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Happy history in China, the land of the politically repressed

by

Special To The Japan Times

Talk about negative nation branding! Chinese authorities have really outdone themselves in drawing attention to their fear of history.

I refer to the recent international furor over Cambridge University Press (CUP) bowing to Beijing’s pressure to remove 315 articles from the archive of the China Quarterly available in China. After that became public knowledge, attracting scorn and brickbats, CUP did a volte-face and restored Chinese users’ access in a desperate bid to salvage its blemished reputation. This decision drew considerable favorable online commentary in China that the authorities deleted from the internet within 12 hours of CUP’s Weibo post announcing the decision.

So in this comedy of blunders, the censors censored Chinese views approving CUP’s belated rejection of their censorship. In doing so, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) showed it fears public mockery. Denying access to academic articles about the unpleasant past is a matter of state policy because this damning information is a potent weapon, empowering the people and exposing the orgy of nightmares the party has inflicted on them.

The CUP comes out looking feeble for secretly caving in to the pressure earlier this year and getting caught out by a leaked email that exposed their pussyfooting betrayal of academic freedom. The editors of the China Quarterly were not consulted as CUP’s bean counters skulked in the shadows, not wanting to endanger access to the Chinese market for their other product lines, but also not wanting to let other stakeholders in on their craven kowtowing to mammon. University administrators were probably also concerned that not submitting to the Chinese government would have wider consequences, such as on the inflow of tuition-paying students from China that fill the coffers.

But this is Cambridge, a venerable institution with high standards and what used to be unassailable integrity. Allowing the Chinese censors to dictate what articles are accessible to users in China is inexcusable and damaging to the brand. After all, LexisNexis, a source for legal and business information, responded to similar pressures to remove some online content earlier this year by withdrawing two targeted products altogether from the Chinese market, showing CUP and Cambridge University what a spine looks like. Regrettably, most other firms wanting to expand in China instead capitulate and play along, knowing that defiance is a dead end for the bottom line.

Censorship in China is very old news. Indeed, in the second century B.C., Ying Zheng, the first emperor of a unified China, made a name for himself with the catchy slogan “Burn the books, bury the scholars.” In an essay so titled, Geremie R. Barme, an Australian Sinologist, reminds us how in that campaign, books, authors and readers suffered the same fate — extirpation.

But Mao Zedong thought Emperor Zheng was overrated, in 1958 asking: “What’s so impressive about the First Emperor? He only buried 460 scholars alive, while we’ve buried 46,000. You accuse us of acting like the First Emperor, but you’re wrong; we’ve outdone him 100 times over! You decry us for being dictatorial like the First Emperor; we readily admit it. What’s pathetic is that you sell us short.”

Subsequently, Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, declared the party’s absolute authority over life in China, but at that time the authorities appeared to relax their grip, only to tighten it again later. It’s not been easy to keep up with the shifting winds of censorship, and woe betide those who get caught out. What was the recently departed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo thinking when he advocated multiparty democracy in his Charter 08 movement as the embers of the party’s massacre and crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 1989 still glowed? Emperor Zheng would have approved of how the CCP silenced him and doused that fire.

What does the CCP want to erase from its sanguinary record? Articles on the hit list include those on taboo topics such as Tibetan independence, Xinjiang, the Tiananmen Square protests and the ensuing June 4 massacre.

Of course, there is much more to delete. Mao was not just bragging; he backed it up with the Great Famine, which killed some 40 million, and the Cultural Revolution, which ravaged millions more. Another touchy subject is the Falun Gong religious movement, which promotes qigong exercises, meditation and moral rectitude, the latter quite subversive in a society overwhelmed by materialism and corruption.

China’s current leader. Xi Jinping, known as the “chairman of everything,” has more than a bit of Mao in him, favoring a hard line on dissent. He has brandished a selective campaign against corruption to intimidate anyone who might trouble him, consolidated his power and promoted ideological brainwashing to revive the party’s withering legitimacy. He has whacked Hong Kong’s democracy activists and bullied Taiwan for snubbing reunification with China, so maybe its time to sanitize the archives of articles on democracy, umbrellas and sunflowers.

Can orchestrated forgetting and fabricating prevail? Plenty are trying.

The white supremacists in the U.S. are symptomatic of America’s grossly inadequate reckoning on slavery. These racists have appropriated symbols of the Confederacy to wage their contemporary culture wars, only to see these talismans toppled by a belated awakening across America, with the baleful exception of the White House.

Japanese revisionists, like Trump’s base, have also tried to rehabilitate their nation’s inglorious past, and like China, they want to blot out state-sponsored horrors. They have purged textbooks to promote a happy history, targeted liberals and assert an identity that tramples on the dignity of Japan and its wartime victims. Like Trump defending Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, Japan’s revisionists try to muddy the waters and assert a fake, exculpatory history of Japan’s Asian rampage between 1931 and 1945. These are the real Japan-bashers, because those who really honor Japan, and restore dignity to the nation and its victims, are not in denial and don’t equivocate or shirk the burdens of history. Abe’s apologists have slyly conflated criticism of him with Japan-bashing, but now that 83 percent of the Japanese distrust Abe, are we supposed to believe that Japan is overflowing with Japan-bashers?

Xi has great advantages over Trump and Abe because they are constrained by democracy and the rule of law, which explains why human rights activists, lawyers and journalists in China are facing tough times. Yet, because many Chinese understand they live under a repressive tyranny, they are skeptical and find ways to evade the censors and uncover the web of deceits. We can learn much from their resourcefulness.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.