As 2017 begins, it is clear to me that the world that George Orwell so accurately described in his 1945 classic, “Animal Farm”, still exists in parts of the world today. Living in a free and democratic Western country, it is all too facile to ignore the fact that millions of people and vast parts of our planet continue to be ruled by tyranny and repression. Contemplate for a minute the violent, dictatorial thug Napoleon in “Animal Farm”, widely thought to be based on Joseph Stalin. Tragically, real life variants of this “terror of mankind”, still exist and have evolved. Orwell’s key message was that democracy was the only equitable system to give everyone a fair voice in how a society is run. It is too easy to read “Animal Farm” as solely a stinging dissection only of communism only. The fact is that Orwell himself was a socialist. Animal Farm is a satire on the Russian Revolution and a call for social democracy. Critically, he was a Democrat, before he was a socialist. No matter where your political allegiances lie – it is crucial to note that is all they are. The key point is that all opinions should be equal in a just society and the only equitable system is to let the voice of majority decide. It seems simple. However, we in the West have become complacent about upholding these values and, when we do that, it creates a fertile ground for violent dictatorships to take hold. There is lots of polling evidence that the next generation sees democracy as increasingly less important than it used to be.
It is critical to point out that, at the beginning of Animal Farm, there is a vote on whether rats should be considered comrades. The animals listen to the words of Old Major when he says that “All animals are equal”. Christopher Hitchens wrote that he thought Old Major represented Karl Marx but I am not so sure. At this meeting, the principles of free expression and speaking out are encouraged. It is a fledgling democracy. It does not take long for Snowball and Napoleon to crack down on any voices to enforce their own dictatorship. In time, the animals are told that they are not allowed to vote because they are not smart enough. Only Napoleon knows best. Compare this with North Korea in 2017. The people are forced to worship Kim Jong Un in a similar fashion, building statues to the Great Leader! There are 25 million people residing there. Do we just leave them to be ruled by this madman? It is easy to forget about tyrants like this when they are out of sight. However, history has taught us that they will keep pushing the limits until they are met with resistance.
Perhaps the forefront of the fight for democratic rights in 2017 is in Hong Kong. China is trying to bully them to submit to their “One China” policy and incorporate them into their oppressive system of government. The 7 million people in Hong Kong are fighting exceptionally hard to cling onto the voting rights that they have which, which has resulted in physical fights breaking out in some Hong Kong courts while people battle for their right to self-govern. Just think. The most populous country on this planet is ruled by repression. If our job is, as Sagan says “to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot”, then we need to look at China and ask serious questions of ourselves. 1.3 billion people. How is that approximately one in every six human beings on planet Earth lives in a system where the people do not have a say in how their society is governed? Comparisons between the modern Chinese communist party and Napoleon may be overwrought but elements of the analogy hold. A more direct comparison was a previous leader, Chairman Mao, who took a page right out of Orwell’s book.
Where China is the world’s most populous country, Russia is the largest landmass on earth, one sixth in total, a gargantuan Manor Farm. For an all too brief period, it looked as if Russia would turn democratic at the end of the last millennium. That was until Putin took the reigns. A slicker, fitter, more media savvy Napoleon. Since coming to power, he has eroded most, if not all, of the raw democratic systems that he inherited in 1999. He did this to one selfish end so that he and his pigs could reap the benefits of his corrupt autocracy for themselves. “Never mind the milk comrades,” says Napoleon, while unleashing a nativist, anti-democratic propaganda machine that blinds people to the fact that he is robbing Russia blind. Some estimate that Putin is the richest man on the planet.
Consider the use of the word “comrade” in Animal Farm. At the beginning of the book, it is a symbol of the equality that Old Major thought should exist on the farm. In the end, Napoleon bans the word altogether. Language becomes weaponized and is not free. Modern day China routinely bans words that it does not like. The official line is that they are doing it in the name of keeping the Chinese language pure. When China declared herself as a Republic in 1912, there was no official language. Strangely, it took until the year 2000 for Mandarin to be declared the legitimate one. This made sense on a macro level but it has been used to subdue other languages and parts of society. Moreover, other languages cannot even be referred to as such, they must be referred to as “Dialects” lest they interfere with the political agenda. 60 million people speak Cantonese and this cannot now be referred to as a language. There was an outcry when people found out that the local news in the regions where it is spoken would no longer be read out in Cantonese. This was done without consulting the people. Xi Jinping and the rulers of the communist party believed it was in the best interests of the country. There is no comeback for people to declare they disagree with this at the ballot box and change course. That is why the Chinese government regularly uses force to implement its policies as they know that people would not accept it if it was democratic.
