Maoist Shaming Tactics Spread from Shanghai to Santa Monica and Silicon Valley

Ariana Eunjung Cha reports on the newest target of public shaming in China:

Long before the Internet was invented, China’s Communist Party was already skilled in the art of public shaming.

Dissidents have been known to disappear and then reappear after having published essays of self-criticism. On state-run television, business people, celebrities and editors have appeared so regularly from behind prison bars speaking about their misdeeds that the segments were like an early take on reality TV.

Now officials are using the tactic on another group that it feels has wronged the country: smokers.

Beijing has not relied just on public humiliation. It has banned smoking in indoor public places and workplaces, complete with large fines and massive propaganda campaigns. It also plans to

take more dramatic measures by posting the names of those breaking the law three times on a Web site in order to shame them.

That may not sound like a big deal, but in Asia the reaction of online citizens to inappropriate behavior can be harsh. Among the most infamous cases is one in 2005 when a woman in South Korea who refused to clean up her dog’s waste was caught in photos that were posted online. Internet users quickly discerned her identity and she was harassed so badly that she reportedly quit her university.

We expect this sort of thing in a country ruled by the Chinese Communist Party and still influenced by Maoist ideas and practices. What’s disappointing is to see such tactics spreading in a country founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Where once people feared harassment for giving to gay-rights groups, now we see people harassed for giving money to oppose gay marriage. Silicon Valley CEO Brendan Eich was forced to resign for having donated $1000 to the campaign for Proposition 8. A small-town pizzeria in Indiana was faced with a firestorm of media, Twitter harassment, and death threats after one of its family owners said they wouldn’t provide pizzas for a hypothetical gay wedding reception. Two gay entrepreneurs, generous contributors to gay causes, were targeted after they had dinner with anti-gay-rights senator Ted Cruz. Numerous people caught in such crosshairs, including Eich and the dinner hosts, have issued statements of self-criticism, just like during the Cultural Revolution in China. Andrew Sullivan, a pioneering crusader for gay marriage, deplored the defenestration of Eich, asking in a blog post titled “The Hounding of a Heretic”:

Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

And now we have “drought shaming” in California. The state refuses to do something sensible like charging market prices for water, so it’s forced to rationing and hectoring. And bring on the shaming:

California’s drought is turning neighbor against neighbor, as everyone seems to be on the lookout for water wasters….

In this new age of social media and apps for everything, so called “droughtshaming,” can be much more public, and nastier than what Demian got a taste of.

Just look at Twitter. If you search the social media site for the hashtags #DroughtShame or #DroughtShaming,” you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands of very public reprimands of water wasters, often with pictures, video, and a lot of addresses….

And there’s more — droughtshaming apps….

There’s another, newer app devoted only to droughtshaming, and it’s called, obviously, DroughtShameApp. Creator Dan Estes, a Santa Monica real estate agent, says he made the app just a few weeks ago out of a feeling of responsibility.

“I think like a lot of Angelenos, I’m a little freaked out by the drought,” he told NPR. “It just seems like something has to be done to avoid a long-term catastrophe.” Estes’ app lets users upload geo-located photos, with captions and addresses to report water wasters.

In many of these cases, actual legal coercion goes along with the public shaming. Beijing will fine smokers and bars, florists are being forced to supply flowers for gay weddings, and California has mandatory water restrictions. But the public shaming adds a new dimension of mob behavior and chilling effects.

Technology is part of the problem here. Back in 1978, when gays and their allies feared being on a list of opponents of the antigay Briggs Initiative, the list of donors was officially public. But you had to go to the office of the secretary of state (or maybe the county clerk) to inspect such a list. By 2008, when Proposition 8 was on the ballot, donor lists could be downloaded and posted on the internet in alphabetical and searchable form. From the privacy of your own home you could find out whether your friends, neighbors, or favorite celebrities had contributed to the side you found morally reprehensible. Today Facebook, Twitter, and specialized apps make it easier than ever to point a public finger at anyone who offends you.

I’m a First Amendment absolutist. I don’t want anyone forbidden to publicly criticize others. But I don’t want to live in a Cultural Revolution either. Chinese novelist Murong Xuecon remembers his childhood:

[My] teacher summoned me before an assembly of the whole school to read a 600-word essay of self-criticism that he had made me write. I admitted I was lazy. I said I didn’t respect discipline and had let down my teachers and parents. My classmates appeared amused and my teacher satisfied. For me it was like I had been exposed naked to all.

This kind of scene is not uncommon. From primary school to university, I witnessed countless such public humiliations: for fighting, cheating or petty misdemeanors. Caught committing any of these offenses and you may have to stand before the student body, criticizing your own “moral flaws,” condemning your character defects, showing yourself no mercy, even exaggerating your faults. Only those who have endured it can know the depth of shame one feels.

Our new bouts of Twitter shaming and demands for firings and public apologies feel too much like that. Murong went on to write:

Socialist countries tend to emphasize national and collective interest ahead of individual rights and dignity. This has been a constant throughout 66 years of Communist rule in China, but in the past two years the tendency has become increasingly strident. Cases of public shaming show us how in the name of some great cause, individual rights, dignity and privacy can all be sacrificed.

Respecting the rights of individual citizens — even wrongdoers — is a fundamental principle of a moral society. 

Indeed it is. Calling out genuine prejudice or threatening behavior is one thing. But public denunciations of people for holding the positions that, say, President Obama held a few years ago are too reminiscent of the forced conformity of authoritarian regimes. Let’s not let technology turn us into a new theocracy.