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The battle for China’s history

Xi Jinping controls the story of his country’s past to crush dissent. But historians are fighting to keep the truth alive.

By Katie Stallard

In November 2012, two weeks after taking over as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping took his top officials to the National Museum of China, a vast Stalinist edifice on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square. The new general secretary led the group through the “Road to Rejuvenation” exhibition, where they studied the approved version of history, detailing the country’s supposed salvation from the ruins of empire under the party’s wise stewardship. Xi viewed control of the past as an existential issue. He believed the Soviet Union’s collapse had been in part precipitated by the leadership’s failure to defend its founding myths and he was determined not to repeat that mistake. In the months that followed, party officials were ordered to wage an “intense struggle” in the ideological sphere and to combat what he called “historical nihilism”.

The consequences for historical scholarship in China over the decade since have been devastating. The authorities introduced new laws to protect the CCP’s heroes, banned books, harassed scholars, and shut down independent journals. But as the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ian Johnson argues in Sparks, the victory for the regime’s repressive apparatus was not total. Instead, new digital technology has enabled a brave group of independent film-makers, writers and artists to preserve an alternative version of the country’s history and to stubbornly resist the party’s efforts to rewrite the past.

As long as there has been repression in China, there has been resistance. The country’s contemporary activists take their inspiration from figures dating as far back as Sima Qian, China’s first great historian, who was born around 145 BC and castrated after speaking up on behalf of a defeated general. Johnson writes he was expected to kill himself after what was then considered an “unbearable disgrace” but lived on in order to finish writing the first large-scale history of China – “a sacred calling worth any sacrifice”. Then there is Su Dongpo, an 11th-century poet who was banished from the emperor’s court for opposing authoritarian reforms and reduced to living in poverty, but kept writing his verse anyway.

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Contrary to popular depictions of China as a “perfect dictatorship” under Xi, Johnson details the “epic struggle” being waged by the country’s contemporary counter-historians, many of them drawing courage from these earlier examples, to preserve an accurate record of the past. They are united, he explains, by a shared belief that “history vindicates the truth”.

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Ai Xiaoming, for instance, a 70-year-old documentary film-maker and feminist scholar whose grandfather died during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, dedicates what should be her retirement to recording the testimonies of those who suffered during the early decades of communist rule. This includes former prisoners at the notorious Jiabiangou labour camp – known as the Ditch – on the edge of the Gobi Desert, where they endured the man-made Great Famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s that killed an estimated 45 million people. “One after the other they kept dying,” one survivor tells Ai. “It was like everyone was rushing toward hell.”

Zhang Shihe, who was born in 1953 and forced to work as a child labourer building Mao’s new railway lines, ran one of China’s first independent bookstores in the 1980s before transforming himself into a citizen journalist in the mid-2000s under the name Tiger Temple. At first, he travelled around by bicycle, making videos about the issues that affected people’s daily lives, such as pollution and corruption, but lately he too has focused on recording oral histories with the survivors of past atrocities. “Zhang knows that his videos of these people will never be shown in today’s China,” Johnson writes. “But he hopes that he is creating a record for future generations, an ark that can survive the current flood.” As Zhang himself explains it, “I just know I’m going to keep going; it’s my responsibility to history.”

Johnson is realistic about the challenges facing Zhang and Ai – and others like them – as well as the personal risks involved in such work. Ai has been barred from travelling abroad and both are under close watch by the authorities. Johnson himself was expelled from China in 2020 after more than 20 years working in the country. With Sparks, his third book on China, he insists that he does not intend to offer false optimism, and yet he cannot help but voice a little hope. “The fact that people still resist and do so in a more coordinated form than at any time in the past, seems more significant than the banal point that an authoritarian regime is authoritarian,” he argues. “Independent thought lives in China. It has not been crushed.”

For evidence of how small acts of apparently hopeless resistance can endure, one only has to look to the journal Spark, which was founded by a group of student activists inside a tractor shed in north-western China in 1959, just as the Great Famine was taking hold. The first edition consisted of eight handwritten pages, copied on an old mimeograph machine, detailing the dire problems the authors saw confronting the country under communist rule. They chose the name Spark based on an idiom Mao had popularised: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.”

But within a year the journal had been closed down and 43 people arrested on charges of “counter-revolutionary” activity. The alleged ringleader, Zhang Chunyuan, was sentenced to life in prison and later executed. All the copies of Spark were confiscated, but when some of the survivors managed to access their personal files years later, they found police copies of the magazine and copied them by hand. As digital technologies advanced, they were able to convert them to PDF files, which could be shared by email. The journal gradually acquired a posthumous following among what Johnson calls “a significant group of scholars and intellectuals”. The spark had not been extinguished after all.

The same technology has enabled contemporary Chinese counter-historians to publish an underground journal called Remembrance, which was founded in 2008. Published fortnightly in PDF form, the publication operates without a physical address and is circulated by email with the help of Chinese scholars based overseas. Despite the CCP’s formidable censorship apparatus, the journal’s authors have quietly and doggedly persevered.

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“After more than ten years of experience, Remembrance has learned a few things,” one of the journal’s editors wrote to Johnson in an unsigned letter in 2022. “When in danger, it becomes tiny and runs away by pretending to stop publishing and distributing only to a few hardcore fans. When the crisis is over, it makes a comeback and publishes widely.” As the letter concludes, Remembrance’s editors are “good at keeping secrets (something they learned from the party’s own underground work)”.

Johnson is also encouraged by the popular response to the Covid pandemic, when citizen journalists defied the authorities to publish powerful accounts of the outbreak online. Ai Xiaoming, whose 95-year-old father died during the crisis, was among those who wrote about the fate of Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn about the dangers of the new virus only to be reprimanded by the police and later die from Covid himself. The Wuhan-based novelist Fang Fang began writing an online diary during the city’s lockdown, which attracted a wide following and was subsequently published overseas. Large crowds of people took to the streets of at least 20 Chinese cities in late 2022 to protest at draconian Covid restrictions before the government dramatically reversed course.

None of this has come close to threatening Xi’s grip on power. Indeed, many of the individuals involved in these actions were swiftly detained and punished. It is equally clear, however, that sparks of resistance endure despite the current level of repression. This includes China’s community of underground historians.

Increasingly, Johnson explains, China’s counter-historians have come to view their work as time capsules, believing that, just as the journal Spark was unearthed decades after it was shut down, their efforts will eventually inspire others. “They want future Chinese to know that in the 2020s, when things had never been darker, Chinese people inside China did not yield to comfort or fear… That in this era there were Sima Qians and Su Dongpos. Not everyone had given in.”

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future
Ian Johnson
Allen Lane, 400pp, £25

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits