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Examples of Authoritarian Blindness and the Danger of Censorship

An article on The Atlantic titled “How the Coronavirus Revealed Authoritarianism’s Fatal Flaw” (February 22nd 2020) discusses specific examples of what they term “authoritarian blindness”. A virus that could have been contained instead resulted in a global crisis because important information was being censored by an authoritarian system. Below are relevant quotes from the article:

Xi would be far from the first authoritarian to have been blindsided. Ironically, for all the talk of the technological side of Chinese authoritarianism, China’s use of technology to ratchet up surveillance and censorship may have made things worse, by making it less likely that Xi would even know what was going on in his own country.

Authoritarian blindness is a perennial problem, especially in large countries like China with centralized, top-down administration. Indeed, Xi would not even be the first Chinese ruler to fall victim to the totality of his own power. On August 4, 1958, buoyed by reports pouring in from around the country of record grain, rice, and peanut production, an exuberant Chairman Mao Zedong wondered how to get rid of the excess, and advised people to eat “five meals a day.” Many did, gorging themselves in the new regime canteens and even dumping massive amounts of “leftovers” down gutters and toilets. Export agreements were made to send tons of food abroad in return for machinery or currency. Just months later, perhaps the greatest famine in recorded history began, in which tens of millions would die because, in fact, there was no such surplus. Quite the opposite: The misguided agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward had caused a collapse in food production. Yet instead of reporting the massive failures, the apparatchiks in various provinces had engaged in competitive exaggeration, reporting ever-increasing surpluses both because they were afraid of reporting bad news and because they wanted to please their superiors.

Mao didn’t know famine was at hand, because he had set up a system that ensured he would hear lies.

Authoritarian blindness had turned an easily solvable problem into a bigger, durable crisis that exacted a much heavier political toll, a pattern that would repeat itself after a mysterious strain of pneumonia emerged in a Wuhan seafood market.

In early December, a strange cluster of patients from a local seafood market, which also sold wildlife for consumption, started showing up in Wuhan hospitals. These initial patients developed a fever and pneumonia that did not seem to be caused by any known viruses. Given the SARS experience of 2003, local doctors were quickly alarmed. […] On January 1, police said they had punished eight medical workers for “rumors,” including a doctor named Li Wenliang, who was among the initial group of whistleblowers. […] On January 6, Li noticed an infection in the scan of a fellow doctor, but officials at the hospital “ordered him not to disclose any information to the public or the media.” On January 7, another infected person was operated on, spreading the disease to 14 more medical workers.

Things went on in this suspended state for another 10 days, while the virus kept spreading. […] The dam broke on January 20—just three days before Wuhan would initiate a draconian lockdown that blocked millions of people from leaving. On that day, the respected SARS scientist Zhong Nanshan went on national television, confirming the new virus and human-to-human transmission. That same day, Xi Jinping gave his first public speech about the coronavirus, after he returned from an overseas trip to Myanmar.

Things have dramatically escalated since then.

It’s not clear why Xi let things spin so far out of control. It might be that he brushed aside concerns from his aides until it was too late, but a stronger possibility is that he did not know the crucial details. Hubei authorities may have lied, not just to the public but also upward—to the central government. Just as Mao didn’t know about the massive crop failures, Xi may not have known that a novel coronavirus with sustained human-to-human transmission was brewing into a global pandemic until too late.

In many ways, his hand was forced by his own system. Under the conditions of massive surveillance and censorship that have grown under Xi, the central government likely had little to no signals besides official reports to detect, such as online public conversations about the mystery pneumonia. […] If people are too afraid to talk, and if punishing people for “rumors” becomes the norm, a doctor punished for spreading news of a disease in one province becomes just another day, rather than an indication of impending crisis.

Contrary to common belief, the killer digital app for authoritarianism isn’t listening in on people through increased surveillance, but listening to them as they express their honest opinions, especially complaints. An Orwellian surveillance-based system would be overwhelming and repressive, as it is now in China, but it would also be similar to losing sensation in parts of one’s body due to nerve injuries. Without the pain to warn the brain, the hand stays on the hot stove, unaware of the damage to the flesh until it’s too late.

The above is what happens when criticism and dissent are made difficult to even impossible when people are caused to become afraid to openly and truthfully speak their minds. The same also happens when various forms of censorship are being used in society blocking the free flow of information, and especially different (and quite often unpopular or politically incorrect) viewpoints. In such cases it becomes very difficult to get a complete and accurate reading of the situation with all the negative consequences that come with that.

The same kind of problem also caused the 737 MAX crisis currently underway at Boeing. Criticism wasn’t tolerated in the company and engineers who brought all kinds of design issues up were sidelined by management — silenced and suppressed. This resulted in critical flaws getting into their products, in this case the 737 MAX aircraft, which resulted in two crashes killing a few hundred people.

This is why I hate all forms of censorship with a passion. Censorship is extremely dangerous and damaging. Like John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said: “The [Inter]Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

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