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China criminalizes the slander of its ‘heroes and martyrs,’ as it seeks to control history

Workers clean a red carpet at the Monument to the People's Heroes ahead of Martyrs' Day in Beijing on Sept. 29, 2017.
Workers clean a red carpet at the Monument to the People's Heroes ahead of Martyrs' Day in Beijing on Sept. 29, 2017. (Reuters)

BEIJING — China’s Communist Party has always understood the importance of policing its history.

On Friday, it tightened the screws further with a new law banning the slander of “heroes and martyrs” — figures drawn from wartime propaganda said to have given their lives in defense of the Communist Party or the nation.

Chinese schoolchildren are taught about the heroic deeds of figures who fought against the Japanese during World War II, or who gave their lives for the Communist Party in the civil war with the Nationalists. Memorials to some of the most famous dot the country. 

Now, it will be illegal to suggest that those tales might not be wholly factual.

“Only the official narrative is allowed to exist,” said historian and critic Zhang Lifan. “But ‘What is the historical truth?’ is not a question we ask now.”

The law is part of a much broader and long-standing attempt by the Communist Party to mold or rewrite history in its interests. It has obfuscated the causes and extent of the famine that killed tens of millions of people during the disastrous Great Leap Forward that began in 1958, as well as the chaos of the Cultural Revolution that followed. It has made a determined attempt to erase from history the 1989 pro-democracy movement and the subsequent deaths of many demonstrators.

The “Heroes and Martyrs Protection Act” was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament, and goes into effect May 1. It threatens unspecified “administrative penalties” or even “criminal sanctions” against those who damage memorials or “insult or slander heroes and martyrs.”

Yue Zhongming, a member of the standing committee, said at a news conference that although the law is not intended to restrict academic freedom, it does not give permission to harm the honor of the nation’s heroes.

“We often say there is no banned area of academic research, while there is a bottom line of law,” he said.

Zhang, for his part, maintained that the law was largely meant to emphasize and protect the legitimacy of the Communist Party and to tie up the idea of “loving the country” with “loving the party.”

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The law was first submitted for deliberation in December, with its final draft expanded to include a provision to punish people who “glorify acts of war or invasion.”

State media said that provision referred to a handful of Chinese who have taken to dressing up in Japanese World War II army uniforms and photographing themselves at famous wartime sites or memorials. The so-called Spiritually Japanese movement is thought to comprise a small group of people fascinated with that country’s war-era militarism, a group that Foreign Minister Wang Yi referred to as “scum” at a recent news conference.

But the law’s genesis lies in the protection of the Communist Party’s version of history, experts say.

“In recent years, a few people in China have slandered or derogated heroes and martyrs via the Internet, magazines and other media in the name of ‘academic freedom,’ ‘restoring history’ or ‘probing into details,’ which provoked anger from all walks of life,” state news agency Xinhua wrote.

In 2016, for example, historian Hong Zhenkuai was ordered by a court to issue a public apology after questioning the veracity of the much-celebrated tale of the “five heroes of Langya Mountain,” according to which five Communist soldiers killed dozens of Japanese soldiers before leaping off the mountain shouting, “Long live the Communist Party!” rather than surrender.

The pressure to sanitize history has intensified under President Xi Jinping, who has repeatedly warned about what he calls “historical nihilism,” a term that essentially means any attempt to question the Communist Party’s glorious account of its own past.

China also passed a law last year threatening 15 days in detention for any disrespect of its national anthem, the “March of the Volunteers,” a law that is now being extended to cover Hong Kong after fans there booed the anthem at international soccer matches.

One historian, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of inviting problems with the authorities, said there is growing pressure on his profession within China, with public security officials warning historians not to write anything critical about any aspect of history since the 1949 Communist takeover, under the threat that they and their family members could lose jobs, pensions or access to social services. 

Perry Link, chancellorial chair at the University of California at Riverside and emeritus professor of East Asian studies at Princeton University, said the law’s main aim is to protect the Communist Party’s version of history.

“We should also note that protecting history has nothing to do with empathy for people in a bygone time and everything to do with maintaining the party’s power and control today,” he wrote in an email.

Link cited the writings of China’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, a pro-democracy activist who died in state custody last year, noting the inspiration he drew from people such as Lin Zhao, Yu Luoke and Zhang Zhixin — all of whom were executed during China’s Cultural Revolution “for expressing truths the party did not want to hear,” Link wrote.

“The fact that the present law will have nothing to do with protecting the reputations of those [true] martyrs says all one needs to know about the purpose of the law,” Link wrote.

Shirley Feng contributed to this report.

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