How We Can Help Citizens of Totalitarian States

From the relative security of the western world, it’s easy to underestimate how many people around the world are living under totalitarian rule.

There are plenty of oppressive states that are not quite totalitarian: Sudan, Belarus, many of the Turkic nations (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, etc.), but are all under the thumb of authoritarian leaders.

As ghastly as those authoritarian regimes are, there are only two nations that meet the criteria of true totalitarianism—North Korea and Eritrea.

While lots of people are vaguely aware that the situation in both these countries is awful, few people actually understand the realities of life there.

This is partly by design. Totalitarian states tightly control the media and flow of information across their borders. Mass media relies on digital communications that, as has been demonstrated numerous times, are easy to control.

One of the biggest examples is China with setting the benchmark here with its Great Firewall, which tightly controls what Chinese citizens can see online.

Is there anything we can do to help people living in totalitarian countries? There is, actually. The responsibility of sharing what they cannot have become somewhat of a duty of ours.

Even if it might seem like a small contribution towards a big cause—such as sending a Tweet or sharing a video, but in this day and age where information is power, every little thing helps.

Hong Kong

The current protests in Hong Kong were sparked by an extradition bill that would have enabled the Chinese Communist Party to extradite Hong Kong citizens to face trial in the mainland’s opaque legal system.

Hong Kong has always enjoyed rights and freedoms not granted to mainland citizens. These are enshrined in the handover treaty signed between the UK and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which came into force in 1997.

Under the ‘One Party Two Systems’ principle, Hong Kong was supposed to continue to have its own legal body, courts, police force as well as freedom of expression and assembly.

The treaty only guaranteed these rights for 50 years. In 2047 the PRC should no longer be obligated to maintain the existing arrangements. However, Beijing has become impatient and has now triggered a full-on political crisis.

Hong Kongers look at the mainland, see the heavy censorship and restrictions on free expression, and know that they want no part of it. While China has a tight grip on the mainland internet, Hong Kong’s internet is access is unrestricted.

The PRC has been reluctant to extend the Great Firewall to the semi-autonomous territory because of the potential effect on international businesses.

But that isn’t to say that there’s no information suppression going on. The PRC has controlled the narrative in the mainland media, where the news refers to protestors as “rioters” and talks of “the seeds of terrorism.”

As a result, there’s little sympathy for the protests on the mainland.

But the protestors have been effective at reaching out to international audiences. They have relied on social media and secure messaging apps to enable them to communicate freely and organize themselves.

These channels have also been very important for documenting the protests and ensuring that there is a counter to the official narrative, which has failed to mention police brutality or collusion with locally organized crime groups.

China’s attempts at controlling the narrative goes far beyond its own borders. Social media platforms have become propaganda battlegrounds.

If you check any Reddit thread on the protests, you will find plenty of pro-Beijing posters who relentlessly parrot the official line.

We all have a moral responsibility to fight for the truth, especially in a world where the very worst elements of society are encouraging people to ignore the truth and substitute in their own version.

If we allow lies and propaganda to spread unchallenged, we all ultimately suffer.

North Korea

The best-known example of a truly totalitarian state in the modern world is North Korea. The North Korean system of totalitarianism is nominally rooted in socialism, but this is also a regime with ‘Democratic’ in its name, so their self-identity is a little inconsistent.

When it comes to totalitarianism and authoritarianism, it doesn’t matter if it’s allegedly left-wing or right-wing, it’s the similarities between such extreme systems that are important, not their purported ideological differences.

For example, totalitarianism is a system in which a single party seeks to rule with unquestionable power.

This is difficult if the people they are oppressing are able to freely communicate and organize—they will plot to overthrow the regime. Totalitarianism, therefore, requires strict limits on the freedom of speech and assembly.

Totalitarian regimes use propaganda to keep as much of the population on-side as possible. The more extreme the regime, the more extreme the propaganda needs to be.

The more extreme the propaganda is, the harder it is to sell. If information is able to freely flow back and forth over a regime’s borders, it will nullify their propaganda.

As a result, the flow of information is carefully controlled, and it is difficult for North Koreans to communicate with the outside world.

Much of what we know about life inside North Korea comes from people like Park Yeon Mi, a woman who managed to escape North Korea with her family at the age of 14.

Now 21 and living in Seoul, Yeon Mi is one of a number of defectors who are now telling her story and raising awareness about what life is like inside the world’s most oppressive state.

Yeon Mi was able to escape, thanks in large part to relatively fortuitous circumstances. For example, her family lived close to the border with China and even had family on the other side. Most of those who want to leave North Korea is unable to do so and many of those who try will perish in the attempt. When people do escape, many understandably want to keep quiet.

However, there is again a moral imperative for us all to do what we can to help people in this situation. Sharing their stories and raising awareness is important on an individual level.

As a society, we could do more to ensure that anyone who does make it out of North Korea is kept safe and offered asylum.

The North Korean regime fears the proliferation of information because of the corrosive effect it will have on their power. This proves how the simple act of sharing these people’s stories can provide some counterbalance to the regime’s propaganda machine.

Information Bias

Another issue with getting the message out about many of these totalitarian regimes is that we are all prone to bias. Sometimes it is these biases that keep the information contained. Consider two recent world events – the fire at Notre Dame cathedral and the burning of the Amazon rainforest.

In the case of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in the middle of Paris, the internet knew about the event within minutes. Not only that, billions of Euros were pledged towards the restoration effort (almost none of which has materialized).

The fires in the Amazon raged on for three weeks before the story gained any traction in the global media.

And it’s not like it came out of nowhere—Bolsonaro was quite clear about his intention to destroy the Amazon at the first opportunity since he started campaigning for President.

While Brazil has swung rightwards, it is not totalitarian. And yet it is only because of the efforts of ordinary people in the affected areas who spread the story that we came to understand the scale of what was happening.

If nothing else, this should demonstrate the power and importance of all of us participating in the free exchange of information.

All of us who are in a position to share important stories and experiences from those in need of help without any fear of repercussions should do so. In fact, we should embrace that we are able to.

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