Why China is Hiding the Horrors of Its Past

Why China is Hiding the Horrors of Its Past

Nick Taber
Nick Taber
7 min read

While the Chinese government continues to transform Xinjiang through its cultural genocide program aimed at eliminating the distinct identity of the Uyghur population, it is also putting a high priority on controlling the history of the region and its people. In October 2018, the state-run newspaper People’s Daily published an article outlining the official stance towards Xinjiang’s history, saying, “A correct understanding of the history of Xinjiang is not about examination of specific historical details. It is about a deep understanding of the Party Central Committee’s basic understanding, viewpoints and conclusions on issues related to Xinjiang’s history, culture, religion and so on, and enhancing our confidence in Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”

The statement illustrates how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) generally regards the purpose of history. For the CCP, the purpose of historical study is not to understand past mistakes to ensure they are not repeated, an extremely important goal for a nation with the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward in the living memory of much of its population. The purpose of history is to serve the political and ideological goals of the government.

China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Much of the actual history of Xinjiang runs counter to those goals. The province of Xinjiang was founded when General Zuo Zongtang (in fact, the namesake of “General Tso’s Chicken”), re-conquered the area in 1877 under the order of the Qing Government, setting the foundation for the establishment of Xinjiang Province in 1884. The Qing conquest of this region is associated with widespread violence against the local Uyghur and Hui populations as well Uyghur violence against ethnic Chinese. Such historical facts underscore the overwhelming disunity of the region, thereby undermining the CCP’s current narrative about Xinjiang.

Xi Jinping March 2017

While the CCP has, for decades, treated historical knowledge both as a potential threat, as well as a tool for generating an extreme breed of nationalism, it has grown more hostile towards a wide range of historical facts under President Xi Jinping. In 2018, the People’s Daily reported that Xi declared, “We must clearly stand against the wrong view of history, establish a correct view of history with rational discernment, and ensure that Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era always follows the correct course.”

Efforts under Xi to promote the “correct view of history” are ambitious. For example, his government established well-funded programs to craft and promote the official history of the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty. This era is particularly important because, similar to the present, it oversaw a great deal of conflict with the local populations of Xinjiang and Tibet. The Qing era is also important because it witnessed China’s “humiliation” at the hands of Western powers, the memory of which is used by the CCP as an abundant source of nationalism. This history of “humiliation” helps bolster the contemporary wave of propaganda about the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” aimed at legitimizing CCP rule.

What is arguably most sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party are discussions of any historical events in which the CCP appears to be at fault, whether it be violence in Xinjiang or the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In the current political environment, these events call into question the legitimacy of the CCP, and therefore, information about them is increasingly restricted. But it wasn’t always this way. In the 1980s, public discussions and writings (known as “scar literature”) of the horrors of Mao’s rule were largely tolerated by the government. This was also a period when such history appeared to be less relevant, and therefore, less threatening to the Party. At that time, the country was reforming its political institutions, liberalizing its economy, and some high-ranking CCP officials were even considering full democratization.

In contrast, the Chinese government today has recently returned to personalistic rule, entrenched the state deep in the economy, and moved the country toward totalitarianism. Under such conditions, the CCP’s historical mistakes, particularly those of Mao, seem much more relevant and are, therefore, much more threatening to the CCP. The expression “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” speaks volumes about why the CCP is so eager to control and manipulate its history: it may currently be repeating what are widely regarded as some of the Party’s worst mistakes of the 20th century.

One such highly-relevant historical mistake the government is increasingly eager to control is the Cultural Revolution. Even within China, there is virtually unanimous agreement that the movement was a major failure of CCP rule. While this period has always been sensitive, the Party was, until recently, relatively forthcoming about this. However, it is now moving to further restrict knowledge and discussion of it.

A professor assaulted by students during the Cultural Revolution

Until 2019, national middle-school history textbooks had an entire chapter on the Cultural Revolution, showing the movement in a distinctly negative light. Of Mao’s errors, it said, “In the 1960s, Mao Zedong mistakenly believed that there were revisionists within the Central Party, and the party and the country faced threats of capitalist restoration.” In 2019, the Ministry of Education released a new version of the textbook in which the Cultural Revolution material was significantly shortened and combined with other periods into a single chapter called “Arduous Exploration and Development Achievements.” It not only took out the word “mistakenly” from the above quote, but also downplays the erroneous and tragic nature of the Cultural Revolution by saying “Nothing happens smoothly in the world, and history is always advancing in ups and downs.”

