1984 in 2018

By pushpedal | Pedalling Continents | 6 Aug 2019


Pheng first heard about George Orwell's 1984 book in social studies class at Edgewater College. At that time, his interests were mainly naming countries and their capital city. In this journey through Asia, we engaged with many people discussing the political situation, internal affairs and the daily struggles.

We'll compare experiences of our journey to that in Mr Orwell's book. It may help if you have read the book already, but the general idea should be easy to understand.

Two Minutes Hate

In the first chapter of the book, George wrote about the "Two Minutes Hate" which the authority used to channel everyone's anger towards a person or figurehead. Here is a snippet from the book:

He took a chair in the same row as Winston, a couple of places away. A small, sandy-haired woman who worked in the next cubicle to Winston was between them. The girl with dark hair was sitting immediately behind.

 

The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started.

As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust.

Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure.

It was after the unfortunate Christchurch Mosque attack that a more bizarre news came to light. The video footage from the attacker was being played at political rallies in Turkey. This was disrespectful and tacky. When we learned more from a BBC News news article, we drew some similarities to the book.

Christchurch shootings: Why Turkey's Erdogan uses attack video

It begins with dramatic music, edited in for effect.

Then stills of the manifesto posted by the gunman in New Zealand before his terror attack, highlighting and translating the sections targeting Turkey.

The video streamed live by the attacker comes next, shooting his way into a Christchurch mosque, before blurred images with the sound of automatic gunfire.

And then a cut to Turkey's opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, talking of "terrorism rooted in the Islamic world".

The crowd boos wildly, galvanised by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has now shown the footage during at least eight election rallies.

2019 was election year in Turkey and politics was hot topic. From the many hosts we stayed with, it was clear which side of the political spectrum they were on. We've learned that people would use the term "open minded". This could mean several things:

  • they know the state of the world (not just in their country)
  • they know when the authority is feeding lies
  • they watch what they say, being watchful for "spies"

Thought Police

Throughout the book "Thought Police" is described as everyday spies plugged into devices around you.

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

 

During our stay in China and Iran, the fear of these Thought Police were real. There were two instances we remembered people behaving strangely because of this.

Iran's Basij

We are at a kebab restaurant once, just the two of us, and were approached by the chef. Quietly he bent down and said to us—of all the English he knew—that the "mullahs are terrorists". He gestured his finger stirring over our head for "mullah", and finger gun for "terrorists". At first we thought it was weird he said this to us, but later we realized he couldn't say that to any Iranians.

The military branch called basij are known to spy on everyone. We were told they could be anyone in your circle, regardless of how old or young they are. Non Muslim we met feared about their religious status being revealed putting them in great danger. "You could be killed and the police won't do anything"

China's Hostel

The accommodation for tourists in China are separate for the locals. Provider needs to have a license to have foreign guests. At one hostel we were in the hangout space talking with fellow travelers. We met a French woman teaching English in Xinjiang and talked a lot about the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet. She said things have become more difficult in recent years. It is possible the area will be closed off to travellers in the near future.

Before talking to her, we were casually chatting about the awful situation for the Uighurs to another tourists over a shared watermelon. The French woman overheard us and said:

We have to be careful what say, this place is likely to be bugged. Even as a foreigner you can't get away with "everything".

 

A few years living in China would increase some paranoia. The stories we wrote in our blog are heavily watered down, we waited until we left these countries before writing anything about it.

Doublethink

Here is a great description of 'doublethink' from the book:

His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself.

 

One of the most frustrating time on our trip was in West China. The authorities were extremely annoying and unhelpful. Perhaps our style of traveling wasn't what they're used to. As long term travellers, we depend on freedom camping and camp almost anywhere possible. One time we had to camp at the end of a quiet street, with given permissions from the neighbours. It faced the corn field and was quiet from the highway. Looked absolutely safe to us.

Moments later more neighbours showed up to learn about our adventure. We said we liked China, Xinjiang and the people. We were not concerned about sleeping outside because it is safe here. Some people agreed that the place is very safe—"Xinjiang is very safe". Someone secretly notified the authority so later a guy showed up later and asked for our ID. Soon after he said it's not safe here and we had to go. We resisted and tested his reasoning. "Everyone says Xinjiang is safe, safety is number one". We pointed to the corn field asking what possible danger would arise. He couldn't answer.

It annoyed us all the time because while claiming Xinjiang is very safe (so they can promote more tourism and investment), on the ground they don't believe that we'll be safe. Eventually we got better at hiding from authorities when camping.

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Random police patrol on the streets of Xinjiang

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We got visited by the police

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Camping in the big ditch provided great cover

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