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The Chinese Amnesia

Fang Lizhi, translated by Perry Link

The following was written while Fang Lizhi was staying in the American Embassy in Beijing, before his release last June.

In November 1989, during the fifth month of my refuge inside the American Embassy in Beijing, I received two letters from New York, one from the president of a group called Human Rights in China, and one from a friend. Both letters asked me to contribute my calligraphy to the title page of a book called Children of the Dragon1 that the two were currently editing. At first I was inclined not to do it. For one, I couldn’t find a writing brush or Chinese ink slab in the embassy. All I had was a Chinese typewriter, hardly appropriate for the kind of calligraphy that was needed. But second, I wasn’t very fond of the four words “Children of the Dragon.” To symbolize the Chinese people by a dragon, a creature that does not exist, may seem to imply that the Chinese people are unique in kind. This runs counter to my fundamental belief that human nature is universal and admits no distinctions of race.

Still, because I was entirely in agreement with the spirit and content of the book that the editors were planning, I eventually found a way to do the calligraphy. Sometimes book titles are only convenient tags, I thought; there was no need to get overly scrupulous about it. Now that the book is published, I am delighted that it carries my four-word contribution.

As a four-word contributor I am technically one of the authors of Children of the Dragon. Authors of course wish that their books will circulate widely. But I wish to show, in the remainder of this essay, why I will be even happier if the circulation is only modest.

There seems to be no accurate count of all the books that have appeared about the Tiananmen events of the spring of 1989. But certainly they have been many. A friend at Columbia University recently wrote me that she and one of her Chinese colleagues, both of whom were eyewitnesses at Tiananmen, had originally planned to write a book about it. But publishers told them that so many Tiananmen books were already available that the market had become “saturated.” The two reluctantly dropped their plan. It seems that a new Tiananmen book, for now, can have only a modest circulation.

In my view, a large but “saturated” market is itself one of the most important consequences to emerge from the events at Tiananmen. It signals the failure of the “Technique of Forgetting History,” which has been an important device of rule by the Chinese Communists. I have lived under the Chinese Communist regime for four decades, and have had many opportunities to observe this technique at work. Its aim is to force the whole of society to forget its history, and especially the true history of the Chinese Communist party itself.

In 1957 Mao Zedong launched an “Anti-Rightist Movement” to purge intellectuals, and 500,000 people were persecuted. Some were killed, some killed themselves, and some were imprisoned or sent for “labor reform.” The lightest punishment was to be labeled a “Rightist.” This was called “wearing a cap” and meant that one had to bear a powerful stigma. I had just graduated from college that year, and also in that year was purged for the first time.

After the 1957 Anti-Rightist purge, what worried me most was not that I had been punished, or that free thought had been curtailed. At that time I was still a believer, or semibeliever, in Marxism, and felt that the criticism of free thought, including my own free thought, was not entirely unreasonable. But what worried me, what I just couldn’t figure out, was why the Communist party of China would want to use such cruel methods against intellectuals who showed just a tiny bit (and some not even that) of independent thought. I had always assumed that the relationship between the Communist party and intellectuals, including intellectuals who had some independent views, was one of friendship—or at least not one of enmity.

Later I discovered that this worry of mine seemed ridiculous to teachers and friends who were ten or twenty years older than I. They laughed at my ignorance of history. They told me how, as early as 1942, before the Party had wrested control of the whole country, the same cruel methods against intellectuals were already being used at the Communist base in Yan’an. In college I had taken courses in Communist party history, and of course knew that in 1942 at Yan’an there had been a “rectification” movement aimed at “liberalism,” “individualism,” and other non-Marxist thought. But it was indeed true that I had had no idea that the methods of that “rectification” included “criticism and struggle”—which meant in practice forcing people to commit suicide, and even execution by beheading. People who had experienced the Yan’an “rectification” paled at the very mention of it. But fifteen years later my generation was completely ignorant of it. We deserved the ridicule we received.