The government has also moved to further restrict discussion of the Cultural Revolution and other sensitive history throughout society. In 2013, shortly after Xi came to power, the Central Office of the CCP released a “Bulletin on the Current Situation in the Ideological Field” for local officials across the country, stating that “historical mistakes of the CCP” should not be discussed. Continuing this trend, in 2018, a document was leaked online from the National Radio and Television Administration that required TV and internet series to not only avoid discussing history, but avoid drawing any parallels with real historical events or time periods. The document used Game of Thrones as an example of compliance, as the series contains no historical elements or parallels.

The Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping has good reason to reduce awareness of the excesses of the Mao period, including the Cultural Revolution: many of President Xi Jinping’s policies and campaigns bear significant resemblance to this period. In 2018, Xi Jinping’s government launched a massive, nationwide campaign called “Eliminate the Dark and Evil Forces.” Both this campaign and the Cultural Revolution were attempts to consolidate personal power over the political system and society. Though billed in China’s English-language media as merely a campaign against organized crime, it is in fact much more far-reaching and ideological in its aims. Similar to the Cultural Revolution, it aims to purge society of “impure” elements.

The targets of this campaign vary by jurisdiction. In multiple locations it has targeted and demonized doctors, as did the Cultural Revolution. In Hunan province, it targeted HIV patients, the mentally ill, and parents who have lost their child as “Dark and Evil Forces.” It has also gone after corrupt party officials with connections to local mafia, making the campaign a convenient excuse to take out political enemies within the party, a liberty that Mao made extensive use of in the 1960s.

Similar to the Mao-era, the campaign ramps up propaganda dissemination, with local governments encouraged to install public propaganda about the “Dark and Evil Forces.” Frequent visitors to China will notice that, since around 2015, ideological propaganda banners have become omnipresent. Earlier this year, Chinese netizens reacted with fury to pictures of a massive red banner above the entrance to a Kindergarten saying, “Insist on starting early to nip the evil forces in the bud.”

Propaganda banner at a kindergarten in Guiyang, Guizhou

Another similarity between Xi and Mao’s rule is that citizens are encouraged to inform on one another to the authorities, creating a culture of fear and self-censorship. For example, as the CCP attempts to reduce the influence of Western ideas in the country, university students have reported on professors deemed to be promoting liberal values. And as part of the “Eliminate the Dark and Evil Forces” campaign, citizens are, in some jurisdictions, even encouraged with monetary incentives to inform on members of groups deemed “Dark and Evil” by local authorities.

Of course, there are major limitations to any comparison between Xi’s rule and the Mao era, and the differences arguably outweigh the similarities. For one, tens of millions of people were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. This hasn’t happened under Xi’s rule or at least not nearly as viciously as during the Cultural Revolution. Xi’s rule is also much less murderous than that of Mao. Additionally, unlike the current “Eliminate the Dark and Evil Forces” campaign, the Cultural Revolution was extremely disruptive to the economy, as the country was edging towards anarchy under the grip of the Red Guards.

Nevertheless, both periods are characterized by personalistic rule, totalitarianism, and a culture of fear, all of which are more than enough for discussions of the Cultural Revolution to be both highly relevant and highly sensitive. Moreover, the comparison is apt enough for knowledge of the period to be dangerous in the hands of disgruntled members of society negatively affected by Xi’s hardline governance.

The real danger of such historical mistakes comes not from the presence of stubborn facts but from how people fundamentally view the role of history. History is dangerous for the CCP when people use it to better understand the present and their country. But as Louisa Lim, the author The People’s Republic of Amnesia points out, the CCP aims to control how people conceive of the purpose of history itself. If the people have fully internalized the idea that the sole purpose of historical study is to serve the interests of the state, people lose the desire to understand historical truth altogether.

Thus, if Xi’s government can convince the populace that historical study is solely about ensuring that “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era always follows the correct course,” then one day, Xi may not need to worry so much about inconvenient historical facts smuggled into the country, even if they show the worst parts of history repeating themselves.

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Nick Taber

Nick Taber is a writer and consultant on policy and business in China.