China: at war with its history

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 fears
September 21, 2011
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.

But a sense of the country’s long past is woven through the fabric of life in China. It is invoked to legitimise arguments; it is present in the deep structures of a country that has never quite broken away from the imperial bureaucratic style of government. It exists in the bitter memories of middle-aged men and women; in the Communist party’s regular revisions of school textbooks to reflect its ideology; in the mind of a mother who, in her daily life, passes the Beijing stadium in which her son was executed. There are written and unwritten versions, remembered crimes, stories of murdered parents and grandparents, episodes of violence and coercion lying just below the surface of China’s older generations. There is a yawning generation gap, as young people are prevented from understanding the trauma of their elders.

The result is an ostensibly modern nation in which historians can still be fired or worse for deviating from the party line and in which, in the name of social stability and national security, a fifth of humanity must pretend to believe a national story invented to keep the Communist party in perpetual control. For a party that no longer practices socialism, the problem is what that national story should be, and how, in an age of mass communications, it can enforce this account as the only truth.

It used to be simpler. When ideology commanded the party and the country, China’s official story was one of a long night of feudal and semi-feudal darkness that ended in 1949 when the party led the workers, peasants and soldiers to their long- awaited liberation. After that, according to the tale, things just got better, albeit with the exception of the Cultural Revolution.

There is little disagreement in China today that the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in 1966 was, to use the words of the official judgement, a disastrous “ten years of chaos.” It was the apex of Mao’s personality cult, when he mobilised students and schoolchildren to attack senior colleagues in the Chinese Communist party who were trying to unseat him.

They had good reason. In 1958, 11 years after the Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists in the civil war, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, in which he aimed to overtake Britain in steel production and transform China into an industrial power. The result was forced collectivisation, forced labour on massive and often futile public works, rapid industrialisation and ill-founded agricultural policies. It killed anything from 27m to 46m people, historians estimate. Some died through starvation, others through disease, overwork, beatings and other abuses. It was not until the early 1960s, when famine had raged for three years, that the party belatedly acknowledged the dimensions of the disaster it had created and tried to edge Mao out of power.

His response was the Cultural Revolution, a nationwide frenzy of persecution and destruction that destroyed much of the Communist party and kept him and his wife, Jiang Qing, in control. A complete history of those ten years is still judged too dangerous to write. Perhaps there are still reputations to defend. Perhaps, as some have argued to me, it is still so close that a full account would reopen wounds and prompt people to seek revenge.

The official treatment of these narrative inconveniences has been to ignore or redefine them. The famine that followed the Great Leap Forward became “three years of natural disaster.” The 1959 rebellion in Tibet became the work of foreign agents in alliance with a “reactionary Dalai clique.” A small but bloody war of aggression against Vietnam in 1979 was termed a “self- defensive counter attack.” The biggest cascade dam collapse in history, in Henan province in 1975, which killed around 170,000 people and affected 11m others, was kept a state secret for more than three decades. None of these events was allowed to disturb the view that the historically inevitable victory of Communism had paid off well and that the workers, peasants and soldiers were content under the party’s enlightened leadership.

China, in truth, did not advance much under Mao. His campaigns wrought devastation on the environment and on agricultural and industrial capacity, reducing much of its population to virtual slavery. But at least the party then was confident in its role of steering China towards a bright communist future. The narrative difficulties began after Mao’s death in 1976, when Deng Xiaoping began to abandon the ideology that had all but bankrupted the country, and to edge quietly towards something that resembled capitalism, even if the name could not be used.

Popular demands for democracy grew steadily. In December 1978, responding to Deng Xiaoping’s call for “four modernisations”—of science, industry, agriculture and defence—an electrician at the Beijing Zoo, Wei Jingsheng, called for democracy, the “fifth modernisation.” His argument, set out in a Beijing wall poster, provoked hundreds of other posters to be put up around it, and through the spring of 1979, this “democracy wall” became the focus of a clamour for political reform. Nearly a year later, the authorities shut down this remarkable experiment in free speech and Wei spent much of the following 15 years in jail. Now in exile in the US, he is virtually unknown among China’s youth.

