PROPAGANDA AND HISTORICAL AMNESIA IN MODERN CHINA

CHINESE PROPAGANDA

rightControl of the media and culture is essential for leaders to get their message and agendas across. Mao Zedong once said that control of information and control of the gun are the two pillars of Communist Party power.

In the old days, Communist propaganda had a strong influence on the masses. A single word or phrase from Mao Zedong could mobilize millions. These days propaganda is largely greeted with a shrug. Few people tale it seriously anymore. Even so political satire in China is largely absent. China doesn’t even allow cartoons of its leaders.

The Propaganda Department is now known as the Publicity Department. New policies are still sometimes introduced with old fashioned Communist marketing. Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” policy was inaugurated with a play called the "Vanguard of an Era," featuring the stories of six heroes that personify the virtues of the theory. After seeing it a member of a selected audience told the People Daily “an audience of hundreds felt their souls fiercely shaken, and or eyes flowed with tears." The Propaganda Department is headed by the Central Leading Group on Propaganda and Ideological Work, whose leader is often a member of the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo and whose deputy leader is a member of the Politburo. The new The Propaganda Department headquarters is located next to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound.

Rana Foroohar wrote in Time: When leaders begin blaming "international hostile forces" for problems at home, it's a sure sign they've got trouble. That's exactly what Chinese President Hu Jintao did recently in a speech, published by a Communist Party magazine, in which he accused outsiders of plotting to "westernize and divide China." The hard-line rhetoric is likely aimed at diverting attention from a growing list of internal issues, including income inequality, unemployment and discontent over blatant land and money grabs by self-dealing state officials and developers. [Source: Rana Foroohar, Time, January 16, 2012]

See Mao, Propaganda, History; Reading Between the Lines, See Media.

Propaganda and Ideology in China

The famous “Mao Zedong thought” is already buried under a wave of new ideas. These include the reformist theories of Deng Xiaoping; the “Three Represents” of party chief Jiang Zemin adopted in 2002, and the “harmonious society” of current President Hu Jintao.

In May 2010. Qiushi, or “Seeking Truth,” the official magazine of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee published an article by Vice President Xi Jinping on improving official writing or speech styles. At an opening of the CPC Central Committee Party School's spring semester, Xi told more than 900 officials and new student cadres that they must eradicate “empty words” and political jargon from their speeches and documents. He also urged Party leaders to learn “colloquial wisdom” from the public and make their speeches and articles more easily understood by common people. [Source: Xinhua, Global Times, May 16, 2010]

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief, “In 2010, ideologues and propagandists have been waging a campaign that is focused on distinguishing four boundaries. In a nutshell, party commissars are demanding that China’s intellectuals, particularly college teachers and students, make clear-cut distinctions between four sets of values. They are Marxism versus anti-Marxism; a mixed economy that is led by Chinese-style public ownership on the one hand, and an economic order that is dominated by either private capital or total state ownership on the other; democracy under socialism with Chinese characteristics versus Western capitalist democracy; and socialist thoughts and culture on the one hand, and feudal and corrupt capitalist ideas and culture on the other.” [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, April. 29, 2010]

“According to ideologue Li Xiaochun, party members and cadres must buttress their political sensitivity and their ability in political discrimination. We must bolster [our] ideological defense line through self-consciously drawing a demarcation between Marxism and anti-Marxism, he said. Moreover, in a paper on differentiating socialist and capitalist democracy, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Center on Socialist Systems pointed out that Western democracy was no more than the game of the rich and democracy of the pocket book. The piece concluded that the quintessence of Chinese democracy must remain democratic people’s dictatorship---and not Western-style democracy. [Ibid]

Ethan Gutmann wrote in Focus Quarterly, “Dwelling on the Opium War, the Nanjing Massacre, the Korean War, and the foreign-outrage-of-the-week are actively encouraged as healthy obsessions by the Chinese Communist Party of China, while dwelling on the Great Leap forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen massacre, and the more recent crackdowns on Falun Gong, the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, and the parents of dead schoolchildren in Sichuan are discouraged---and there are serious consequences for those individuals who do not grasp the distinction (for example, a Chinese woman recently received a year in a labor camp for a single, satirical tweet). How much then of the Chinese feedback loop of shame and rage over external enemies is thinly disguised displacement for shame and frustration over the Chinese people's passivity in the face of extraordinary internal tyranny? While the scale of Maoist excesses has diminished, the efficiency of targeted repression has increased, constituting an omnipresent physic burden to most Chinese, no matter how much they---or indeed, Americans---try to suppress the consciousness of it. [Source: Ethan Gutmann, Focus Quarterly, Winter 2011]

Campaigns and Slogans in China

Mass campaigns, stage-managed party congresses and pageantry remain an important part of political life in China. There are campaigns to improve manners, to improve moral conduct, to create a harmonious society and stamp out greed, corruption, gambling and impure thoughts. Slogans urging people to following state directives on these matters are painted all over village walls.

Chinese society is infused with wooden language and hollow slogans that most ignore and few understand. A popular cell phone text message joke went: the leaders of the world were asked how they would get Osama bin Laden. Bush said he would kill him with missiles; Putin said he would try to seduce him; Hu Jintao said he would use Three Represent theory to annoy him to death.

"Serve the People" is probably the most famous slogan of the Chinese Communist Party. "Enemy of the People" was widely used in the Mao era. The use of the word "the enemy" comes from Mao's famous 195 7speech, "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People", which instructed officials, when dealing with alleged offenders, to distinguish between two types of social contradictions: those "between the enemy and us" and those "among the people". The former were to be handled with the unremitting severity of dictatorship.

Slogans, See Literature, Arts, Media, Sports

Little Red Book

The most widely read book in the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s was The Little Red Book. Mao's Selected Thoughts, a collection of sayings better known as The Little Red Book, was put together by Lin Biao in the Cultural Revolution. According to Time magazine, "No other book has had such a profound impact on so many people at the same time...If you read it enough it was supposed to change your brain.” Some of the passages of the Little Red Book were set to music and slogans like "Reactionaries are Paper Tigers" and "We Should Support Whatever the Enemy Opposes"! were painted everywhere on billboards and walls.

Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Only the Bible has been printed more often than the Quotations, which was a keystone of Mao's personality cult. A billion copies circulated in the Cultural Revolution – the population pored over it in daily study sessions; illiterate farmers memorised chunks by heart. In the west, translations were brandished by radicals. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, September 27, 2013 ***]

“Many knew the text well enough to cite quotes by page number; they became ideological weapons to be wielded in any political struggle. Under siege by Red Guards, the then foreign minister reportedly retorted: "On page [X] it says Comrade Chen Yi is a good cadre …" But they also coloured even commonplace exchanges, as described by one historian: "Serve the people. Comrade, could I have two pounds of pork, please?" ***

“But the political frenzy ebbed, and production of the Little Red Book had mostly stopped long before Mao's death; afterwards, as China embarked on reform and opening up, officials began to pulp copies. Later, in a more relaxed age, commercial reprints and introductions to his thought appeared, but no new editions of his works: "This has been a very sensitive topic," said Daniel Leese, author of Mao Cult and an expert on the era at the University of Freiburg.” ***

Little Red Book Sayings

left The three main "Rules for Discipline" for soldiers and party workers in the Little Read Book were: "Obey orders in all your actions; Do not take a single needle or thread from the masses; and Turn in everything captured." Loyal Communists were also urged to "speak politely; return everything you borrow; don't swear at people; and do not take liberties with women."

