How propaganda affected me

Be alert but not afraid

Mao-era propaganda poster (Source: The Guardian)

Over the past two weeks, I’ve written two articles articles on what I’m calling the ‘Xinjiang situation’ for my newsletter International Intrigue.

The process generally looks a little something like:

  1. Monitor my RSS feed for interesting issues that I feel are either outside the mainstream media or poorly understood by the mainstream media.

I put more effort into writing this newsletter each week than almost anything else I’ve done… which might say something about my professional career 😂.

Anyway, some might think that seeking out the ‘pro-China’ side on an issue as serious as Xinjiang is somehow morally wrong — I respectfully disagree, but understand why it makes people uncomfortable.

My view was that seeking out the ‘other’ side of the Xinjiang situation would either neatly confirm the mainstream view or alert me to fresh facts on the situation.

It did neither.

In fact, researching the ‘pro-China’ argument on the Xinjiang situation affected me in ways it took weeks to even notice.

Why am I writing this?

The idea of disinformation and propaganda can seem very academic. It rarely touches our day-to-day lives in noticeable ways. Last week, I wrote the Xinjiang article as I always do; I referred to my notes and sometimes looked back at the original source to ensure accuracy.

I used a wide array of sources from the mainstream media, academic work, social media, long form, short form; in all honesty, it was probably the most thoroughly researched piece I’ve written.

I hit publish. I was (and am) proud of my work.

The next day, the delightful Tom Hashemi, a friend I’ve recently met through my work on International Intrigue, emailed me suggesting an additional source to check out.

I immediately recognised the cover of the book, but I hadn’t read it. This struck me as odd since the book was bang-on topic, appeared academically rigorous, and came recommended by plenty of smart folks, Tom chief amongst them.

Then it struck me. I had come across this book before because I knew most of Adrian Zenz’s work, and he was a major contributing author.

I was stunned — I had clearly, unconsciously stopped myself from reading, referencing or engaging with this book beyond its cover.

So I checked my list of sources and found… nothing on there by Adrian Zenz. Despite having read much of his work, not one article, book, or video had made my source list.

I’ve reflected on this for a week now and the only plausible explanation is that I unwittingly submitted to the Chinese state propaganda about Adrian Zenz.

I had marked him in my head as ‘unreliable’, or perhaps ‘controversial’. Without realising, I had digested the almost entirely irrelevant information about Zenz’s personal life, his religion, and his history of criticising China’s actions in Xinjiang and tacitly accepted it as evidence with which to disqualify his years of thorough research and writing.

The CCP propaganda had discredited (in my mind) one of the world’s foremost experts on the precise topic I was writing about.

Who is Adrian Zenz?

Adrian Zenz is an academic, a researcher and a Xinjiang China expert. He’s conducted crucial research on Xinjiang, published multiple articles and books on the topic, and given dozens of interviews about what’s going on in the region.

He is credible. I’ve engaged with his work and while I wouldn’t venture so far as to say Adrian Zenz is always right — who is? — he does spend his life publicly thinking, researching, and writing about the Xinjiang situation.

Ok.

So how has the Chinese Communist Party responded to his description of the facts on the ground in Xinjiang?

Zenz has never been a so-called “Xinjiang expert” but can be more appropriately described as an academic swindler and an attack dog of anti-China forces… Adrian Zenz, an evangelical “scholar” [only] aims to slander China’s policies in the region.
- Chinese state media, September 2020

I hate counter-arguments that don’t engage with the substance of the original criticism. Play the ball, not the man — if you like sports metaphors — or avoid ad hominem attacks — if you prefer pompous legalese.

But here’s the thing — personal attacks feel like important and relevant information. After all, if someone out there is arguing against tighter drug legislation, shouldn’t we know if they are funded by big pharma?

Perhaps, but we need to remember that personally attacking the author may well provide context for an argument, but it is not an argument in and of itself. Discrediting the messenger says nothing about the truth of the message.

Facts exist whether or not one likes or agrees with the person who said them.

