The Chinese leadership refused to commemorate this year’s centenary of the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty. Obsessed with survival, will it allow challenges to its version of the past? Plus, a former Red Guard writes of new fearsby Isabel Hilton / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
A propaganda poster showing Mao Zedong with peasants during the Cultural Revolution. Discussion of his role in history is still banned
I was having dinner recently in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou when the conversation took a dark turn. A Chinese think tank director was talking about his doctoral thesis, written in the early 1980s, on the Cultural Revolution. The party archives still hold many documents that remain “sensitive,” in the official euphemism. The extent of cannibalism in the Cultural Revolution is something he had discovered during his research.
The documents included, the director claimed, a manual on how to kill, butcher and eat human beings. A younger guest pulled a horrified face; a veteran journalist noticed his response. “When you’re desperate,” the journalist said, “you will do anything.” He began to elaborate, then shook his head and, saying “I don’t want to talk about those things,” left the table.
History has always mattered in China, a country whose rulers have struggled to unite its many different ethnic groups and widely divergent languages, but whose modern borders date back only a few hundred years. In the 19th century, China trawled its past for reasons for its decline. Since 1949, the Communist party has deployed its version of that history to rule out democracy and consolidate the building of a modern nation. In 1989, after the bloody suppression of the democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, party strategists declared history to be a matter of national security.
Most striking this year, perhaps, is that the centenary of 1911, which marked the end of over 2,000 years of China’s imperial system, has gone largely uncelebrated. The party preferred to remember its own 90th birthday in July, perhaps unwilling to remind people that what the 1911 revolutionaries embraced were not the ideas of Karl Marx but democracy. Those who advocate the same values have had a hard time this year, be they eminent artists like Ai Weiwei, arrested in April and held for 81 days under tax investigation, or the human rights lawyers who have been harassed, detained or who have disappeared, or just friends and family of the Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo, himself a political prisoner. There is little appetite at the top to remind people of the fierce political debates of a hundred years ago.