On the topic of violence and revolution: 1) "Power grows out of the barrel of a gun." 2) "In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun." 3) "Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed." 4) "When human society advances to the point where classes and states are eliminated, there will be no more wars." 5) “Fight no battle you are not sure of winning.”

Other famous sayings from the Little Red Book include, 1) "Modesty helps one go forward, whereas conceit makes one lag behind;" 2) "Investigation may be likened to the long months of pregnancy, and solving a problem to the day of birth. To investigate a problem is, indeed, to solve." And, 3) "People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all the running dogs...Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed."

New Edition of the Little Red Book

Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “It will not be especially little, and the cover will be only partly red. But a new version of the world's second most published book is due to appear on Chinese shelves, decades after it fell from favour with the end of Maoism. The re-emergence of Quotations from Chairman Mao – better known as the Little Red Book – comes amid an official revival of the era's rhetoric. China's leader, Xi Jinping, has embraced Maoist terminology and concepts, launching a "mass line rectification campaign and this week even presiding over a televised self-criticism session. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, September 27, 2013 ***]

“The new version was released in November, just before the 120th anniversary of Mao's birth. Its chief editor, Chen Yu – a senior colonel at the Academy of Military Science – describes it as a voluntary initiative. "We just want to edit the book, as other scholars work on the Analects of Confucius… We don't have a complicated political purpose," said Chen. But Leese suggested it was a "trial balloon" from Maoist sympathisers: "If they hadn't seen how the general tone towards the Maoist heritage had changed, I don't think they would have dared. This is party internal politics popping up in the public sphere." ***

“Chen said his team of 20 had worked for two years on the project, under pressure from left and right. The title may not include the word "quotations", he said, and will be attributed to Mao Zedong instead of Chairman Mao because the former is more neutral. The best-known editions are the military versions covered in red plastic and shrunk to fit the pocket of an army uniform – hence the book's nickname in the west. ***

“This time the cover will be at most partially red, said Chen. The new book will draw on other compilations of Mao's sayings and writings, remove quotes wrongly attributed to Mao and correct those which have become distorted. An "internal reference" version with limited distribution will run to double the length – 240,000 characters – and include "thoughts about the Cultural Revolution and other special events confirmed as wrong by the government", Chen said, so that people could study Mao comprehensively. Leese noted that unlike other collections of Mao's thought, the Little Red Book covered his later years in power – which saw the purges of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Famine and Cultural Revolution. ***

Xi Jinping “ might not be the initiator, but he certainly endorses it," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong. Some perceive a tactical manoeuvre, designed to appeal to leftwingers estranged by the trial of Bo Xilai and concerned that financial and economic reforms will be unveiled at a key party meeting in November. Others see genuine conviction: "Xi believes in Maoism. He wants to completely revive Mao's policy and he has already started it," said political scientist Zhang Ming. ***

Model Workers in China

20080310-Lei Feng8.jpg
Model Worker Lei Feng
Model worker awards have been given out since 1949 to members of the proletariat that demonstrated extraordinary adherence to Marxist principals. The winners were typically miners, factory workers and builders who were given their awards in grand ceremony on the Great Hall of the People and were rewarded with a week at the beach or a holiday at a state-run sanitarium. Among them was a worker at the Beijing Fluorescent Light Bulb factory who was given a ten-day trip to the seashore after he caught a child who had fallen from a 15th floor apartment.

See Lei Feng, Leadership and Propaganda Under Mao, History.

Iron Man Wang is another famous model worker, He was an oil worker who dug for oil with his bare hands and used his body to mix concrete. Chen Yonggui was illiterate until he was 43. After he learned to read he educated himself on Maoist theory and is credited with helping to make Dazhai model commune what it is. Another winner was Bi Xiuli, a bus conductor who was known for being unfailingly helpful to passengers and showing up at work early and on her own time washed windows so passengers could have a good view.

Yao Ming was given the “model worker” award in 2005---the first multi-millionaire and overseas resident to receive it.

20080310-iron23.jpg
Iron Man Wang Jin

The latest role model is Fang Yonggang, a professor lauded in 2007 for his “spirit of studying Communist party doctrine, and exploring the truth? According to a flyer released to local government offices, “We should learn from Fang’s spirit of studying...We should earnestly organize party members, officials and people who live in these neighborhoods to study the advanced achievements of Comrade Fang Yonggang.” Fang stature was such that Chinese President Hu Jintao visited him at a hospital where he was being treated for cancer.

Fang reportedly has spent much time studying Marxist doctrine and new Chinese Communist Party doctrines---that try to rationalize China’s current capitalist trends and tendencies with conventional Communist Chinese ideology---and worked tirelessly to explain these doctrines to his students and anyone who listen. Despite efforts by the government to draw attention to Fang’s achievements few Chinese had heard of him or cared about what he is doing.

Revolutionary Martyr

As of 2008, 340,000 people had been awarded the title “Revolutionary Martyr” defined as someone “killed by his enemy when carrying out revolutionary tasks.” Families of those receive the award have special rights: free education, preferential treatment for jobs in the military and bureaucracy and lower university entrance requirements. They also receive a one-off payment of $33,700 and receive a full pension depending on the martyr’s income.

In March 2008, the Communist party announced it would remove “Revolutionary” from of the title “Revolutionary Martyr” for those who die a heroic death. According to rules individuals no longer have to be socialist and anyone who has performed a heroic act can receive the award.

Protest over Bad Boy Diver Playing Lei Feng

The announcement of bad-boy, diver-turned-actor Tian Liang would play the role of China’s famous Samaritan Lei Feng in a new television series titled Lei Feng, sparked a huge controversy throughout China. Tian won Olympic medals and world championships but never distinguished himself much as an actor and has been criticized for some of obnoxious behavior. [Source: Du Guodong, Global Times, April 29, 2009]

“For Chinese that still cherish the Lei Feng Tian is largely seen as an antithesis to Lei Feng. Tian was once thrown out of the national diving team for disobeying the rules and frequently shooting commercials during the training schedules. Due to this, amid the people, Tian’s image is one of publicity-seeker and someone who can easily break rules for celebrity status whereas, in sharp contrast, stands the memories of Lei Feng; a humble, do-gooder who never came forward to stake claim to all the good deed he continued to do in his lifetime.” [Ibid]

“Portrayal of Lei Feng’s life in a television series by Tian drew in criticism from Lei Feng’s former comrades, seventy of them, who came out with a statement, Tian is a good diver. However, he has totally different life background and experiences compared to Lei Feng. Besides, he is a pop star now. If he does the role of Lei Feng, many people will misinterpret Lei Feng.” [Ibid]

“The topic also kicked off heated debates on the Internet with the majority of netizens dissatisfied at Tian playing Lei Feng. Lei Feng kept a low profile all his life, while Tian thrives on publicity; Lei was so thrifty that he wore clothes that were patched up while Tian’s one wedding banquet table cost more than 300,000 yuan, one netizen commented.” [Ibid]

Under Mao the March 5th become the official Learn from Lei Feng Day, involving various activities to commemorate the Good Samaritan in China.

