You cannot always be on the right side of history, unless you are – The People’s Republic of Amnesia
It has been said that history is made by the victors, and written to legitimate them. This is an aspect that cannot be denied, and humankind has, indeed, lost track of the most significant events, of the most invaluable cultures and peoples, as soon as they cross the border to that land of oblivion and dishonour set aside for the defeated.
But the means by which history is produced have changed radically in the last two centuries. If in a remote past facts could not be distinguished from legend and myth since there was no possibility to register and reproduce them except by oral or written tradition, nowadays great part of the planet’s inhabitants have the means and the possibility of recording, producing, transmitting and sharing history in real time, globally, according to different perspectives.
Paradoxically, this new technological paradigm in accessing substantiality has not prevented humanity from distorting facts and events and creating alternative versions of reality. Artificial intelligence tools made it feasible to create misleading material, in a proportion and quality that online fake news spread faster than the real ones and in the near future, internet users from economically developed countries may live a totally invented informational reality.
Harder to tell truth from fake, but easier to rewind the tape and check what really happened. At this point, history has fought back fact deniers, conspiracy theorists and those, who to subdue their enemies and retain power, have forced their own narratives down on us.
Winners usually love to sing victory, to brag about their own superiority, so why they do not simply cast it to the four winds like a fistful of confetti?
Some even do. The main justification for explicit cruelty is exemplary punishment, though.
The Assyrians were known to boast the brutality their army systematically imposed to enemies and traitors as a method of psychological warfare. They depicted these torture techniques with details on the walls of imperial palaces and engraved them in tablets of stone. They cut off limbs or the tongue, they gouged out the eyes; mass executions were common by impalement or crucifixion. They flayed rebel leaders and their skin was hung in visible places as a reminder for the rest of the citizens.
The Rassam cylinder in the British Museum describes: their corpses they hung on stakes, they stripped off their skins and covered the city wall with them.
On 1 March 1757, Damiens, the regicide, was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).
“Finally, he was quartered,” recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. “This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…
Foucault, Michel – Discipline and Punish: the Birth of Prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
Robert-François Damiens was a French domestic servant that attempted against King Louis XV in 1757. Although inflicting only a slight wound on the monarch, he was tried and condemned as a regicide by the Parliament of Paris to an exemplary public execution. He was the last person to be executed in France by drawing and quartering, the traditional form of death penalty reserved for regicides.
The adventurer Giacomo Casanova witnessed the execution and included an account in his memoirs:
I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half of his body having been torn from him, but the Lambertini and Mme XXX did not budge an inch. Was it because their hearts were hardened? They told me, and I pretended to believe them, that their horror at the wretch’s wickedness prevented them feeling that compassion which his unheard-of torments should have excited.
Exemplary punishments are invariably arbitrary and disproportionate.
We are all susceptible to express old fears, traumas and frustrations through irrational and disproportionate reactions, but institutionally they cannot become the rule and the normal. However, that’s what authoritarians do.
Authoritarians turn irrational, arbitrary, disproportionate reactions into the rule, the normal and the law. They give them other reasons and explanations aside from their own traumas, frustrations, greed and fear of losing control. Their aim, consequently, is always subverting the truth.
What about this obsession with history?
What is acceptable as rule for military punishment or subjugation of enemies in wars and conquests varies between different cultures and times.
What was exemplary in antiquity or in the middle ages can be considered an atrocity to our modern eyes and highly, if not unanimously, repulsed by our society and condemned by our laws.
Being on the right side of history in the past may not concur with being on the right side of history in the present or in the future and we know that human craving for power and supremacy, as the strongest’s pleasure in controlling and submitting others to one’s will or even adoration, has not changed at all.
Being on the right side of history has, then, become an obsession and has counted as one of the most important parameters for the victory, for the victors to be reputed successful, legitimate, perennial and unimputable.
The People’s Republic of Amnesia
“Listen to the party, be grateful to the party, and follow the party. Let the party rest assured, I’m with the strong country!” thousands of performers, assembled on Tiananmen Square for the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party, exhorted in unison.
The new subjects of the Revolutionary China are ideally young, loyal, and indoctrinated. They have no possibility of doubting or questioning because making mistakes is not part of their collective but only individual memory.
