I once wrote a post about my talking with one friend after another at the Global Times about what happened at Tiananmen Square 24 years ago, and whether they were familiar with the Tank Man photo. As I reported then, only one friend was familiar with the photo, and said she couldn’t understand why the West saw him as a hero. What he was doing was against the interest of society.
That episode came to mind as I read a piece in the NY Times that you should read, too, on “China’s State-Sponsored Amnesia.” We’ve discussed it here before — the air brushing of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward out of the public record, the erasure of June 4th, the downplaying of Mao’s misdeeds and blunders.
The author, a Chinese writer, sees the manipulation of history as a disaster for China.
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.
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.
This isn’t exactly new; I’ve been thinking about it for more than ten years now. But I hadn’t really realized the sheer scope of this massive, ongoing state effort to cleanse its people’s neurons and create its own history, almost in real time. After noting the whitewashing of the Cultural Revolution and the 1970 war with Vietnam, the author reminds us that state-sponsored amnesia is with us today, and the goal is always the same: to keep the ruling class in power.
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.
Anything negative about the country or the regime will be 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.
… 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.
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.
As you can probably see, this is one scary article. Obviously in recent years the Internet has made it harder to stamp out memories of the more recent outrages and scandals, but the fact remains, most Chinese growing up in the Chinese education system have been denied the knowledge of much of China’s history. And I’m ready for the response that it’s the same in the US. Um, no. We are taught about the disaster of Vietnam, we see television shows about the folly of the Iraq War, we learn how we exterminated the American Indians. Some textbooks may try to put America in the best light possible, but there is no government-mandated effort to uproot history and deny Americans knowledge of their past. It’s all out there for whoever wants to know about it.
This is a long and engrossing article. Let me just quote its last lines:
The late Chinese writer Ba Jin had a dream for preserving memory — to build a museum in China devoted to the Cultural Revolution, the “revolution” that took place in the 1960s and 1970s and turned the nation into a madhouse.
Carrying on Ba Jin’s dream, I also have a naïve hope: I hope one day a memorial to amnesia engraved with all our nation’s painful memories of the last century can be erected on Tiananmen Square.
I believe a truly great people are people who have the courage to remember their own past, and a truly great nation is a nation that has the courage to record its own history.
China so longs for true greatness, it dreams so much of soft power and global influence. But as long as it insists on excising anything negative about its history from the minds of its citizens, it cannot be taken entirely seriously. How can they be taken seriously when they are so afraid of the past, so insecure about the present that they must reshape the truth to avoid any dissent or disharmony? Do they not know that it makes others wary to see how China manipulates its citizens’ minds? Is there any hope that this very basic notion is getting through to anyone at the top? Based on everything I’m hearing and reading, the answer is, for now, no.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.