The demonstrations in Hong Kong against the proposed introduction of mandatory Chinese patriotism classes in the education system, which protesters say are tantamount to brainwashing, have rapidly heated up.
As Hong Kongers continue to demonstrate with rallies and hunger strikes, their protests have accumulated an astonishing force. Hong Kong’s liberal media, which fully support the protests, are reporting how the public’s anger is boiling over and being directed at the government for violating the people’s wishes in order to carry out Beijing’s instructions and force the implementation of the pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) classes in primary and secondary schools.
Opposition to being brainwashed lies at the core of this series of protests. Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary says that the English word “brainwashing” is a loanword from the Chinese term xi nao (洗腦), which literally means “to wash the brain.”
History does not lack examples of acts of brainwashing, either domestically or internationally, but the word has entered the world stage, spreading to many different languages through the English translation of the original Chinese word. That means that the Chinese language has not only contributed to the English language in this instance, but that the term has also been accepted by many other languages through the spreading of the English language, a fact which is highly ironic.
Taking the investigation deeper, the person generally credited with translating xi nao into “brainwash” is US journalist and intelligence agent Edward Hunter, who is said to have done so during the Korean War. After the war broke out in June 1950, Hunter first mentioned the term “brainwashing” in relation to the CCP in an article published in The New Leader, a US liberal, anti-communist magazine about politics and culture.
In 1951, he published Brain-washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds, a collection of intelligence information about the CCP that he had gathered. In the publication, he revealed to the world for the first time that when the CCP was established, Beijing had attempted to systematically change the minds of “imperialist reactionaries” across China, forcefully implanting communism into their brains through various means.
The point of this etymology lesson is that the CCP regime after 1949 could possibly be the originator of political brainwashing. Based on the aforementioned historical and political background, the Oxford English Dictionary has added a note to its comprehensive definition of the word “brainwashing,” noting that it is a method some totalitarian states utilize to oppress political dissidents.
Hong Kong has long been a city beyond the reach of Beijing, so how could it suddenly be willing to allow itself to be brainwashed and tamed, thereby losing its freedom and vitality?
As for the Chinese media, it does not mention the Hong Kong protests at all. However, despite the tight censorship on China’s largest microblogging site, Sina Weibo, over the issue, many enterprising Chinese have managed to find loopholes in the Internet controls to launch stringent attacks against the Chinese authorities in a show of support for Hong Kong. Some Chinese netizens have portrayed themselves as trapped in a dark and subjugated place, praising the freedoms of Hong Kong and Taiwan as a sharp contrast to their own country, as in those countries people are at least allowed to see a distant light of hope.
Hugo Tseng is an associate professor in the English Department at Soochow University.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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