As fallible individuals they will be corrected, disciplined, punished, detained, killed, excluded; they will strive to prove themselves valuable, useful and trustworthy; they will bend under the burden of failure and defeat; but the new subjects of the Revolutionary China are the only ones to blame, since the collective memory of the people has been carefully formatted and their historical past re-enacted in order to eliminate any national, institutional or governmental failure and wrongdoing, in order to avoid any form of cross-class solidarity and organized civil disobedience.
Since the very day of its founding, the Party has made seeking happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the Chinese nation its aspiration and mission. All the struggle, sacrifice, and creation through which the Party has united and led the Chinese people over the past hundred years has been tied together by one ultimate theme—bringing about the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
The Party has in the people its roots, its lifeblood, and its source of strength. The Party has always represented the fundamental interests of all Chinese people; it stands with them through thick and thin and shares a common fate with them. The Party has no special interests of its own—it has never represented any individual interest group, power group, or privileged stratum.
Any attempt to divide the Party from the Chinese people or to set the people against the Party is bound to fail. The more than 95 million Party members and the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people will never allow such a scenario to come to pass.
Long live our great, glorious, and correct Party!
Long live our great, glorious, and heroic people!Speech by Xi Jinping at the ceremony marking the centenary of the CPC – By Xinhua – Global Times.
People’s collective memory has been carefully formatted because it is much harder to confront the past and the truth.
The pro-democracy movement of 1989 was the most exuberant expression of a growing social dissatisfaction that started with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, when the economic reforms that opened the Chinese markets to the world, aimed at the expansion of free trade, were understood as insufficient for the real progress of the nation and especially for the real prosperity of the people.
The four postulated modernizations which comprised the fields of agriculture, industry, science/technology and national defense called for the fifth element that would give them purpose and legitimacy – democracy.
The eruption of the student protest coincided with a worsening economic situation – more than thirty per cent inflation – and popular discontent at the way many top leaders and their families were able to amass personal fortunes as general living standards decayed. Corruption at the top level of society and many cases of nepotism were also prevalent.
On May 13, after a brief hiatus of failed “dialogue” with the government, the students launched a mass hunger strike at Tiananmen Square. By May 17, the sight of as many as 2,000 idealistic young students collapsing from heat and starvation brought more than a million ordinary Beijing citizens into the square in a moving display of human solidarity. “The students speak on behalf of all of us,” they would tell any foreigner who cared to listen. Having been passive spectators, the laobaixing now began to act as a bastion of active support for the students, bringing food and other supplies to the square on a round-the-clock basis.Robin Munro in https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/remembering-tiananmen-square/
Understanding the magnitude of an emerging cross-class solidarity and the real menace to the one-party ruled system represented by workers and peasants, much more than by students and intellectuals, the government tried to impose martial law in Beijing on May 20, without success. The pro-democracy movement had gained popular support, ideological strength and political momentum.
In the government’s eyes, if the statue of the Goddess of Democracy, erected in the square at the end of May, represented the arrogant defiance of the students and the symbolic intrusion of “bourgeois liberalism” and “Western subversion” into the sacred heart of Communist rule, the crude red-and-black banner of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation, not a hundred yards away from the goddess, represented the terrifying power of the workers awakened. Both had to be crushed, and the rapidly defecting party apparatus had to be frightened and shocked back into line.Robin Munro in https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/remembering-tiananmen-square/
Throughout the night of June 3rd and first hours of June 4th, heavily armed troops and thousands of military vehicles stormed into Beijing to clear the streets and the square of protesters.
Official accounts have included selected testimonies supporting claims that no one was killed during the final evacuation of Tiananmen Square. Official documentation, however, provides only a partial version of what occurred. The authorities have completely failed to consider numerous, well-attested incidents in which soldiers deliberately shot unarmed civilians and military vehicles crushed people during the course of their operations.
A large number of arbitrary arrests and summary executions were reportedly carried out in secret following the military crackdown. Some sources indicate that several hundred people were secretly executed in Beijing between June and August, 1989. 1
“Having witnessed the pain of the post-Tiananmen years, I wanted to discover how memories could be reformatted and how China’s population had become complicit in an act of mass amnesia.”- Louisa Lim, author of the acclaimed book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited and who inspired me in this subtitle, explains her motivation in researching and writing about one of the most politically sensitive topics in today’s China: the deadly suppression of the Tiananmen protests in 1989.