Another Lei Feng Revival

In late February 2012, Chinese state media relaunched a "Learn from Lei Feng" propaganda campaign to celebrate the spirit of a hero of the People's Liberation Army. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei criticized it as a "patriotic drive to unite people's thoughts and integrate people's wills in the Internet age." "I have nothing to say, as I feel desperation over the campaign," Ai said. [Source: Takanori Kato, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 4, 2012]

Lei Feng (1940-1962) was a truck driver in the PLA's transportation corps. After his death in an accident at a young age, he became known among the public after former leader Mao Zedong praised him as a model of patriotic sacrifice. The campaign was first started on March 5, 1963, by the People's Daily, the Communist Party's official paper. March 5 is the official "Learn from Lei Feng Day." Each year, as the day approaches, related stories are carried in the media. However, this year's campaign is particularly outstanding, as it marks 50 years since Lei's death.

Ai criticized the patriotic propaganda campaign, accusing government rulers of "manipulating the public for their own interests." He said the government's creation of an ideological movement to suppress voices that are critical of the state is the work of "people who are out of their minds.""It may be all right for the government to advocate patriotism during a time of national crisis, such as the Sino-Japanese War, but we're in a time of peace. Patriotism that places more importance on the state's interests than on individual happiness, truth and life is sinful," he said.

Peter Mattis wrote in China Brief: “The campaign highlights the latest contradiction facing a Leninist party bereft of communist spirit, living on nationalist credentials gained through economic development and patriotic education. How does a governing party based on a foreign ideology find native symbols that encourage support for the regime that do not support the principle of regime change? The answer, as it has been since 1963, is once again Lei Feng. [Source: Peter Mattis, China Brief (Jamestown Foundation), March 2012]

The problem with once again dusting off the old hero is that Lei Feng may not be prepared for the modern age. Even online editors for the People’s Daily asked only a couple of years ago if learning from Lei Feng is outdated. The Global Times also reposted an Internet witticism showing how little sticking power Lei Feng has, “the post-1970's generation learned form Lei Feng, the post-1980's generation revolted against Lei Feng, and the post-1990's generation has forgotten about Lei Feng.” Repeated in other CCP-run papers, the words seem to indict widespread public cynicism about Beijing’s promotion of values.

The campaign to normalize learning from Lei Feng’s activities contains a nine-fold approach, ranging from regular activities to major annual forums and from CCP cadres to school children. The Propaganda Department directed grassroots organs and cultural associations to produce Lei Feng pamphlets, television and radio programs, scholarly essays and more. Even CCP cadre are not immune, because they need to study Lei Feng to maintain their ideological purity to retain their vanguard status. The Ministry of Education also has directed Lei Feng-inspired activities be included in elementary and middle school curriculums as part of moral education. Apart from the moral considerations, Lei Feng also is being billed as a nationalist and a symbol of the spirit of the Chinese people.

The new Lei Feng campaign is a safer and more politically palatable version of Bo Xilai’s “singing red songs” effort---both in terms of factional politics and the CCP’s right to govern---which is a throwback to the days of Mao Zedong. On the former, the princeling Bo has tried to lead a neo-Maoist revival presumably to bolster his standing. The same slippery slope also is present in state-run Confucianism, denying the CCP unrestricted use as last year’s placement and removal of a statue of Confucius on Tiananmen Square symbolized. Outsiders have long misconstrued the emphasis of Confucian thinking with the tame state-run version, which emasculated Chinese society and justified state oppression.

These points illustrate the precariousness of the CCP position in living off of nationalism while trying to generate new ways to promote social stability. Beijing has to use Chinese, rather than foreign, ideas; however, important and recognizable strands of political thought, Confucianism and Maoism, explicitly endorse rebellion. Lei Feng is at least obedient as a tame Maoist relic that the Propaganda Department can pitch as a symbol of the Chinese people. The problem, however, is that few people are likely to live the “Lei Feng spirit” as such, because of mistrust of the government and widespread cynicism---a point even Chinese press concede. As Renmin University sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng said, “If the upper levels of society do not learn from Lei and become good examples to follow, how are the regular people supposed to be willing to?”

”Red Culture” Revival

Reporting from Chongqing before the approach of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China in July 2011, Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “The country is being swept up in a wave of orchestrated revolutionary nostalgia...The local satellite television station recently stopped broadcasting sitcoms and now shows only “revolutionary” programs and news. Government workers and students have been told to spend time working in the countryside. The local propaganda department launched a “red Twitter” micro-blogging site, blasting out short patriotic slogans. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, June 29. 2011]

And in what seems like a throwback to the days of the Cultural Revolution, residents have been encouraged---or told---to read revolutionary books and poetry and to gather regularly in parks to sing old songs extolling the Communist revolution. A recent Sunday gathering, including a colorful, choreographed stage pageant, attracted an estimated 10,000 flag-waving people, many in uniforms and red caps and mostly organized by the party chiefs in their schools and factories.

The red culture campaign revival is the pet project of the local Communist Party secretary, Bo Xilai, a former commerce minister and son of Bo Yibo, a Mao Zedong contemporary who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Bo defended the red culture campaign, saying, “We aim to encourage people’s spirits.” He said his campaign has four aspects: reading Chinese and foreign classics, including the theories of Mao and other Marxist leaders; telling popular stories; circulating inspiring mottos; and group-singing of revolutionary anthems. “We should spread these things more,” Bo said.

Many here, including Communist Party adherents, agree that this revival of revolutionary fervor is needed to instill a new sense of pride and common purpose, adding that they feared that China’s decades-long rush to get rich has eroded the country’s moral bearings and created an ethos of unchecked materialism. “When I sing red songs, I find a kind of spirit I never felt when singing modern songs,” said Zhang Chenxi, a third-year student at Southwest University here. “To surround yourself with material stuff is just a waste of time.”

For others, particularly those old enough to remember the bloodshed and chaos of the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, the red culture campaign is an unwelcome reminder of one of the darker chapters of China’s recent turbulent history. The Cultural Revolution played out particularly violently in Chongqing, with clashes in the streets involving knives, heavy weapons and tanks.”For people of my generation, it’s like a return to the Mao era,” said a 57-year-old lawyer who had attended a middle school in Chongqing and asked not to be quoted by name. “I saw the beatings of the teachers by the Red Guards. It was horrible,” the lawyer said. “Young people may not recognize it. But for us who lived through it, how can we possibly sing?”

