The term “historical nihilism” has come into vogue among Chinese government officials following Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012. “Historical nihilism” refers to the questioning of the official Chinese Communist Party’s version of Chinese history. A communiqué circulated in 2013 within the party known as Document No.9 calls historical nihilism one of the seven perils that threatens party rule. Under the guise of “re-evaluation,” historical nihilism “discredits revolution under the party’s leadership” and “denies the historical necessity of China’s choice of embarking on the socialist path.” In September 2015, party magazine Qiushi warned that historical nihilism would lead to a Soviet-style collapse should it be left unchecked. In February 2018, official news media outlets widely circulated Xi’s remark that historical nihilists “distort history” and “deny their own ancestry.” Historical nihilists are condemned as traitors to the Han people, “self-abased,” and as having lost their ethnic pride due to Western influence.
Official historical narratives about the party are crafted to instill nationalism and political loyalty. The narratives stress the party’s contributions to liberating China from century-long foreign imperialism, oppressed farmers from landlords, and ethnic minorities from feudalism – in stark contrast with Chinese history written in the west that calls the first three decades following 1949 a period of catastrophe caused by Mao Zedong. Those who share similar criticisms about the party’s past put their jobs, livelihood, and even personal liberty at risk. In some cases, delving into or writing about dissenting versions of history can land researchers or publishers in jail, with charges ranging from stealing state secrets, illegal business activity, and endangering state security.
Jailed Historians & “State Secrets”
A well-known case involving the criminalization of historians in China involved US-based librarian and historian Song Yongyi (宋永毅) in 1999. In that year, Song was on a research trip to China to construct a database that would document the atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution. Song collected tabloid newspapers published by the Red Guards and procured state-approved books from the China National Publications Import & Export Corporation at the Dickinson College Library in Pennsylvania. Although Song had obtained these materials through public channels, he was detained for “stealing state secrets” for six months, during which he was interrogated about whether his research project was supported by the Central Intelligence Agency. Song was not yet an American citizen at the time, but his detention sparked outrage in the American academic and diplomatic community. His release came as a result of Beijing’s wish to improve its image prior to the annual debate on renewal of China’s “Most Favored Nation” trading status.
A similar case that did not garner as much attention as Song’s involved historian Xu Zerong (徐泽荣) who was sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment for illegally trafficking in state secrets for foreign entities and illegal business activity in Shenzhen in December 2001. Xu was an Associate Research Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, well-known for his work on China’s role in the Korean War. The charges stemmed from his photocopying of books published in the 1950s about China’s involvement in the Korean War, but unbeknownst to Xu the books were classified as “top-secret.” Xu allegedly received $2,500 for sending research materials to a South Korean scholar.
Some observers believed that Xu was imprisoned for reasons not mentioned in the court documents. Prior to his detention, Xu wrote an article for Hong Kong-based Asia Weekly, exposing clandestine support by the Chinese Communist Party to a Malaysian Communist insurgency from the 1950s to 1970s. Xu claimed that Chinese forces helped the insurgency group set up a radio station in Hunan during that period. His research suggested a double standard when it came to the Chinese government’s approach to foreign diplomacy – they had supported a revolution abroad and interfered in the internal affairs of another country, a line of argument the government frequently uses to criticize foreign counterparts that raise human rights issues with China.
Dui Hua has previously reported on the use of the crime “illegal business activity” to prosecute Christian booksellers and publishers. The same charge is also used to curb the distribution of history books that challenge the official historical narrative. In December 2015, Fu Zhibin (付志彬) was sentenced to 20 months’ imprisonment in Jiangxi for his book titled Historie der Mentalen Manipulation. In his book, Fu argues that the CCP used the concept of “Red Terror” to stir fear in people thus culminating in the Cultural Revolution. Fu accuses Mao of using this tactic to materialize his “emperor dream” – a term Fu borrowed from Lenin.
Published in Taiwan in 2014, the Jiangxi public security bureau accused Fu of “smearing and distorting the history of the Chinese Communist Party and denying the party’s legitimacy in the founding of the People’s Republic of China.” In the same year, Fu used a mainland publisher to print 3,000 copies of his book for domestic distribution. Of the books, 1,200 were sold online via social networking apps including WeChat and QQ.
In a separate case in February 2017, Dai Xuelin (戴学林) and Zhang Xiaoxiong (张晓雄) were sentenced in Zhejiang to five years and three years and six months, respectively, also for illegal business activity. The duo acquired books from Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Bookstore and distributed them to online buyers in the mainland. One of the “illegal” titles was “How the Red Sun Rose,” a monograph written by a well-known historian who examined how Mao ascended to power by aggressive intra-party purges and coercion and the legacy of Mao on China’s political structure today. The book was published by The Chinese University Press in Hong Kong in 2001. Both Dai and Zhang remain imprisoned today. Dai is scheduled for release in May 2021 and Zhang is set for release in January 2020.
