CDT Censorship Digest, June 2020: A Power Struggle Over Memory

In 2020, CDT Chinese editors launched the CDT Censorship Digest series. The series will collect and quote from news and online speech that was censored by Chinese authorities during the previous month, as well as summarize efforts to preserve and strengthen freedom of speech in Chinese society. When relevant to CDT English readers, we will translate the Chinese series in part or in full. CDT has translated an excerpt from the full CDT Chinese digest for June, adapted to include links to English coverage when available:

CDT Chinese | Chinese Censorship Digest, June 2020: A Power Struggle Over Memory

In China, June is the season for an annual power struggle over memory: from the Tiananmen Democracy Movement of 31 years ago, to last year’s anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong, to the coronavirus outbreak of early this year—those in power are quick to forge a template for a collective memory, and to brand this the “correct collective memory” and force it on the populace. In “1984,” George Orwell explained, “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

So then, how do we get rid of a “correct collective memory”? The only way to challenge the official memory is by preserving the humble memories of the individual. Commemorating June 4, cheering on the Tiananmen Mothers, grieving Marco Leung (the first Hong Kong protester to die last June in anti-extradition rallies), recording “incorrect” memories during the epidemic by writing down ordinary people’s stories and leaving that truth on Weibo—by doing all of these things, Chinese people are contesting the official “correct collective memory.”

Disappearing Truth and the Actual Facts

The way Havel saw it, if society were based on lives filled with lies, then “living a life in truth” would become the most fundamental threat, and therefore would be the worst crime in that society. This is precisely why those who dare speak are always punished.

Volunteers for archiving project Terminus-2049 Cai Wei, Chen Mei, and Xiao Tang were detained in Beijing in April, and held under “residential surveillance in a designated location” on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Xiao Tang was released after 25 days of detention. Cai and Chen were detained for 55 days, then on June 12 their families were informed they’d been arrested and were now detained in the Chaoyang District Detention Center. The crowd-sourced Terminus-2049 project has been archiving news that’s been deleted by authorities since 2018. The site had backed up articles deleted from WeChat and Weibo, and recently archived a large collection of pandemic related articles.

Rights activist and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan went missing in May after spending the previous month reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. On June 19, her family members were notified of her official arrest on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Imprisoned over four years ago in the widespread “Black Friday” or “709” crackdown, rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was released from prison in April and moved to guarded isolation. Twenty-three days later, he was finally reunited with his family. After his release, he twice spoke with Deutsche Welle, describing the injustices of his case and the torture he suffered in detention.

On June 20, Hubei University’s CCP committee announced that professor Liang Yanping was expelled from the Party and banned from teaching. The university began investigating her in April after she praised Wuhan diary author Fang Fang on WeChat amid a surge of nationalistic outrage. Following this news, Fang Fang immediately issued her support of Professor Liang. Liang became the 16th professor dealt with for “incorrect speech” in the last three and a half years.

And this totalitarian control of speech is directed not only at those with the courage to speak out, but at all of the people.

The pandemic-related health QR code that emerged in Hangzhou, Suzhou, and other places has gone universal. In the name of “normalizing epidemic prevention and control” and unfurled under the banner of convenience, a so-called “upgrade” to the code was carried out, and government data collection and utilization was expanded. In the article “I Can’t Use a Smartphone, Are You Prepared to Let Me Die?” the author explains how much of an inconvenience universal smartphone reliance can be for some people.

On WeChat, @夙说天下 pointed out:

The emergence of the health QR allowed the government the convenience of central management. Three colors, red, yellow, and green, imposed across the board, avoiding a lot of trouble, and also providing the government with more data. And now that the normalization of the codes has been proposed, it surely won’t stop there. [Chinese]

Individual Recollections Outside the “Correct Collective Memory”

On June 8, foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying was questioned in her regular press briefing about a recent State Council Information Office white paper that provided a glowing account of Beijing’s coronavirus response that also defends against criticism of its opacity and misinformation about the virus. Hua said: “China issued the white paper not to defend itself, but to keep a record. The history of the combat against the pandemic should not be tainted by lies and misleading information; it should be recorded with the correct collective memory of all mankind.” The official MOFA Weibo account also spread this message, which many netizens called into question, recalling Beijing’s track record of lies and misinformation, some of which Hua’s department spreads to the world.