'Red Song' Campaign in 2011

Reporting from Chongqing, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times,” Although her musical tastes run to Mariah Carey and Norah Jones, Vicy Zhang didn't hesitate when she received an instant message inviting her to sing paeans to Mao Tse-tung at a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. "How could I refuse?" said Zhang, a 26-year-old graduate student at Chongqing University who hopes to join the party and have a career in civil service. "I thought it was boring and useless, but I didn't dare say no."[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 03, 2011]

More than 10,000 students and faculty members participated in the event last month. Although Zhang wore an evening gown, other students were dressed as Red Army soldiers, with red epaulets and armbands. Carrying red flags, they danced around a university athletic field with arms swinging rhythmically to martial music harking back to China circa 1966.

Throughout China, people are singing and dancing in homage to the Communist Party. The "red song" campaign began in Chongqing, where it was launched by party Secretary Bo Xilai, an ambitious politician who is believed to be angling for a seat on the Standing Committee of the Politburo."Red songs depict China's path in a simple, sincere and vivid way," Bo was quoted as saying by state news agencies in November. "There's no need to be artsy.... Only dilettantes prefer enigmatic works."

In conjunction with the 90th anniversary celebration in 2011 of the founding of the Communist Party of China was in Shanghai in 1921, the red song phenomenon has spread throughout the nation. In Beijing's subways, television screens show transit employees competing in a red song competition. In some parts of China, karaoke clubs have restricted playlists of Taiwanese love songs in favor of patriotic mainland ballads.

Under orders from the local propaganda department, Chongqing satellite television suspended its soap operas in favor of patriotic songfests. From April 20 to May 20, local newspapers had to publish the lyrics to familiarize the populace with the songs.Outside the airport, a billboard as high as a seven-story building features photographs of pink-cheeked young Chinese students and workers urging the public to "Sing Red Songs! Spread the Truth! Raise Your Spirits!" In public parks, retirees set up portable stereos and dance in long lines to songs praising Mao, even in Shapingba Park, which is next to an overgrown cemetery where thousands of people killed in the fighting of the late 1960s are buried.

Enthusiasm for the 'Red Song' Campaign

On Wednesday and Friday mornings at 7 a.m., former schoolteacher Cao Xingfen, 66, led fellow retirees through an elaborate dance routine set to red music, beneath billboards advertising Ermenegildo Zegna suits and Louis Vuitton bags. "These songs have a good rhythm; it's easy to dance to them," said Cao, a petite, silver-haired fireplug of a woman dressed in red pajamas. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 03, 2011]

No doubt there is a genuine gusto for red songs, particularly among the older generation, for whom Communist marching songs are the campfire tunes of their childhood. On a balmy recent evening, a dozen people twirled through the dark in Renmin Park, the dancing figures illuminated by slivers of fluorescent light from a nearby beauty salon.

"We know these songs from our youth. We grew up with revolutionary spirit and we want to pass that on to our children," said Cai Derong, 55, who wiped his brow as he watched his wife, dressed for the occasion in a silky black-and-white dress, dance with one of her girlfriends. "Our economy is good. We want to express our appreciation to the Communist Party," piped in a middle-aged woman, Zhang Jin, who was also taking a break from the dancing.

Criticism, Lack of Enthusiasm and Mockery of the 'Red Song' Campaign

To critics, the Maoist revival has echoes of the maniacal quest for political correctness during the Cultural Revolution. "People with a sense of history look at it and wonder whether it is possible to go back to an era in which cruel things would happen again," said Alan Zhang, a recent law school graduate from Chongqing and blogger who, like other students interviewed, agreed to be quoted using only an English name. "The red song campaign has made Chongqing a laughingstock," he said. "It's not that everyone is required to sing and love the songs. What we are seeking is a wider participation," Xu Chao, the Chongqing official in charge of the program, told the party-controlled Global Times.

At Chongqing's universities, those invited to participate in Communist Party anniversary celebrations were primarily party members and aspiring party members, many of them top students who see membership as a prerequisite to jobs in government or academia. "You have to accept when you get an invite, or you will be considered politically incorrect," said Owen Chen, a 24-year-old student and party member. "In our country, these are the kinds of things you have to do." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 03, 2011]

When the invitations were sent out, students jokingly turned red song into a verb, saying to one another "I've been red songed. Have you been red songed?" Participation meant going to rehearsals up to twice a day in the weeks before the May 11 performance."I didn't see a single student who sang these songs with passion," Vicy Zhang said.

It wasn't just the inconvenience; the politics were distasteful to the students too. They said the performances looked just like the "loyalty dance" everybody was required to do during the Cultural Revolution, moving arms from the heart to the sun in a display of boundless devotion to Mao.

As soon as the music died, one of the older men sat down on a stone bench next to a reporter and in a loud voice offered up contrary opinion. "These people are all afraid to tell you the truth. They're dancing to these red songs because it is all they have in their brain. For 40 to 50 years, they've heard nothing else. The propaganda songs have drowned out regular Chinese folk music," said the man, Hu Jiaqing, 60. "It is just like the Cultural Revolution: They're using these big campaigns and movements to cover up their social problems.” None of the other dancers argued. They just drifted away in the dark.

Legendary Kiss-Ass Song and Servile Political Culture in China

Yiyi Li wrote in the Wall Street Journal; “A music video has recently put Li Xuerong, Party Secretary of Zhangbei County in Hebei Province, at the center of a storm. The video, which features an ode to the party secretary set against images of rising suns and verdant fields, goes in part like this: County Party Secretary “you chitchat with us in the field, like a genuine brother to us peasants...County Party Secretary, you are down to earth. Your wrinkles record Party members’ self-consciousness as servants of the people...County Party Secretary, you toil in the wind and the rain. Your white hair is the price paid for a better-off life for the people. [Source: Yiyi Li Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2011]

“Earnest and effusive, the video has been dubbed a “legendary kiss-ass song” and received much ridicule from Chinese netizens, some of whom suspected the Zhangbei County government was behind it. Although an investigation by Xinhua journalists appears to have cleared the Zhangbei authorities of playing any part in the video (it turns out to have been made by local resident Tie Shuguang who says he was grateful to Li for an employment creation scheme that helped him land his current job), the video highlights a long-lasting and unfortunate feature of China’s political culture: the habit of swarming authorities and officials with servile flattery.” [Ibid]

”Subordinates flatter their superiors everywhere, but in few places is it done to the extent it is in China. The toadying culture is so omnipresent that most times the public hardly notices it. According to Xinhua, the song Tie Shuguang used in his music video was originally composed for a 2006 Spring Festival Gala show by someone at a television station in Shandong Province. Before Tie found it on the Internet and combined it with images of Li Xuerong, virtually no one had paid the song any attention. Similar songs, poems, speeches and articles are produced in large numbers every year.”