“Inalienable Part of China”
Photo credit: The Economist
China’s territorial dispute with Russia in the 2000s remains a thorn in the side of patriotic writers and historians. In the mid-19th century, the Qing Empire signed several “unequal treaties” with Russia, ceding over 600,000 square kilometers north of today’s Heilongjiang province and parts of Outer Manchuria, the majority of which is in Russia today. Shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, border demarcation negotiations were held to resolve the longstanding Sino-Russian border disputes in Heilongjiang. The issues were eventually settled in an accord, signed by both countries in 2004, in which Russia recognized China’s ownership of Yinlong Island (Tarabarov Island) and over half of the Heixiazi Island (Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island) – both islands had been occupied by the Soviet Union since 1929. In 2008, China Daily lauded the formal territorial agreement signed by then Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as a “hard-won” result after more than 40 years of negotiations.
The signing of the border agreement also signified China’s recognition of Russian sovereignty over territories that once belonged to China, a blow to many nationalists who regard the land as an “inalienable part of China” – a claim frequently used to justify sovereignty over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and other disputed islands and maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Some observers speculated that Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong (程翔) was imprisoned for penning articles in 1998 for Hong Kong and Singaporean media that expressed his sentiments about the territorial losses, “equivalent to the size of forty Taiwans.” Ching criticized Jiang Zemin for signing a clandestine agreement with Boris Yeltsin in 1999 that delineated today’s Sino-Russian border. In signing the agreement, Jiang in turn recognized China's loss of sovereignty over the territories “plundered” by Russia following the “unequal treaties” China was forced to sign in the 19th century. Ching was detained in Shenzhen in April 2005 and was sentenced in Beijing to five years’ imprisonment for “espionage” in 2006. He was released on parole in 2008 following an international campaign calling for his release.
Amateur historian Lü Jiaping (吕加平) was imprisoned for similar reasons. In 2011, Lü was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for inciting subversion in Beijing. Allegations against him included articles he published which called Jiang a “traitor” for “ceding vast Chinese territories” to Russia. Lü, now aged 77, reportedly suffers from heart disease among other ailments. He was released on medical parole in 2015.
In 2015, the term historical nihilism began appearing in court documents following a civil case lodged by family members of “Communist heroes” to safeguard their ancestors' “reputation” and “heroic spirit.” A Beijing court found columnists Hong Zhenkuai (洪振快) and Huang Zhong (黄钟) guilty of libel for an article that questioned the authenticity of the “Five Heroes of Langya Mountain,” communist lore that praised the valiant effort of five Communist soldiers during World War II. According to official narratives, the five men had jumped off a cliff to avoid being captured by Japanese forces. Hong argued that the men had in fact slipped off the cliff and that they did not kill any Japanese soldiers during their service. The court ruled that Hong and Huang had damaged the “heroic image” and “challenged social and public values that are both traditional and mainstream,” and “hurt the ethnic and historical feelings of the people.” Hong and Huang were ordered to make a public apology to the heroes on Weibo and in several major newspapers, including Global Times and Southern Metropolitan Daily.
Hong and Huang’s case demonstrates how publicly questioning the historical accuracy of Communist folklore can incur civil penalties. Effective April 27, 2018, the Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law obliges Chinese citizens to “revere and honor the memory of the sacrifices and contributions that heroes and martyrs made for the nation…” and subjects anyone who “defames” heroes and martyrs to criminal punishments and civil liabilities. At the time of writing, it remains to be seen what criminal punishments will be meted out to individuals who challenge the party’s narratives of heroes and martyrs.
Historians in and outside of China have long cast doubt on the authenticity of the “good deeds” of many Communist heroes and martyrs, including notably Lei Feng, a well-known propaganda icon who espoused values of selflessness and patriotism. Since his rise to power, Xi has further tightened the leash on historical discussions beyond the scholarly realm. Many online platforms have reportedly been investigated, fined, and ordered to shut down by the Internet Information Office for insulting heroes and martyrs. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese government maintains a database of more than two million heroes and martyrs. It is doubtful whether the public knows who these two million heroes and martyrs are and therefore what kinds of criticisms might land them in legal trouble.
In China, history is heavily censored – not only are criticisms of government and former leaders censored, but narratives are also heavily redacted to shield the party from public skepticism about its legitimacy. The cases explored in this article demonstrate how those who dig into the party’s history have faced arrest, detention, and lengthy prison sentences for a wide range of offenses.
Most recently, two ethnic minority researchers have been taken into custody for writing histories of their own ethnic groups that are critical of the official narrative. Ethnic Mongolian historian Lhamjab A. Borigin faces prosecution for the crime of “separatism” and “sabotaging national unity” for his book written in Mongolian about the Cultural Revolution. Published in 2006 by an underground press and subsequently translated into Mandarin, the book discloses survivor testimonies and details torture techniques used during genocidal campaigns. Askar Yunus, an ethnic Kyrgyz historian, was incarcerated for an “undecided” offense due to his work that documented the history of Central Asia. Prior to his incarceration, Yunus published dozens of articles and books that examined the golden era of the history of the Kyrgyz people. An exiled Uyghur activist in the US claimed that Askar Yunus might have been accused of being “two-faced” – an accusation frequently used by authorities to allegedly place more than a million of China’s Muslim minorities in re-education camps.