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Changing the Past

China: Snitching on Those Who Recall Non-Approved History

The Communist Party of China wants its centennial to proceed this year without memory of the millions dead in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell, 1984

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed on July 23, 1921, so is gearing up for the hundredth anniversary of its founding with the theme “Forever Following the Party.”

In preparation, the Cyberspace Administration of China has launched a hotline for citizens to report online statements that contradict the Party’s official version of its history. A translation of the announcement from the Central Network Information Office Reporting Center is available on former American diplomat David Cowhig’s blog:

One part of the announcement reads:

In order to avoid misleading the public with false statements, maintain a clear cyberspace and create a good atmosphere of public opinion for the centennial of the Party, the Central Internet Information Office (State Internet Information Office) illegal and undesirable information reporting center recently opened a special area for reporting “harmful information involving historical nihilism” on the official website, APP and other channels to specifically accept public reports.

David Cowhig, “PRC: Are Your Neighbors Distorting History or Spreading Politically Incorrect Ideas Online? Report Them!” at David Cowhig’s Translation Blog

Chinese citizens are expected to report the following offenses:

· Distortions of the history of the Chinese Communist Party, the history of New China, the history of reform and opening up, the history of socialist development.
· Attacking the Party’s leadership, its guiding ideology, guidelines and policies.
· Defamation of heroes and martyrs
· Denying the excellence of Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture, and advanced socialist culture.

“Distortions of history” refers to anything that is not the CCP-approved history of China. For example, there is the official version of what happened at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, and then there is what really happened. The official version sanitizes the military’s response and downplays the event referring to it innocuously as the “June Fourth Incident.” Mention of the Tiananmen Square protests as ending in a massacre would be a “distortion of history” according to the Party.

Mao Statue Side View With Heroes Zhongshan Square, Shenyang, Chi

The prohibition of defaming heroes and martyrs is from a 2018 law, “Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law,” which requires everyone to “honor, study, and defend” people deemed heroes and martyrs by the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP has a database of 2 million heroes and martyrs. As if it were a dystopian mirror world of the church, the CCP even has official requirements for martyrdom.

Some analysts point out that the “new” hotline is a familiar tactic from the totalitarian play book, now in high-tech trappings. This is hardly the first time the CCP has solicited and incentivized Chinese citizens to report each other. In 2004 the government instituted a grid system for citizens to surveil each other. The system, led by a volunteer who is usually a retired Party member, divides a region into 300 or so families. It is still quite active and is often used to weed out people who practice a prohibited religion.

In 2017, the CCP rolled out the Safe Zhejiang app that offered discount coupons and other prizes for people who reported on their neighbors. Users received points for every person they reported. However, the app was decidedly unpopular and garnered mostly negative online reviews.

What does “Historical nihilism” mean? Why is Xi JinPing afraid of it?

“Historical nihilism,” the term the CCP uses for non-Party-approved accounts of history.

Heroes and martyrs feature prominently in Mr. Xi’s propaganda campaigns, which often hark back to the Party’s revolutionary roots. Officials have said that strong legislation is needed to promote patriotism and squelch “historical nihilism”—an official epithet for skepticism about the party’s contributions to China’s progress.” (Wall Street Journal, 2018).

Xi believes that the Soviet Union collapsed largely because of this historical nihilism, saying that differing accounts of history confused people’s thoughts and led to the military revolt against the Communist Party in the 1990s. Thus he has promoted a Party history campaign since he entered office. The campaign includes a propaganda drive and the study of “Xi Jinping Thought.” It emphasizes the successes of the CCP and omits its failures, including the millions that died during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) under Mao Zedong’s leadership. Naturally, Xi’s history campaign particularly focuses on the CCP’s successes since 2012 when he took office.

What does centrally controlled history mean in practice?

Reuters reports that former Premier Wen Jiabao’s tribute to his late mother in the Macau Herald was censored because he mentioned her experiences during the second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and the Cultural Revolution. While Wen’s article was not scrubbed from the internet, it cannot be shared on Chinese social media outlets, Weibo and WeChat and the link turns up a 404 error. An account of the substance of the tribute in the South China Morning Post notes that “Whereas personal memoirs are commonplace among Western politicians, it is unusual for a retired Chinese leader to publish such a personal account because the state maintains rigid controls over all narratives relating to state affairs.”

China Digital Times recounts several instances of how the crackdown on historical nihilism has affected everyday communications in China:

Most recently, last week a teenager was arrested in Jiangsu for posting “insulting” comments online about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. In February, seven people were arrested—and one was chased in “online pursuit”—for slandering martyrs, a genre of historical nihilism…

In 2016, maverick journal Yanhuang Chunqiu was neutered by a hostile takeover triggered by its independent scholarship on modern Chinese history. In 2017, a bookseller was sentenced to five years in prison for distributing the book “How The Red Sun Rose,” an unflinching look at the CCP’s first party-wide rectification campaign from 1942-1945.

Joseph Brouwer, “Beijing Launches Hotline for Reporting Online ‘Historical Nihilism’” at China Digital Times (April 14, 2021)

Another example cited was an incident during the Qingming Festival (“Tomb Sweeping Day”) earlier this month. The grave of one-time high-ranking politician and political reformer Zhao Ziyang was blocked off so that people could not visit it and a security camera was installed above the grave. Zhao was removed from the Communist Party in 1989 for supporting the Tiananmen Square protests. Only people old enough to remember him as one of the highest-ranking officials even knew who he was when he died in 2005. Most people born after 1980 don’t know who he was.

George Orwell (1903–1950) foretold this approach to history in his novel on totalitarianism, 1984:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

1984. Part 2, Chapter 5. Winston describes the destruction of past records to create new fansified ones to Julia, All Great Quotes

As if in answer, the Chinese Communist Party is now enlisting the help of its millions of internet users to defend the history that they have been taught is true.

You may also wish to read: The age of the Wolf Warrior: China’s post-pandemic strategy The younger diplomats take their cue from a Chinese Rambo-style movie and the rewritten history they learned at school. (Heather Zeiger)


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Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China: Snitching on Those Who Recall Non-Approved History