After another thirteen years, in 1970, it became our turn to laugh at a younger generation. This was in the middle stage of the Cultural Revolution that took place between 1966 and 1976. In the early stage of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong had used university students, many of whom supported him fanatically, to bring down his political opponents. But in the early 1970s these same students became the targets of attack. In 1970 all the students and teachers in the physics department of the Chinese University of Science and Technology were sent to a coal mine in Huainan, Anhui Province, for “reeducation.” I was a lecturer in physics at the time. The movement to “criticize and struggle” against the students’ “counterrevolutionary words and deeds” reached its most intense point during the summer. Some students were “struggled”; others were locked up “for investigation”; a good number could not endure the torment of the vile political atmosphere and fell ill. One of my assignments was to pull a plank-cart (like a horse cart, but pulled by a human being) to transport the ill students. Of the group of forty-some students working in the same mine as I did, two were driven to suicide—one by jumping off a building, the other by lying in front of a train.

Most of these students, as innocent as I had been in 1957, never imagined that the Communist government could be so cruel in its treatment of students who had followed them so loyally. Later one of the students, who became my co-worker in astrophysical research (and who is now in the US), confided to me that he had had no knowledge whatever of the true history of the Anti-Rightist Movement. It was not until he was himself detained and interrogated that he slowly began to appreciate why some of the older people he knew lived in such fear of the phrase Anti-Rightist. The whole story of the main actors and issues of the Anti-Rightist Movement had, for this generation, become a huge blank.

This was all repeated again in 1989. According to one incomplete survey of students who participated in the Tiananmen democracy movement, more than half of them had no precise knowledge of what happened in the spring of 1979 when young activists posted independent views on the Democracy Wall in Beijing and were soon arrested for doing so. They did not know about Deng Xiaoping’s persecution of the participants in the Democracy Wall Movement, or about “the Fifth Modernization,”2 or that Wei Jingsheng, one of the most outspoken of the activists, was still serving time for what he did. Events of a mere ten years earlier, for this new generation, were already unknown history.

In this manner, about once each decade, the true face of history is thoroughly erased from the memory of Chinese society. This is the objective of the Chinese Communist policy of “Forgetting History.” In an effort to coerce all of society into a continuing forgetfulness, the policy requires that any detail of history that is not in the interests of the Chinese Communists cannot be expressed in any speech, book, document, or other medium.

The year 1987 was the thirtieth anniversary of the Anti-Rightist Movement. In November 1986 Xu Liangying, Liu Binyan,3 and I made plans for a scholarly conference that looked back on the Anti-Rightist Movement from a perspective of thirty years. Our primary aim was to establish a record of the true history of this period. Even though the movement had brought suffering to half a million people (the number persecuted to death was far greater than the number killed in the June 4 massacre), still we looked in vain for any openly published materials on the history of the movement. The only records of the movement were inside the memories of those fortunate enough to have survived it. With the passage of time, those fortunate survivors were themselves becoming fewer and fewer, and for the younger generation the impression of the Anti-Rightist Movement was growing fainter and fainter. We wished to create a record of the movement before those who could supply oral accounts disappeared.

Our plan was promptly suppressed by the authorities. In mid-December 1986, we sent out the first of our announcements of a “Scholarly Conference on the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Anti-Rightist Rectification.” The response was quick. Within days some people sent us papers, while others expressed their support by sending money. But the authorities acted just as quickly. Xu Liangying and Liu Binyan were subjected to tremendous pressure (I was spared, since I was not in Beijing at the time). After two weeks there was no alternative except to announce that the conference could not be held. This showed that, even for events that had taken place thirty years earlier, the Communist authorities remained unwilling to allow the slightest opening for free discussion, and would permit only a thorough forgetfulness. Thus it remains the case today that there is no publication dealing in depth with the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 to be found on the open book market in China.

