rather, they themselves use it to refer to those whom they see as “brainwashed” by foreign ideologies, such as jihadism, who must then be guided back to “normality.” In keeping with its Cold War legacy, the term is used in Chinese as well to justify asymmetrical violence in order to save alleged “victims” of brainwashing. But surely very few are ever genuinely transformed. Instead, they may be coerced and intimidated into subservience. Rather than focus on arcane techniques to remake the mind, I thus suggest that the vocabulary of wrongful detention, torture, and/or cultural genocide is far more apposite.

Ryan Mitchell <>

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