History Is a Weapon in China
For China’s autocrats, history is a weapon. This past weekend, for example, a Chinese general told Southeast Asian nations that their territorial claims in the South China Sea were irrelevant because “China has had indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea for around 2,000 years,” reported the state-owned CCTV network. Don’t like it? Then learn to “respect history” as China’s Defense Ministertold his Vietnamese counterpart in late May, after Vietnamese protesters turned violent in response to Chinese incursions into what Vietnam considers its territory. In this context, history is the rhetorical equivalent of a dismissive wave of a hand that brings an end to a pointless conversation.
In China’s ongoing dispute with Japan over territory and the right to be respected as Asia’s dominant power, history is used more as a cudgel. Japanese leaders themselves have handed Beijing the weapon, with their highly provocative visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead (including 14 Class-A war criminals), as well as their determined efforts to finesse Japan's wartime conduct in school textbooks. For Chinese officials, these acts are affronts, as well as opportunities to lower Japan’s standing in the international community...
...This year marks the 25th anniversary of the massacre, and -- in perverse commemoration -- the Chinese leadership has been hell-bent on rounding up anyone who might want to discuss the history of what happened, and why. History, which defines so much else in modern China, is absent for these few days both online and in the real world. Those same authorities who accuse other countries of not respecting history spend considerable energy not respecting or reflecting upon their own.
Hypocrisy is the least of the problems associated with this selective use of history. As Louisa Lim, a former China correspondent for National Public Radio, puts it in her recently published book "The People’s Republic of Amnesia," the real problem is what happens when a poorly kept secret isn’t one anymore:
Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia. A single act of remembrance might expose the frailty of the state’s carefully constructed edifice of accepted history, scaffolded into place over a generation and kept aloft by a brittle structure of strict censorship, blatant falsehood and willful forgetting.