The Cultural Revolution continues to spark conflict a half-century later. Controversy erupted this week after a post appeared on Chinese social media suggesting that politically sensitive content about the turbulent and violent era had been removed from a middle-school history textbook. The post included photographs from the newly revised edition of the required text alongside images from an older version, allegedly showing that a chapter devoted to the Cultural Revolution had been removed, a charge which the textbook’s state-run publisher has denied.
The same post cited passages where wording had been revised, changes that show the Party and its leaders in a more favorable light:
In addition, there are new changes to the content. For example, in describing the causes of the Cultural Revolution, the textbook from 18 years ago says: “Mao Zedong mistakenly believed that the Party Central Committee was revisionist and the Party and the country were in danger of Capitalist restoration.” In the new edition of the textbook, that line is replaced by the following: “Mao Zedong believed the party and the country are at risk of Capitalist restoration.” The characters for “wrongly” in the phrases “wrongly believed” have been deleted, leaving only “believed.”
Under General Secretary Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has taken great pains to combat what it calls “Historical Nihilism,” the awkward remembering of past events and policies which the Party would rather not discuss.
This past summer, Qu Qingshan, head of the Party History Research Office of the CPC Central Committee, gave an interview in which he identified the essence of historical nihilism as “political thoughts with strong political tendencies and intentions. Such thoughts seek to distort the history of modern China’s revolution, the CPC and the armed forces under the guise of ‘reevaluation.’”
Qu was also quoted as saying that resisting and opposing historical nihilism is a form of political combat, crucial to the CPC leadership and the security of socialism.
In this war over the past, the Cultural Revolution has become an increasingly sensitive subject. In September, the American Association of Asian Studies released a list of 94 book reviews and articles which Chinese government agencies requested be removed from the Journal of Asian Studies website in China. Most of the articles focused on either Tibet or the Cultural Revolution. The AAS announcement came amidst the furor over the brief decision by another academic publisher, Cambridge University Press, to comply with a similar demand to remove content from the site of their journal The China Quarterly.
Filmmaker Feng Xiaogang’s latest blockbuster, Youth, a coming-of-age story about a military art troupe set during the Cultural Revolution and including scenes from China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam, topped weekend box offices this past week, but the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television delayed the release of Feng’s movie. Set to open in October, Feng’s film would have originally come out during the politically sensitive period around last year’s 19th Party Congress.
The People’s Education Press, the state entity that published the controversial new middle school history text, has flatly denied the allegations that it removed information related to the Cultural Revolution: “Someone posted online claiming the new history textbook will delete the chapter on Cultural Revolution, which drew attention from internet users. The situation is that the second volume of the national history textbook for the eighth grade will teach the Cultural Revolution as a main theme in a chapter called ‘arduous exploration and development achievement.’ The textbook will be put into use in the spring semester in March,” the PEP announced in a statement released on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, the changes are consistent with recent statements from the Party and its surrogates about the need to better police ideology in education.
In this war over the past, the Cultural Revolution has become an increasingly sensitive subject
Last summer, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, who are NOT people you want to have on your call sheet if you’re a mid-level university administrator, published a series of “rectification reports” criticizing eight top Chinese universities for being lax in their promotion of Party orthodoxy. In response, seven of the eight set up new internal departments under CCP supervision to better monitor “ideological and political work” among the faculty.
At the start of the academic year, a post on Sixth Tone previewed some of the changes being proposed for school curriculum, particularly history:
In a press conference Monday, the assistant minister of education, Zheng Fuzhi, said that the new textbooks will help reinforce the will of the nation and the “Core Socialist Values” — a set of 12 ideological tenets promoted in the country since 2012. Zheng is also the director of the ministry’s textbook bureau.
“The core values will be embodied in the flesh and blood of the Chinese language [subject],” Wen Rumin, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese textbooks, said at the press conference according to a report by financial news outlet Caixin. It added that the new Chinese language textbooks include dozens of articles about revolutionary heroism, such as Mao Zedong’s well-known piece “Serve the People.” Students will also learn more classic Chinese literature compared with the widely used previous book from People’s Education Press.
Two of the new history textbooks chronicle the development of the Communist Party since its formation, naming more than 40 revolutionaries. Students will also be taught that Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the South China Sea islands are historical and inseparable parts of China, The Beijing News.
Another social media post, distributed widely and translated by China Digital Times, is allegedly a leaked internal document of a discussion from 2010 on the subject of historical nihilism and the negative impact to Party legitimacy that would come from allowing unfettered discussion of the Tiananmen Square Demonstrations, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward:
Some data from our Party history cannot be published for the common people. Why? Isn’t there a saying that the masses have the “right to know”? Yes, that is one aspect. Another aspect is that our Party has the right to confidentiality. All countries, and all parties have secrets which cannot be made public, and moreover disallows inquiries. Just as every individual has a right to privacy, the Party also has a right to privacy –that right cannot be infringed upon. If some of our Party’s secrets are made known to the public, it is certain to cause ideological confusion and lead to doubt over the legitimacy of our Party’s power. That would be chaos. Once there is chaos, how can society be harmonious, how can the economy develop, how can the livelihood of the common people be raised? The clearest case is the disturbance of 1989, we of course can’t again speak of this because it cannot be easily explained. Insisting on speaking of this will only expose scars, it won’t change things, it would only coerce more bleeding. We didn’t speak, you see, and so these 20 years have seen good development. Our parents don’t speak, schools don’t speak, and our youth don’t become aware — this is good for everyone. Also, the difficult period from 1959-61, if you officially told the commoners that our Party was in control during this period we’d be responsible for the starvation of 38 million and countless of villages, how dreadful!
While several online commentators have been quick to dismiss this post as being satire or simply having been fabricated, when I asked China Digital Times executive editor Sophie Beach about the veracity of the post, she responded that, “We can’t 100% vouch for its authenticity, but as with all such documents from China, we made a careful judgment call that it seemed plausible enough to be worth translating and making available to a broader audience.”
Whether the post is real — and I have my doubts — I do believe that it’s not far removed from what we would hear if the public were allowed to listen in on frank Party conversations about history.
There is a very real campaign being waged by the Party attacking not only history that might portray it and its leaders in a negative way but also against narratives that are insufficiently patriotic or positive. Facing history requires political, moral, and intellectual courage. Though the Chinese government is quick to remind other countries about the demands of historical responsibility, it seems less sure about its own duty to history.