REVOLUTIONS WEAPONISE METAPHORS. They are deployed with poetic flourish. In the project of the Perfect Future the promises of equally shared happiness are spelt out in metaphorical slogans. They reveal the supreme leader’s commitment to the land reborn, the people reprogrammed, and the present decontaminated. Language has always been any revolution’s essential ally. In mass indoctrination, it turns the linear imaginations of the First Revolutionary into commandments. Metaphors control minds without pain.
Mao was a master of the craft. Metaphors made his revolution, apart from being a blood rite, a poetic invocation. He “let a hundred flowers blossom” and “a hundred schools of thought contend” for the sake of arts and culture within the boundaries of socialism. During the Cultural Revolution, the nomenclature itself a perfect example of how language camouflages mind-cleansing, he let revolutionaries “bombard the headquarters”. No other heaven-maker on earth manipulated language with such ease as the Chairman did.
Then, in the foundational mythology of the People’s Republic, Mao was poet, philosopher and the highest sovereign—the Absolute Being. Chairman Mao’s Nineteen Poems was an integral part of the revolutionary canon. And Mao’s thoughts were soundbites with a metaphorical flamboyance long before the television age. He reminded the proletariat that “revolution is not a dinner party”, and “power comes from the barrel of a gun”. Mao could abridge history in a series of metaphor-rich aphorisms.
One metaphor returns to show us how the angry streets of China today have inverted Mao’s thought. He saw the Chinese people poor and blank and didn’t think it was a bad thing because “on a blank sheet of paper the freshest and the most beautiful characters can be written; the freshest and the most beautiful pictures can be painted.”
The blank sheet of paper the protester is holding today tells a story Mao or his metaphors didn’t intend. After all, much was written on Mao’s blank paper by the Chairman himself and his successors who eventually turned him into a useful invocation with little real-time relevance. The towering achievement of China as the world’s second largest economy where the supervised freedom in the marketplace is matched by the regulated mind shows what could be built on revolution’s blank canvas—and at what cost.
Today’s “paper revolution” is the revenge of the metaphor. Blankness is suddenly eloquence. It carries a message for Xi Jinping, the new helmsman who intends to be the eternal leader, and who is busy now building a personality cult to match the historical size of Mao. His much-popularised Chinese Dream is the American Dream without America but infused with nationalist and civilisational pride. And it is a dream to be dreamt as told by the all-knowing, all-seeing state. Defiant streets are crying out that it is a nightmare.
The message debunks Xi’s sense of the perfect republic. It adds a subversive hue to the dream kept intact by the world’s most advanced panopticon. In a chilling article published in the Atlantic two years ago, Ross Andersen reported how China uses Artificial Intelligence to tighten social control, and how it exports the wares of techno-totalitarianism. “The emergence of an AI-led authoritarian bloc led by China could warp the geopolitics of this century. It could prevent billions of people, across large swaths of the globe, from ever securing any measure of political freedom,” he wrote with supporting evidence.
The pandemic challenged Xi’s Dream of a perfect society. The Chinese part in the provenance of the coronavirus may be an open-ended question, but the Chinese response to the virus is a study in surveillance socialism. The word virus itself, in communist parlance, is more of an evil metaphor than a microorganism, what with “counterrevolutionary virus”.
To crush such a foreign agent is to uphold the virtues of the living revolution. China created airtight social units to make the zero-Covid republic a triumph of ideology over microbiology. The Chinese gasped for free air and the streets erupted, blank papers sending out the loudest message.
This “incident”, to borrow Deng’s word for Tiananmen Square, may not provide us with another frozen image of a lone man daring a tank. It may not be the latest intimation of an inevitable Beijing Spring. It has made a deep crack in the iconography of Xi. It has already proved that the intelligence of the living can defy an algorithm-driven autocracy. And it has unravelled the dream of the world’s most powerful apparatchik.
Once poetry has run its course in the residual lands of revolution, metaphors become a lie. The blank sheets of paper held aloft by the Chinese living outside Xi’s Dream are real because they tell us how the counter-dreams of a generation can shatter the lies of the state and overcome fear—despite the panopticon.