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The dismantling of the Chinese mind Collective memory has never been more fragile

China's archives are closed to foreigners. Yang Bo/China News Service/Visual China Group/Getty Images

China's archives are closed to foreigners. Yang Bo/China News Service/Visual China Group/Getty Images


September 7, 2023   6 mins

When retired spy Peter Wright announced the existence of Spycatcher, his astoundingly indiscreet MI5 expose, in 1985, Margaret Thatcher’s government tried to block its publication in Australia. When that failed, it banned English newspapers from reporting on Wright’s allegations, including that MI5 had “bugged and burgled” the embassies of hostile countries and allies alike across London. But, eventually — as is often the case in liberal societies — the story came out. And once it did, there was no putting it back in the bottle.

In the West, information has a habit of wanting to be free. Every so often, government documents are recalled, or a court order prevents an issue from being discussed — but once the material is out in the public sphere, especially online, it is generally very hard to retract it. Since this is the norm for liberal societies, we sometimes underestimate how important it is to keep bodies of knowledge free and accessible to the public.

In today’s illiberal China, by contrast, we see what happens when the preservation of information for the public is less important than protecting the ruling system. The Chinese government is determined to prove it can be made to disappear at the snap of its fingers. In March, it was announced that large parts of CNKI, the major Chinese research and academic database, were being closed to overseas readers. The Chinese insist that this is just tit for tat, as it’s harder for their own researchers to get access to Western research databases. But that’s disingenuous. It’s true that there are now security-linked restrictions on some researchers from China getting access to Western hi-tech labs. Yet Chinese historians, political scientists and sociologists still have easy and convenient access to sources in the West, such as the UK National Archives.

Foreign academics studying China aren’t nearly so lucky. Overseas access to China’s historical materials — particularly those from the turbulent years of Mao Zedong’s rule — is now off-limits. This wasn’t always the case: a number of key archives including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were open to foreign and domestic scholars during the first decade of this century, allowing for astonishing insights into the formation of Mao’s foreign policy (and, as it happens, helping China to make its current foreign policy more legible to the world). Then, in 2012, most of the collection was closed off again. No single explanation was given other than a cryptic “zhengli” (reordering or tidying up), but in retrospect, it marked the start of a decade of narrowing boundaries for academic and political discussion as Xi Jinping tightened his control over China.

The closing of archives might seem like a rather specialist complaint. But the wider issue — the illusion that once information is out in the open, it remains there — is more fundamental to the behaviour of writers, thinkers, and societies as a whole than the liberal world sometimes realises. China’s intellectuals have to reckon not just with the battle to get material out in the open, but the reality that any victory may be temporary, and the door may narrow or close again.

Consider the writing of Wang Xiaobo, a well-known Chinese novelist in the Eighties and Nineties. Unsure what to make of his wry and ironic fiction, the authorities first banned his work, then allowed it to be published in the relatively more liberal atmosphere of the mid-Nineties (though it has been only sporadically available in China since then). Wang’s story is neither unique nor particularly tragic: it is often the case in China that the same artist is both feted and censored. But his story is illustrative of the way that information and access come and go in China, a phenomenon that shapes attitudes towards reality.

In China, collective knowledge and memory are fragile. To give them more substance and staying power, Chinese intellectuals have come up with two different techniques. The first is to embrace the ironies surrounding the ephemerality of the written word. Wang’s most widely-known novel, Golden Age, now in a new translation for Penguin Classics by Yan Yan, is an account of the Cultural Revolution: the decade from 1966 to 1976 when China was racked by an internal civil war instigated by Mao in an act of purgative revenge against his own Communist Party, which he believed was sidelining him.

Yet Wang’s book doesn’t offer the kind of grand narrative sweep present in Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and other bestselling memoirs of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, it opens with a “sent-down youth” named Wang Er, a young man exiled to the countryside during Mao’s political storm. During his time in the village, he has a long on-off affair with a young female doctor until the two of them are discovered and forced to self-criticise. This tactic of demanding that political offenders recount their own “crimes” was a standard part of the project of ideological purification from the Forties onwards. But rather than going through a violent and painful humiliation typical of the Cultural Revolution, the wayward couple is simply made to write confessions of their Orwellian “sexcrimes”. The cadre in charge of monitoring the confessions seems to enjoy them for their prurient detail rather than seeking to use them for reforming the recidivists.

For much of the novel, Wang depicts this strange parallel Cultural Revolution, far removed from the violence in the cities. It is only later that we find out that the anti-hero has been witness to a horrific confrontation when he gives an understated but devastating account of a teacher who is persecuted until he throws himself from the window, and whose family are left standing on the ground next to scattered pieces of his brain. Like much of the writing of post-1949 history in China, Golden Age only makes sense when the missing elements are added in late in the day.

This mixture of irony and violence is not the kind of thing that the Party tends to favour. The Cultural Revolution is not completely off limits for discussion in China, but it’s hard to talk about it in tones that suggest it was anything other than a terrible historical error — the fault of a few erring leaders — that the Party itself successfully corrected, and that it’s time to move on. Wang’s approach, in contrast, implies that the wounds of that time have never really healed. That bleak interpretation must be one of the reasons that the book was illicit (though widely read).