When the Tiananmen Square movement was crushed in 1989, the party decided that no such questioning of its record and right to rule should happen again. Above all, China’s leaders would not follow the example of Mikhail Gorbachev, in losing control of their country as they opened it up to the world. They settled on a new, patriotic version of history to help preserve the party’s grip on power as it slowly abandoned communism.

The party blamed Tiananmen on dangerous foreign ideas and the mission of public history became to demonstrate that foreigners had been behind the country’s major setbacks since the early 19th century. The people were to be persuaded that the party was all that stood between China and foreigners’ ill-intentions and that China’s long history and superior culture made it an exception to the widely observed phenomenon that, once they achieve a certain standard of living, people tend to demand a say in how they are governed.

In this narrative of exceptionalism, China escapes the threat of democracy because of its long, continuous history, and the general superiority and strength of its culture. I recently sat on a panel with a Chinese professor who argued to his international audience that China was the only country with 5,000 years of unbroken history, that it had never indulged in military conquest and that its unique civilisation made it unsuitable for democracy. He presented it as his own argument, but it is the party line.

There are a number of problems with this story, however. For a start, 5,000 years ago, China did not exist in a shape recognisable today. The true political father of the Chinese state is Qin Shihuangdi, the brutal first emperor of the Qin dynasty, who, some 2,000 years ago, conquered neighbouring princely states and founded a dynasty intended to last for 10,000 years. It collapsed a few years after the emperor was laid to rest, guarded by his terracotta army, but one of his achievements—to impose a single script on his diverse kingdom—was key in the construction of a core identity among people who spoke different languages. (Even today, however, a wide range of dialects and languages are spoken across China, despite government efforts since 1949 to teach Mandarin as the universal language.)

But the territory ruled by Qin Shihuangdi was still only a fraction of the size of today’s People’s Republic. The political entity that he created was to fragment and change repeatedly in the following centuries. China’s current borders date only to the 17th century, when the Manchu, a steppe people from beyond the Great Wall, invaded and conquered China in 1644. They founded the Qing dynasty, the last and biggest imperial dynasty, and ruled their vast territory until 1911. By the time that dynasty collapsed in 1911, China had doubled in size and claimed overlordship over a diverse series of peoples who had lived on the fringes of Ming dynasty China, including the Tibetans, the Mongolians, the Uighurs and other peoples of Xinjiang.

It is this recently constructed land empire that today’s China has struggled to form into a nation, claiming that the territories incorporated by the Manchu have always been part of China, and that the term Chinese applies equally to the majority Han and to the ethnic minorities now within its borders. The Qing emperors knew different: they spent much of the 19th century suppressing rebellions both by disaffected Muslims and those native Chinese who saw them as foreign oppressors.

The overthrow of the Qing dynasty 100 years ago brought to an end a political system that had been refined over 2,000 years. It is perhaps not surprising that the party refused to celebrate this year’s centenary: not just because of the revolutionaries’ pursuit of democracy, but the fragmentation of the empire that followed. As soon as the news the Qing dynasty had fallen reached Tibet and Mongolia, they declared independence. In Xinjiang, too, a long-running resistance took on new life. For the Han Chinese population there were other questions. People identified their country by the name of the imperial dynasty and their own allegiances largely to their home province. There scarcely existed a word for a China that had lost its imperial identity. The struggle to unite China continues today.

This history has been rendered opaque to new generations, not just by Mao, and by schoolbooks rewritten for changing party ideology, but by the reform of the written language after 1949, which made older books, often in difficult classical style, inaccessible to a general readership. In 1974, war crimes committed by the Japanese invading Manchuria in 1931, then China proper in 1937, had been so forgotten that when a Japanese delegation visited Fudan University in Shanghai where I was studying at the time, the campus was festooned with banners that proclaimed “Friendship between the Japanese and the Chinese People, from Generation to Generation.” The 1937-38 Nanjing massacre which left 150,000-300,000 Chinese civilians dead, and the Japanese occupation of China (1937-45), might never have happened. Nor were the mid-19th century Opium Wars with Britain prominent in the public memory.