The song that the animals sing, “Beast of Burden”, is eventually censored. It undergoes transmogrifies into “Comrades of Napoleon”, underscoring further how language is to be used as ammunition in the battle to quash free thought. The Muslim district of Uyghur in Eastern China speaks its own language, Turkic. China is trying to constrain this while they inhumanely clamp down on their way of life. Mandarin as a weapon. The Chinese communist party is trying to deny the Uyghur Muslims their right to religious freedoms. They will use any tool they can to callously stamp out their rights.
Maybe Bashar Al-Assad in Syria would best personify Orwell’s “fierce looking boar” Napoleon if he lived in the Twenty-First century. Part of the modernising of savage autocrats is that they look a lot smarter than they used to. You never see Bashar not looking suitably dapper. In fact, to glance at him, you would never think that he has the blood of 400,000 Syrians on his hands. When the Revolution in Syria started, the people changed the lyrics of the popular song “God, Syria, Bashar” to “God, Syria, Freedom”. The people began to militarise the language of the regime to further their own desire to be free. If a society is truly free then language does not need to be weaponized or controlled by any side. Therefore, it is critical that we protect freedom of expression and the right to dissenting voices. Once we stop this in any way, we allow language to be used as a means to a political end.
In June 2011, the UN declared that blocking internet access was denying a human right. The internet is a form of communication, of language. It connects people. China has banned an incredible amount of the internet. I had to use a VPN to get basic access to sites like Google when I visited in 2016. The VPN slows down the connectivity so much that it makes it almost pointless trying to look up whatever you want.
The hotel I stayed in had two books about Xi Jinping. One in English and one in Chinese. There have been many conflicting reports on the sales of this book. The State claims a vastly higher number have been sold than any available data. Numbers are militarised. As this year dawns, we learn that China has banned applications on mobile phones that measure the levels of air pollution.
The book that strong man Xi Jinping wrote is called “The Governance of China” and it represents how propaganda has matured. There are lots of pictures, Xi in school, Xi in college, Xi working hard. It is an odd read, containing lots of different speeches and interviews. Supposedly, Zuckerberg told all his team to read it so they could understand the country in the unlikely case that Facebook would be allowed to do business there. The crucial question is, why are the Chinese people not allowed to use Facebook? Why are the ruling Communist Party deciding this for the Chinese people? Would this happen in a democracy?
In Russia, Microsoft’s “LinkedIn” company has been added to the banned list. What a grave danger it must pose. Vladimir Putin is, in some sense, the best example of how oppressors like Napoleon have adapted to the early Twenty-First Century. He has managed to convince lots of Russians that he is democratically elected by being pictured with leaders of Western countries and smiling for the cameras. Putin is the grandmaster of modern propaganda. He decided, cleverly, to harness the great power of the internet to trick people by employing a factory of people to disseminate false information, thereby trying to undermine free societies. The results have been stunningly successful. By undermining democracy, people think that democratic systems of governance are not that important. When Russia TV and his army of bots deceive large numbers of Russians people and people in the West that there is not that much difference between a dictatorship and a democracy, it is job done for him. The deception is sublime but implicit. Whether overt or not, the propaganda is real and effective.
When the results of free and fair elections go completely against what we believe, that is the time when we need to respect them more than ever. Recall Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. At the start of 2017, the only viable political system that we have is under attack like never before. Do we sit back meekly on our bed of complacency and accept this?
We need to be tolerant of opposing views and incorporate them into our open and tolerant society. This is the only option we have. Once we begin shutting them down, we become as repressive as dictatorships.
We need to respect the role of the individual in society. Each person’s rights are paramount.
Our other option is to subsume the individual to the collective in dictatorships such Russia, China, Syria and North Korea. Autocrats constantly tread on human rights and blur the line between animal and human beings. We know where this road ends, “Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”. We know where these regimes lead humanity. The question in 2017 is, what do we do about it?