China: Where Amnesia is a Political Weapon

In his report to the Twentieth Party Congress, Xi Jinping hailed the Communist Party as the driving force behind China’s revolution and modernization; looking ahead, he expressed his conviction that only under the leadership of the Communist Party can the country’s rejuvenation be successfully completed. But he also pointed to some serious problems that had existed before he took up the top leadership post ten years ago. “Inside the Party, there were many issues with respect to upholding the Party’s leadership,” he said, “including a lack of clear understanding and effective action as well as a slide toward weak, hollow, and watered-down Party leadership in practice.”

In his view, the most serious problem had been doubts spreading about the leading role of the Party. Therefore, the core of the political line during the past decade had been to strengthen the Party; during the coming period, he unsurprisingly declared that further strengthening the Party is a decisive precondition for the successful realization of “the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

This is the antithesis of how Xi’s critics view China’s recent history. For them, legally imposed limits on the power of the Party and more cultural and political diversity were promising signs of China departing from totalitarianism and embarking on a more enlightened course of development heading in the direction of an open society that can tolerate and even encourage pluralism, both as a value in itself and as a source of vitality and dynamism.

No Vergangenheitsbewältigung

Looking back at China’s history and the rule of the Communist Party, one could have thought that Xi would have something to say about the disastrous consequences of some of the Party’s campaigns in Mao’s time – about the land reform in the 1950s, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But no, there was not one word about this in his long report. In his world, these tragedies in China’s history which cost tens of millions of people their lives should either be hailed by means of an Orwellian kind of newspeak as part of China’s glorious revolutionary transformation or simply forgotten, as if they had never happened.

Abstractly praising the first thirty years of the PRC (1949-1979) as laying the foundation for China’s explosive economic growth and the beginning of social modernization in the post-Mao period, while keeping silent about the concrete dark sides of this era, has indeed become somewhat of a hallmark of the ideology prevailing in China. Rather than engaging in a critical reappraisal like the German Vergangenheitsbewältigung, this is the strategy that Xi Jinping and his associates have adopted to protect the Party. The officially decreed amnesia has perhaps met with less resistance from the Chinese population than one could have expected. One reason for this may be that many Chinese families find it too painful to think about what happened during those decades of totalitarian rule. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this wish to forget serves the Party leaders well in their ambition to consolidate the Party’s and their own power.

Officially decreed amnesia is by no means a new thing in China. The first photos from the funeral ceremony after the death of Mao Zedong included Mao’s widow Jiang Qing and the other members of the so-called Gang of Four. When soon after the funeral, these four politicians were arrested, they were also deleted from the photos. Everybody knew that they had been there, but this was a sign that one must not talk about it, and it was also a sign that this was best forgotten. Their presence must not soil the image of Chairman Mao that the new leaders wanted to project.

Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08

In 2008 Liu Xiaobo and a few of his friends wrote and published Charter 08, a document that called for negotiations and a gradual transition toward a democratic system of government. This charter, which is to date the most significant proposal of its kind, was initially signed by 303 intellectual and human rights activists and later signed by more than 10,000 people inside and outside China. But the leaders in Beijing refused to take this as a point of departure for meeting discussions and instead chose to imprison Liu Xiaobo for “inciting subversion of state power”. In 2010, the Norwegian Nobel committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, who was then in prison where he remained until his death in 2017. In China today, references to Liu Xiaobo are prohibited. Many people have never even heard about him, let alone about Charter 08, and this is precisely the purpose of the regime’s policy of officially decreed amnesia.

Ignorance of Modern Chinese history

When I was teaching in Hong Kong ten years ago, the majority of my students were master’s students from Mainland China. They were among the most talented students I have ever met,  not only talented but also curious and open-minded, with broad interests and impressive knowledge in different fields, not least about current events in the Western world. However, it was also striking how ignorant they were about some aspects of modern Chinese history. For example, they knew surprisingly little about the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward and about social criticism in modern China in general. Just to take one example,  they had never heard of the famous social critics Liu Binyan and Fang Lizhi. It was an unexpected experience for me to find how eager they were to share some of my knowledge of modern Chinese history. The reason behind their ignorance was no doubt a kind of amnesia, decreed by the authorities and upheld by their parents’ generation who wanted to bury difficult memories.

The Publisher Gui Minhai

In 2015, the Hong Kong publisher and Swedish citizen Gui Minhai was apprehended and abducted by Chinese security personnel while on vacation in Thailand and taken to China. In 2016 and 2017, he appeared on Chinese TV with confessions, which lack all credibility, saying that he had voluntarily returned to give himself up to the Chinese authorities and condemned the Swedish government for using him as a chess piece. In 2020, he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for “illegally providing intelligence overseas” in a closed trial. It has never been disclosed what kind of information he has been accused of spreading illegally, and neither his relatives nor the Swedish authorities were given any insights into the trial.

The abduction and treatment of Gui Minhai drew worldwide attention. Sweden, the EU and the US have voiced serious criticism of the Chinese authorities and demanded that he must be released. In Stockholm, manifestations demanding his release are regularly held outside the Chinese Embassy, most recently on October 17 this year, seven years after he was abducted from Thailand.

The official Chinese response is that Gui’s case is entirely China’s internal affair. They claim that he has asked to have his Chinese citizenship restored and therefore is no longer a Swedish citizen. This lacks credibility. Moreover, the Swedish government has pointed out that his citizenship cannot be revoked unless he himself formally asks for this to happen. Swedish representatives have not been allowed to meet him since January 2018 when he was travelling on a train to Beijing together with Swedish consular officials and, in their presence, was abducted by Chinese security before the train reached Beijing.

Gui Minhai’s case has seriously impacted Sweden’s relations with China and his treatment has also affected China’s image in many countries. In Mainland China, on the other hand, the media do not even mention his name and most people have probably never even heard about him. The authorities hope that he will also soon be forgotten outside China. This is another case of officially decreed amnesia.

The Writer Yan Geling

The writer Yan Geling, who was born and grew up in Shanghai, has U.S. citizenship and is now residing in Berlin. She is well-known both inside and outside China for her novels, short stories, and essays. Film director Zhang Yimou’s two recent films ,“Coming Home” and “One Second”, are based on her novel,The Criminal Lu Yanshi. In 2020, Yan wrote an essay criticizing the Chinese authorities for hiding the truth about the outbreak of COVID-19 and for punishing those who sounded the alarm. In particular, she wrote an essay in support of the Wuhan writer Fang Fang whose writings were banned in China after publishing the book Wuhan Diaries.

In a recent open letter that she wrote before the release in Sweden of Zhang Yimou’s film “One Second”, Yan Geling reveals that as a result of her essay all her work was banned from China. Her books were ordered de-shelved, new books could not be published, existing books were forbidden from being reprinted, and her film projects were stopped.

Before the release of the film “One Second”, Yan received a phone call from one of Zhang Yimou’s advisors, who apologized saying that the Chinese government censors had demanded that her film credit be deleted from the film as a condition for the film’s release. Her criticism of the cover-up of the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic made the Chinese leaders decide to silence her and turn her into a non-person, to be forgotten as if she had never existed. This is one more example how amnesia is used as a political weapon in today’s China.

At a time when unfettered studies and reappraisals of China’s modern history are badly needed, the Chinese leaders have decided to step up their ideological control to effectively silence any criticism, both contemporary and older, that might reflect negatively upon the Communist Party.

That Xi Jinping and his colleagues opt for what we here call officially decreed amnesia rather than courageously engage in a Chinese Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a great disappointment to all those in and outside China who hope to see China embark on a course toward becoming an open and dynamic society that, while drawing on its rich indigenous cultural sources, can play a positive role in the world.

In this situation, it must be the task of all true friends of China not to turn away. They should instead pay close attention and do whatever can be done to prevent this amnesia from spreading and keep the memories of what really happened in modern Chinese history alive.