The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China’s odious manipulation of history is infecting the West

A man takes a selfie last year near a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping on display at an exhibition at the military museum in Beijing. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)
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The announcement last week by Cambridge University Press that it had removed some 300 articles from a Chinese website hosting the China Quarterly, one of the premier academic journals on Chinese affairs, is yet another example of an assault on history by the People’s Republic of China. Censorship is a key element in the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy to stay in power. In so doing, it aims, one scholar has written, “to control China’s future by shaping consciousness of its past.”

Cambridge made the decision to block access to these articles after China’s General Administration of Press and Publication threatened to cut access in China to all of the journals published by Cambridge University Press. The offending articles in question appeared in the China Quarterly as far back as 1960 and concerned a range of topics considered sensitive in today’s China. There were pieces on the disastrous famine sparked by the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, the suppression of the Falun Gong religious sect and the troubled legacy of Mao Zedong.

The decision to agree to self-censor sparked a backlash among Western academics and journalists against the Cambridge University Press. Several open letters were published and petitions were launched. James Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, called it “a craven, shameful and destructive concession to the PRC’s growing censorship regime.” Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University, warned that “the prestige of the journal is irrevocably damaged by this act of censorship.”

In the face of such a response, Cambridge on Monday reinstated the articles and announced that “academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based.” It said that its original decision to cull the articles had been only a “temporary” one.

In China, the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, cast China’s demand that the content be removed as a battle over values. It said the only reason that Western values — of free discourse and academic freedom — sat at “the core of human society” was due to “the West’s strength.” When China becomes stronger, it vowed, China will call the shots.

China’s move to demand self-censorship is not an isolated case. It’s just one of many the Communist government has taken in recent years to mold history and historians to serve the needs of the Chinese Communist Party. Party boss Xi Jinping has led a campaign against what he calls “historical nihilism,” the party’s shorthand for attempts to write honestly about the past and mistakes committed by China’s Communist leaders. As part of that campaign, historians and writers have been silenced and jailed, books have been banned and party censors have launched a nationwide campaign to expunge any positive mention of Western political ideas from Chinese college textbooks.

This campaign also stretches beyond China’s borders in the banning of Western academics and journalists from China’s shores. Millward and Nathan, two of the leading voices against Cambridge’s decision to self-censor, have long had trouble obtaining visas to China. They probably felt freer to criticize the Chinese censorship regime than colleagues who still hope to be allowed to travel to China.

Many of those who have had visa applications turned down by the Chinese are afraid to publicize their cases and in particular don’t want their colleagues at home to know. Rejection by the Chinese can kill the career of someone who has chosen to make Chinese studies his or her life. As one scholar wrote to me: “I would prefer to not make my story public, mainly because I am not yet tenured and my colleagues in Chinese Studies are already freaked out enough about me, without knowing I am blacklisted!” I feel his pain. Two of my recent visa applications have been blocked.

The long hand of the Chinese censor has also reached into the past in China, in a malevolent case of digitalized legerdemain. As the scholar Glenn Tiffert reports in a recent study submitted for publication, Chinese censors have removed scores of articles from the online editions of journals published in China from the 1950s up until the present day. Like China’s shenanigans with the Cambridge University Press, this truly mind-boggling censorship amounts to a massive rewriting of Chinese history through post-publication censorship decades after these pieces were published. Think of the man-hours used and the genesis of a decision to go back into old journals and scrub them of viewpoints considered dangerous today.

Tiffert discovered this censorship as he researched debates among Chinese legal experts in the mid-1950s over the establishment of a socialist legal system in the new China. He reported that in a critical two-year period spanning China’s Hundred Flowers Movement, which allowed limited freedoms in 1956, to the Anti-Rightist Campaign, which resulted in the incarceration of more than 700,000 people, dozens of articles were expunged from two online Chinese databases of two key law journals. In several cases, all of the lead articles of a journal were culled. The articles focused on debates over matters such as an independent judiciary and the presumption of innocence — issues that remain unresolved in China today. Tiffert also found large gaps in Chinese legal journals from the late 1970s and social science journals from the 1980s, which were published when experts and scholars were given more freedom than today to debate sensitive topics.

What the party is seeking to do, Tiffert surmised, is to paint a new and completely false picture of some of the key moments in Chinese Communist history as a way to further bolster the party’s rule today. Talk about fake news. Indeed, China’s assault on history has reached Orwellian proportions where history, as Orwell himself wrote, is being “scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”

The manipulation of history for political gain is odious, no matter where it occurs, as Americans have seen in Charlottesville and elsewhere in recent weeks. But in China, the state has harnessed technology and the lure of China’s market to export its domestic censorship regime abroad as it seeks, as Tiffert wrote, “to sanitize the historical record.”

Despite the decision by the Cambridge press to push back against Chinese censorship, the Global Times appeared confident that Western universities and other organizations will ultimately bend to China’s will. “Western institutions have the freedom to choose. If they don’t like the Chinese way, they can stop engaging with us,” it said. “If they think China’s Internet market is so important that they can’t miss out, they need to respect Chinese law and adapt to the Chinese way.” With so much Chinese cash and so much Chinese technology, that prediction could actually be true.