Visiting a Chinese Propaganda Museum in Shanghai with a Russian Couple
In Shanghai I met a nice Russian couple and we hung out and explored for a few days. One of the things we did was go to see the Propaganda Poster Center. It’s a hidden spot, in the basement of an apartment building, and a bit hard to find.
It’s not too big, it’s a few rooms, but it has iconic old Chinese propaganda posters, seems mostly from the 60s and 70s.
There are a lot of anti-US posters, which I guess is not a huge surprise. There are some interesting Russia, Cuba, and China posters.
As we are walking around this spot is where I started asking them about their views on Russia, Russian politics, Russia/US relations and Russian election interference in the US.
It’s interesting, because in my mind the two countries where the idea of information control and propaganda really stand out are Russia and China.
As we looked at the posters it wasn’t really something that surprised them much, mainly they just said it reminds them of things they had seen in Russia as well, given the history.
They were quite interested to hear what I had thought in terms of views of Russia from the US. They also said that they felt it was unfairly portrayed in various media, and that unlike China things were not “controlled” and they had access to information. As we talked more it became clear that wasn’t quite true as there were a number of examples where they did talk about how Russia tries to control the media, and many views are not welcome. For example anti-LGBT and anti-Putin views are not welcome.
But it seems mostly in Russia, and also in China, resistance is futile. So people just want to go about their lives and it’s too hard to resist the government.
When it came to me asking them about what they thought about Russia hacking the US election or interfering in it, they were skeptical. First, they said, you are giving these hackers way too much credit — they claimed they are not that sophisticated at all.
However, part of the difficult premise with talking about the Chinese and Russian governments, as well as the US government is the question of: do you believe what the government is telling you? And it’s a tricky situation if you believe that these things are not real. If I explain something and then we wonder how do you know if it’s true, then it just becomes a question of who do you trust.
Additionally, they had said on the influencing, every country is always trying to influence any other country. I explained that I thought what made it different was the use of social media, and the scale, as well as the evidence that it was used to sow division in the US. I gave examples of fake accounts that were controlled by Russia, that seems like a strong example.
I brought up also why I thought it was a big deal, and the historical reasons — it seems to me, unfortunately, the US has a bad history of “interfering” and influencing other countries politics, and now is up in arms when it happens at a large scale here. They didn’t really disagree.
It’s an interesting and difficult conversation. Because partly everyone has different information and views, and they explained, well if this was the case how did any of the people in Russia benefit, and they didn’t. I didn’t disagree there but we discussed how I think the benefit or views of the government may be quite distinct from the people.
And as we walked later on I explained how I felt the US government doesn’t represent the people in the US. They laughed a bit as if to say “welcome to the club.”
When you visit the propaganda museum it’s clear that China was using these posters to create an enemy, mainly the US. The question we talked about is how much is this still happening today, between the US, China, and Russia. Is it propaganda? Or is it reporting accurately what happened? I think it’s hard if you view everything that someone else says as propaganda, that doesn’t give you a lot of productive room for discussion. But how can you separate out the “information” from the “propaganda”?
Additionally, I tried to explain that I think there are false equivalences between different types of information. If someone makes an assertion and someone else says ‘that isn’t true’ or ‘that’s just a conspiracy’ all those assertions are not equally valid. If I talk about the Tiananmen Square massacre and someone says ‘that’s a conspiracy’ or ‘it didn’t happen’ and I say it did, I don’t believe both of those views are equally valid. However, one is a position of the Chinese communist party and the other is the view of… the rest of the world. What’s tricky is in the information war people try to assert that something like that is ‘just your opinion.’ So it’s a dangerous slippery slope. And I think Russia and China are far down that slope and the US is starting to move that way. When the US president says things that are clearly false and everyone just goes about their day, because what can they do, these are alarm bells for free speech and a free society. Learning about how that works and has worked in Russia and China should be a warning.