China: imperfect memory, global impunity

Jasper Becker
22 August 2006

The Chinese elite's repression and falsification of national history fuels its ability to support violations of human rights around the world, says Jasper Becker.

The process of engagement with China by leading western countries was supposed to encourage progress on human rights by the world's emerging superpower. The George W Bush administration in particular is trying to persuade Beijing to become a responsible "stakeholder" in the world community. A report published in June 2006 by Amnesty International suggests that these approaches are not working out in the way their architects planned.

Amnesty has added its voice to the growing condemnation of China's blanket support for unpleasant regimes like Burma, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan and Iran. Its report draws attention to Chinese arms sales as a key means by which China is using a wide range of economic and diplomatic instruments to protect the governments responsible for the world's worst violations of human rights.

China is now a great beneficiary of the world trading system and depends on a stable world to import raw materials and export its goods. In theory it ought to be to China's advantage – as much as everyone else's – that rogue regimes are reined in by sanctions rather than overthrown by costly and disruptive wars like those fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia.

Beijing sees its interests differently. Its motivation in sheltering a string of what are arguably on the way to becoming client states is sometimes explained, or justified, by narrow financial self-interest. For example, it wants to secure Sudan's oil, capture Iran's gas, or win construction contracts in Zimbabwe to supply its energy shortfalls and expand markets for its exports. Yet its willingness to undermine western sanctions against Burma (Myanmar), to block United Nations resolutions against Sudan, and to supply arms and loans indiscriminately, reveals a strategic ambition that ranges far wider than mere economics. Moreover, China's assertiveness in pursuing these trading relationships is also a symptom of a much deeper malaise in the evolving relationship between China and the world – one that is intimately linked to China's official silence, forgetting or repression of its own history.

Jasper Becker is a Beijing-based journalist and writer. His books include China's Hungry Ghosts (John Murray, 1996) and Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea (Oxford University Press, 2005). His website is here

Also by Jasper Becker in openDemocracy:

"A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea"
(19 July 2005)

A slightly different of this article was published in Asia Sentinel
(14 August 2006)

The past in the present

Chinese leaders simply don't care about genocide in Darfur, mass starvation in North Korea or Burma's persecution of minorities and democrats. How could they? They have hardly behaved any better themselves either at home and abroad.

More than thirty-four years have passed since the then United States president, Richard M Nixon, made his historic visit to China in February 1972. Since then, there have been a series of major domestic changes in China – including Mau Tse-tung's death, the downfall of the "gang of four", the brief "democracy wall" opening, the Deng Xiao-ping reforms, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the ongoing transformation of China's economy. Through all this, one thing has remained constant: the power and position of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

This political rigidity means that the Chinese elite has never been forced to confront the CPC's own horrendous past or come clean about the enormous violations of human rights it has committed over the past eighty years. Beijing has never had to apologise for occupying Tibet; attacking India, Burma and Vietnam; creating Pol Pot's Cambodia; bankrolling Enver Hoxha's Albania; and fuelling devastating insurgencies across southeast Asia and Africa.

Official China doesn't feel the need to because it has clung to a version of history which allows the Chinese to see themselves only as victims. At the same time, Beijing stirs up outrage at Japan's alleged unwillingness to repent for its invasion of east Asia and for using textbooks that falsify history.

But the truth is that China too was for centuries a great colonial power that invaded and occupied neighbouring territories – and that it continued to do so inside the People's Republic of China under Mao Tse-tung. In this post-1949 era, "Chairman Mao" vowed to restore the Qing empire at its greatest extent, and in pursuit of that end settled tens of millions to colonise the areas once conquered by Qing dynasty armies.

At home the CPC murdered and starved to death millions as it fought its way to power, killed thirty million during the "great leap forward" famine (1958-62), and destroyed the lives of countless others in campaigns like that of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

What is most worrying is how even its victims often accept the official version of history. Western newspapers which in May 2006 covered the fortieth anniversary of the start of the cultural revolution interviewed many who while acknowledging their individual guilt believed that the terror was an unfortunate excess.

Mao's cultural revolution was however only an episode in an unrelenting campaign to erase the memory of the nation. From the 1920s onwards, Chinese communists began destroying every artefact from the old society that they associated with a degenerate past, and implanting an imagined history in which China's backwardness was the fault of foreign imperialists and capitalists. This in essence is still the version taught in schools and universities.

This cultural revolution still goes on today. It explains why the current leadership, many of them former Red Guards like Hu Jintao, are determined to demolish China's historical cities. Any totalitarian state, as George Orwell so famously made clear in Nineteen Eighty-four, must monopolise the past to control the future.

In the great rush to modernise Beijing for the Olympics, the state is razing the entire ancient capital, whose streets and buildings were eyewitness to so much historical memory. Plenty of museums are being built but these simply reinforce the party's misinterpretation of Chinese history.

The party's own history is so much fantasy. From recent research like the new biography of Mao by Jung Chang & Jon Halliday, we now know Mao never really fought the Japanese and indeed collaborated with them to undermine the nationalists.

Sun Shuyun shows in her book about the "long march" that the epic story was full of inventions – such as the most famous heroic episode, the 1935 battle to cross the Luding bridge. There never was such a battle.

The more we find out about the Chinese past, the worse the dissonance between the official and actual histories seems. Ten years ago, I wrote about the Xinyang "incident" which took place in one corner of Henan province during the great leap forward famine. My sources claimed that more than one million perished from a man-made starvation in a district with 8-10 million inhabitants. New researches drawing on party archives reveal that in fact 2.4 million perished, and perhaps a million were beaten to death at the hands of local party officials.

This is the real reason that Mao launched the cultural revolution, to bury the memory of his misdeeds and destroy his colleagues who knew the truth.

A light for the future

Some people in China are still determined to uncover the past. A recent book edited by historian Yu Xiguang (Great Leap Forward, Bitter Days) includes the first official evidence of cannibalism with a photograph of a man condemned for eating his own child.

In 2006, the party fired the editors of the Southern Youth Daily newspaper supplement Bingdian (Freezing Point) which had begun running articles questioning official accounts of events like the Boxer rebellion (see Lung Ying-tai, "A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao", 15 February 2006).

The party is still working hard at censoring everything published in the country, and is increasingly successful at persuading foreign publishers and media groups like Google to collaborate (see Becky Hogge, "The Great Firewall of China", 20 May 2005).

That is why people in China understand so little about their own past and care even less what their government might be doing to perpetuate the misery in far-off places like Sudan. Until there is a real glasnost in China, we cannot expect to see China to start acting responsibly abroad.

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