How the Chinese State is rewriting history and enforcing amnesia on people

Superb piece by Prof. Louisa Lim University of Melbourne.

She writes on how Chinese State is rewriting history to suit its interests:

The French historian Ernest Renan said:

Forgetting … is a crucial factor in the creation of the nation.

In contemporary China, it’s put into practice with surgical skill. Specific memories of events deemed sensitive by the state are not just forgotten, they are winnowed out and selectively deleted. The Communist Party has succeeded in hacking the collective memory.

National amnesia has become what Chinese writer Yan Lianke calls a “state-sponsored sport”. And as Beijing’s global influence rises, its controlling instincts – to tame, to corral, to shape, to prune, to expurgate history and historical memory – are increasingly being exported to the world.

The first move was an attempt in August 2017 to bully Cambridge University Press into removing online access in China to 300 articles from the China Quarterly journal. These were pieces on topics deemed sensitive, such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen crackdown.

The publisher at first bowed to Chinese demands and only reversed its position after public backlash. But statements by the Journal of Asian Studies, Critical Asian Studies and Springer Nature indicate that this case is part of a larger campaign.

Chinese censorship has also made inroads into Western publishing houses. For instance, Springer Nature, which publishes Nature and Scientific American, deleted around 1,000 articles from its Chinese website, citing “local distribution laws”. In doing so, Western academic presses end up serving the CCP’s purpose by propagating only state-mandated “correct views of history” inside China, as if no alternatives exist.

It is also censoring its own archives, as work by Glenn Tiffert has forensically uncovered. His comparison of electronic and paper versions of China’s legal journals found that in one journal 87% of the page count had been excised.

At home, Beijing’s tightening grip on history deigns not only what can be remembered, but also the manner in which it can be marked. In the case of the events of June 4 in Tiananmen Square, small-scale commemorations that once flew beneath the radar are now regularly punished, often through vague charges such as “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”.

Every year, Chinese activist Chen Yunfei had paid his respects at the grave of Wu Guofeng, a 20-year-old student who was shot and bayoneted to death by troops in Beijing on June 4, 1989. In March 2017, Chen was sentenced to four years in jail for this simple act of remembrance.

This forced amnesia is not just about China but spreading globally too:

With China’s rise, it now finds itself in a position to amplify its version of history to a global audience. Following the 2017 meeting in Mar-a-Lago between Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump, Trump describedhis conversation to The Wall Street Journal:

He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years … and many wars. And Korea actually used to be part of China.

Such a distorted reading is in line with a growing body of nationalist thought in China.

Increasingly, Beijing is marshalling its own version of history to support its territorial claims overseas. This is the case, for instance, of the Nine-Dash Line, which China says gives it a historical claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. China has refused to accept the Hague-based international tribunal’s ruling that this claim has no legal basis. Disgraced Australian politician Sam Dastyari even echoed the “thousands of years of history” line to back China’s refusal to abide by these rulings.

Recently, a map dating from 1951 has been uncovered. It is being used by researchers to propose new boundaries, though it is not clear whether Beijing could adopt them.

China has also invoked history to legitimise its massive One Belt One Road international infrastructure scheme, despite critics claiming that its premise relies on mythologised history.

The Chinese Communist Party is actively trying to export its version of the past beyond its borders. But these examples should serve as a warning. If Beijing is given a free pass on history, the international ramifications could come back to bite us in the years ahead.

Indeed!

One Response to “How the Chinese State is rewriting history and enforcing amnesia on people”

  1. Prabhu Guptara Says:

    It is only free and open societies that have the courage to create and maintain mechanisms (such as academic and journalistic freedom) that help them to face uncomfortable things in their past and present.

    Similarly, the only route to personal freedom, healing and the restoration of relationships is to have the courage to face uncomfortable things about oneself.

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