Regrettably, Western literature on China, so far as I know, also seems to lack such a book. Much of the history of Chinese Communism is unknown to the world, or has been forgotten. If, inside China, the whole of society has been coerced into forgetfulness by the authorities, in the West the act of forgetting can be observed in the work of a number of influential writers who have consciously ignored history and have willingly complied with the “standarized public opinion” of the Communists’ censorial system.

The work of the late Edgar Snow provides one of the most telling examples of this tendency. Snow lived many years in China; we must assume that he understood its society. And yet, in his reports on China after the Communists took power, he strictly observed the regime’s propaganda requirements—including the forgetting of history. In Red China Today he had this to say about China in the early 1960s:

I diligently searched, without success, for starving people or beggars to photograph. Nor did anyone else succeed…. I must assert that I saw no starving people in China, nothing that looked like old-time famine, [and] that I do not believe that there is famine in China at this writing.4

The facts, which even the Chinese Communists do not dare to deny publicly, are that the early 1960s saw one of the greatest famines in more than two thousand years of recorded Chinese history. In the three years between 1960 and 1962 approximately twenty-five million people in China died of hunger. As for beggars, not only did they exist, they even had a kind of “culture,” with communist characteristics. In 1973 in Anhui I listened to a report by the “advanced” Party secretary of a peasant village. One of his main “advanced” experiences was to organize his villagers into a beggars’ brigade to go begging through the neighboring countryside.

Snow’s tomb is located on a quiet and secluded little hillock on the campus of Beijing University. He was respected in China during his lifetime; no one doubted the sincerity of his love for China and the Chinese people. But his writings have not received similar respect. His books have adopted too much of the viewpoint of his old friend Mao Zedong, which is to say the viewpoint of official Communist propaganda. The works of China experts such as Snow have served, in fact, as a “Special Propaganda Department” for the Communists. They have helped the Communists’ “Technique of Forgetting History” to become a completed circle, continuous both inside and outside China.

This foreign aid has helped the Chinese Communists, over a long period of time, to carry on their activities beyond the reach of world opinion and exempt from effective scrutiny. The Communists’ nefarious record of human rights violations is not only banned from memory and discussion inside China, but has also been largely overlooked by the rest of the world, which never condemned its repression with the urgency and rigor that would have been appropriate.

The events in Tiananmen Square were the first exception to this pattern—the first time that Chinese Communist brutality was thoroughly recorded and reported, and the first time that virtually the whole world was willing to censure it.

Even though, inside China, the Communists are still doing all they possibly can to press ahead with their “Technique of Forgetting,” their “Special Propaganda Department” no longer exists. The position of the world’s opinion makers, and especially of the various reporters and observers inside China, has changed as well. In the early 1960s Edgar Snow was invited to stand next to Mao Zedong on top of the wall at Tiananmen and take part in the grand pomp and ceremony. By 1990, the lot of reporters had come to include beatings by troops at the base of that same wall. This has been one of the extremely significant changes occasioned by the Tiananmen events.

Hence, the “saturation of the market” by books about Tiananmen represents an important fact: while international concern about the regime’s repression may have to some extent faded, no longer will the Chinese Communists be able to hide beyond the reach of world opinion. Facts will no longer be so easy to cover up, and the real history of last year’s events cannot possibly be forgotten. This is an indispensable step in China’s joining the world and moving toward progress.

translated by Perry Link

  1. 1

    Human Rights in China, editor, Children of the Dragon (Collier, 1990).

  2. 2

    Deng Xiaoping had advocated “Four Modernizations”: of the economy, the military, education, and science and technology. In a famous essay, the Democracy Wall activist Wei Jingsheng advocated that politics be the “Fifth Modernization,” meaning democracy.

  3. 3

    Xu Liangying, a scientist, and Liu Binyan, a journalist, were both victims of the Anti-Rightist Movement and, in the 1980s, widely respected intellectual leaders in China. See Liu Binyan’s autobiography, A Higher Kind of Loyalty (Pantheon, 1990).

  4. 4

    Edgar Snow, The Other Side of the River: Red China Today (Random House, 1961), p. 619.

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