Thirty Years Of Forgetting


Mainland Chinese media coverage of the 30th anniversary of "reform and opening-up" last month was gushing in its praise of the Government’s policy and where it is taking the country. "The path of opening-up and reform is completely right — Standing still and regressing will lead nowhere" proclaimed the headline in the Xi’an Evening News. "The path of opening-up and reform is completely correct," declared the Chutian Metropolis Daily. "The reform and opening-up is China’s third great revolution," chimed in the Chinese Business View.

Newspaper editors were spared having to dream up these pearls themselves — all were sourced directly from President Hu Jintao’s celebratory speech on 18 December, 30 years to the day after the opening of the Third Plenary Session of the CPC’s 11th Central Committee in 1978. This meeting of the Communist Party elite, just two years after Mao’s death, saw the adoption of what has come to be known as "reform and opening-up" as the nation’s overall guiding policy — a profound turnaround after decades of radical collectivism and international isolation under Mao.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, the English-language China Daily ran various testimonials from foreigners on the glories of the past three decades, and a gem entitled "Holding high the flag of Reform and Opening-up", the language of which demonstrated that while much has changed in China, parts of the propaganda machine have barely evolved since 1978.

The reporter describes a supposed visit to a tractor factory that the "adored" reformist leader Deng Xiaoping laboured in during the Cultural Revolution:

"Tears welled up each time when I strolled along the 200-meter path, starting from the back door of the factory and ending at a brick wall. I was told the small road … was Deng’s making. I marvel at the resilience of this great man in de facto captivity, and the boundless love he had for his poor country and his fellow countrymen while he waited for his moment and set off his glittering explosion of ideas."

In fact, as The Economist pointed out last December, Deng actually had no grand plan or overarching ideas when he pushed his way to the top of the party hierarchy in the years following Mao’s death. The whole reform process has been a far more haphazard affair than official rhetoric ever acknowledges.

More interesting than the universal praise and saccharine eulogising of former leaders, however, were the things left unsaid by the Chinese media. The deliberate blind spots in the coverage of the reform anniversary reveal much about the ideological, social and historical fissures running through contemporary China.

The most obvious emission was any detailed discussion of the period before 1978. When you live in China it’s striking the degree to which the entire Cultural Revolution has been neatly parcelled up in a box labeled "Disastrous — Not to be reopened" and quietly stashed in the country’s metaphorical basement. Renowned Chinese journalist Xinran was so concerned about the collective ignorance this has created that in 2006 she set about recording the oral histories of China’s elderly. She found most of her interviewees had never discussed their experiences of life under Mao with their children or grandchildren.

A selection of Xinran’s interviews were published last year as China Witness: Voices From a Silent Generation. In the book’s afterword, the journalist asks:

"…[How] can the Government repudiate the Cultural Revolution and accept the mistakes of Mao Zedong as part of the official almanac of national history, and yet not allow the media to embark on a full-scale condemnation of the Cultural Revolution? … Does the constitution of a ‘democratic republic’ allow this garbled, out-of-context history, and this emperor-like avoidance of history?"

The answer of course is that a frank and full discussion of the Maoist era, and the 1966–76 period in particular, would call into question the party’s fallibility, and by extension its self-decreed open-ended mandate to exclusively rule China. The party must always be seen to be right, as reflected in the newspaper headlines quoted above. It’s tricky, then, to explain why during those first 30 years of its rule the CPC acted — often with extreme violence — according to a set of ideas diametrically opposed to the "completely correct" policy it is now following.

Curiously, while detailed critique of the Cultural Revolution in China is not allowed, positive appraisals are even more taboo. In his recent book The Battle for China’s Past, Chinese academic Mobo Gao argues that official discourse has invariably shown the Maoist era in a negative light — albeit without details — in order to destroy any vestiges of socialist ideals. He claims many workers and peasants (as opposed to intellectuals, for whom the period was clearly disastrous) still recall the Cultural Revolution in positive terms, but this memory has been suppressed in order to push through a process of state controlled industrialisation that has been achieved through the exploitation of the peasantry. In other words, the reforms that China’s Government is celebrating have seen the urban minority (particularly party cadres) enriched at the expense of the countryside.

China’s extraordinary development in recent years has been partly funded by squeezing the countryside and drawing an almost endless supply of cheap labour off the land and into the cities, to staff the nation’s thousands of factories and construction sites. And this is not an accident. The hukou residence registration system that ties citizens to the place they were born, introduced by the Communists shortly after they took power, ensures these internal migrants can never become fully-fledged urban residents. Their presence is tolerated, but they cannot hold jobs in state-owned city enterprises, nor can their children attend urban schools. Even getting married requires a journey back home.

It must be acknowledged that this system of economic development has lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty, and large numbers of urbanites now lead relatively affluent lifestyles. Given this achievement, it’s not surprising that the media’s coverage of reform and opening-up has focused almost exclusively on economic improvements.

The regime also faces something of a problem dealing with the subject of liberalisation in culture since 1978, since improvements in that field have largely occurred in spite of the CPC. Countless pop songs, novels, films, art works, and artists of all types have been condemned, censored, blacklisted or banned by the party over the last three decades. Even love songs (for example those of Taiwanese pop idol Teresa Tang in the late 70s) have at times been denounced simply for being "bourgeois" and not allowed to be broadcast.

Rock music is still very rare on Chinese television, and the "father of Chinese rock and roll", Ciu Jian, was officially banned from being broadcast in China or playing major venues in the capital throughout the 1990s — primarily because of his support for the nation-wide protests of mid-1989. Similarly, the director and producer of Summer Palace, a 2006 film set against the backdrop of the 1989 protests, were banned from filmmaking in China for five years after the movie was screened at the Cannes Film Festival without Government approval. Needless to say Summer Palace was not released on the mainland.

Which brings us to the most gaping historical abyss lying at the heart of the "reform and opening-up" coverage in China. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre — an occasion that certainly won’t be acknowledged by the Chinese press. The slaughter of hundreds, possibly thousands, of unarmed students and workers by the People’s Liberation Army on the night of June 3/4, 1989, and many more ordinary Beijing citizens in the days following, is still the great unmentionable of contemporary Chinese history. Local people I have spoken to in their late 20s are mostly aware something happened that night, but have no idea of the carnage that unfolded on the streets around Tiananmen (there is still debate about whether people were killed on the square itself). For many Chinese a bit younger than that, the protests and the crackdown may never have happened at all.

Ignorance of 1989 is now so great that in 2007 the Chengdu Evening News accidentally published a one-line advertisement on the anniversary of the massacre, which read: "Paying tribute to the strong mothers of June 4 victims". A young advertising sales staffer reportedly accepted the ad because she had never heard of the "June 4 incident".

Thirty years ago the CPC initiated economic reforms that have seen millions of Chinese attain a standard of living unimaginable in 1978. On a June night 20 years ago, the same party made it clear that reform would only ever go so far.

Meanwhile the repression continues. A week before the anniversary of reform and opening-up last December, a document now known as "Charter 08" was posted online, signed by over 300 Chinese activists, academics and other professionals. The document calls for a separation of powers and an end to one party rule in China. Many signatories to the document have since been detained and questioned and censors have attempted to block access to Charter 08 online.

In short, while economic liberalisation has been embraced, and a degree of social liberalisation has been reluctantly permitted, political change remains as distant as ever. Chinese people are getting richer, but 30 years after reform commenced, the vast majority still have no say in the running of their own country.

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