In the article “Is There a Correct ‘Collective Memory’?” an anonymous writer looked at the relationship between power and memory:

It isn’t hard to see that power is an essential core question. Here, power is closer to Foucault’s concept of power. The influence of power is ever present and pervasive in the production, storage, and dissemination of memory. Memory connects the past with the present, which relates to our emotions and identities. Foucault said that he didn’t study power, but he studied how power shapes autonomy. By putting his research in the domain of memory he is looking at how power affects our memory, and shapes our perception of self through memory. In this sense, so-called “correct collective memory” may be the means by which state power disciplines its subjects’ individuality. [Chinese]

The essay “From Miao Kexin to Li Wenliang: Memory isn’t Correct or Wrong, Only True or False” points out that the wording in “correct collective memory” and “positive energy” are two paths to the same destination of controlling minds:

The definition of “positive” or “negative energy” is very dialectical in nature. On one hand, so-called positivity and negativity depends only on what some people want or don’t want to see. However, regardless of these preferences, social reality has always existed, just as how in physics energy can’t be created from thin air or destroyed.

So-called “correct” or “wrong collective memory” is also like this. Anthropologists and sociologists admit that collective memories can be constructed and shaped. However, it can’t be constructed and shaped arbitrarily and indefinitely, as the corresponding social and historical facts are real. So, stipulating what type of collective memory is correct or what type is wrong, and directly eradicating or destroying the “wrong” collective memory is a ridiculous act of deception. [Chinese]

Early in June, Xi’s “positive energy” propaganda campaign became the subject of debate after a fifth-grade school girl committed suicide after leaving a class. Her teacher, known to be abusive, had reportedly criticized her work for “lacking ‘positive energy’,” leading netizens to debate the ethics of pushing political ideology on schoolchildren.

In “How Power Castrates Our Historical Memory,” sociology professor Guo Yuhua states “we are forgetting because some won’t let us remember”:

Only when civilization has been implemented into everyone’s normal life can the seemingly humble trivial experiences of ordinary people become extraordinary memories, and then naturally become part of the grand narrative.  [Chinese]

So, even though the commemoration of June 4 is personal, it is also extraordinary. Take for example Chen Siming and Zhang Wuzhou, who were detained for commemorating June 4, or the brave Tiananmen Mothers, who were this year given the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage award. Hong Kong’s insistence on commemorating the 31st anniversary of June 4, for example, or the over 10,000 people who commemorated Marco Leung, the first protester to die in 2019, a year after his death. As Professor Perry Link said on the 31st anniversary of June 4:

We remember June 4 because it was a historic turning point for one-fifth of the world. A turning point in a frightening direction. We hope it won’t be so much of a turning point as to throw the whole world into a ditch. But we don’t know. We’ll have to see.

We remember June 4 because, if we didn’t remember it, it could not be in our heads any other way. Could we possibly have imagined it? No.

We remember June 4 because there are people who dearly want us to remember. It comforts them to know that we remember.

We remember June 4 because there are also people who desperately want us not to remember. They want us to forget because forgetting helps to preserve their political power. How foul! We would oppose that power even if remembering massacres were the only way to do it.

We remember June 4 in order to remind ourselves of the way the Chinese government lies to itself and to others. It says the Chinese people have long since made their “correct judgment on the 1989 counterrevolutionary riot at Tiananmen Square.” But each year, on June 4, plainclothes police block people from entering the Square. Why? If the Chinese people all believe what the government says they believe, then why not let the people into the square to denounce the counterrevolutionaries? The presence of the police shows that the regime does not believe its own lies. […]  [Source]

On June 4, as the world’s eyes turned to Beijing 31 years after a massacre occurred there, news from a villa on the Spanish seaside shocked Chinese people across the globe. Former Chinese football star Hao Haidong and his new wife, former badminton champion Ye Zhaoying, solemnly publicly denounced the CCP, and announced support of the establishment of a “New Chinese Federation.” The former footballer told Apple Daily on June 20:

The way the Party dealt with June 4 and kept quiet about all the dead during the Cultural Revolution, and now you can’t bring it up. Forty years since Reform and Opening yet still people must set up stalls on the street. Is this proper? In the sports world, in order to bring home prizes, athletes’ ages are lied about. I can’t bear to see any of these things, and this is why I am breaking my relationship with the Communist Party!  [Chinese]

Hao’s statements were immediately ordered “subversive” and censored by national authorities.


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