The Wikipedia article on brainwashing states:

Hunter and those who picked up the Chinese term used it to explain why, during the Korean War (1950-1953), some American prisoners of war cooperated with their Chinese captors, even in a few cases defecting to the enemy side.[10] British radio operator Robert W. Ford[11][12] and British army Colonel James Carne also claimed that the Chinese subjected them to brainwashing techniques during their war-era imprisonment.[13] [ . . . . . ]

In 1956, after reexamining the concept of brainwashing following the Korean War, the U.S. Army published a report entitled Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination, and Exploitation of Prisoners of War which called brainwashing a "popular misconception".[16] The report states "exhaustive research of several government agencies failed to reveal even one conclusively documented case of 'brainwashing' of an American prisoner of war in Korea."[17]

The English language article refers to Korean War cases, but there is also a famous case from World War II: the Japanese soldiers who formed the Association of Returnees from China have testified extensively about war crimes that they committed, but Japanese right-wingers reject all their testimony, claiming that Chinese "brainwashing" has rewritten their memories.

The current scientific consensus is that there is no such thing as "brainwashing", but science, of course, is subject to change based on evidence, and this would be a major case study.

My specific question is: did the Chinese during 1940-1955 employ a special technique that caused soldiers to view their own countries as evil and defect to the Chinese side?

  • 2
    As I recall from my time in the Air Force, they attributed these cases mostly to a case of feeling abandoned by their country (not knowing that the US still supported them in any way) and the verbiage in the Code of Conduct was meant to address that.
    – JasonR
    Mar 20, 2017 at 13:39
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    There must be done kind of Internet law where if you put the word Chinese before anything, it suddenly has more reliability, though ironically made mystical at the same time.
    – user11643
    Mar 29, 2017 at 15:29
  • 1
    "Brainwashing" is a term used to avoid thinking about why someone does not share your beliefs. Its one of those irregular verbs: I know the facts, you have opinions, he's biased, they've been brainwashed. Sep 20, 2017 at 17:07

1 Answer 1


I took a look at the most important sources about this, namely:

  • Robert Jay Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961)
  • Edgar H. Schein's Coercive Persuasion (1961)
  • The documentary They Chose China, which is freely available online
  • Skeptoid podcast

The books do describe a top-down command from Mao Zedong that non-Communists must be put through a "re-education" process, but this order was enacted in very different ways throughout China at the time, mostly with no success. It was in Korean POW camps that it found the greatest success of perhaps a half-dozen permanent converts. Why was that? According to these sources, the Korean War POWs faced a perfect storm which made conversion to the other side especially appealing:

  1. The Korean War was not a very popular war, as America wanted to return to peacetime society after WW2. The soldiers did not know America's justification for war, and they knew very little about the Chinese. Some had never finished school, were first-generation immigrants, or were unfamiliar with the concept of ideology. They were led blindly into an unwanted war, and the Chinese argued that communism was the way to peace.
  2. From 1951 to 1953, POWs were kept in starvation level conditions against the Geneva Convention. In 1953, the camps were handed over to the Chinese, and the POWs were quite surprised to be referred to as "students" rather than "prisoners" and treated with dignity. Those who defected had generally expected to die and found life under the Chinese surprisingly tolerable.
  3. Because Army regulations were not yet clear on the extent of cooperation with the enemy that was permissible, the POWs were uncertain where to draw the line. The Code of Conduct was later drawn up because of this.
  4. Chinese "educators" spoke to the POWs reasonably. Most were unconvinced regardless, but a few started to become interested in what they were saying, for example Clarence Adams:
    enter image description here

The scientific evidence shows that what the American press called "brainwashing" was merely "coercive persuasion," persuasion techniques backed with the promise of reward and the threat of punishment. It did not turn people into zombies or robots. Many of the defectors, including Clarence Adams, eventually renounced Communism and returned to the US (see Skeptoid podcast), and more violent persuasion techniques elsewhere in China produced effects more similar to torture.

I did not look into the Japanese situation in depth but it appears to have been similar to Korea: soldiers expecting continued pain and death were treated well instead, and asked mainly to give a fair hearing to the perspective of their Chinese caretakers. Japanese soldiers had been taught that the Chinese they killed were barbaric devils, so the permanent change of heart that ensued is not too surprising.

In conclusion, "brainwashing" is not too far from "Stockholm syndrome," and both are simply mildly effective ways to make captives pay attention to their captors.

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