Airbrushed again

Observations on Mao

A history textbook that revels in globalisation, praises the role of the New York Stock Exchange and stresses the importance of J P Morgan and Bill Gates may sound like required inspirational reading for the American classroom, especially when a figure as significant as Chairman Mao merits barely a passing mention.

But the book in question is being used in Shanghai's state schools. It is a rewriting of history so brazen that it could be possible only under a regime already highly practised with the airbrush. Socialism merits a single chapter, less space than the industrial revolution, and Chinese communism before the economic reforms of 1979 gets just one sentence. Yes, one sentence.

In the country where at one time everyone had to wear the Mao suit, the new history text has a section on the popularity of neckties, while the Long March, for years enshrined as a pivotal event for 20th-century China, is presented in the tightest of summaries.

In future-focused China, it seems, the past is becoming a foreign country, as inconvenient facts are discarded lest they prompt the young - already protected from many of the evils of the internet - to ask unwelcome questions.

This is ironic, as China loses no opportunity to throw a tantrum whenever a Japanese history textbook plays down war crimes such as the massacre in Nanjing, or any of the other atrocities committed by the imperial army in China in the first half of the 20th century. During the last burst of protests, Japanese factories in China were targeted in a series of well-orchestrated demonstrations.

At home, the rules of history are apparently different. Chinese teenagers today are unlikely even to know what happened at Tiananmen Square in June 1989 unless they have a personal connection with the events, and then the story would be repeated only in hushed tones. Key in "Tiananmen Square" in China's most widely used search engine, Baidu, and up pop pictures of happy families visiting Beijing.

Even if China's rulers are now embarrassed by elements of Mao's despotic rule - and there is no evidence they are - the best way to ensure that such history does not get repeated is surely to learn from it. They know, however, that if they open the past to scrutiny they will face many inconvenient debates, including questions about the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.

The party hopes that the Chinese are so keen to prosper that they do not want to know what they have left behind. Defenders of the new textbook told the New York Times it was part of an effort to promote a harmonious view of society in line with current economic and political priorities.

Such harmony appears to need enforcement. When a newspaper published a commentary arguing that Chinese history books were failing to draw the real lessons of the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901, the paper was forced to close, and when it was relaunched it published a scathing attack on the earlier commentary.

The rice fields around Shanghai may have made way for skyscrapers and Mao suits may be nowhere to be seen, but modernity is about more than offices and neckties; it also requires you to confront the demons of the past.