After 1989, however, both the Japanese invasion and the Opium Wars were elevated to the status of national disaster to serve the new patriotic narrative. Today, the ruins of the Summer Palace, looted and burned by the British and French in 1860, are the centrepiece of an extensive memorial to a century of “national humiliation” and the Opium war is remembered in museums that recast it as a titanic struggle against imperialism. Museums to Japanese war atrocities and Chinese resistance have sprung up across the country; few of these mention the role of the US, Hiroshima or Nagasaki as factors in the Japanese defeat. Nobody puts up banners now to friendship, and Japan has been the target of recent nationalist street protests.

This patriotic narrative, devised in response to Tiananmen, has been refined in the past 20 years to claim credit for the new prosperity. The party has recast its mission as the return of China to its rightful place in the world. To support its new call for national “harmony,” it has even reached for the old, once-reviled philosophy of Confucianism; the sage’s philosophy of respect for social hierarchy and righteous rulers meets the needs of a neo-imperial regime bent on staying in the job. Officials have restored Confucius’s birthplace in Shandong province, ravaged in the Cultural Revolution, as a tourist attraction and bestowed his name on the institutes that China is seeding on university campuses around the world.

Nevertheless, history remains a problem for a Communist party in transition to capitalism. Leafing through a history of Tiananmen Square recently in a Beijing bookshop, I discovered that, from the government’s perspective, the main events in this space in 1989 were a visit by President George HW Bush and a celebration of National Day. Nor has any history of the Great Leap Forward been published in mainland China in 60 years.

The National Museum of China, one of the cornerstones of Beijng’s monumental centre, has spent almost as much time closed as open since it was inaugurated in 1959. Recently, it was shut for a $379m renovation that stalled over fierce debates about what it should exhibit, missing the deadline of the 2008 Olympics. When the doors finally opened, neither the Cultural Revolution nor the Great Leap Forward rated a mention. Of the almost 3,000 museums in China today, only two deal with the Cultural Revolution; one was built by a former mayor of Shantou in Guangdong province, himself a victim, and the other is in Sichuan, in a private museum cluster built by Fan Jianchuan, a former soldier who made a fortune in property development.

Fan is an obsessive collector of memorabilia. His warehouses are crammed with objects from every period of China’s contemporary history. A sign on an empty plot marked the site of a proposed museum to the Great Leap Forward, until local officials instructed him to take it down, but he has negotiated some modest deviation from the official narrative. One of his museums commemorates the US Flying Tigers who supplied Chongqing from Burma in the second world war, alongside another which documents Japanese brutality towards Chinese prisoners. Three of the 15 museums on the site display Cultural Revolution artefacts of every kind. What they fail to do is add a narrative. A visitor who knows the story can find much of interest. Others not familiar with the history will not find it here.

The Cultural Revolution, meanwhile, has been reinvented for younger generations as kitsch: there are themed restaurants, with waitresses dressed in baggy blue cotton Mao suits and a cabaret of “struggle sessions” can be found in many cities. There is also a thriving trade in fake Cultural Revolutionary tat, including grotesque porcelain tableaux in which kneeling intellectuals wearing dunce caps are harangued by Red Guards.

Even more bizarrely, in an effort to recreate a spirit of hard work and revolutionary sacrifice, the party boss of the southwestern city of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, has instituted the mass singing of Cultural Revolution songs. His enthusiasm for the era seems not to have been dampened by his family history. His father was a revolutionary leader who was purged in the Cultural Revolution; his home was sacked, the family dispersed and his mother died of ill-treatment by the Red Guards. It is not a history that many people would wish to celebrate in song.

China is still constructing its modern identity. Many of its citizens still hope for a society that truly belongs to the people, where nobody is above the law and in which freedom of expression and the right to participate in political life are finally achieved. For them the question of reform is not if, but when.

For the party, though, the answer to that question is never. Persuading its people that China’s history is as the party presents it, leading inexorably to the party’s continuation in power, is fundamental to its strategy. In China today, history remains a security matter, not for the nation but for the Communist party itself.


It is not only the ruling party which fears revealing the truth about China's history, says Shen Jun

Shen Jun was born in 1963 to a military family in central China. During the Cultural Revolution, he was a Red Guard and later, after graduating from university, he became a government official. From the early 1990s onwards, he worked as a representative of western companies in China.