I did a simple experiment to gauge the depth of the forgetting. I took the iconic picture of Tank Man – the young man blocking a column of tanks – to four Beijing campuses. Out of 100 students, only 15 could identify the picture. The others leaned in, eager and wide-eyed, asking: “Is it from South Korea?” and “Is it in Kosovo?” One young woman asked what I was writing about. I answered directly: “About liu si [June fourth].” She looked blank. “What is that?” she asked. “I don’t know what that means.”Louisa Lim in https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/jul/21/louisa-lim-the-peoples-republic-of-amnesia-tiananmen-revisited-china
However, Louisa tells us that her research would be impossible today and that she would not be able to write the same book. When a French camera crew repeated her same experiment on a Beijing street a year later, it took only 10 minutes for the police to arrive. The journalists were interrogated for six hours. “Nowadays it is hard to find anyone willing to speak to the foreign media on pretty much any topic”, she says. 2
The 1989 events at Tiananmen Square have also been highly censored on China’s tightly-controlled internet. According to a survey released in 2019 by the University of Toronto and the University of Hong Kong, more than 3,200 words referencing the massacre had been censored.3
The ones disposed to question the orthodoxy offered by the Party and its leaders can be accused of historical nihilism and if the resulting offences harass the memories of China’s national heroes and martyrs the offenders may face up to three years in jail.
‘Historical nihilism’ is a term used in China to describe public doubt and skepticism over the Chinese Communist Party’s description of past events.
The politics of “surveil your relatives and neighbours and report them to the Party” that damaged the bond of trust in the microsphere of social relations in China has now gained a macro dimension as the Central Internet Information Office’s illegal and undesirable information department recently opened an especial area for reporting “harmful information involving historical nihilism” on the official website, APP and other channels to especifically accept online public reports. 4
Using a politically correct rhetoric, in tune with the times, the Office hopes “that the majority of Internet users will actively play their part in supervising society, actively participate in the comprehensive management of computer networks, and enthusiastically report harmful information, so that we can all work together to maintain a healthy network ecology.” 4
By the end of 2018, Google terminated Project Dragonfly, a secret search engine tailored for the Chinese market, after public questioning. Many Google employees and activists demanded transparency about what they were working on, purposely one more tool to enable China’s cyber censorship.
Instead of shutting down internet entirely to control the flow of information, tactic used by many authoritarian governments during sensitive events and circumstances as protests, elections, public health crises and coup attempts, China has sneakily opted for enacting laws that censor freedom of expression online, criminalize digital political dissent, and treat unauthorized data disclosure as a menace to national security.
Since June 2017, China’s Cybersecurity Law requires instant messaging services and other internet operators to force users to register with their real names and personal information, which precludes the anonymity of internet users. It also requires all information that is gathered or produced in China to be stored within the country and this includes a ban on the export of any economic, technological, or scientific data that could pose a threat to national security or the public interest (with a broad interpretation of what that might be). 5
According to the new Data Security Law, which was reviewed and amended last year and comes into effect September this year, those who provide important data to overseas actors, may face fines of no less than 100,000 yuan ($15,660) but no more than one million yuan; if circumstances are more serious with core state data being mishandled or national sovereignty being endangered, a fine may be issued up to 10 million yuan and their business or business license may be suspended or revoked. 6
The legislation also demands companies to provide technical support to government agencies for investigations involving thoughtcrime, national security, and to censor contents that are “prohibited.” Acts that encourage “overthrowing the socialist system, fabricating or spreading false information to disturb economic order” and incite “separatism or damage national unity” are categorized as criminal acts under the law. 7
The three pillars of authoritarianism in China’s Cybersecurity Law:
■ Personal information and real name required from internet users – the end of anonymity.
■ What happens in China stays in China. Nothing enters or leaves the country, unless the state allows it to be shared. 8 Unauthorized data disclosure interpreted as threat to national security.
■ Censorship of online expression; network surveillance of political dissent; the incorporation of a new-old concept – cyber thoughtcrime.
“Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed — would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper — the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.”
George Orwell, 1984.
Thought control, rectification of ideological deviations and manipulation of public opinion have never been strange to China’s Communist Party rule, but after the Tiananmen Square events the Chinese government learned new methods of control and implemented them with greater cunning and subtlety, explains He Qinglian in her excellent report published as a book by Human Rights in China – The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China.
The media, that used to remain silent on taboo topics, passed to adopt an approach of telling lies intermingled with a smattering of truth, what misleads the public more effectively. The small minority of natives who persist in speaking the truth find themselves disagreeing more and more with foreigners about what is happening in China, largely because foreigners have no way of sorting out fact from falsehood.
In short, the China that outsiders see is the China the Chinese government wants the world to see, and the news they hear is what the Chinese government wants the world to hear. According to He Qinglian, it is fair to say that today’s massive flow of foreign investment into China is the Chinese propaganda machine’s greatest achievement.
The incontrovertible fact is that today’s neototalitarian rulers, much like the Maoist totalitarian regime before them, abuse their power by rewriting history in order to deprive people an accurate collective memory. In such a country, government control and manipulation of what people think not only distorts their historical memory but also renders them resistant to the values of human rights, freedom, and democracy.
He Qinglian in The Fog of Censorship : Media Control in China.
Mizaru, who sees no evil, covering its eyes
Kikazaru, who hears no evil, covering its ears, and
Iwazaru, who speaks no evil, covering its mouth.
No country has forced more artists, writers and activists into exile than China, or jailed so many in its own land. Thanks to the Great Firewall and an army of internet censors, the Chinese people remain exiled from their past.
The wounds inflicted by the massacre have grown deeper with every year. The crackdown lies at the heart of all that ails the country. Its corrosive and enduring message is: the party, national glory and GDP are more important than human life. Deng got away with the killings in 1989, and President Xi Jinping is getting away with worse political repression today. He oversees a hi-tech totalitarian economic superpower that poses a grave threat to democracies around the world. But the West is not an innocent victim of China’s rise. Within months of the Tiananmen massacre, world leaders were rushing back to Beijing to do deals, claiming that collaboration would help bring about change. It’s clear now what a catastrophic miscalculation this was, but they continue to appease China’s autocrats for their own countries’ economic gain. As the terror of Tiananmen is being re-enacted in the gulags of Tibet and Xinjiang, western leaders shake hands with President Xi and look the other way.
Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia. A single act of public remembrance might expose the frailty of the state’s carefully constructed edifice of accepted history, scaffolded in place over a generation and kept aloft by a brittle structure of strict censorship, blatant falsehood and wilful forgetting.
Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia. A single act of public remembrance might expose the frailty of the state’s carefully constructed edifice of accepted history, history,
“History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
George Orwell, 1984
1- Amnesty International’s “Preliminary Findings on Killings of Unarmed Civilians, Arbitrary Arrests and Summary Executions since 3 June 1989”
2- Lim L. A date (not) to forget: The author on why her book about Tiananmen would be well-nigh impossible to research today. Index on Censorship. 2018;47(1):8-10.
3- Ramy Inocencio- CBS NEWS- https://www.cbsnews.com/news/china-tiananmen-square-30-anniversary-prep-dissidents-silenced-chinese-government/
4- David Cowhig’s Translation Blog – https://gaodawei.wordpress.com/2021/04/10/prc-are-your-neighbors-distorting-history-or-spreading-politically-incorrect-ideas-online-report-them/
5- What China’s Cybersecurity Law Says About the Future? – https://brainlinx.com/newsfeed/What-China-Cybersecurity-Law-says-about-the-Future-EIPF-Brainlinx.php
6- Wang Qi, Cao Siqi and Xu Hailin – China introduces Data Security Law, Strong Legal Support for Development in Digital Age. https://itap.fullstacksys.com/news-and-resources/314/china-introduces-data-security-law-strong-legal-support-for-development-in-digital-age
7- Swati Khandelwal in https://thehackernews.com/2016/11/china-cybersecurity-law.html
8 – The most commonly used definition of “state” is Max Weber’s, which describes the state as a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain territory.