The Passive Voice of Control

September 6, 2019
Liz Carter
Linguistics of control in Hong Kong and Xinjiang – Liz Carter

In Hong Kong, millions have taken to the streets to protest the erosion of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy. In Xinjiang, over a million ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities have been separated from their families and confined in detention facilities that fit the criteria of concentration camps. But as much as these two situations are often the subject of international news coverage, something is missing.

Take the first two sentences of this article. What is missing? The active voice. Something is the agent behind the “erosion” of Hong Kong’s freedoms. Something is the force imprisoning people in Xinjiang camps. These things don’t happen by accident. But the phrasing is natural enough, grammatically correct, and not unlike what you might find in news reports or even a US government statement.

Linguistic invisibility serves many masters. Often, observers innocently leave out the active subject because it is offstage, out of sight. In some cases, journalists choose wording of this nature to avoid explicit statements of causality, letting readers draw their own conclusions (and dodging libel suits). Yet the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) use it deliberately, and often successfully, to craft a certain view of reality.

The most insidious part of linguistic engineering is what people can’t see: the blurred meanings and information control of language”