Johnson, Ian: China’s memory manipulators (on the use and abuse of history – a world-wide phenomenon)

Johnson, Ian

China’s memory manipulators‘, Guardian, 8 June 2016

Honest History has followed recent events in the South China Sea because of their relevance to Australia. We are also interested in material that shows how governments manipulate history, for example, this from Margaret Macmillan.

This manipulation of history is a worldwide phenomenon which seems particularly rife regarding commemoration of wars. The resurgence of the Anzac story in Australia (even to the extent of Anzackery) says as much about current political agendas as it does about nostalgia. ‘All commemoration tells us more about the present, than it does the past’, says Professor Joan Beaumont, one of Honest History’s distinguished supporters. ‘All commemoration is inherently political.’

‘The country’s rulers do not just suppress history’, according to Ian Johnson in this article about China, ‘they recreate it to serve the present. They know that, in a communist state, change often starts when the past is challenged.’ The article picks out examples from recent Chinese history, from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, to make points which often have more general relevance to the way countries manipulate history.

For example, history in China today is ‘kept on a tight leash’. Not all of history is used, there is choice involved. While Mao made mistakes we will choose to make more of his contributions because what is chosen matters. ‘Even though history is, by definition, past, it is also China’s present and future.’

Choice comes down to matters of detail and ‘efforts to commemorate the past are often misleading or so fragmentary as to be meaningless. Almost all plaques at historical sites, for example, tell either partial histories or outright lies.’ A temple described officially as being built in the 13th century AD was actually rebuilt in the 20th century after being destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

There is more than choice involved, however. ‘The Communist party does not just suppress history, it recreates it to serve the present.’ It promotes itself as a protector of cultural history, Xi taking a central role in this, coming up with ‘China Dream’ as a slogan. ‘The slogan would become associated with many goals, including nationalism and China’s surge to global prominence, but domestically, its imagery was almost always linked to traditional culture and virtues.’

Johnson refers to ‘the sophisticated propaganda techniques used by the Communist party during the 2010s to create an ideology that can link traditional communism with traditional values’. Many China Dream posters and promotional images were prepared. ‘All showed how for today’s government, there was no better ally than history.’

Johnson describes the work of Professor Liu Guozhong and historian Li Xueqin on rediscovered ancient texts. ‘Sometimes the resurfacing of history into the public consciousness is inadvertent and apolitical.’ The work of Liu and Li has provided evidence of the early existence of Chinese dynasties, despite  scepticism by other scholars. The thrust of the new evidence is to confirm that the Chinese is one of the oldest civilisations on the planet, a conclusion which has a number of implications for China today.

One text, for example, argues in favour of meritocracy much more forcefully than is found in currently known Confucian texts. Until now, the Confucian texts only allowed for abdication or replacement of a ruler as a rare exception; otherwise kingships were hereditary – a much more pro-establishment and anti-revolutionary standpoint. The new texts argue against this. For an authoritarian state wrapping itself in “tradition” to justify its never-ending rule, the implications of this new school are subtle but interesting. “This isn’t calling for democracy,” Allan told me, “but it more forcefully argues for rule by virtue instead of hereditary rule”.

This article also appeared in the hard copy Guardian Weekly. It was adapted from The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, which was published by Oxford University Press on 23 June.

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