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George Orwell’s Dystopian Nightmare in China

George Orwell’s Dystopian Nightmare in China

Beijing’s tyranny over its people is fast becoming more terrifying than anything in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Michael Hogue 

It has become fairly cliché to call China’s surveillance state—its artificial intelligence-driven facial recognition, the new “social credit system,” its cultural policing and re-education camps for Uyghur minorities—“something right out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Orwell’s dystopian vision, first published 70 years ago this June, was informed by the fascist and communist movements that triggered worldwide military conflict and the deaths of millions of people during the mid-20th century. But Orwell’s warning went well beyond the wars we knew. It cautioned, noted Erich Fromm in an afterword in the 1961 edition, against the loss of humanity and free thought, and the new, increasingly centralized “managerial industrialism, in which man builds machines which act like men and develops men who act like machines.” It showed how that could be used as a tool of totalitarian ambitions.

China convulsed in revolution during the 1940s; Mao Zedong established the one-party state of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. But Orwell, according to Fromm, had his gaze on Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is set in fictional Oceania, one of three of the world’s superstates. Oceania is run by one party, Ingsoc (English Socialism), headquartered in what is left of post-war London. “Big Brother” is the god-like, mustachioed visage serving as the party’s fearsome symbol of absolute authority.

As rooted as Nineteen Eighty-Four is in Orwell’s own uncertain world, he could not have imagined how his predictions for humankind would morph and metastasize beyond the terrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and into the cyber-authoritarianism we are seeing in Xi Jinping’s China today (still run by the Chinese Communist Party). 

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