June 2009 Dispatch - Years to Remember (and Forget)

The year 2009 is a big one for China and the ruling Communist Party (CCP), as years ending in the number 9 mark several important anniversaries. In 1919, May 4 witnessed the patriotic, “modernizing” youth movement that catalyzed the formation of the CCP. In 1949 the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established, and 1979 saw the inauguration of reform and opening, which re-legitimized the Party after the Cultural Revolution debacle and set China on the path to record-breaking economic growth and international power and status.

These are not the only “9” years, however, that mark milestones in recent Chinese history. 1959 saw Beijing crush the Tibetan uprising against PRC rule that led the Dalai Lama to flee into exile; it was also the first of three years of mass starvation in the Great Leap Forward. In 1979, the brief but bloody Sino-Vietnamese War took place. And in 1989 the leadership of the Chinese People’s Government ordered the People’s Liberation Army to fire on unarmed Chinese people demonstrating in Tiananmen Square.

Needless to say, some anniversaries are celebrated with great fanfare, as moments in the nation’s history of which all citizens can and should be proud. Massive parades to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the PRC’s founding can certainly be expected this October. In the run-up to anniversaries of events-that-should-be-forgotten, by contrast, dissidents are detained, the media muzzled, websites suddenly shut down for “maintenance,” and public security intensified at sensitive venues such as the Potala Palace in Lhasa and Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This month, angered by what it perceives as interference in its internal affairs, China has rebuked foreign dignitaries, including Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for their calls on the CCP leadership to acknowledge those killed at Tiananmen. According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, China has already reached a verdict on that history. The Party has set the country on “the proper socialist path that serves the fundamental interests of the Chinese people,” and there is nothing more to be said.

Enforcing historical forgetting, however, requires more than clampdowns at anniversary time and stony assertions that matters are resolved. Efforts to silence critical voices are ongoing, and the so-called Great Firewall of China routinely blocks access to sensitive information on the Internet. Meanwhile, despite liberalization—which has allowed professional historians considerable freedom to address many hitherto taboo topics—the content of museums, memorials, historical films and television dramas, and, above all, school textbooks remain restricted through a battery of laws, regulations, and vetting mechanisms. In line with official diktats, these officially authorized histories generally gloss over unhappy episodes or rewrite them to present a mostly happy tale of inexorable progress since 1949, and to portray the Party and the country in a positive light. If mentioned at all, acts of state violence or suppression are represented as necessary measures taken to safeguard national territory, unity, and stability. At the same time, in order to emphasize a common national bond against external threats, they highlight past acts of aggression that foreign countries committed against China. This patriotic history is not “my country, right or wrong;” rather, it is “my country (and the Party) has always been right.”

Despite these concerted efforts, it has proved difficult to erase unhappy memories of domestic repression or disaster from public consciousness, or to prevent the dissemination of unofficial histories. Research shows that omitting past events or persons from public commemoration does not guarantee they will be forgotten, especially if they are focal points of group identity; indeed, they may serve as the foundations for counter-histories. For example, the year 1959 is central to the Tibetan narrative of resistance to Chinese domination. Furthermore, even when official histories are forcibly and repeatedly imposed, such as through compulsory education and examinations, they may not necessarily be remembered or deployed as originally intended, particularly if they run counter to personal or community experiences. In fact, they may be used in ways that actually challenge the official narrative. Students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 saw themselves—not the CCP—as inheritors of the spirit of May 4th, 1919. Not coincidentally, May 4th radicalism has been somewhat downplayed in recent years, and its ninetieth anniversary this year astonishingly low-key.

Ruling regimes often seek to use history both to legitimize their political authority and to suppress dissent. Nevertheless, controlling the past is considerably more complicated than merely adding or deleting events from the historical record and commemorating or silencing them on key anniversaries. In China, 2009 will certainly not be the last year in which tensions arise between those who want to remember and those who would have them forget.