History Repeating Itself
Engagement with China was not supposed to work out this way. In a new report, Amnesty International has added its voice to the growing condemnation of China’s blanket support for unpleasant regimes like Burma, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan and Iran.
Amnesty draws particular attention to arms sales, but Beijing is using all means at its disposal—economic and diplomatic—to protect a host of governments responsible for the world’s worst violations of human rights.
While the Bush administration insists it is trying to persuade Beijing to become a responsible “stakeholder” in the world community, like previous administrations it is finding this far from easy. In theory it ought to be to China’s advantage, and everyone else’s, that rogue regimes are reined in by sanctions and diplomatic pressure rather than overthrown by costly and disruptive wars like those fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia. Now a great beneficiary of the world trading system, China depends on a stable international environment to import raw materials and export the burgeoning output of its factories
So why support the rogues? Beijing’s motivation in sheltering a string of client states is sometimes explained, or justified, by narrow self-interest. It supposedly wants to secure Sudan’s oil or capture Iran’s gas to offset energy shortfalls and find markets for exports. Yet its willingness to undermine Western sanctions against Burma, block UN resolutions against Sudan, and supply arms, is a symptom of a much deeper flaw in China’s relationship with the world.
Chinese leaders simply don’t care about genocide in Darfur, mass starvation in North Korea or Burma’s persecution of minorities and democrats. How could they? They have hardly behaved any better themselves, at home or abroad.
More than 35 years have passed since President Richard Nixon went to China, signaling a sea of change in the country’s external relations, yet although China’s economy has been transformed by the opening, the Communist Party of China (CCP) has not.
The Party has yet to confront its own horrendous past or come clean about the enormous violations of human rights it committed during the relentless climb to power that began in 1921 and throughout its absolute dictatorship since 1949.
The Party has shown no stomach for facing atrocities it committed at home, and Beijing has never had to apologize for occupying Tibet, attacking India, Burma and Vietnam, creating Pol Pot’s Cambodia, bankrolling Enver Hoxha’s Albania and fuelling devastating insurgencies across South-East Asia and Africa.
It doesn’t feel the need to because it clings to a version of history which allows the Chinese to see themselves only as victims. At the same time, Beijing stirs up outrage at Japan’s alleged unwillingness to repent for the invasion of East Asia and for using textbooks that falsify history.
The truth is that during its long Imperial past, China was a great colonial power, invading and occupying neighboring territories; it continued to do so under Chairman Mao. He sent tens of millions of people to colonize areas conquered by Qing dynasty armies and vowed to restore the empire at its greatest extent.
At home the CCP murdered and starved to death millions as it fought its way to power, killed 30 million during the Great Leap Forward famine, and destroyed the lives of countless others in brutal political campaigns like that of the Cultural Revolution.
What is most worrying is how even its victims often accept the official version of history. Western newspapers, which recently covered the 40th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, interviewed many who acknowledged their individual guilt but still believed that the terror was merely an unfortunate excess.
Mao’s Cultural Revolution was not an aberration. It was only an episode in an unrelenting campaign to erase the memory of a nation. From the 1920s onwards, Chinese Communists began destroying every artifact of the old society in order to implant an imagined history in which every aspect of China’s backwardness was the fault of foreign imperialists and capitalists. It is still the version taught in schools and universities.
This Cultural Revolution still goes on today. This is why the current leadership, many of them former Red Guards like Hu Jintao, is determined to demolish China’s historical cities, tearing down the old and paving over the past. Any totalitarian state must monopolize the past to control the future, as George Orwell so famously made clear.
In the great rush to modernize Beijing for the Olympics, it is razing the entire ancient capital. Plenty of museums are being built but these simply reinforce the Party’s distortion of Chinese history.
The Party’s own history is also so much fantasy. From recent research, like the stunning 2005 biography, Mao: the Untold Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, we now know that Mao’s principle aim was securing his own power and, as a result, he never really fought the Japanese and indeed collaborated with them to undermine the Nationalists. In her new book about the Long March, author Sun Shuyan shows that much of accepted history was invented, such as the most famous heroic episode, the 1935 battle to cross the Luding Bridge by 22 Red Army soldiers facing an overwhelming force of Nationalist soldiers. There never was such a battle. A recent book edited by historian Yu Xiguang, Great Leap Forward, Bitter Days, includes the first official evidence of cannibalism during that awful period, with a photograph of a man condemned for eating his own child.
The more we find out about China’s past, the worse it seems. Ten years ago, I wrote about the Xinyang “incident,” which took place in one corner of Henan province during the Great Leap Forward famine (1958-62). My sources claimed that over one million died from man-made starvation in a district with a population of eight to ten million.
New research drawing on CPP archives reveal that in fact 2.4 million people perished, and perhaps a million more were beaten to death at the hands of local Party officials.
This is the real reason that Mao launched the Cultural Revolution: to bury the memory of his misdeeds and destroy colleagues who knew the truth.
The Party is still working hard at censoring everything published in the country. For example, earlier this year the Party fired the editors of the newspaper supplement Freezing Point which began running articles questioning official accounts of events like the Boxer rebellion. The government is also increasingly successful at persuading foreign publishers and media groups like Google to collaborate in its efforts in return for access to the massive China market.
This is why people in China understand so little about their own past and care even less about what their government might be doing to perpetuate misery in far off places like Sudan. Until there is a real glasnost in China, we cannot expect to see China acting responsibly abroad.
Jasper Becker is the author of The Chinese and Hungry Ghosts. His most recent book is Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Continuing Threat of North Korea.