“Lately, some of the more nauseating cases of boot-licking have begun to elicit strong public reactions. In one instance, a vice chairman of the Henan provincial literary federation became a laughing stock after he reportedly said that with the arrival of Henan Party Secretary Lu Zhangong “spring has also arrived for Henan’s art circles. Everyday we are excited and in tears.” In a similar case, a vice chairman of the Shandong provincial writers’ union sparked outrage after he wrote a poem praising the government’s relief efforts following the major earthquake in 2008. In the poem, he claims that the Party, top leaders and the whole country had shown the victims so much care that the dead must feel happy even after becoming ghosts.” [Ibid]

“Discussion of China’s governance problems---corruption, abuse of power, rule of man trampling on rule of law---has often focused on the country’s inadequate political institutions, a lack of democracy in particular. China’s political culture, however, has also played a significant role in creating the problems.” [Ibid]

“The extent to which Chinese leaders are fawned upon by their juniors is illustrated by the case, recently related to me, of a mid-level central government official who spent several months in the U.S. attending a training program. His biggest shock on going abroad, as he later told colleagues, was realizing he had to carry his own luggage. Before, wherever he went in China, his subordinates or local officials would carry his bags. After awhile, the idea of taking care of his own bag while traveling had become unthinkable.” [Ibid]

“Living in such an environment day in and day out, it would take exceptional cool headedness and self-discipline for officials to remember they are supposed to serve the people rather than rule over them. Culture, of course, does not exist in isolation. China’s political culture and political institutions are heavily intertwined and mutually reinforcing. To improve China’s governance, both will need to be revamped.” [Ibid,Yiyi Lu is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and an associate fellow at the U.K.-based Chatham House. She is the author of Non-Governmental Organisations in China: The Rise of Dependent Autonomy (Routledge 2008).]

Cheap Housing and Flaws of Propaganda in China

Zhuang Pinghui wrote in the South China Morning Post, “President Hu Jintao's visit to a single mother in Beijing on December 29 was meant to be timely propaganda demonstrating the leadership's concern for the poor and needy. However, it backfired spectacularly, generating widespread resentment. The news item, broadcast nationally on December 30, showed Hu visiting Guo Chunping and her daughter, who recently moved into a government-subsidised low-cost flat in Beijing. With many ordinary people complaining about high property prices, and similar flats in Beijing costing at least 2,000 yuan (HK$2,350) a month to rent, it sparked outrage online. Many internet users expressed disbelief that a flat of 45 square meters could cost just 77 yuan a month, the figure 49-year-old Guo told Hu she was paying. Speculation was rife that the whole scenario was faked. But it turned out to be true, which has led one media academic to describe the awkward episode as a warning signal for the government. [Source: Zhuang Pinghui, South China Morning Post, January 16, 2011]

Guo showed the South China Morning Post this week papers detailing her government-issued unemployment subsidies, which said she claimed 589 yuan a month in subsidies in the first half of last year and 659 yuan a month in the second half. Online questions and criticism snowballed during the New Year holiday, with one posting that circulated quickly saying Guo was a public servant who worked for the Chaoyang district traffic police. The posting was accompanied by pictures of a young woman accompanying her mother to the World Expo in Shanghai and other tourist attractions, enjoying fine meals and drinks. It also alleged that Guo had only been at the flat that day for show and had rented it out for 2,000 yuan a month. [Ibid]

"I have no job. I am living on subsidies," a tearful Guo said on Tuesday. "The woman in that picture was not me. My daughter and I have never travelled to such places. I am not the person people on the internet say I am. I have never been a public servant. I was a cleaner. If I were a public servant, I would be living in a nice house, not a small, government-subsidised house, wouldn't I?" She said she had worked for a state-owned enterprise but was forced to retire early eight years ago. She then worked as a security guard for four years, earning 600 yuan a month. After that, she worked as a cleaner for Chaoyang's Sanjianfang township for three years. [Ibid]

She applied for subsidised housing for low-income families four years ago and recently signed a five-year lease for 77 yuan a month. Guo said the new flat was the best place she and her daughter, who is in her third year of university studies, had lived in. "Before, I could only afford the cheapest places," she said. "My last rental was 200 yuan a month. The conditions were terrible and not good for my health, but what could I do? Where would I be living if I rent out this nice apartment? "This apartment is clean and has a heater. It is very warm. Where could I find a place so cheap in Beijing?" [Ibid]

The apartment building Guo moved into, Jinyu Lijing Yuan, is Chaoyang district's first government-subsidised rental block for low-income families and only opened last month, with about 600 households being given keys. Guo pays 5 per cent of the rent of around 1,500 yuan a month, with the rest paid by government subsidy. Single Beijing residents are eligible to apply for a flat if they earn less than 6,960 yuan a year and have less than 150,000 yuan in assets. The limits for couples are double. An unemployed couple unpacking on the floor above Guo pay 53 yuan a month for a flat of 32 square meters. [Ibid]

The deputy dean of Renmin University's school of journalism and communications, Professor Yu Guoming , said the fact people jumped to question the credibility of the news on state media was the result of serious flaws in government administration. "For years the government has depended on giving misinformation or hiding the truth, for example the GDP figures of local governments don't match the central government's calculations. People are used to distrusting them," Yu said. [Ibid]

"Most people have never heard of the 77-yuan rental or are unaware of such policies, which contradict our daily experience. Of course, people would think it's a favor to a few special people or a total sham. The lesson for the government is to administer with more transparency. Hiding or partially releasing information will not work in this society with more [new] forms of media such as microblogs." [Ibid]

Creating Idealized History at the National Museum of China

In March 2011 the National Museum reopened after a$379 million, four-year renovation by the Hamburg architects von Gerkan, Marg and Partners.. The new incarnation of the museum is the world's largest museum under one roof, with a floor space of 192,000 square meters, and more than 1.05 million national treasures in its permanent collection. The new museum encompasses the former Museum of the Chinese Revolution and Museum of Chinese History, which had been housed in two wings of a building on Tiananmen Square. Those two institutions opened in October 1959 to commemorate 10 years of Communist rule. The new design brought the wings into an integral whole with a 260-meter-long central forum. Light Chinese granite, black cherrywood and perforated bronze doors now brighten and define the museum’s interior.

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “Interviews with participants describe a tortured reconstruction that dragged on years longer than envisioned, with plans constantly revised to accommodate political twists and turns, many decided personally by top party leaders. Officials rejected proposals for a permanent historical exhibition that would have discussed the disasters of early Communist rule---especially the Great Leap Forward, a political campaign and resulting famine that killed more than 20 million. Some organizers also wanted a candid appraisal of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long attack on traditional culture and learning, but that effort was squashed. Instead, the authorities decided that the exhibition on contemporary China should focus, as did the museum before its extensive makeover, on the party’s triumphs. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, April 4, 2011]

Another permanent exhibit, on China’s ancient history, also presents an idealized version of the past. It tells the uplifting story of Chinese ethnic groups pulling together to create “brilliant achievements.” “The party wants to determine historical truth,” said Yang Jisheng, a historian whose landmark book on the Great Leap Forward famine was banned in China. “It worries that if competing versions are allowed, then its legitimacy will be called into question.”

Many countries do not present their history in terms independent historians consider fully credible. American museums have been under pressure to account more fully for slavery. American Indians won a long battle to open their own museum on the Mall in Washington; other museums celebrate the westward expansion of the United States but give short shrift to the displacement and killing of American Indians.

