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Interview

Coronavirus sheds light on China's 'propaganda machine': filmmaker

Leon Lee says Beijing has turned outbreak failure into a party success story

Chinese Canadian documentarian Leon Lee promotes his latest film "Letter from Masanjia" in Tokyo ahead of its March 21 release. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

TOKYO -- Leon Lee, a Chinese Canadian documentary filmmaker who focuses on human rights, considers his friends in China more open-minded and worldly than their average compatriots.

Their perspective on the coronavirus pandemic, however, has reminded him of the power of Beijing's propaganda.

"They said, 'You need a system like the Communist Party to defeat the virus,'" Lee said, adding that the friends praised the lockdown of Wuhan, the city of over 10 million people where the pathogen first spread. But Lee is convinced that if information about the virus had not been smothered early on, "you wouldn't need to lock down the entire city."

"That's the point," Lee told the Nikkei Asian Review in a recent interview in Tokyo, where he was promoting his latest film on Chinese reeducation camps.

He does not believe his friends have become more gullible. On the contrary, he chalks their views up to China's "propaganda machine" becoming "even more sophisticated."

In the past, he said, the authorities "would ignore [inconvenient] issues, but now they will spin it in a way, just enough so that you come to your own conclusion." Beijing has taken a story of a mishandled outbreak and turned it into a narrative of a successful fight led by the party, he argues.

Kong Xuanyou, China's ambassador to Japan, on Friday stressed that Beijing had responded to the outbreak in an "open, transparent and responsible manner." Speaking to reporters at the National Press Club in Tokyo, Kong said China's measures "have been praised” by the global community, as its actions "bought precious time for the world."

There was a time when Lee, who grew up in China's northern port city of Dalian, would have accepted that argument. 

He said he shared his friends' mindset until he moved to Canada in 2006, at age 25. When he saw footage of the Tiananmen crackdown of June 1989, he recalled, his first reaction was "anger toward my friend who showed me the video."

He had always thought of the incident as "propaganda fabricated by the CIA to defame our country" -- an idea echoed in recent attempts by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson to suggest the coronavirus might have been brought to China by the U.S. military.

Gradually, through his own research and his studies at the University of British Columbia in Canada and later Cornell University in the U.S., Lee came to realize that many of the history lessons he had learned back home "were false."

During this "painful experience," Lee said he changed his views toward the Chinese government's treatment of people deemed the "five poisons": Uighur and Tibetan separatists, Falun Gong practitioners, pro-democracy activists and Taiwan independence advocates.

Now he considers them "the best people in China" -- people like the man featured in his film "Letter from Masanjia."

Lee was in Japan prior to the release of the documentary last Saturday. The film, which originally premiered in Canada in 2018, tells the story of Sun Yi, an engineer and Falun Gong adherent who endured crushing laojiao, or reeducation through labor, in Masanjia, Liaoning Province.

One of the 20 desperate letters Sun slipped into Halloween decorations that he and his fellow inmates were forced to produce reached a woman in Oregon, who bought the ornament for $29.99 at Kmart. This stroke of luck eventually led to Sun's flight from China and the abolition of laojiao in 2013, though other forms of arbitrary detention continue.

The Chinese authorities, Lee said, are "afraid" of people like Sun who "tell the truth."

Much of the film was shot by Sun himself in China, under the remote direction of Lee in Canada. Sun later died of acute kidney failure in Jakarta despite having no record of a kidney condition -- a death his allies consider suspicious. Sun's body was cremated without an autopsy.

Lee believes propaganda and violence are the two pillars that keep the Communist Party in power. "That's it. If you take away any one of them, they will collapse," he said.

Another pillar might be the ever-expanding web of surveillance, backed by artificial intelligence. The epidemic appears to be only driving the spread of this technology.

Cleaners in face masks work outside a shuttered shop in the coronavirus-stricken city of Wuhan in February.   © Reuters

But Lee is optimistic that "with enough awareness, propaganda would not work, and the people who are providing violence -- like soldiers and police -- will no longer do that." And he thinks the coronavirus, which has already killed over 3,000 by the official count, will ultimately work against Beijing.

"One day it will reach a tipping point, and it could be something so trivial," he said. "It could be much sooner than I would expect, by looking at how they handled the virus situation, which is complete chaos."

At the same time, Lee contended, "For a lot of people who appear to be defending the Communist Party, what they are really doing is defending their self-esteem. Because of the propaganda and brainwashing, they [cannot] tell apart the Communist Party from the culture and the people."

For now, he feels a duty to "tell people what is really going on."

"There's nothing more effective than that. There's nothing more that the Communist regime is afraid of."

Lee is sure that the government in Beijing does not want the world to see "Letter from Masanjia," but thinks the authorities have "learned that anything they do [to push back] will only help me to get more publicity for the film."

He said this was the case with his first release, 2014's "Human Harvest," which explored allegations of systematic organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners in China's state hospitals. Back then, various voices in the media denigrated him and the film, claiming the organ harvesting accusations were a "complete fabrication" by Falun Gong. Controversy, of course, attracts attention.

"I wish they will do something to help me," he said. "But they apparently have learned from their mistakes."

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