… Today, China is enjoying a period of relative stability. The party promotes a vision of a “harmonious society” instead of class struggle and extols comfortable prosperity over cathartic violence. Someone unfamiliar with the country might be forgiven for assuming that it had reckoned with its recent past and found a way to heal its wounds and move on.
Far from it. In fact, a visitor wandering the streets of any Chinese city today will find no plaques consecrating the sites of mass arrests, no statues dedicated to the victims of persecution, no monuments erected to honor those who perished after being designated “class enemies.” Despite all the anguish and death the CCP has caused, it has never issued any official admission of guilt, much less allowed any memorialization of its victims. And because any mea culpa would risk undermining the party’s legitimacy and its right to rule unilaterally, nothing of the sort is likely to occur so long as the CCP remains in power.
Despite its truly impressive success in shepherding China’s economic development and rise to global power, the party remains insecure and thin-skinned, perhaps because its leaders are still so painfully aware of the party’s historical liabilities. The Central Propaganda Department—which, along with myriad other state organs, is tasked with censoring the media and making sure that all educational materials toe the party’s line—has sealed off entire areas of China’s past. Serious consequences flow from the manipulation of something as fundamental to a country’s identity as its historical DNA. Maintaining a “correct” version of history not only requires totalitarian controls but also denies Chinese the possibility of exploring, debating, understanding, and coming to terms with the moral significance of what has been done to them and what they have been induced to do to themselves and one another.
The task of “correcting” or erasing entire segments of a country’s past is costly and exhausting. An example of the lengths to which propaganda officials go has recently been brought to light by Glenn Tiffert, a China scholar at the University of Michigan. Through dogged sleuthing, he discovered that two digital archives—the China National Knowledge Infrastructure, which is connected to Tsinghua University, and the National Social Sciences Database, which is sponsored by the Chinese government—were missing the same group of 63 articles published between 1956 and 1958 by two Chinese-language academic law journals. These articles had long been available via both archives, only to inexplicably disappear. (Tiffert is not sure when the erasure occurred.) His study revealed that certain scholars, especially those who had been influenced by the West and had run afoul of the party’s ever-changing political lines, almost always had their articles deleted. At the same time, certain topics, such as “the transcendence of law over politics and class, the presumption of innocence, and the heritability of law,” and certain terminology, such as the phrases “rule of law” and “rightist elements,” also seemed to serve as cause for removal. Tellingly, there was a striking uniformity in the writers and topics that were excised.
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