Even so, few countries can compete with China in so completely suppressing the shades of gray about their past. One result is that the Chinese public rarely has access, even on the Internet, to versions of history that differ from party propaganda, and popular support for some nationalist causes is sometimes even stronger than the party’s own stances. Many Chinese are bewildered, for example, that some Tibetans or Uighurs are dissatisfied with Chinese rule or that Japanese and Taiwanese might have differing views of China’s claims on their territory.

“A public museum in China is seldom about the past,” said Hung Chang-tai, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who has written on the museum. “It is about the current image of the party and how the party wants itself to be seen.”

Propaganda and Politics at the National Museum of China

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “The exhibition walks a delicate line. Organized by Chinese dynasties, it tries to show how all of the 56 ethnic groups in today’s China have always worked together harmoniously. Even the Mongolian empire, which conquered China in the 12th century, is made part of the story. It is referred to as a precursor of today’s multicultural China. “It ignores the conflicts, which real history shouldn’t do,” said an archaeology professor at Peking University who asked to remain anonymous because of the issue’s delicacy. “This is why I would not call this exhibition real history but propaganda.” [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, April 4, 2011]

According to the archaeologist, who was consulted on the exhibition, a panel of experts considered other versions of history, but this was quickly rebuffed. Officials from the party’s Propaganda Department, who were observing the meetings, said the museum should adopt a policy to “emphasize precious objects.” That is reflected in the final product, which will feature 2,520 “precious objects,” including 521 “first-class precious objects.”

Politics, by contrast, defines the other exhibit, “The Road to Rejuvenation,” which recounts the history of China from the First Opium War of 1839 to the present day. This was the exhibit that in past years was fraught with the most blatant simplifications---and the new one is no different.

The general story line, ingrained in every Chinese student, is that China was humiliated by Western powers. Then some well-meaning but misguided patriots took up the fight until they were properly led by the Communists, whose inevitable victory in 1949 started China’s recovery. After “building socialism” during the Communists’ first 30 years in power, the country took off during the past 30 years of reform. There is no discussion of why the party dropped central planning policies in the late 1970s, or even that such a momentous shift took place.

In the 1990s, museum curators proposed a much franker look at the problems that led to the current era of reform. Initially, they designed a section called “10 years of tortuous development” on the 1950s and “60s, including the Great Leap Forward’s devastating famine, according to Kirk Denton, a professor at Ohio State University who is writing a book on China’s museums. Curators proposed a similar section in the current exhibit, arguing that this era was decades in the past and the party was now strong enough to withstand criticism. That idea was rejected, however, after a lengthy debate, according to Ministry of Culture officials. In the end, the famine, widely regarded as the worst in recorded history, is only euphemistically mentioned by the phrase that “the project of constructing socialism suffered severe complications.” The Cultural Revolution was reduced to the photograph and brief caption. “We wanted to celebrate China,” Mr. Tian said. “I think that’s understandable.”

Likewise, there is no mention of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 or the disgraced party secretary, Zhao Ziyang, who helped pioneer economic reforms but was forced out of power after the unrest that year. Instead, the exhibition features relatively anodyne objects like Deng’s cowboy hat and Mr. Hu’s bullhorn. It also displays “A double-edged sword inlaid with diamonds, presented to Hu Jintao from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.”

Some visitors said they had hoped for more. Zhang Zhencai, a 65-year-old retired storeroom manager in a logistics company, said he expected a closer look at the first 30 years of Communist rule.

“I wondered why there was not more on it,” Mr. Zhang said. “The younger generation should see all that history, so they are able to compare it to what we have today.” His wife, Wang Jusheng, however, said she was not surprised: “What happened in those years, especially the late 1950s and 1960s, were mostly errors.”

Making the National Museum of China the World’s Largest Museum

“I got a call asking how many square meters is the Louvre,” recalled Martin Roth, director of Dresden’s state museums and an informal consultant to the museum for a decade. “Then 10 minutes later another call asking how many square meters is the British Museum. I said, “You guys are sitting with the architects and are figuring out how to be the biggest, right?” They laughed and said yes.”

“We feel we had a lot to show and need the space,” Mr. Tian said. “It’s not about being the biggest, but China does have 5,000 years of culture so it’s not inappropriate to be the biggest.” The biggest---taking up a quarter of the entire exhibition space---is “Ancient China,” a mammoth survey of thousands of years of history.

On the new museum, Shelly Kraicer, an expert on Chinese film wrote, "First of all, the setting. It is very grand. Super gigantic-grand. Reports in Western media describe an amusingly direct series of phone calls by planners of the National Museum of China (NMC) to western museum experts. Sample questions: “What is the floor space of the Louvre?” “What about the British Museum in London?” Clearly, the architects’ brief included making this the Largest Museum In The World (to match Beijing Capital Airport’s Terminal 3, the Largest Building In The World; the Great Wall, and so on). Apparently they succeeded, and out of the shell of two older museums on Tiananmen Square, the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, the National Museum of China is being born, a giant monument to China’s fabled 5000 year history, and as we shall see, to the faithful guardianship of this immense history by the Chinese Communist Party. “Is being born’ because the NMC is still a work in progress. Vast swathes of the building are still uninhabited, forthcoming galleries uninstalled. But I would estimate that at least half of the Museum is now open, more than enough for a full day of provocative and sometimes entrancing museum-going."

Putin wins Confucius Peace Prize

In November 2011, Vladimir Putin was named the winner of the newly-established Confucian peace prize. Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian: The Russian prime minister and former KGB officer “is used to receiving accolades in friendly nations, but even he may raise an eyebrow at the prize he has just been awarded in China” after “two wars in Chechnya, one conflict in South Ossetia and two of the deadliest hostage relief operations in modern history.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2011]

It is unclear if Putin is even aware of the award which was chosen by an obscure cultural organisation, the China International Peace Research Centre, from a field of nominees including Bill Gates, Angela Merkel, Kofi Annan, Jacob Zuma and a Tibetan Panchen Lama imposed by Beijing. The 16-judge panel said that Putin deserved the award because his criticism of NATO's military engagement in Libya was "outstanding in keeping world peace", regardless of the fact that it had no bearing on the outcome of the north African conflict.

The short history of the prize is as controversial as the choice of winner. The Chinese organisers claimed they established the award last year after preparing for years to create something that would "promote world peace from an eastern perspective".

But the Confucian peace prize appeared more like a rushed and botched attempt to upstage the Nobel laureate status granted to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The inaugural ceremony was widely ridiculed when the winner  former Taiwanese vice-president Lien Chan  failed to turn up. A schoolgirl appeared in his place to collect the 100,000 yuan (£9,500) cash prize.

This has not gone down well even with China's authorities. Two months ago, the ministry of culture distanced itself from the prize, disbanded the organisation behind it, and associated with another similarly named award.Although these setbacks looked likely to mark the end of the group, the original organisers reformed in Hong Kong  which is not bound by the same rules as the mainland  and now plan to stage an award ceremony on 9 December, the day before the Nobel ceremony.

