Groupthink makes you stupid. That’s a simple insight that eludes authoritarians everywhere. And when the authoritarians get hold of a country, watch out. Yep, the Naval Diplomat is looking at you, China.
Surrounding yourself with sycophants while crushing freethinkers who might oppose your rule leaves you wearing Saddam Hussein’s shoes — stunned when presented with economic figures contradicting the sunny forecasts issued by yes-men. Or, the great Marshal Zhukov narrowly escaped Josef Stalin’s purges. Nor was Mao Zedong a slouch in the paranoia department. Having talent and ambition was hazardous in the extreme in Maoist China. Peng Dehuai, the great Red Army general, found himself purged. Peng died in prison after suffering through struggle sessions and torture. Countless Chinese shared his fate during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Dumb. Saddam, Stalin, and Mao were no models of statesmanship. By constricting the range of acceptable thought, they made their nations needlessly backward and stupid. Until recent years, though, it appeared as though China might kick its authoritarian habit. Yes, there was the Great Firewall of China. But some of the shackles came off. Debates over Chinese power and purposes in Asia and the world, for example, were remarkably spirited and freewheeling. But it seems thought reform is back with a vengeance under Xi Jinping.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Consider a few bits of evidence from recent weeks, starting overseas and working back toward China. As John Fitzgerald reports from Down Under, first, Beijing enforces iron control over the content of Chinese-language news programming in Australia. Verboten topics, reports Fitzgerald, include “‘freedom of speech,’ ‘judicial independence,’ ‘civil society,’ ‘civic rights,’ and ‘universal values’ in addition to criticism of the CCP and allusions to its privileged and wealthy leadership.” Talk about staying on message. Or else.
On these shores, second, the customarily mild-mannered American Association of University Professors called on universities to cut ties with Confucius Institutes unless academic freedom prevails there. That’s not the case at present. Notes the AAUP, “Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom.” Agreements establishing them make “unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China. Specifically, North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.” These cuddly-seeming institutions, in other words, are CCP propaganda mills on American campuses.
In China itself, third, the CCP’s Orwellian-sounding Central Commission on Discipline Inspection reprimanded the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences for being “infiltrated by foreign forces,” and for “illegal collusion during sensitive times.” Senior discipline inspector Zhang Yingwei (no word on whether the CCDI team deploys whips and chains on its visits) gave no specifics about the supposed malfeasance. You’ve gotta love vague accusations; you can pour whatever content you want into them later. Foreign Policy named CASS — which carries the Mandarin translation of Red Star over the Pacific — Asia’s top think tank. It’s doubtful the institution will garner such laurels again after the CCP clampdown. Beijing will be poorer for it.
And fourth, last March the CCP’s Qiushi Journal ran an article on how to manage intellectuals, opinionmakers in particular. Certain “special intellectuals,” notes Qiushi, display a disturbing independence of mind. Its solution? “In general, we need to focus on uniting most of them and obtaining leadership…. We can achieve that goal via dialog, competition, or even ‘struggle.’ Being the leader in ideology is not simply implemented by having the state machine force it on people’s minds. Only when the general public, including the intellectuals, willingly acknowledge and accept it, can the leadership be well established.” Such leadership “requires us to use dialog, exchanges, and especially ‘struggle,’ for the Party to realize its ‘leadership.'” Repeat after me, Winston Smith: 2 + 2 = 5. And learn to love Big Brother while you’re at it.
They say you should never interfere with an opponent who’s shooting himself in the foot. I suppose I ought to thank Beijing for consciously dulling its wits. Groupthink in China bestows an intellectual advantage on America and its friends in the strategic competition currently underway — provided, of course, that allied leaders keep their own authoritarian tendencies in check. Discouraging people from talking freely about the challenge China poses and ways to manage it would be a grave mistake. Policing thought and speech is seldom the way to encourage intellectual ferment and the creative strategic alternatives that come with it. It makes you a laggard.
Give me Irving Janis any day. Janis coined the term groupthink. He implores leaders not just to appoint a devil’s advocate to every group but to reward that person for developing contrary views and pushing them imaginatively and forcefully. Or there’s John Stuart Mill, among the 19th century’s foremost prophets of liberty. For Mill even errant ideas benefit liberal discourse. For one thing, few ideas are altogether wrong. Most contain a remainder of truth that others can extract from them. Overall wisdom advances. Faulty ideas, moreover, compel the guardians of established ideas to rethink and update those ideas, which may have fallen out of step with the times. In short, the free play of ideas keeps communities fresh.
So let China struggle and reform thought all it wants. Let’s banish groupthink from strategic discourses — and make ourselves nimble competitors in the process.