Modern Chinese history remains a Pandora’s box that nobody dares open. The history we study as a nation is extremely selective: it is a long list of patriotic heroes and martyrs who served, and often died for, the party. People do not know the truth. If you haven’t lived abroad, if you don’t have access to objective historical materials, how can you have a genuine understanding of what has happened? Nobody in China has a right to facts.

In China, there is no tradition of individualism—the word has an absolutely negative meaning in Chinese, equating to selfishness. In Chinese tradition, the individual’s life belongs to the collective. In modern China, this means the party. China’s leaders think the problem of western countries is that the people are far too individualistic. That’s why they’re all so unhappy, why they’re constantly harping on about their problems, rather than thinking of the nation as a whole. In China, they say, we look to the collective, and we’re much happier because of that.

If you ask almost anyone of the older generation about their lives, they’ll tell you stories of struggle, loss, bitterness, pain. But you’ll often notice how they try to look beyond their personal disappointments and tragedies to the story of the nation—to the satellites we’ve put in space, the nuclear weapons we’ve developed, the highways and bridges and cities we’ve built.

As for the younger generation, you have to remember that all their lives—in the media, in their schools, even at home—they have been bombarded by patriotic propaganda. Every day they have learned that today is better than yesterday, yesterday than the day before; every day they have been told they must sacrifice their own small, selfish interests for the good of the nation. Perhaps their family suffered in the past, but look around, isn’t China much better off now than it was during the civil war?

Mao dominates the history of “new China” and people’s judgement of him largely depends on their generation. Most under the age of 40 are quite indifferent to him. They only know what they’ve been told about him: leave him alone, they’ll say, the poor old man has been dead for many years. If you persist in questioning, they’ll tell you he was a great leader; probably he made some big mistakes but, after all, his achievements were huge. He saved the country from imperialism, colonialist exploitation and humiliation. He made China “stand up.”

For the older generation—for my parents, say—Mao was the one God. To negate Mao in any way would have been, for them, to negate themselves. He was also a habit. His collected thoughts and teachings were so much a part of our lives that if you rejected them, you were negating your own existence. My father was a military man—he fought in the civil war and in Korea—and for him to reject Mao would have been unthinkable. Mao was him.

Actually, Mao was all of us, which made it hard to reject him. This symbiosis between the leader and the people is still convenient, not just for the party but for the nation. The party continues to ban discussion of Mao’s role in our history: his legacy, it says, was 70 per cent correct and, if he was 30 per cent wrong, well, let’s forget about it. Let’s celebrate his achievements and forgive his mistakes so there won’t be chaos and instability.

I have talked with many Chinese historians about these issues. They face an acute, perhaps unique dilemma. They cannot write true history without fear of getting into trouble. But they also fear that, if they tell the true story—if they reveal that the country is built on lies—there will be chaos and perhaps, civil war. Many historians are intensely aware of the conflict between, on the one hand, political stability and social harmony, and on the other, historical truth. It is not only the party which fears what will happen if the true story gets out.

Of course, if the truth about modern China’s history were to become common knowledge reactions would vary. I think some people would feel it’s all too late. China has entered a period of relative prosperity, they’d say, let’s forget about the past. If you’re my brother’s age—he’s 53—you can look back at the history you’ve lived through, and say that, comparatively, the last 30 years haven’t been bad. For the first time in centuries, the Chinese people have started to enjoy relative peace and harmony. Do I have the right to disturb that situation? That is why few people openly criticise the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution or the use of force in Tiananmen Square.

There would still be a large group, though, who wouldn’t accept what happened to their parents and grandparents. They wouldn’t accept how the party treated people, including many party members—for the party persecuted and destroyed many of its own. The party knows very well that the Pandora’s box they’re holding is made of porcelain and that, if they drop it by accident, the consequences might well be beyond their control.

The moment our recent history is opened up to objective scrutiny will be the moment of democratisation for China, but it will probably also be one of great chaos. The only thing left in Pandora’s box, once all the evil spirits had escaped, was hope. Many fear that is how it would be in China too. Once you have let the demons escape, you can’t put them back in the box again.

The author’s name has been changed