China: Controlling History

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell. 1984.

We scholars of Chinese and Japanese history stand at the door of China longing for access to accurate information on modern Chinese history.   Disappointed, but not surprised, we wait in vain as the Chinese government, like governments before them, fear the truth and construct history to fit an ideological agenda.   All the hype about economic miracles and modernization of China can not change the fact that China is an authoritarian state that can not by its nature move forward.

China’s iron grip on past impairs future on world stage

Sergey Radchenko. January 4, 2012. Sydney Morning Herald


Beijing’s monopoly on truth, at the expense of open inquiry, is incompatible with its search for prestige and acclaim.

With China stumping assertively on the world stage, one might think Beijing would be open, even gracious, about the country’s past. To the contrary, history remains a sensitive subject, drawing relentless attention from authorities anxious to keep all skeletons safely in closets.

As a university professor in China, I face the consequences of this official apprehension every day. My young, bright students know little about their country’s recent past. What they do know tends to agree with the government-sponsored discourse on the pride and glory of China’s rise after a century of humiliation by Western powers. Library and bookstore shelves tell, with enviable conviction, this same story of national grandeur. And it is hard to get around that government-approved tale.

We recently attempted to order a standard Western work on China’s history, Jonathan D. Spence’s The Search for Modern China. Our efforts ran aground when customs officials refused to allow the book shipment into the country. The agent proposed manually cutting out the censored sections, including photos of the Tiananmen Square massacre and Spence’s account of the Cultural Revolution, to get the customs clearance. These are things the Chinese people are not supposed to know.

Historians of China face secrecy and restrictions everywhere as the key archives remain largely inaccessible, even though the Chinese archives law provides for the opening of official documents after 30 years.

Some progress has been made with declassification, notably at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to appease international scholars. Academics can now read, though not print, digitised memos and telegrams from 1949 to 1965. Still, even these documents have been preselected to avoid potential embarrassment for the government. The party archives, which host the records of the Communist Party’s holy of holies – the Politburo – are closed.

Anyone in China interested in studying the origins of the Korean War, which took place more than 60 years ago, will not get very far. The Great Leap Forward? The Cultural Revolution? Same story. Uncomfortable episodes of China’s recent history have become a subject of official amnesia and a victim of the government’s monopoly on truth.

Consider the case of Lin Biao, a hero of the Chinese Civil War, and later Mao Zedong’s comrade-in-arms during the Cultural Revolution, who died in 1971.  Lin, who is well remembered for his appearances atop Tiananmen Square, the ”little red book” in his hand, supposedly conspired to kill the Chinese leader, even though he was Mao’s anointed successor. When the plot was discovered, he fled to the Soviet Union, then China’s arch enemy, but he never made it. His plane crashed in Mongolia after allegedly running out of fuel.

This is as much as the Chinese government is willing to say, 40 years on. We do not know whether Lin really planned to kill Mao. Their falling out could have been a personal feud or, as the chairman later claimed, a policy disagreement (Lin is said to have opposed the Sino-American opening).

In 2003, the crash report was leaked from Mongolian intelligence archives. Contrary to the official Chinese explanation, the report showed the plane had plenty of fuel when it crashed. No attempt had been made to land the plane and weather conditions were fine. Mongolian investigators concluded that the pilot made an error. However they had no access to the plane’s black box – the Soviet military took it. The Soviets later came back and took the heads of the two victims with golden teeth, which, it turned out, belonged to Lin and his wife.

These heads are said to remain at the archives of Russia’s Federal Security Service. Moscow has not released its findings about the crash and China has remained silent. Although we know precious little about Lin’s death, we know enough to conclude that at least part of Beijing’s explanation is a fabrication.

In the absence of archival openness and amid repression of free historical inquiry, these kinds of myths and fabrications underpin the official discourse on history in China – hence the need to repulse the infiltration of foreign books.

The time has come for strong and proud China to cast aside this fear of the past, which is incompatible with Beijing’s search for international prestige and acclaim.

True, China’s history is full of blood and tragedy. It is also full of remarkable feats and formidable breakthroughs on the path towards modernity. Both facets of its history, like the proverbial halves of yin and yang, make China what it is today.

Government efforts to control how history is read and taught are doomed to failure. The question is when today’s China will realise it should not resort to methods of information control handed down from a tyranny.

Sergey Radchenko is a lecturer in the history of American-Asian relations at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.


One response to “China: Controlling History

  1. Pingback: Book: A Little History of the World « jameskennedybeijing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s