ORWELLIAN RATLAND - China’s Deletions of Tiananman
Charles Hutzler and Chun Han Wong
Thirty years ago, a man stood in front of a column of tanks, halting their hulking passage from Tiananmen Square a day after the bloodshed of June 4. The man has never been identified. But images of his defiance became a symbol of protest against the powerful around the world—except in China, where they have been censored and banished from public memory.
“Tank man” images are ruthlessly excised from Chinese social media, according to monitoring services. When the British journalist Louisa Lim was researching a 2015 book on the Tiananmen events and the suppression of their memory, she showed the iconic photo of “tank man” to 100 students at four universities in Beijing. Only 15 correctly identified it, two by guessing, she wrote in the “The People’s Republic of Amnesia.”
Now the Chinese government is seeking to exert the same sort of control over how China’s history is seen in the rest of the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his allies describe the internet as an ideological battlefield where the Communist Party must prevail to expand China’s influence over international public opinion. His government has not only amped up controls on information inside China but sought to impose those standards on foreigners.
Access to China’s official archives is increasingly restrictive, according to Chinese and foreign researchers, and when granted, the documents available are limited. Online databases run by Chinese academic institutions are eliminating articles seen as problematic by the government. Then there’s intimidation, with the government banning the books of Chinese academics and refusing visas to foreign scholars whose work it dislikes.
Xi Jinping has made it clear that under his watch, the party will keep a tight grip on how China is portrayed.
Pei Yiran, a professor of literature, began delving into Communist Party upheavals as part of his research in intellectual history. He took early retirement from the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics to try to avoid pressure from officials over his work. It didn’t stop, so he left for the U.S. two years ago, bringing along his research on political and economic turmoil under Mao Zedong. “The writing was on the wall, so I’d better escape while I could,” says the 64-year-old, who now lives in New Jersey. To Mr. Pei, the intent of all this is clear: Mr. Xi “is seeking historical legitimacy for the Communist Party” and is doing so by acquiring the power to “willfully rewrite history and monopolize the microphone.”
China’s imperial dynasties employed court historians to rewrite the past to bolster their right to rule. The Communist Party has forcefully asserted the same prerogative. Fellow revolutionaries who ended up at odds with Mao Zedong were purged and then airbrushed from photographs. The most calamitous periods of Mao’s rule—the mass famine of 1959 to 1961 induced by the policies of the Great Leap Forward, the turmoil and violence of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976—resulted in tens of millions of deaths, but these events have been glossed over in high school textbooks and are off-limits for all but government-authorized research.
Chinese leaders were quick to contest the pro-democracy narrative of the Tiananmen protests. As troops fought their way into central Beijing in June 1989, the People’s Daily called the demonstrations “counter-revolutionary turmoil.” In the days following the crackdown, state media frequently aired not the image of the man stopping the tank but one of a soldier who was killed and burned by “rioters.”
Examination of the errors of Mao and the party have occasionally been allowed; the years leading up to the 1989 demonstrations stand out to many Chinese for their tolerance. President Xi, however, has derided critical assessments of the party’s past, calling it “historical nihilism.” Such negative discourse, he said, contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Xi has made it clear that under his watch, the party will keep a tight grip on how China is portrayed. “To destroy a nation, you must first destroy its history,” he warned senior party officials in a speech weeks after coming to power in late 2012. He took the idea from a 19th-century Chinese intellectual witnessing China’s collapse in the face of Western power. In the speech, Mr. Xi warned that “domestic and foreign hostile forces” were trying to smear the party’s past to end its current reign. To guard against that, his government has gone on the offensive.
State media in 1989 frequently aired not the image of the man stopping the tank but one of a soldier who was killed and burned by ‘rioters.’
Dayton Lekner, a doctoral student at Australia’s University of Melbourne, interviewed elderly survivors of the Anti-Rightist Movement of the late 1950s—a political purge launched by Mao against mostly liberal critics. Near the end of that trip in early 2017, he got pulled into a Shanghai police station and interrogated for three hours. His interrogators, who didn’t identify themselves, knew whom he had seen and demanded that he not release information from his interview subjects or speak about his interrogation, Mr. Lekner said later on the Little Red Podcast, which is co-hosted by Ms. Lim, now a lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Mr. Lekner confirmed the account but declined further comment.
Online resources, which are government-backed but have unrivaled access to information and are a growing draw for researchers around the world, are being selectively and quietly winnowed, as historian Glenn Tiffert found. Currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Mr. Tiffert tapped into two China-based online archives searching for articles in prominent legal journals about debates on judicial independence and other issues in the mid-’50s. These debates are relevant today as President Xi resists many Western legal norms in molding China’s justice system. The search results that Mr. Tiffert received omitted nearly a tenth of the articles, gaps that he detected because he previously had access to hard copies of the journals.
Mr. Tiffert likened the experience to “peering down the memory hole,” a reference to the device in George Orwell’s 1984 where officials consign political contraband for destruction. Such selectivity is insidious, he and other scholars say. Rather than consign people or events to oblivion, the doctored results warp the historical record in order to shape the future. “By tendentiously distorting consciousness of China’s past, they are prejudicing its possible futures,” he wrote in the American Historical Review in April.
“The way to think about the PRC [People’s Republic of China] on the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen,” he said in an interview, “is that it isn’t just trying to bury a set of inconvenient truths and facts, but is trying to construct a new narrative.”