Along with the jaw-dropping economic and technological transformation in China over the past two decades, has come an Orwellian load of forbidden history, subjects and ideas. Aided by a Party-censored and self-censored traditional and social media these forbiddens are maintained today—as in the past—by threats and fear.
Forbidden is a passionate word compared to censored. Forbidden commands and threatens while censored seems…well, bureaucratic. Forbidden is the term the Chinese government uses to sustain ideological control.
When I began writing a book about my time in Beijing thirty-five yeas ago, friends often asked. “China is so different now, how could a book about 1980 Beijing have any relevance?” Yet daily I marvel at how the speeches and policies of President Xi Jinping reflect the tough political and ideological policies of the Deng Xiaoping era. Deng was just consolidating his power in 1980.
I was the first professional broadcast journalist hired in the forty-year history of Radio Beijing—China’s equivalent to Voice of America—invited to teach courses in Western journalism and edit scripts in the English Language Department. Despite my expertise, I couldn’t be trusted with a private conversation with my colleagues about the news, the world, or their ideas or our journalistic mission. Associating with me was forbidden. As one brave comrade told me privately, “Although the Cultural Revolution is over, if people are seen getting close to you they risk losing their housing, a pay raise, access to university or school for their kids. “During the Cultural Revolution,” she said, “People lost everything.” So while that fear of relationships with foreigners—especially foreign journalists—harked back to the Cultural Revolution it was reinforced by a threatening speech made by Deng Xiaoping in December 1980 when he warned those who didn’t resist foreign ideas or bourgeois individualism. Those who grew chummy with foreigners. After that speech icy winds blew through the hallways of Radio Beijing.
While editing scripts, I soon learned that some subjects were forbidden like Tibet and Taiwan. And periods of history were forbidden like Mao’s Great Leap Forward— that initiated forced collectivization and industrialization in the countryside from 1958-62. It resulted in widespread famine and millions of deaths. There were suggestions that the failure of that program by Mao led to his initiating the Cultural Revolution in order to regain power. But that idea, too, was forbidden.
Yang Jisheng, who wrote “Tombstone,” published in 2008, dealing with the disastrous policies of Mao during The Great Leap Forward, projected that there were 36 million deaths. Recently, the U.S. press reported that Yang was warned not to go to Harvard in March where he is to receive an award for his scholarship. Although Mr. Yang had been given permission to travel and receive awards in the past, this time he was told by his former employer, Xinhua news service, that he should not go. What was not reported is that Xinhua most likely controls his housing allocation and pension. So the warning has consequences if ignored. Mr. Yang claims that he would also be forbidden from publishing future books.
In 1980 the first stories were emerging that hinted at some of the pain and suffering endured during the Cultural Revolution. Then as now it was forbidden to implicate Mao or the Party in crimes that sometimes led to death. Today China’s most famous filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, must self-censor details of the Cultural Revolution and earlier periods of political purification campaigns especially any arguments that might pin the blame on the Great Helmsman or Party leadership for failed policies.
In 1979, a year before I arrived in Beijing, the Beijing Spring or Democracy Wall movement had just been crushed. That movement, too, is now forbidden history just as the later 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square has been erased from public consciousness.
Over the past two decades more forbiddens have been added to the list. It now includes anything having to do with the Dalai Lama, the Falun Gong, the Xingjian separatist movement, the 2008 milk scandals, on-line discussion of political reform, constitutional reform as well as universal values of human rights. Travel by foreigners to Tibet during the anniversary of the 2008 riots there is also forbidden.
The New York Times reports today (March 10, 2016) that at the National People’s Congress taking place in Beijing this week the Party released a list of forbidden topics for local press. They included Beijing’s famous smog, scalpers at hospitals selling appointments to doctors and jokes about delegates’ proposals. Not surprisingly Taiwan and North Korea were also on the list.
Chinese government efforts to forbid certain history, subjects, and ideas have led to restrictions on outside media and scholarship. And, of course, the worldwide web is perhaps the biggest forbidden of all. While China watchers speculate about President Xi Jinping’s motivations in expanding totalitarian ideological control, I recall that the seeds and fruits of all these forbiddens were evident in the China I witnessed in 1980.
This op-ed first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, March 14, 2016: