Beijing Launches Hotline for Reporting Online “Historical Nihilism”

The term “historical nihilism”—which has long been used to label accounts that challenge Party-approved orthodoxy—is again back in headlines and official crosshairs with the launch of a hotline allowing people to report those spreading unapproved sentiment about history. At Reuters, Cate Cadell covered the latest attempt to “rectify” the public’s perception of history:

The tip line allows people to report fellow netizens who “distort” the Party’s history, attack its leadership and policies, defame national heroes and “deny the excellence of advanced socialist culture” online, said a notice posted by an arm of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on Friday.

“Some with ulterior motives … have been spreading historical nihilistic misrepresentations online, maliciously distorting, denigrating and negating the history of the Party,” said the notice.

“We hope that the majority of Internet users will actively play their part in supervising society … and enthusiastically report harmful information,” it said.

[…] The notice did not specify what punishments would be dealt to people who are reported through the hotline, but netizens in China already face jail time and other legal punishments for posting content that is critical of the county’s leadership, policies and history. [Source]

Former United States diplomat David Cowhig translated the CAC notice at his blog. The excerpt quoted below frames historical nihilism as a life-or-death issue for the Party:

“If someone wants to destroy a nation, the first thing they do is to destroy its history.” For some time, some ulterior motives under the banner of so-called “reflecting on history” and “restoring the truth” have been spreading historical nihilistic misrepresentations online, maliciously distorting, denigrating and negating the history of the Party, the state and the military, in an attempt to confuse people. They have had a bad influence since this distorts the truth, confuses people’s minds and saps the “Four Self-Confidences“ [Self-confident in socialism with Chinese characteristics; Self-confident in ideology; Self-confident in the Chinese system; and Self-confident in Chinese culture] [Source]

At Quartz, Jane Li framed the CAC notice as another example of the Chinese government “enlisting” online nationalists to further its aims:

The CAC notice marks a fresh effort by the government to enlist the help of grassroots censors—patriotic ordinary internet users—to erase content it doesn’t favor, including about the past. A new law also implemented this year makes it a crime to defame historic heroes.

[…] Most recently patriotic internet users have helped wage a consumer boycott against foreign companies who issued public stances about Xinjiang, where China is accused of mass human rights abuses against the Uyghur ethnic minority. Still, as the news outlet Protocol this week documented in its examination of a sexist campaign to troll researcher Vicky Xu, who co-authored reports on Chinese factory use of forced Uyghur labor for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, even seemingly spontaneous waves of abuse get a nudge from state-linked online accounts. [Source]

If the definition of historical nihilism seems risibly vague, the Party doesn’t find it a laughing matter. Xi Jinping believes that historical nihilism caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it has in recent years been targeted with ferocity. Most recently, last week a teenager was arrested in Jiangsu for posting “insulting” comments online about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. In February, seven people were arrested—and one was chased in “online pursuit”—for slandering martyrs, a genre of historical nihilism.

Similar examples from the recent past abound. In 2016, maverick journal Yanhuang Chunqiu was neutered by a hostile takeover triggered by its independent scholarship on modern Chinese history. In 2017, a bookseller was sentenced to five years in prison for distributing the book “How The Red Sun Rose,” an unflinching look at the CCP’s first party-wide rectification campaign from 1942-1945.

The parameters of historical nihilism are often set by tacit or official endorsements of who to honor—and who to forget—among the dead. An anecdote relayed by the late Sinologist Simon Leys captured the malleability of the term. A museum guide harried by foreign guests’ questions pleaded with them to understand his inability to answer: “The leadership has not yet had the time to decide what history was.”

This year’s Qingming Festival, traditionally a time to pay obeisance to deceased family members and notables, served as a stark example. A number of mourners gathered at Jiang Qing’s grave in Beijing. The Party once blamed Jiang Qing, a member of the “Gang of Four,” for the devastation of the Cultural Revolution and went to great lengths—including burying her pseudonymously—to prevent Maoists from turning her grave into a shrine. In a second Beijing cemetery, a different scene played out. Reformist politician Zhao Ziyang’s grave remained blocked to the public and was monitored by newly installed security cameras. (Zhao was purged from the Party for his opposition to using the PLA to end the 1989 Beijing protests.)

The renewed focus on historical nihilism comes on the heels of a new Party history study campaign launched by Xi Jinping in preparation for the Party’s centenary later this year. At The South China Morning Post in February, Jun Mai wrote about Xi’s history class:

“[We] must guide the entire party to learn positive and negative lessons from its history, and resolutely follow the central leadership’s line,” Xi said, adding that “party unity” was the “life of the party”.

Provincial party leaders across the country would establish new agencies to enforce the campaign, Xi said.

[…] While the campaign covers the party’s history since its founding in 1921, it would focus on the “historic successes” achieved since 2012, the year Xi became the country’s leader.

[…] “It’s not about cultural education but about political and thought education,” [Cai Lesu, a retired Tsinghua University history professor] said. “The interpretation of the history will be decided by present needs.” [Source]

A host of new (and old) study and propaganda materials will accompany the study drive. China’s National Film Administration declared that movie theaters in China must screen two propaganda films per week as part of the celebrations. The first batch of films included vintage classics like “Fighting North and South” (1952) and “The Nanchang Uprising” (1981), as well as newer releases like “The Sacrifice” (2020). A volume on Party history prepared specifically for the campaign (and seemingly modeled on Stalin’s “Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks” which heavily influenced Mao) reportedly portrays the Cultural Revolution as an anti-corruption campaign for which Mao was not at fault. Staff at the China Media Project translated a batch of prolix slogans that are to accompany the campaign:

Ardently celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP!

[…] Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era is the guide of action for the whole Party and the whole nation as they strive for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!

[…] Closely uniting around the Central Party Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, seizing a new victory in the comprehensive building of a modern socialist state! [Source]

In a 2020 article, The Economist’s James Miles wrote about how the Party’s fluid historiography reflects its contemporary power balance:

It was Mao Zedong who decided that July 1st 1921 was the day of the party’s founding. The actual date, July 23rd, had been forgotten by the time he seized on its significance while the party was holed up in caves in north-western China in the late 1930s, a decade before it took control of the country. In the build-up to the anniversary, one of the world’s largest political parties has been instructing its 90m members to brush up on their knowledge of the party’s past—not necessarily that particular detail (though it acknowledges the mix-up about dates), but the broad sweep of events relating to its rise and more than seven decades in power.

[…] Amnesia also helps. Mr Xi is in no mood to revive the atmosphere of 1981 in the build-up to the party’s 60th birthday—the first big celebration of the party’s founding since the death of Mao in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s launch of reform and opening two years after. Far from avoiding the horrors of Mao’s rule, the party confronted some of them head-on.

[…] Any discussion of the horrors of that period is now all but banned. Soon after he came to power Mr Xi said that the achievements of the reform era could not be used as a way of negating what had come before. In 2021 it is unlikely that, during all the hoopla surrounding the anniversary, the party will recall Mr Hu’s warning in his speech 40 years ago that the reason the Cultural Revolution continued for so long was Mao’s arrogation of absolute power (“the destruction of collective leadership”, as Mr Hu put it). [Source]


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