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Commentary (February 1, 2006)

History Through a Political Lens

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

As Beijing upbraids Tokyo for textbooks that gloss over Japan's past military aggression against China, it has exposed its own politicisation of history. Officials last month shut down the publication Bing Dian, or Freezing Point, because of an article about events of over 100 years ago.

It is well known that mainland history textbooks play down the disasters that have resulted from Communist Party rule since 1949, such as the widespread starvation of the late 1950s associated with the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution atrocities of the 1960s and 1970s. But those were primarily domestic political events.

The article that led to Freezing Point's closure was critical of the official depiction of China's relations with the west in the late 19th century. The author, Yuan Weishi of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, took issue with a history textbook used in mainland secondary schools.

One focus of his criticism is the depiction of the Boxer Uprising of 1900 - a xenophobic campaign against westerners as well as Chinese who had converted to Christianity or were closely associated with foreigners. In one month, Professor Yuan wrote, 231 foreigners were killed, including 53 children.

As for Chinese victims, Professor Yuan wrote that "in Shanxi province alone, more than 5,700 Catholic followers were killed" and, in Liaoning province , "more than 1,000 believers [were slain]".

"The Boxers cut down telegraph lines, destroyed schools, demolished railroad tracks, burned foreign merchandise, murdered foreigners and all Chinese who had any connection with foreign culture," he wrote. The textbook, however, presents the rebellion as "a spontaneous patriotic action".

The Boxers mindlessly destroyed everything associated with foreigners, including railway tracks, but the textbook depicts such acts as having been taken to counter foreign invaders. "All the children took up knives to become heroes who defend the nation," it said.

This was not the first time the publication has been in political difficulty over history. Last June, it published an essay in which it gave credit to Kuomintang troops for joining forces with communist soldiers in the anti-Japanese effort.

As a result, the party's propaganda department said the magazine had "glorified the Kuomintang and debased the Communist Party". Standard party propaganda depicts the communists - not the Kuomintang - as having led the resistance to the Japanese.

On that issue, however, Freezing Point was vindicated because President Hu Jintao affirmed the contribution of the Kuomintang soldiers, in a speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. But that, too, had a political motivation: the Communist Party invited Kuomintang leader Lien Chan and other Taiwanese opposition figures to Beijing last year in an attempt to forge a united front against President Chen Shui-bian.

Commenting on the use of history to instil nationalistic feelings, Professor Yuan wrote: "It is obvious that we must love our country. But there are two ways to love our country." The traditional approach, he said, was to "inflame nationalistic passions" - "In the selection and presentation of historical materials, [to use only] those that favour China whether they are true or false."

He called for a more balanced approach: "The other choice is this: we analyse everything rationally. If it is right, it is right and if it is wrong, it is wrong." He favoured an objective approach to the history of China's conflicts with the outside world.

As China becomes more powerful and influential, it must at the same time become a more responsible country and abandon its custom of putting politics in command, regardless of the facts.

(Originally appeared in the February 1, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications