Chinese Brainwashing Tactics of the Korean War

North Korea’s gamble had backfired. MacArthur’s had succeeded. The landings at Inchon took the North Koreans completely by surprise. Seoul was stormed. The North Koreans fled pell-mell over their own border. Seeing the chance to remove the communists from the Korean Peninsula entirely, MacArthur pursued the fleeing enemy into North Korea. Then, in a questionable move that later proved disastrous, he split his army while rolling the North Koreans back to the Chinese border. That was when the Communist Chinese made their move, taking MacArthur by surprise when they shouldn’t have. This led to the battles at the Chosin Reservoir and Americans being taken prisoner by the Chinese communists. This is where the Chinese brainwashing tactics came in.

In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini discusses at length how the Chinese communists interrogated and propagandized American prisoners of war with an astonishing success rate. To wit, nearly every American prisoner of war in the Korean War cooperated with their captors in some fashion. Somehow, they had turned a class of people who were notoriously uncooperative in World War II into useful sources of information and propaganda.

What makes it all the more astonishing is that, unlike the North Koreans, or earlier, the Japanese, the Chinese communists didn’t use harsh torture methods to obtain what they wanted. Indeed, if you read Cialdini’s other book, Pre-Suasion, you know this has a limited effectiveness.

Chinese Brainwashing Korean War

So how did the Chinese communists become so successful at brainwashing in the Korean War? It is a question worth answering, especially in light of the coronavirus and its attendant, Chinese-sponsored hysteria that was unleashed on the world.

There are six universal principles Cialdini goes over in Influence. It’s in the second chapter – that on commitment and consistency, where we see the Chinese brainwashing operation get dissected.

The Yes-Set Agreement

Initially, American prisoners captured in the Korean War were uncooperative with the Chinese communists, giving them only their names and serial numbers as in World War II. The Chinese didn’t start beating the American prisoners of war, though. Instead, they engaged them. The engagement began by steering them toward making a mildly negative statement about their own country and/or a positive statement about China. One example Cialdini cites is the following:

Communism would never work in America, but it is good for China.

Once statements like these were made by American prisoners of war, the brainwashing began. It’s a seemingly innocuous tactic, but it’s sneaky and sinister when we understand the mechanism and the purpose it’s being used for.

This small statement is a commitment. Once a commitment is made, people will feel a need to be consistent with it. The human brain hates inconsistency. Inconsistency produces cognitive dissonance and self-image problems, both of which are painful. And as we understand from conversational hypnosis (outlined in Unlimited Selling Power), once an agreement is made, it is far likelier that the person agreeing will continue agreeing.

Yet, the Chinese communists went much further than this. They accelerated their brainwashing tactics not only by securing bigger and bigger commitments – but by moving those commitments from private to public.

Public Commitments

The first step that the Chinese communists would make in securing more public commitments would be to get their American prisoners to write down their statements. Even if the writing is not published, putting something down in the written word is an active, rather than a passive, manifestation of belief. People think about things all the time, but writing thoughts down makes them more concrete and more easily absorbs them into their self-images. It’s why some people, like Scott Adams, believe in the power of affirmations. Writing things down is also a far better way of remembering them than just repeating them in your head. It’s why I’ve long taken the great George Carlin’s advice of writing down any insight you find useful or creative.

The Chinese communists played this up in the Korean War and then they took the next logical step. To do their brainwashing better, they would publish the essays in some form or fashion. Once this was done, there were elements of peer pressure involved. Prisoners would not want to look inconsistent or dishonest in front of others.

Indeed, the Chinese communists took these brainwashing tactics to their logical conclusion and sponsored essay contests for prisoners of war. They wouldn’t be instructed to disown their country or anything that dramatic, but merely list some mild criticism of America’s involvement in the Korean War with some mild praise for the Chinese style of communism.

The prizes for participating in these contests were pittances, Cialdini outlines. They often consisted of a few cigarettes or pieces of fruit. True, those things were rare (scarcity is another universal principle of influence), but the action (and public spectacle) of participating in the contest, more than the rewards, induced compliance. To quote Cialdini, the Chinese wanted their American prisoners to own what they did. They didn’t want to give the Korean War prisoners a mental excuse that they were coerced or induced by big rewards to participate in the contest. Once American prisoners of war mentally owned their decisions, they became a further part of their self-image, public and private, and so justified them more easily. That was what made the brainwashing truly effective.

There was a more overt method of coercion in these brainwashing operations. The Chinese impounded any attempts at mail from their prisoners, and often offered those privileges back if the American prisoners of war wrote down positive statements about their captors or mild criticism of their country in their correspondence. However, as we have seen, the publication of these statements to important members of those prisoners’ social circles forced a change in self-image.

The Coronavirus Parallel

Given its history of using these tactics in the Korean War, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Chinese Communist Party is exploiting similar behaviors in spreading its coronavirus propaganda.

After doing the best it could to cover up its own lies and incompetence in December 2019 and January of this year, it advertised its harsh lockdown response to the virus in Wuhan, all the while allowing people to leave that city and spread the disease internationally.

Meanwhile, it was using its influence with the World Health Organization to spread its narrative, culminating with its director’s infamous statement that “the government of China is to be congratulated.”

Here, too, “public health experts” congratulated China, such as Anthony Fauci’s comment that China was being a “lot more transparent” than it had been with SARS.

These statements were public commitments. They made the speakers committed to the impression that China “controlled the virus” magnificently while the CCP actually lied about the numbers all along. So when Italy and Europe got hit, the CCP used this ill-gotten reputation to sell the idea that only they knew how to handle the coronavirus, and figures like Fauci, whether wittingly or not, were essentially prisoners to their previous commitments. The rest is history.

As this second Cold War begins for real, we must navigate its opening phases with knowledge of the CCP’s information warfare tactics. Studying the events of this year and the Korean War POW camps provide good insight into the nature of the threat.

More good insight on the psychology of persuasion and information warfare can be found in Stumped. Trump may be going, but the subject matter extends well beyond him and the tactics therein will be useful in all parts of life, including spotting a CCP scam.

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