PROPAGANDA IN 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]

Chinese Government Propaganda Department

right The government watches the mass media closely, and maintains tight control over television and radio, as well as newspapers and magazines. The media in China is under the jurisdiction of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). The press, films and television are carefully supervised by SARFT and the Propaganda Department. 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.

Since Mao’s time the government has controlled radio, television and newspapers and carefully selected what people are exposed to. Explaining the role of the media in modern China, an SARFT official told the Financial Times, “We must insist of the correct leadership of public opinion. We must transmit the party’s and the central government’s voice into every home.”

Propaganda officials continue to send out instructions on how news should be handled but their commands are increasingly being ignored. Liu Xiaobo, a writer and dissident who spent time in jail, told the Financial Times, “It is consumers who command the loyalty of media managers. They show fake enthusiasm for orders from above, but their efforts to curry favor with customers is genuine.”

The main official news sources---New China News Agency, the People's Daily, China News Agency and Guangming Daily---have multiple channel reporting systems with one channel for public consumption and others for “reference” news that goes only to officials. A surprisingly large number of foreign magazines are available uncensored at Chinese public libraries.

The Propaganda department reportedly uses a point system to keep print media in line. According to a Hong Kong newspaper each media outlets is given 12 points, with points deducted for various infringements, with the punishments ranging for warnings and dismissals to closures.

In the 1990s, producers of a middle school production of Snow White where forced by censors to rewrite the script so the villainous Woodsman would be reformed after undergoing a self-criticism session to present the proletariat in a more favorable light.

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 1957 speech, "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

”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).]

Propaganda Bureau Takes over Two Beijing Papers

In September 2011, The Guardian reported, the Beijing propaganda bureau has taken control of two influential Beijing newspapers---Beijing Times and the Beijing News, both known for their bold reporting---prompting fears that they will be more strictly censored. Some journalists blamed the development on official anger at the reporting of the fatal high-speed train crash in Wenzhou in July, although others believe it reflects a broader struggle over control of the media. "It means there will be so much we can't do," an employee of one of the affected titles said. "[Before] there was news that other papers couldn't do but we could." [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian September 3, 2011]

Searches for Beijing News and Beijing Times on Sina's popular microblogging service appeared to be blocked. One journalist who posted about the change received a message from the service ordering him to delete the post or lose his account. Previously, the papers were overseen by state level propaganda authorities. Journalists fear the switch may also restrict their ability to cover events in the capital and sensitive news from other areas.

"It's been a headache for the Beijing propaganda authorities that they didn't directly control the two newspapers," Wen Yunchao, a Hong Kong-based media analyst, told the South China Morning Post. "They could only influence editorial content through the help of the central publicity department." Wen said it was unclear what would happen to cross-regional reporting, but predicted "instant results" in reducing negative coverage of local news.

Others thought changes might not be obvious at first, suggesting that officials' main aim was to rein in reporting on sensitive topics such as the Wenzhou crash. Mainstream media---including state-owned newspapers and television stations---ran strikingly tough coverage of the disaster, questioning safety standards and the way officials handled the aftermath. When censors clamped down on reporting, the Beijing News ran a front page article about a precious ceramic dish at the Forbidden City breaking into six pieces. Although it was a true story, it was widely read as an oblique reference to Wenzhou, where six carriages were derailed. The paper has faced intense pressure from authorities in the past, notably in 2005 when dozens of staff walked out after the chief editor, Yang Bin, was sacked.

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.”

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. ++

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.

Last updated August 2021


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