China’s selective amnesia

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.

The Discussion: 9 Comments

As you said, the brainwashing in China is complete. Now the focus in on brainwashing foreigners. Thus the push to expand abroad, give free news articles to African news sources without sufficient budget to do investigative journalism. It’s easier just to play Xinhua stuff which is exactly what they are doing. In Japan, China Daily pays massive subsidies to delivered physically free of charge to your door. While all other news outlets are cutting back, the Chinese government not only gives you free but free delivery. Global Times only reason for being is to cause you to doubt for a moment. Not to brainwash you. Just that flicker of doubt. Step one complete. Same thing with the Chinese government online anonymous commenters. They are getting more and more sophisticated. Tough to tell from real comments. Essentially impossible. All this backup up by 1.4 billion people who believe it. They go abroad and unknowingly preach the gospel. As you said, has worked perfectly in China against all odds.I think the next phase of brainwashing the world is working even better then they expected. Doubt is starting to form about world order

April 2, 2013 @ 11:50 am | Comment

I’m not sure this is the problem it’s made out to be – sure, censorship and politically-oriented education are, by themselves, bad things – but many (most?) Chinese within China are quite aware that:

1) Mao wasn’t a great leader in every respect. Indeed, many Chinese people hate Mao. Think of the people who insist on having those little Mao pictures in their cars as the Chinese equivalent of Americans who insist on having Sarah Palin memorabilia about their place – it’s much more about being ‘in your face’ to people who they believe disagree with their (usually extreme) political opinions.

No, I don’t believe the people who try to make out that the GLF famine and so-forth are foreign fabrications really believe this is true. At the very least, the rapidity with which they get rebutted on Weibo, and the rapidity with which they fold in the face of people claiming the opposite, does not speak of conviction.

2) The CCP doesn’t have a great track-record. Even classes of university students know this – they may (like people everywhere) be hazy on the history, but they know that the GLF and CR were bad things. One couldn’t interpret the response to Bo Xilai’s policies, and the condemnation of him as wanting a new Cultural Revolution by party seniors, as anything other than a recognition of this.

Sure, there are fanatics with a religious trust in the party, but in my meetings with such people, I have not found them to have the conviction of a reasonable person who believes themselves informed of the facts. Instead they speak with the zeal of someone who believes something based solely on source alone.

3) What happened in Beijing in ’89 was a massacre. The continual reference to this as an example of what will ultimately happen to those who oppose the party cannot be interpreted any other way.

April 2, 2013 @ 3:35 pm | Comment

Read “Never Forget National Humiliation” it’s quite an insightful read. Relatively neutral, too.

April 2, 2013 @ 5:17 pm | Comment

It could actually be worse than we fear:

“American government officials who deal with China who I met with in Washington are increasingly frustrated that China doesn’t even bother to pretend to tell the truth when discussing contentious issues. Very solid evidence of state-directed cyber-hacking of just about any American multinational with valuable technology and industrial trade secrets is met with the admonishment that the U.S. must cease with these “groundless accusations” that result from “ulterior motives”. The hedge funds and mutual funds that have been big investors in the China growth story and strong proponents of patience with China’s reform process have run out of patience themselves. They figure that all Chinese companies are lying to their investors so they are now turning toward investing in American and European companies with significant China exposure or playing China stocks on pure speculation.”

April 3, 2013 @ 4:03 am | Comment


Have you ever read Hidden Harmonies? They have suitably rabble-rousing and blood-curdling arguments against every assertion you’ve made – ESPECIALLY about TNM, in which the troops were all attacked by violent, overseas-funded students bradishing hunting knives and assault rifles.

Don’t read if you have high blood pressure.

April 3, 2013 @ 12:44 pm | Comment

I can’t read HH anymore. I tried many months ago to comment there and point out some obvious inconsistencies and was shocked at the angry, hysterical, hyper-defensive, hyper-nationalist response. It is the ultimate echo chamber. There is no dissent in their comments, as the only commenters are a small group of like-minded fanatics. For the sake of sanity I would just steer clear.

April 3, 2013 @ 1:53 pm | Comment

The NYT Op-Ed author’s fundamental issue comes down to why these memories aren’t filled with the narratives the author approves of. Grade school students mostly can barely retell the history they learn from the schools. You are one way or the other, “brainwashing” them with one set of narratives or the others. For the historical accuracy of the grade school textbook narratives, let’s just say those living in a glasshouse shouldn’t throw stones.

Only when a grade school student turns into an adult, he starts pondering when his people came from. Only then he starts searching for all narratives of the previous events, including those narratives competing with what he learned in the schools. What a society needs is at that time, preparing the inquisitive mind with all available facts/figures/opinions. By that standard, on the topics of GLF/CR (but not TAM), the spectrum of available facts/figures/opinions, to me, is much wider in China than in the English speaking world. My advice to the author, or Professor Loden, or the teacher in HK, is trying to embark upon some rigorously intellectual debates, not with some grade school students but with their older peers, and see if they can hang on.

Michele Bachmann once famously said the American founding fathers worked tirelessly to end the slavery. Now that’s the symptom of a person with a binary worldview. She couldn’t possible accept the American founding fathers as “70% good and 30% bad”. Even with the bad, it doesn’t mean the founding of the republic was wrong.

April 3, 2013 @ 11:48 pm | Comment

1) The truth is that it’s illegal to publish in China, or to bring into China from overseas, a book telling the truth about the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution or Tienamen Square. Probably most people in China today do not know that the PLA gunned down over a thousand protestors in Tienamen Square (how many we won’t know exactly until the Party falls apart and the archives opened as has happened in the former Soviet Union). As Richard notes above, the Party’s response to this is always something on the order of “your mother wears army boots.”

2) I disagree with the suggestion above that the “50-cent” men are getting better at their jobs. At least when it comes to the Western media, (a) it’s glaringly obvious who they are and (b) more and more Western readers are hip to the game being played by the Party’s Propaganda Department. Does anyone think that politically savvy folks who are wise to all the Astroturfing stunts in American politics would be taken in by the clumsy efforts of the Party to hide its fingerprints?

April 6, 2013 @ 8:38 pm | Comment

A German friend said that growing up and going to school in West Germany was like going to the psychiatrist for an hour a week for 12 years. The discussion of the darker parts of German history was continual and intentional. East Germans did not get this history.I found it interesting that the admission of bad history was considered important.

Teaching of history in public schools in USA could use a bit more of the dark side of USA history.

April 11, 2013 @ 10:05 pm | Comment

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