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On China’S State-Sponsored Amnesia


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IN March 2012 I met Torbjorn Loden, the Swedish professor of Chinese language and culture, in Hong Kong. He told me that while briefly teaching at Hong Kong’s City University he asked the 40 students from China in his class what they knew about the June 4 Incident, the pro-democracy movement that ended in bloodshed in 1989, and if they were familiar with the names Liu Binyan and Fang Lizhi, two prominent democracy advocates of that era. All the students from China looked around at one another, mute and puzzled.


That reminded me of something another teacher told me. She had asked her students from China if they had heard about the death by starvation of 30 to 40 million people during the so-called “three years of natural disasters†in the early 1960s. Her students responded with stunned silence, as if she, a teacher in Hong Kong, was brazenly fabricating history to attack their mother country.


After we exchanged these stories, Professor Loden and I sat sullenly in a quiet Vietnamese café, speechless. Ever since, thoughts about the loss of memory in China on a national scale, a phenomenon that people have long been discussing but only in private, remain lodged in my heart like thorns. From time to time, guilt — along with painful memories of the past and thoughts about losing the memories — torment me and refuse to leave me alone.


Have today’s 20- and 30-year-olds become the amnesic generation? Who has made them forget? By what means were they made to forget? Are we members of the older generation who still remember the past responsible for the younger generation’s amnesia?


The amnesia I’m talking about is the act of deleting memories rather than merely a natural process of forgetting. Forgetting can result from the passage of time. The act of deleting memories, however, is about actively winnowing out people’s memories of the present and the past.


In China, memory deletion is turning the younger generation into selective-memory automatons. Memories of history and the present, yesterday and today are all going through this uniform process of deletion and are being lost without trace.


I used to assume history and memory would always triumph over temporary aberrations and return to their rightful place. It now appears the opposite is true. In today’s China, amnesia trumps memory. Lies are surpassing the truth. Fabrications have become the logical link to fill historical gaps. Even memories of events that have only just taken place are being discarded at a dazzling pace, with barely intelligible fragments all that remain for people to hold on to.


Revolution completely engulfed China after 1949. The revolution created the regime, created history, and it created our present reality. People’s memories and administered memories, people’s forgetfulness and administered forgetfulness are all determined by the state, transformed by a revolutionary tactic that has been systematically implemented.


Historical details are selectively excised from the records and from textbooks. Details of events that still reside in the living memory of older Chinese — the Warlord era of the late 1910s and 1920s, names of soldiers and civilians who shed their blood on the front lines during the war of resisting Japan’s invasion that began in the 1930s — all these things have been carefully winnowed.


After the civil war ended in 1949, one man’s passion drove an entire nation to a frenzied pace of construction, with one political movement after another maintaining the fanatical atmosphere of a permanent war footing.


But the tragic experiences associated with these movements have been deleted from people’s collective memory, put aside and permanently concealed.


The Great Leap Forward, the obligatory nation-wide construction of backyard steel furnaces and the consequent death by starvation of 30 to 40 million people in the famine that was later blamed on “three years of natural disasters,†and the catastrophic 10 years of the Cultural Revolution — these momentous events are too absurd, too cruel and too unpleasant for people to recount. Therefore many people are reluctant to pass their painful memories on to the younger generation.






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In my married days I visited China (2006) to visit the then wife's family, who were lovely. We went on a bit of a look around, and one of my nieces who knew I liked to read books took me to a book shop which specialised in non Chinese books. I picked up a book about Chendu - the region we were in, thinking it would point out a few highlights and places to visit, which it did.


There was also a history section, pointing out a few historical/cultural points about the country and the region. Made for some interesting reading... eg:

- before 1949 the country was living in the dark ages, it even mentioned people lived in caves

- sinve 1949 the people are happy, and the govt have taked the country to dizzy new heights, inventing... everything

- the Tibetans were liberated by the Chinese, and to this day are grateful, and no longer live in caves

- so are the Taiwanese

- the only reason the greedy monks want Tibet is to mine the silver


Made for interesting reading, and the then wife agreed with the lot, even though she had been educated in Europe, UK, US and Aus... then again she also believed it was good politics to kill your opponents/anyone who got into your way.

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I remember that the USSR long banned films taken in Imperial Russia. The commies told people they had lived like slaves before the reds freed them and didn't want them to see how much of a lie it was. You get some of that from the red shirts in LOS. A taxi driver once told me how Thaksin had started the skytrain and undeground, built the bridges across the river, built both airports etc. Wouldn't be surprised if Thaksin wasn't involved in the 1932 coup that ended the absolute monarchy too.

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