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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

China 2006: a missed opportunity with history

Michel Bonnin

Texte intégral

1November 2006

2The year 2006 should have been an important commemorative year for China. The 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, the 30th anniversary of Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four, paving the way for a new era of reforms and openness. These are highly important events that have disrupted not only the history of the country, but also the lives of a large number of Chinese people today, including political leaders, intellectuals, writers, artists and all who have come to reflect on history and mould the collective memory. Furthermore, times have changed significantly enough for us to take a step back in history. The time when Mao tried to revive the Communist utopia and maintain “politics at the command post” seem a long way off from China’s ascent to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and capitalist globalisation. Couldn’t the Maoist past, including that of the Cultural Revolution, finally transform itself into history, an authentic, well-thought-out history, so that wounds can start healing and facts can be passed on to younger generations?

3There is no choice, but to accept that this is not what the Chinese political leaders anticipate, who still appear very embarrassed by the history of the regime from which they emerage. With regard to the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, which is generally traced back to the 16th of May 1966 Notification), the authorities not only kept their silence, but also sent very strict instructions to refrain the media from talking about it.

4Any academic activity on the subject was even forbidden, despite the conference on the Chinese language commemorating this event taking place in New York from 12th to 14th of May 2006 organised by Chinese researchers working in the United States. I myself participated, but around ten historians living in China who were invited for the event were not allowed to attend. Some of them, however, managed to organise a secret conference in Beijing, from 24th to 26th March, the minutes of which were read out in New York. The acts of the conference, whose English title was, “Historical Truth and Collective Memory: International Conference for the 40th Anniversary of the Cultural Revolution”, are being printed in Hong Kong.

5The arrest of Mao’s close associates (known today as the Gang of Four) on 6th of October 1976, was not commemorated either, despite it receiving great support from the people at the time. This is clearly due to the wishes of the Chinese authorities to safeguard a positive image of Mao, a man who was always considered as an invaluable element of the legitimacy of China’s Communist Party, even if the policies applied by current leaders have no longer anything to do with what the Great Helmsman defended. The 30th anniversary of his death, on 9th of September, did not spark any analysis or thought in the press, but an evening of celebration was organised in his honour. If the historical reality of Maoism (and especially its most sordid aspects) remains taboo, the myth of the founding father is nevertheless glorified.

6This desire to keep a historical myth alive and maintain a political monopoly in interpreting history contrast with the development of a critical history, as illustrated by the Bingdian case. This well-acclaimed newspaper, China Youth Daily was temporarily shut down by the authorities in early 2006 and its editor-in-chief was dismissed for having published a long article in which a historian, Yuan Weishi, criticised a partial and distorted image of the history portrayed in Chinese school books with precise examples. The anger of the authorities had undoubtedly been aroused by the author’s explicit reference to the warnings that the Chinese authorities were issuing at that time to the Japanese government regarding the mitigated image that certain Japanese history books were portraying, about the invasion of China by Japanese troops.

  • 1 Michel Bonnin, Génération perdue – Le mouvement d’envoi des jeunes instruits à la campagne en Chin (...)

7Certain historians and intellectuals who are anxiously aware of the Chinese authorities’ consistent and efficient control over history share Yuan Weishi’s critical attitude. This is especially the case for the members of the Cultural Revolution generation or the “lost generation1”, former Red Guards and “well-educated young people” sent to the countryside, frightened by the ignorance or, worse still, the distorted knowledge that future generations have about such an important period of contemporary Chinese history. One of them, Xu Youyu, worryingly observes that this ignorance is leading young intellectuals to want the return of the Cultural Revolution. For him, “Facing History” (one of his book’s title) and to “Save the History of the Cultural Revolution” (the title of a conference that he held in Paris in June 2006) were of the essence. Like other intellectuals of this generation, he resorts to spoken history to compensate for the lack of access to historical documents, jealously guarded by the authorities. Numerous researchers and editors wish to have a “people’s memoir” (minjian) published, in order to preserve the memories that the government would have otherwise wanted to suppress. Thanks to their efforts, a considerable number of documents, testimonies and analyses have been published in Chinese, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States and also in the People’s Republic of China.

8However, the strength of these intellectuals is limited. Despite the authorities not having the means to completely stifle the production of work on critical history or the expression of an unauthorised memoir anymore, it should nevertheless be noted that, in the present state of affairs between the State, Party and society, the chances of seeing real historical knowledge of the 20th century developing in China depend on a change in the authorities’ attitude. Of course, there are no signs of this happening today, but there will be a day when a change would be deemed necessary, considering the problems with which the authorities face in the current situation.

9The way in which history is manipulated could eventually backfire on authors. For example, the preservation of Mao’s legacy and especially the temporary blotting out of the history of the Cultural Revolution result in providing the people with a perfect image of the revolutionary past, that which goes against the of corruption and inequalities characterising the China of today. During a talk with students at the University of Beijing, I was recently surprised at the extent to which Maoist ideology retained its critical power for them. Unaware of the realities of Maoism, they find themselves in a similar situation to Western students in the 1960s, with the Little Red Book firing their enthusiasm.

10The refusal to look at the past brings about another risk of losing all reference points, including morals. Since the beginning of the reforms (the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, in particular) the authorities have encouraged people to concentrate on the future and to improve their living conditions. The people’s wisdom has epitomised this policy in a pun, xiang qian kan, which literally means “look ahead to the future”, but can also mean “do not lose sight of money”; the homophony between the two terms is similar perfect in Chinese. If society is denied the possibility of looking back at the past, it is also prevented from looking towards values other than money. A nation without a memory runs the risk of being a nation without values. The authorities are aware of it today and hence, offer more incentives for a resurgence of Confucianism and therefore, of the past, but a very controlled and restructured one, with a utilitarian purpose.

11Finally, by refusing to uncover the Cultural Revolution and debating it, we deny ourselves the possibility to heal the countless wounds for which it is responsible, and find a remedy for their underlying causes. The current president of the People’s Republic of China, Hu Jintao, is aware of the tensions that are tearing the Chinese social fabric apart. Hence his insistence on the necessity of building a “harmonious society”, reiterated in the recent sixth plenary session of the Central Committee. However, can one create a harmonious society based on the contrived oblivion of the conflicts, errors and injustice of the past? Only history will tell.


1 Michel Bonnin, Génération perdue – Le mouvement d’envoi des jeunes instruits à la campagne en Chine, 1968-1980, Paris, Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2004.

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