That Adrian Zenz is a fundamental Christian is no more relevant to his research on Xinjiang than it would be to, say, throwing out a Chinese scientist’s work on quantum computing because she’s a socialist. Her work is either correct or incorrect, depending on the facts.

My favourite law professor used to describe this distinction as ‘mind-independent’; certain things exist independent of your mind.

So it is with Adrian Zenz’s work on Xinjiang. We might quibble about the vastness, the severity or even the morality of the enormous network of prisons, camps, forced labour and surveillance as Zenz describes it, but the system either exists or it does not.

The grey space between facts and opinions

Just because the facts on the ground in Xinjiang are knowable, it doesn’t mean they are easily knowable. China restricts access to Xinjiang for diplomats, journalists and tourists. And in the rare instances they are allowed, visits are tightly escorted through stage-managed locations and choreographed meetings. It’s all very North Korea.

This level of secrecy makes it hard to know precisely and definitely what’s going on in Xinjiang. There are other tools that allow us to draw reasonable conclusions, keyholes that allow us to look upon the truth: geospatial imaging of building works; accounts of eyewitnesses, refugees, and visitors; and leaked official Chinese documents.

Researchers like Adrian Zenz rely upon these sources.

Each individual source is flawed — geospatial imaging is not precise, eyewitness accounts can be biased, leaked documents misrepresentative — but, synthesised and analysed, these disparate pieces of information allow us to draw conclusions about the facts on the ground

Does that assessment have a margin of error?

Absolutely, cough cough CIA, WMDs, 2nd Gulf War. But the fact that the ‘social science method’ of establishing the truth can be corrupted politically, or can be flat-out wrong, doesn’t invalidate the entire method.

On difficult, controversial issues, the uncertain grey space between fact and opinion will always exist.

Propaganda seizes upon the sense of uncertainty; it coaxes you to misjudge the facts, or worse still convinces you that a matter of fact is actually a matter of opinion.

Final thoughts

Do I think this made a difference to my article? I like to think not — I had still consumed the work of many others who had referenced him. There’s no doubt his work influenced my thinking on the Xinjiang situation.

And I don’t regret seeking out information that might potentially disprove Zenz’s work. Perhaps he really is a zealot who hates China for no good reason and has misrepresented facts and crafted lies for years. Perhaps he isn’t a credible academic and I’ve missed all the peer reviewed takedowns of his work.

I really don’t think so though.

Being inclined toward the contrarianism is very often a good thing — writ large, I think groupthink is more dangerous to the health of our societies than being too contrarian.

Seeking out new information, particularly challenging information, is how we advance our understanding of crucial issues. But my advice to myself in the future is to do it very carefully.

In the age of information overabundance, a significant proportion of contrarian viewpoints aren’t produced in good faith. They aren’t created to correct for the dangers of groupthink, but rather specifically designed to ensnare truth seekers and encourage confusion and uncertainty. To make you mistake knowable things for opinions and vice versa.

Luckily, the agenda of those who seek to obscure the truth — and to be clear this isn’t just about China, or Russia or any other state actor, it also applies to corporations and individuals — can be nullified with the power of our own critical thinking.

We can choose to be conscious of the information we ingest and how it affects us. In the language of mindfulness, we can teach ourselves to observe how information changes how we think about our world, not just what we think about it.

We can get into the habit of asking questions like: — is this a knowable fact or a statement of values or beliefs? — is this person’s character relevant to what they’re saying? — did that argument refute the facts, or simply deny them without evidence and move on?

In the words of the late, great Christopher Hitchens:

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence
- Hitchens’ Razor

My lesson from all this? Keep trying to prove people wrong. More often than not you’ll fail, and that’s a good thing.

You can check out the two-part series this article refers to here. It’s part of International Intrigue, a weekly foreign affairs newsletter that makes geopolitics enjoyable and accessible. I’d love you to check it out!

Founder and writer of International Intrigue. Former diplomat, lawyer & trained economist. Writing about interesting things, so could be anything.