China Dream Awards

The China Dream prizes, launched in 2009, are awarded by the liberal Guangzhou-based Southern Media Group. Winners "represent our times, in which we dare to dream, can dream and are fulfilling our dreams," the group said in a statement. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, December 15, 2011]

The prizewinners in 2011, seven individuals and one environmental group, included the writer Jia Pingwa, the scientist Yuan Longping (known as "the father of hybrid rice"), the TV news anchor Bai Yansong and the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology. Founded in 2004, the society works to reduce the sandstorms that plague the north by combating desertification in Inner Mongolia and consists of hundreds of businesspeople like the real estate developer Ren Zhiqiang, chairman of Huayuan Group, and Liu Xiaoguang, president of Beijing Capital Group. The combined wealth of its members and their companies may total around 2 trillion renminbi, or $314 billion, said Zhu Hongjun, the environment correspondent of Southern Weekly, the media group’s flagship publication. Mr. Zhu hosted a morning seminar titled "For the Public Good, For the Republic," where Mr. Ren and Mr. Liu discussed the advantages of democratic, transparent decision-making, which they say they are pioneering in the society.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times among the---leading entrepreneurs, artists and intellectuals gathered to honor recipients of the "China Dream" award, one word was on everyone’s lips: truth. Addressing a packed auditorium at Sun Yat-sen University at a seminar for the event, Yi Zhongtian, a literature professor at Xiamen University who moderated many of the day’s events, said: "People say you can’t tell the truth. People say it’ll get you into trouble." "My bottom line is: Don’t tell lies," he said. "If you think you can’t tell the truth, then don’t say anything. And when you can say the truth, say it." His audience, mostly students, laughed and clapped wildly. What was Mr. Yi’s China Dream” someone in the audience asked. "Truth, goodness, health and happiness," he answered.

Yang Xianhui, a writer and guest speaker, said his China Dream was for farmers to own their land, because without that legal right they were prey to endless exploitation. Currently, farmers lease the land they farm from the state, and land grabs by officials, often allied with developers, are common.China is rising, but for its rise to be healthy, people need greater equality and rights, Mr. Yang said. "Privatize farmers’ land!" he exclaimed, bringing exuberant applause.

The students dreamed, too. Standing outside in the bright winter sun after the speeches, a student of international politics who gave her name as Ms. Pang said: "My China Dream is that everyone should feel secure." Ms. Pang, who is from Zhanjiang in Guangdong Province, home of the Chinese Navy’s South Sea Fleet, said unemployment in her hometown was high and some families struggled to survive on 400 renminbi a month. "The rich-poor divide in this country is enormous now, and there are many poor people who have no sense of security whatsoever," she said.

Later, receiving his award at the gala, Mr. Bai, the TV host, said: "To tell the truth is the most basic thing, the minimum, and not the highest thing, the maximum!" He recounted wryly how he once won a prize for truth-telling. "Praising someone for telling the truth is like saying, “Thanks for not being a thief," Mr. Bai said, as the audience laughed. "By insisting on telling the truth, one day we can reach our dreams."

Much of the energy underpinning the search for moral values today comes from China’s pre-1949 traditions, once rejected by the Communist Party in the name of modernity and the people’s dictatorship, the event suggested. The stage for the gala was set up as a pre-1949 classroom, with pupils in old-fashioned uniforms reading from a textbook titled "Moral Character."

"Teachers"---that is, the prizewinners or celebrities---gave lessons in traditional values like benevolence and public morality, as well as the pre-1949 political system and human rights. In an apparent rebuke, the Communist Party received almost no mention. Chen Danqing, a well-known artist who was not a prizewinner, noted that his lesson, "Kindness and Humanity," reflected "true culture, ethics and morals." Receiving his prize, Jia Pingwa, a popular author, said: "Dreams can only come true if you have freedom. If you don’t have freedom, you can’t make your dreams come true."

China’s State-Sponsored Historical Amnesia

In April 2013, Yan Lianke wrote in the New York Times: “In March 2012 I met Torbjorn Loden, the Swedish professor of Chinese language and culture, in Hong Kong. He told me that while briefly teaching at Hong Kong’s City University he asked the 40 students from China in his class what they knew about the June 4 Incident, the pro-democracy movement that ended in bloodshed in 1989, and if they were familiar with the names Liu Binyan and Fang Lizhi, two prominent democracy advocates of that era. All the students from China looked around at one another, mute and puzzled. [Source: Yan Lianke, New York Times, April 2, 2013. Yan Lianke is a Chinese writer based in Beijing. His translated works include “Serve the People,” “Dream of Ding Village,” about the blood-selling scandal in his home province of Henan, and “Lenin’s Kisses.”++]

“That reminded me of something another teacher told me. She had asked her students from China if they had heard about the death by starvation of 30 to 40 million people during the so-called “three years of natural disasters” in the early 1960s. Her students responded with stunned silence, as if she, a teacher in Hong Kong, was brazenly fabricating history to attack their mother country. ++

“After we exchanged these stories, Professor Loden and I sat sullenly in a quiet Vietnamese café, speechless. Ever since, thoughts about the loss of memory in China on a national scale, a phenomenon that people have long been discussing but only in private, remain lodged in my heart like thorns. From time to time, guilt — along with painful memories of the past and thoughts about losing the memories — torment me and refuse to leave me alone. Have today’s 20- and 30-year-olds become the amnesic generation? Who has made them forget? By what means were they made to forget? Are we members of the older generation who still remember the past responsible for the younger generation’s amnesia? ++

“The amnesia I’m talking about is the act of deleting memories rather than merely a natural process of forgetting. Forgetting can result from the passage of time. The act of deleting memories, however, is about actively winnowing out people’s memories of the present and the past. In China, memory deletion is turning the younger generation into selective-memory automatons. Memories of history and the present, yesterday and today are all going through this uniform process of deletion and are being lost without trace. Anything negative about the country or the is rapidly erased from the collective memory. This memory deletion is being carried out by censoring newspapers, magazines, television news, the Internet and anything that preserves memories. ++

Events Erased by State-Sponsored Historical Amnesia

Yan Lianke wrote in the New York Times: “Revolution completely engulfed China after 1949. The revolution created the regime, created history, and it created our present reality. People’s memories and administered memories, people’s forgetfulness and administered forgetfulness are all determined by the state, transformed by a revolutionary tactic that has been systematically implemented. [Source: Yan Lianke, New York Times, April 2, 2013 ++]

“Historical details are selectively excised from the records and from textbooks. Details of events that still reside in the living memory of older Chinese — the Warlord era of the late 1910s and 1920s, names of soldiers and civilians who shed their blood on the front lines during the war of resisting Japan’s invasion that began in the 1930s — all these things have been carefully winnowed. After the civil war ended in 1949, one man’s passion drove an entire nation to a frenzied pace of construction, with one political movement after another maintaining the fanatical atmosphere of a permanent war footing. But the tragic experiences associated with these movements have been deleted from people’s collective memory, put aside and permanently concealed. ++

