When Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee decided that he was going to hold a press conference to reveal what had happened to him after he disappeared for months into China, he had to know the stakes were high.
To the Chinese Communist Party regime that thrives on the control of information, the very act of distributing a different account of events is defiance on a major scale. Lam was a political target before, enough to be arrested and kept in illegal detention with no access to lawyers for months. Now a full on smear-campaign is underway.
Everyone from his girlfriend to his ex-colleagues to various officials have publicly called him a liar and worse.
The approach, however ugly, is nothing new: smear campaigns have long been convenient political tools for Beijing, trotted out at the very time a political enemy or critic gathers supporters inside or outside China. They’re typically run alongside even more brutal and threatening campaigns aimed a shutting down the party’s critics.
In fact, you could even say there’s a playbook—and it looks something like this:
Step 1: Attack the person, not the politics
Go after your target’s character, without addressing the government actions they are complaining about. This is particularly effective when you have complete control of the media, as is the case inside mainland China.
When artist Ai Weiwei was arrested in April 2011, he was in the midst of producing politically-charged art that challenged the official accounts about thousands of children killed by the Sichuan earthquake. Ai was charged in June of the same year only for tax irregularities.
His political opinions, and his project, were never mentioned [...].
Step 2: Force a confession
The Cultural Revolution had public confessions in improvised “people’s tribunals” in schools and major streets. A more modern approach is the televised confession on China’s state-controlled media. These confessions happen before a trial, in direct contradiction to the party’s pledge to strengthen the rule of law.
Hong Kong booksellers Gui Minhai and Lee Bo were subjected to this treatment, one admitting to a 2003 hit-and-run accident and the other claiming to be appalled by the titles he used to publish beforehand [...].
Step 3: Go after the family
When you can’t silence a critic, pressure their family to be silent instead—or to participate in the smear campaign themselves.
“You can see a pattern from other cases,” says Patrick Poon, China researcher for Amnesty International: “your family and friends are put under pressure to say things against you.” But, he added, that is “carefully done only through the mainland media” which is tightly censored, so no dissenting accounts can appear [...].
Step 4. Cherchez la femme
A good smear campaign is always better with a bit of a sex scandal, the more humiliating the better. In the case of bookseller Lam, a woman claiming to be his girlfriend was interviewed in a secret location by pro-Beijing newspaper Sing Tao. In the interview, she says that Lam is not “manly enough”, and has given “a bad name” to Hong Kong men–hinting at sexual practices unworthy of a more masculine lover [...].
Step 5: Instill fear
If you’ve done steps one through four correctly, you’re pretty much guaranteed to arrive at step five.
Beijing’s smear campaigns and pressure on families are so prevalent that some people don’t speak out against government policies or actions they think are unfair, because of the threat of them [...]
To read Timmons and Sala's entire article, click HERE.