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By Lisa Navarrette, ICC Fellow

China has been increasing human rights abuses for years. Disappearances, persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, organs for sale, controlled press, and surveillance of its citizens have made international news. Authoritarianism on this scale takes years to cultivate.  

This five-part series will discuss how social conformity was perfected throughout China’s recent history and its role in creating the global authoritarian influence of modern China. 

What is social conformity and why is it dangerous? Because humans are social beings, they look to create group cohesion. Conformity is common across all societies, races, and ethnicities. It is an inherent part of the human experience. Individuals seek to create agreeance with others by copying their beliefs and behaviors. No one wants to be ostracized. Therefore, individuals will look to the group to decide what to think and will behave as expected.  

Psychologists call this social proof– the assumption that if other people are doing it, it must be correct. [i] This occurs mostly subconsciously. On one hand, conformity to group norms leads to a sense of belonging and encourages morality. On the other hand, when resulting norms and practices are never questioned, it can lead groups of people to allow the worst large-scale human atrocities. Most individuals will conform. When an authoritarian government controls the entire society, it is difficult not to. This level of control takes time to cultivate.  

China is an ancient society. For more than 4,000 years, it was ruled by authoritarian dynasties. It was historically a peasant society. Dynastic rule solidified their dependence on their ruler. The feudal, peasant economy determined social and economic interactions. In agrarian societies, the local population is interconnected for their survival. Instead of individual achievement and rights, collectivism is the norm, necessary to ensure life continues for all.  

In 1911, the Qing dynasty was overthrown ending the long tradition of dynastic rule. Modern political, social, and economic ideas were thrust upon the country through foreign assaults and occupation. During the period from 1911 to 1949, China attempted to redefine its new political identity. Warlords engulfed the country and government parties fought for control. In 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was established, just two years after Lenin founded the Communist International (Comintern) to coordinate efforts to spread communism throughout the world.  

In 1949, the CCP defeated the Nationalist Party and Mao Zedong became its leader. He established the People’s Republic of China. The party assumed control throughout the country and created their version of social order and social stability. The goals of Mao were class struggle, anti-intellectualism, economic development through the communal system, and isolation from the rest of the world.  

In 1958, the Great Leap Forward was introduced. Its goals were to maximize agriculture and industrial production through mass mobilization. At the forefront was the desire to eliminate all private property and forcibly impose socialist ownership. The goals were far too ambitious. Skilled managers were replaced by Communist Party cadres. Decisions were made in a communal setting, but these cadres lacked the necessary technical expertise. Several failures occurred because of this including a serious famine. 

During the cultural revolution of the 1960s-70s, Mao organized young people into Red Guard units. Their job was to attack old thoughts, culture, customs, and habits. Economic, social, and political institutions were weakened, and the situation in China was chaotic. Because the police and other criminal justice components were under attack, the military was used to maintain order. This marks the beginning of military involvement in civilian and political issues in China. [ii] 

Deng Xiaoping came into power after Mao. His agenda was far different from Mao’s. He focused on agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. This ended its isolationist policies. China began an open-door policy with the West to acquire knowledge and technology. Deng attempted to modernize China by establishing a strong military, grooming future leaders, giving authority to local governmental units, and creating a new Constitution and new criminal code in 1982.  

Some freedoms were allowed during this era, unintentionally a result of growing capitalist methods that resulted in economic gains. Deng emphasized order and stability and adherence to party discipline and its leadership. Democratic reform was occurring in the Soviet Union and developing in Eastern and Central Europe. The protest of Tiananmen Square in 1989 began because of issues of corruption; however, scholars tend to agree that it developed as part of this democratic global movement. [iii]  

Dang was determined to maintain control, and protesters from all classes, not just students, were killed by the People’s Liberation Army in the streets around the square. Though China was modernizing, the Communist Party used police, procurators (prosecutors), judges, and even the military to maintain control at all costs. Some party members pushed for reformation to become more democratic in nature and have additional accountability.  

Zhao Ziyang was one of these casualties. He was a high-level official in the Communist Party who advocated for the party to enhance human rights and increase democracy. He was confined to house arrest after the Tiananmen Square massacre, where he remained for sixteen years until his death in 2005. He left an extensive collection of audio tapes and writing which were published after his death. His accounts tell the story of corruption among party members, human rights abuses, and the silencing of anyone who speaks out against the party. [iv] 

Jiang Zemin was general secretary from 1989-2002. Under his leadership, the revolutionary views of the Communist Party were reshaped. They embraced ideologies that the Party represented society’s most productive economic forces, society’s most advanced culture, and the interests of all people. He encouraged individual initiatives across all industries, igniting the entrepreneurial spirit of Chinese citizens. During Zeman’s tenure, the Communist Party was characterized as highly bureaucratic, highly centralized, and rigid. Seeing the demise of communism in the Soviet Union and other areas of Eastern and Central Europe, the Party concluded that political and social control should be enhanced. Many top officials were labeled as traitors and enemies of the state. They were removed from their posts, imprisoned, and killed for seeking reforms. These extremes still occur in today’s China. Not even being a high-level government official will keep you safe from the conformity, corruption, and power of the party. In China, no one is safe. 

Modernization has occurred in agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense. Another area of economic dominance is through trade and investment in developing countries.[v] Economic policies, since 1978, have raised more than 800 million people out of poverty.[vi] They have also increased access to health care and education for the masses.  

People often become complacent when there is economic stability, willing to overlook abuses by the government. While the economy of China has modernized with policies to encourage entrepreneurship, the accompanying freedoms of individual rights have not followed suit.  

Human rights are codified in the Constitution, but not practiced. Citizens are subjected to state-controlled media, statistics, and surveillance. It is dangerous to speak out against the government of China and those who do often disappear or are made public examples. China continues to feed incorrect statistics and news to the international community as it attempts to conceal its control and human rights abuses.  

The general conformity of the people to socialist policy can be traced to the centuries of dynastic rule and, more recently, an oligarchic state. Centuries of feudalism created interdependency. To survive peasantry, communities had to work together toward collective stability and prosperity. With the onset of Communist rule and the crushing weight of the party, centuries of cultural collectivism were exploited. Conformity is no longer a choice; it is now a requirement.  

[i] Psychology Today. (2019). Conformity | Psychology Today. Psychology Today. 

[ii] Terrill, R. J. (2016). World criminal justice systems: a comparative survey. New York, London Routledge. 

[iii] Fairbank, J., Schelle, O., Spence, J., Nathan, A., & Lizhi, F. (1990). Children of the Dragon. Collier Books. 

[iv] Ziyang Zhao, Bao, P., Chiang, R., & Ignatius, A. (2009). Prisoner of the state: the secret journal of Zhao Ziyang. Simon And Schuster. 

[v] Economist. (2022, May 20). Chinese loans and investment in infrastructure have been huge. The Economist. 

[vi] World Bank. (2022a). China Overview. World Bank.