Engineering the human soul

There’s no worse harbinger of your professional future than being dumped by the well-regarded people in your industry.

This was the fate that befell the camera crew who had been sent by the acclaimed film director Stanley Kubrick to a glacier park to shoot the footage for the opening credits of The Shining. The grandeur of the ice-laden mountains somehow failed to move them, so they completed their assignment out of a sense of duty, even suggesting to Kubrick as they handed their film over to him that it’d been a mistake to assign them to the location, as the place was nothing out of the ordinary. When Kubrick saw the footage, however, he was overwhelmed: “It was plain that the location was perfect but the crew had to be replaced,” he later recounted to an interviewer. Kubrick then sent a famous photographer to the same spot; this time he got back “some of the most beautiful mountain helicopter shots I’ve seen.”

In view of the recent spate of moves Beijing undertook to mold Hong Kong’s education system to its liking – everything from curriculum changes to the expectation that schools should observe the city’s first National Security day – this Kubrick story would resonate with many of the Hong Kong parents who are currently scrambling to send their children overseas for studies. For surely, no parent can bear the thought of her child trapped in the position of Kubrick’s first camera crew one day: cut off from fulfilling jobs because good employers and clients have dismissed her as third rate. Yet this is what will likely happen, if Beijing continues to tinker with what goes into Hong Kong children’s head: when the immediate preoccupation is to produce unthinking citizens incapable of questioning the regime, so be it if schools turn out a workforce that lags behind the west in expertise that requires vision and original thought.

I’m no child psychologist, so usually I can’t speak with authority on what the age window for successful brainwashing is. I have some idea of this now, thanks to two videos I recently came across on mainland social media. In the past couple of years, Mao-era tunes that everyone thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history are being sung again, and both videos show mainlanders dancing to The Great Helmsman will sail us through (大海航行靠舵手), the theme song of the Cultural Revolution.

One film clip features a toothless seventy-ish man in Red Guard attire marching to The Great Helmsman with a little red book in hand. He’s probably simply executing the steps he’d first learned decades ago as a red guard; even though his jumps have now lost their spring and his limbs their supplenessness, just hearing the tune is enough to animate him from within. One gets the distinct impression that all these years, his days as a red guard have remained the high point of his life. He’s living proof of the truth of the dictum “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

The second video shows a group of employees dancing to the same tune in the most perfunctory manner in the customer reception area of their company. Most are in their 30s and 40s, meaning they were born after the Cultural Revolution. Chances are a company higher-up forced them to do the dance, for it’s obvious from their stiff body language and wooden expressions that they see the act as a farce; a woman in the front row even has a smirk on her face, as if to conceal her embarrassment at having to stoop so low.

Watch these videos side by side, and you’ll understand Beijing’s obsession with “taking hold of subjects when they’re toddlers” (從娃娃抓起): the older a subject is, the harder it is to instill the slave mentality in her. This is why that little girl who was photographed pointing a gun in a mock subway train on National Security Day didn’t look more than 12 (the children surrounding her looked younger still). And why the Secretary of Justice has been making an all-out effort to punish senior school and university students who took part in the 2019 protests. By indoctrinating the impressionable while intimidating those whose personalities are more fully formed, Beijing hopes Hong Kong will soon stop being a city where people sing a song of angry men.

These days, mainlanders feel pressured to make a show of putting The Great Helmsman on a pedestal, but back in the 1980s, when the political climate was much more relaxed, they looked back in anger and made the song an object of ridicule. Someone rewrote its lyrics – the new content included an off-color description of the charms of having a wife – and ordinary people relished blasting out this new version in their homes. If history is to be of any guide, these days of “The Age of Absurdity” will end for Hong Kong too. This doesn’t mean those with children need not emigrate, for no child in Hong Kong is totally protected from the fate of that 70-ish man who’s still unwilling to part with his Red Guard uniform. The last thing Hong Kong parents want is a child who’s still making a song and dance about the glory days of Xi Jinping in her twilight years.

I'm Michelle Ng (吳若琦), an Oxford-educated bilingual political writer and English writing coach based in Hong Kong. I'm currently an English columnist for Apple Daily and Ming Pao, and a Chinese columnist for 眾新聞. I have written for Hong Kong Free Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Vancouver Sun. 

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