Chinese writers today face even greater challenges than Wang. As Megan Walsh points out in her book, The Subplot, popular fiction is now written at high speed online, and is highly commercial, bringing in the kind of income that many Substackers can only dream of. Yet online readers can suddenly find their favourite epic blocked by censors. Unlike Wang’s physical novels, which could at least be hidden in private libraries during times of harsh censorship, today’s bestselling fiction can disappear overnight. Just because you read something today doesn’t mean you’ll find it tomorrow, whether it’s a historical document about the Cultural Revolution or a multi-part fiction series about lesbian martial arts champions. Fiction flickers on the screen: you have to catch it while you can.

This leads us to the second way that some seek to preserve memory, as illustrated in Ian Johnson’s new book Sparks, which gives a highly empathetic account of the way that China’s historical community gets around the rules that prevent the preservation of documentation and restrain historical analysis. The fate of the journal China Through the Ages (Yanhuang Chunqiu) offers a particularly disturbing example. For decades, the journal, officially permitted as a vehicle for the more liberal strain in Chinese Communist politics, was allowed to publish documents and essays that forced attention to the darker and more complex side of Chinese Communist history, even referencing figures such as Zhao Ziyang, the former party chief placed under house arrest after Tiananmen Square in 1989. Then, in 2016, the magazine was shut down in a political purge (although it reappeared under new management). Such unpredictability means that historians have to resort to other means to preserve material: either publishing as online “newsletters” that don’t require an official publication permit, or publishing abroad. The seeming solidity of an ISBN melts into the air — even more so in an age where digital-only publications can be switched off at a moment’s notice.

Today in the West, there are major, unresolved debates about how electronic data can be preserved when technology makes old formats such as CDs obsolete. There is also a growing divide between institutions and societies that can afford to keep databases switched on and those that can’t. But these choices are very different from deciding that a particular body of historical data — records of top Party leaders’ discussions; economic data about unemployment — should vanish because they are politically inconvenient. This fear of disappearance profoundly affects the way that China preserves its modern history. Libraries and even databases are still important, but the piles of printouts in a local historian’s back room, next to the rice cooker, or those videos of Cultural Revolution survivors kept on a private laptop take on a particular urgency because handing them over to an official archive could mean disappearance rather than preservation.

Wang Xiaobo died young in 1997, so we don’t know what he would have made of a 21st-century China which largely lives on the internet. He would probably have been pleased that his own books are reasonably freely available today. But he might well have been hard at work on a novel that reflected the here-today-gone-tomorrow fragility of history, fiction, and memory in today’s authoritarian China, where it is easier than ever to disseminate information and simpler than ever to cut it off.


Rana Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism (Harvard, 2020).


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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
8 months ago

The Cultural Revolution is not completely off limits for discussion in China, but it’s hard to talk about it in tones that suggest it was anything other than a terrible historical error — the fault of a few erring leaders — that the Party itself successfully corrected, and that it’s time to move on.
All of this historical revision (in the most literal sense of that word) is in service of the Communist Party’s never-ending and desperate attempts to avoid the gravitational pull of the black hole at the center of 20th-century Chinese history: the “Great Leap Forward” and the subsequent, entirely avoidable, famine, which may have annihilated as many as sixty million Chinese. It is, of course, an open question as to whether revealing the truth of that apocalyptic crime against the Chinese people would result in the downfall of the regime, but the Communist Party simply cannot risk it. It is the original sin of the CCP, the damned spot that simply will not out, all the dogs which did not bark. Hence the focus on the Cultural Revolution, which, contra Mao, the Great Leap Forward makes look like a dinner party.
Sixty million dead! And the vast majority of Chinese know nothing of the truth. But daily they walk on the bones of the starving dead, now rendered down into dust, because denial of the horrors they perpetrated on their own people forms the foundation of the Communist Party’s rule.
Truly, the bricks of modern China are mortared with blood.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

Not to mention the “War of the Sparrows’.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago

Those counter-revolutionary sparrows had to be liquidated for society to progress (and they were asking for it – they were getting fat on the worker’s food).

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Indeed they were.
I didn’t think even George Orwell could have dreamt up such scenario!

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
8 months ago

Distortion of the collective memory can happen in the West too. In the 1990s, 70% of Catholics in Northern Ireland surveyed said they had ‘no sympathy’ for the reasons republican groups gave to justify their violence. Only 6% said they had ‘a lot of sympathy’ with the terrorists’ rationale. In the South, Sinn Fein had almost no support – around 1% of the vote. Today – after decades where criticism of Sinn Fein, or any harking back to the IRA campaign of murder and intimidation of the community was considered by the Irish political, media and academic establishment to be bad form – 69% of nationalist voters in Northern Ireland agree with the statement that there was ‘no alternative’ to the IRA’s campaign. Sinn Fein are likely soon to dominate the government on both sides of the border. An “Up the ‘RA” culture dominates amongst young people in Ireland where ugly celebrations of sectarian violence (euphemistically called “rebel songs”) and bigotry against Northern Unionists and the British of a sort which would have been considered very backward in the 1980s is now fashionable. The murderous reality of the Troubles (other than a few cherrypicked events like Bloody Sunday, memorialised because they suit a particular narrative) has been airbrushed out of history.

