Network of Concerned Historians 2018 report

Source: Network of Concerned Historians 2018

Below find the “China” section of the report. For the full report, see:


In [2017], civil law was amended to punish “those who infringe upon the name, likeness, reputation, or honor of a hero or martyr, harming the societal public interest.” The legislation introduced the term “historical nihilism.” Chinese President Xi Jinping perceived independent historians with critical ideas about the official history of the Communist Party and its heroes as producers of “historical nihilism.” In a 2013 speech, he had said that in recent years “hostile forces” at home and abroad had “attacked, vilified and defamed” China’s modern history with the aim of overthrowing the Chinese Communist Party. He believed that sloppiness on the historical front had contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.33

In March 2017, a historical novel, Ruanmai (Soft Burial) (People’s Literature Publishing House, 2016), written by Fang Fang, came under attack from Maoists because in describing the excesses during the land reform in the 1950s, it appeared to sympathize with the landlords. Critics believed that the novel discredited land reform, a major feat of the Communist Party of China, and saw it as a form of historical nihilism. The novel told the story of a dying woman, by following her buried memories and her son’s investigation of his family’s past. The wife of a rich landlord’s son in eastern Sichuan Province in the late 1940s, she witnessed her husband’s entire family committing suicide. Many of the landlords and their families were killed or tortured during the campaigns, even after their land was confiscated. The book was not banned.

In 1999, Sichuan writer Xiao Shu had published a book called The Truth of Liu Wencai, trying to evaluate this landlord through a more neutral perspective, but the book had been banned for challenging
China’s New Democratic Revolution.34

The government also continued to imprison those trying to commemorate peacefully the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen massacre. At least eleven activists were detained in June 2017 for commemorating the massacre; most were accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” In March 2017, a Sichuan court sentenced artist Chen Yunfei to four years’ imprisonment on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in connection with his activities commemorating the massacre. Chen had paid his respects at the grave of Wu Guofeng, a 20-year-old student who had been shot and bayoneted to death by troops in Beijing on 4 June 1989. Four men who printed labels of Tank Man (the young white-shirted man facing down a column of tanks on the Avenue of Everlasting Peace on 4 June 1989) for liquor bottles faced long sentences for “inciting subversion of state power.” Li Xiaoling and Shi Tingfu remained in detention, and Ding Yajun was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in September 2017.35

At least ten activists were detained for holding memorials for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo who died in custody from liver cancer in July 2017 [see also NCH Annual Reports 2010–2011, 2017].36

In the 20 years since Hong Kong came under Chinese rule, the office of the chief executive failed to hand over any official records at all for eight years and the Security Bureau for ten years. The fact that Hong Kong never had a freedom of information law or archives law was widely criticized. In 1994 and 1995, under British rule, the Government House gave nothing to the archives. Activists were anxious that records of sensitive information, such as government decisions during the 2014 pro-democracy street protests, could be destroyed with impunity. In February 2018, Hong Kong democracy activists again demanded that the United Kingdom release tens of thousands of files from Hong Kong. They believed that the files could help defend Hong Kong’s autonomy as Beijing tightened control. Release of the papers, however, was not prioritized. Hong Kong-related records from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London dating up to 1989 were available at the National Archives, although large numbers were still closed. In addition, more than a quarter of a million files from the British administration were held as part of a controversial hoard of former colonial documents secretly held at a high-security FCO site, Hanslope Park.37

In [July] 2017, Tsinghua University (Qinghua University) in Beijing canceled a history class about the Cultural Revolution which was to be taught in the fall by Tang Shaojie, a professor in the philosophy department. When it first appeared in 1995, the course was entitled “The History of the Cultural Revolution,” but when Tang asked to teach it in 2006, his application was ignored. He could only teach it after changing its name to “Chinese Cultural History of 1966–1976.”38

In August 2017, Shi Jiepeng, a professor of classical Chinese at Beijing Normal University, was sacked for “improper comments”; Shi had called Mao Zedong (1893–1976) a “devil.”39

On 18 August 2017, Cambridge University Press (CUP) confirmed that it had complied with a Chinese instruction (from an import agency) to block online access from China to 315 articles and book reviews from the China Quarterly (without the editorial board’s consent) in order “to ensure that other academic and educational materials … remain available to researchers and educators in this market.” The list of articles to be blocked was sent by the General Administration of Press and Publications in China to CUP. CUP published the list. It showed that the blocked titles focused overwhelmingly on taboo topics such the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Taiwan, Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, and ethnic tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet. They ranged from material published in the 1960s to materials recently published. Critics called CUP an “active participant in rewriting history.” Louisa Lim, author of a book on Tiananmen, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, said that a search for Tiananmen on the China Quarterly got 50 results overseas, but only five within China. In 2016, China had signed up to the International Publishers Association, which had as one of its guiding principles the freedom to publish. On 21 August 2017, after a wave of protests, CUP abruptly reversed its decision to censor online content and reposted the blocked articles. It made them available free of charge.