“The Great Leap Forward, the obligatory nation-wide construction of backyard steel furnaces and the consequent death by starvation of 30 to 40 million people in the famine that was later blamed on “three years of natural disasters,” and the catastrophic 10 years of the Cultural Revolution — these momentous events are too absurd, too cruel and too unpleasant for people to recount. Therefore many people are reluctant to pass their painful memories on to the younger generation. Not a word is written about how many Chinese, or Vietnamese, died in the pointless war with Vietnam in the late 1970s. Few questions are asked about the crackdown on criminals in 1983 in which people were thrown in jail in the name of curtailing public indecency simply for kissing in public, or executed for poverty-related petty theft. ++

“While the whole world still vividly remembers the tragic end of the June 4 student movement in 1989, the painful memory is lost in the country where the bloodshed took place, in the midst of cheers for China’s economic growth and increased influence. What else is lost to memory? Everything that has happened in recent times: the AIDS epidemic caused by unhygienic blood selling; the innumerable explosions in illegal coal mines; the modern day slavery that takes place in illegal brick kilns; the rampant production of toxic milk powder, toxic eggs, toxic seafood, gutter oil, carcinogenic vegetables and fruit; forced abortions; violent demolitions; mistreatment of petitioners — the list goes on and on. ++

Education and State-Sponsored Historical Amnesia

Yan Lianke wrote in the New York Times: “The best way to achieve this type of amnesia is to develop tactics utilizing state power to shackle people’s minds and block all memory channels by altering historical records, manipulating textbook content and controlling literature, art and performances in all forms. The oppression of words and ideas is not unique. It has been exercised by all authoritarian regimes around the world at various times. Under oppression, intellectuals — the people who are supposed to have good memories — are the first to become silent after being administered amnesia by the state. Next comes the general public. [Source: Yan Lianke, New York Times, April 2, 2013 ++]

“The state prefers the intelligence of its people to remain at the level of children in a kindergarten. It hopes people will follow instructions, just as children follow their teacher’s instructions — they eat when they are told to eat, they sleep when they are told to sleep. When they are asked to perform, these innocent children enthusiastically recite the script prepared by adults. To achieve this, the brains of people who have memories must be reformatted, voices of people who are good with words must be silenced, so that the memory of younger generations won’t be contaminated. ++

“Then these spotlessly “clean” young brains are like blank pages at the disposal of the state’s paintbrush. Only then can a new version of history and a new image of reality be painted on these pages according to the taste of the state. Naturally, the innocent children who have been deprived of the chance of knowing what really happened in the past accept the artificial version of history and grow up malnourished in their understanding of the past. As time goes by, the state’s absolute power becomes a matter of fact and this marks the triumph of state administered amnesia. Our tolerance to this type of amnesia originates from the state’s carrot-and-stick strategies that are designed to achieve the nation’s memory loss. ++

“The state is not the only player to be blamed for the nation’s amnesia in today’s China. We must also look at Chinese intellectuals, as we appear to be content with this forced amnesia. This is the starkest difference between Chinese intellectuals and our peers in other countries in different times. Take writers in the former Soviet Union as examples. Despite the extreme totalitarian terror and the rigid censorship, writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak still managed to leave us with a long list of masterpieces such as “The Master and Margarita,” the “Gulag Archipelago” and “Doctor Zhivago.” These works did not rebel against state power; they are more about preserving and restoring a nation’s memories. ++

Economic Incentives and State-Sponsored Amnesia

Yan Lianke wrote in the New York Times: “Thirty years ago, the instruments used against people who resisted state-sponsored amnesia were ropes and chains. Now, as China’s economy grows and the state has an enormous amount of money at its disposal, it skillfully uses financial incentives to entice people into giving up their memories and to compromise with the state. In this country money now has an almighty power that can seal people’s lips and dry writers’ pens. It can also force literary imagination to fly in the opposite direction of truth and conscience. [Source: Yan Lianke, New York Times, April 2, 2013 ++]

“It doesn’t matter whether you are a writer, a historian or social scientist. You will be awarded power, fame and money as long as you are willing to see what is allowed to be seen, and look away from what is not allowed to be looked at; as long as you are willing to sing the praises of what needs to be praised and ignore what needs to be blanked out. In other words, our amnesia is a state-sponsored sport. ++

“Let’s look at literature and art. Almost all awards in China in the fields of literature, art, news and culture are administered within state-approved boundaries. They encourage people to exercise their creativity within the state-approved boundaries. The ones who achieve success within these boundaries are rewarded. Naturally, we thus replace the forgotten past with fiction and build splendid lies over reality. And we do this without feeling any sense of moral guilt — it’s all in the noble name of artistic creativity. ++

Impact of State-Sponsored Historical Amnesia

Yan Lianke wrote in the New York Times: “I used to assume history and memory would always triumph over temporary aberrations and return to their rightful place. It now appears the opposite is true. In today’s China, amnesia trumps memory. Lies are surpassing the truth. Fabrications have become the logical link to fill historical gaps. Even memories of events that have only just taken place are being discarded at a dazzling pace, with barely intelligible fragments all that remain for people to hold on to. [Source: Yan Lianke, New York Times, April 2, 2013 ++]

“This amnesia with Chinese characteristics doesn’t just affect individuals, it also affects China as a nation. Some people say, “Let bygones by bygones, we must look forward.” Consolation, perhaps, for an individual’s suffering, but it is no consolation for an entire people’s loss of memory. Others say “If we don’t look forward, we won’t have a bright future.” This might be a good piece of advice for people who hide in the past, but it is hardly constructive for people who surrender themselves to memory deletion. ++

“This state-administered amnesia is similar to territorial defense in the animal kingdom. It’s about survival...Truth is buried, conscience is castrated and our language is raped by money and power. Lies, meaningless words and pretentious-sounding blather become the official language used by the government, taught by our teachers and adopted by the world of art and literature. ++

“This kind of language is also creeping into the lives of ordinary people. There are currently two conflicting language systems in China. One belongs to the state, the other to ordinary people. Why? Why are ordinary people repeatedly calling for government officials to “speak human language” and “do human things”? These requests reflect people’s resistance to the official version of memories that has been administered to them. ++

“Today’s China is no longer a hermetically sealed nation as it was just a few decades ago. The economic window in China is wide open to the world now. The other window, however, the political window, is still tightly shuttered, because the state is determined to cling to its power to control. And the secret of state-administered amnesia with Chinese characteristics lies in the different condition of the two windows. The mind of the state is keeping a watchful eye on the windows and what people are writing, but no one is allowed to keep a watchful eye on the mind of the state. ++

“Gradually we become accustomed to amnesia and we question people who ask questions. Gradually we lose our memories of what happened to our nation in the past, then we lose the sense of what’s happening in our nation at present, and, finally, we run the risk of losing memories about ourselves, about our childhood, our love, our happiness and pain.” ++

Image Sources: Chinese government, Xinhua. Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2013

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