Last edited 8 months ago by Stephen Walsh
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Soldier F has been ‘on trial’ since January.
Unlike Corporal Major Dennis Hutchins (late Life Guards.) he just won’t DIE.

Johan Grönwall
Johan Grönwall
8 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

The article concerns China. Why this whataboutism?

Last edited 8 months ago by Johan Grönwall
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

Are you new to UnHerd may I ask?

Last edited 8 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
8 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Maybe you could show me some examples of sectarian bigotry or violence in Irish rebel songs, Stephen. I’ve heard them all my life and have never come across a single sectarian sentiment but maybe you know better

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

The foggy dew:- SinĂ©ad O’Connor, R.I.P.:-
The men behind the wire:- Wolfe Tones.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaS3vaNUYgs
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRtiA00tYeA

Well Mr Devlin?

Last edited 8 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
8 months ago

Where’s the sectarian violence, Charles?
The Foggy Dew
Twas down the glen one Easter morn
To a city fair rode I
Those armored lines of marching men
In squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum nor battle drum
Did sound it’s dread tattoo
But the Angelus bell o’er the liffey swell
Rang out of the foggy dew
Right proudly high over Dublin Town
Lay hung out the flag of war
‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky
Than at sulva or sud e bar
And from the plains of Royal Meath
Strong men came hurrying through
While Britannia’s huns, with their long range guns
Sailed out o’er the foggy dew
‘Twas England bade our wild geese fly
That small nations might be free
But their lonely graves are by sulva’s waves
On the fringe of the Great North Sea
Oh, had they died by pearse’s side
Or fought with Cathal Brugha
I’m sure their names we will keep where the fenians sleep
‘Neath the shroud of the foggy dew
But the bravest fell as the requiem bell
Rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Eastertide
In the spring time of the year
And the world did gaze, with deep amaze
At those fearless men, but few
Who bore the fight so that freedom’s light
Might shine through the foggy dew
Who bore the fight so that freedom’s light
Might shine through the foggy dew
Might shine through the foggy dew
Might shine through the foggy dew

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

I would have thought “Britannia’s huns with their long range guns” qualified.

What about “armoured cars tanks and guns

”?

I doubt if you would like to be described as a Hibernian Hun, would you?

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
8 months ago

Show me, Charles

Armored cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons
But every man must stand behind the men behind the wire
Armored cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons
But every man must stand behind the men behind the wire
In the little streets of Belfast, in the dark of early morn
British solders came a-running, wrecking little homes with scorn
Hear the sobs of crying children, dragging fathers from their beds
Watch the scene as helpless mothers watch the blood fall from their heads
Armored cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons
But every man must stand behind the men behind the wire
Armored cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons
But every man must stand behind the men behind the wire
Not for them a judge or jury or indeed a crime at all
Being Irish means they’re guilty, so they’re guilty one and all
Around the world the truth will echo, Cromwell’s men are here again
England’s name again is sullied, in the eyes of honest men
Armored cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons
But every man must stand behind the men behind the wire
Armored cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons
But every man must stand behind the men behind the wire
Proudly march behind our banner, proudly march behind our men
We will have them free to help us, build a nation once again
All the people step together, proudly marching on your way
Never fear or never falter ’til the boys come home to stay
Armored cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons
But every man must stand behind the men behind the wire
Armored cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons
But every man must stand behind the men behind the wire

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

Same again, but do answer my first question, which I repeat, “ would you like to be referred to as a “Hibernian Hun”?

ps, I almost forgot, what that ridiculously sentimental dirge KEVIN BARRY then?

Last edited 8 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago

O Charles, it warms the cockles of my heart to know you’ve heard the lament of Kevin Barry 🙂
Will you be going to see the Wolfe Tones when they tour England later this year?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Only if I can get a “day release pass”.*

Incidentally I find it rather odd that Mr Devlin sees fit to write out both ‘ballads’ in full.
As both are in English and the late SinĂ©ad O’Connor’s diction is perfect why bother?

(* Camden 16th November?)

Last edited 8 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
8 months ago

If you can evade your nursing home gaolers it would be a delight to have you join in a rousing rendition of The Men Behind The Wire.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago

Is there any real difference between seeking to suppress history and rewrite it? What China seeks to do, certain cultural warriors in the West seek to do by other means, and i’m not at all sure which strain of censorship will ultimately prove to be more corrosive.

Whilst Chinese citizens who fell foul of the state were made to denounce themselves for their “crimes”, the grovelling apologies demanded in the media by those offending some zeitsensibility or other are more than mere echoes of the same impoverishment of humanity.

Last edited 8 months ago by Steve Murray
Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
8 months ago

Wang Xiaobo. Noted. And thanks.