The CUP climb-down came as the Journal of Asian Studies, also published by CUP, received a similar instruction from China’s General Administration of Press and Publications concerning some 100 articles. On 21 August 2017, CUP said: “At present no Journal of Asian Studies articles have been removed from CUP website search results in China.”40

On 3 January 2018, the China Digital Times posted presumably leaked internal minutes from a discussion held at the Central Party School in 2010. It did so under the title “Party History and What The People Can’t be Told [Update].” In this discussion, the panelists interpreted a speech delivered by Xi Jinping to the Central Party School in 2010 (prior to his ascendency to President and General Secretary), in which he explained the limits to be placed on the officially-sanctioned public understanding of Party history. 41

On 25 February 2018, as the Chinese Communist Party proposed removing a constitutional clause in order to extend Xi Jinping’s presidency, words such as “proclaiming oneself an emperor” were suddenly censored. In particular, allusions to Yuan Shikai (1859 –1916), who in December 1915 – March 1916 tried to restore the monarchy, were perceived as cryptic references to Xi. Other censored terms were: The Emperor’s Dream (title of a 1947 animated puppet film) and Hundred Days’ Reform (a failed Qing Dynasty reform by the Guangxu Emperor, quashed by a coup carried out by supporters of the Empress Dowager Cixi).42

On 27 April 2018, the “Heroes and Martyrs’ Protection Law” was passed, which prohibited the misrepresentation, defamation, profanation, or denial of the actions of heroes and martyrs, or to praise or beautify invasions. Those found in violation would be investigated for criminal responsibility and punished. The law banned criticism or questioning of the 1949 formation of the People’s Republic by Communist revolutionaries, and prohibited acts that glorified historical events considered unpatriotic, such as Japan’s invasion of China (1931–1945). The law stemmed from the Five Heroes of Langya Mountain case (2013–2016) [see NCH Annual Report 2017].43

In April 2018, a row erupted about the review of history textbooks by a government-appointed panel in Hong Kong. The panelist deemed inappropriate phrases like “China taking back Hong Kong,” “China insisted on taking back Hong Kong’s sovereignty,” “the transfer of sovereignty,” “one-party dictatorship,” and “the city [Hong Kong] is located south of China.” At the same time, a new curriculum framework for teaching Chinese history at Hong Kong junior secondary school levels was announced on 24 April 2018 – with no separate sections on Hong Kong’s past and no mention of the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen Massacre or the 1967 anti-colonial riots. The framework would be implemented progressively in Form One, starting from September 2020.

32. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2018: Events of 2017 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018), 133.

  1. Orville Schell, “China’s Cover-Up: When Communists Rewrite History,” Foreign Affairs (12 December 2017; January–February 2018 Issue); Kiki Zhao, “Chinese Court Upholds Ruling Against Historian Who Questioned Tale of Wartime Heroes,” New York Times (15 August 2016); Carrie Gracie, “The Thoughts of Chairman Xi,” BBC News (13 October 2017); “Party History and What The People Can’t Be Told [Update],” China Digital Times (3 January 2018); Louisa Lim, “A Date (Not) To Forget,” Index on Censorship, 47 no. 1 (Spring 2018), 9.

  2. Louisa Lim, “Rewriting History in the People’s Republic of Amnesia and Beyond,” The Conversation (28 May 2018); Zhang Yu, “Novel Exploring Excesses of 1950s Land Reform Draws Criticism from Maoists,” Global Times (22 March 2017).

  3. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2018: Events of 2017 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018), 140; Louisa Lim, “A Date (Not) To Forget,” Index on Censorship, 47 no. 1 (Spring 2018), 9; Louisa Lim, “Rewriting History in the People’s Republic of Amnesia and Beyond,” The Conversation (28 May 2018); Kevin Lui, “Tens of Thousands in Hong Kong Commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre,” Time (4 June 2017); Amnesty International, Report 2017/18: The State of the World’s Human Rights (London: AI, 2018), 37, 127.

  4. Amnesty International, Report 2017/18: The State of the World’s Human Rights (London: AI, 2018), 126.

  5. Venus Wu, “Hong Kong’s Vanishing Archives and the Battle to Preserve History,” Reuters (6 September 2017); Tania Branigan, “Hong Kong Democracy Activists Urge UK to Release Unseen Files,” Guardian (4 February 2018).

  6. Caroline Roy, “Tsinghua University Cancels Professor’s Cultural Revolution History Class,” Shangaiist (14 July 2017).

  7. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2018: Events of 2017 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018), 143.

  8. “Cambridge University Press Accused of ‘Selling Its Soul’ over Chinese Censorship,” Guardian (19 August 2017); “Cambridge University Press Statement Regarding Content in China Quarterly” (18 August 2017); “List of Censored Titles” (18 August 2017); Yojana Sharma, “China Pressures Respected Journal to Censor Articles,” University World News (18 August 2017); “Cambridge University Press Reverses China Censorship Move,” BBC News (21 August 2017); Chris Buckley, “After Criticism, Publisher Reverses Decision to Bow to China’s Censors,” New York Times (21 August 2017); Ben Bland, “Curtailing Academic Freedom Is China’s Latest Export to the World,” Financial Times (22 August 2017); Christopher Balding, “China Looks at Western Universities and Smells Weakness,” Foreign Policy (24 August 2017); Yojana Sharma, “CUP Reverses China Censorship after Academic Uproar,” University World News (22 August 2017); Bruce Macfarlane, “Universities Must Stand Up to Chinese Censorship,” University World News (25 August 2017); “Petition Cambridge University Press Not to Censor China Articles”; Human Rights Watch, World Report 2018: Events of 2017 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018), 143.

  9. Party History and What The People Can’t be Told [Update],” China Digital Times (3 January 2018); Amber Ziye Wang, “Universities Told to Further Embed Chinese Culture,” University World News (5 June 2018).

  10. Kerry Allen, “China Censorship after Xi Jinping Presidency Extension Proposal,” BBC News (26 February 2018); Oiwan Lam, “China: Riddles and Funny Memes Outwit Online Censors,” Global Voices Advox (13 March 2018).

  11. China Criminalizes Defamation of Revolutionary Heroes,” Deutsche Welle (27 April 2018); Louisa Lim, “Rewriting History in the People’s Republic of Amnesia and Beyond,” The Conversation (28 May 2018).

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