Ian Johnson - China’s Brave Underground Journal - Remembrance

Remembrance (The PRC History Group)
Besides Remembrance, China has roughly half a dozen other samizdat publications that explore the past through accounts of personal experience, including Scars of the Past(Wangshi Weihen), Annals of the Red Crag (Hongyan Chunqiu), and Yesterday(Zuotian). In addition, there are a growing number of underground documentary films, including some that send students to collect oral histories in villages that suffered during the Great Leap Famine or the Cultural Revolution.
China’s Brave Underground Journal - 1
On the last stretch of flatlands north of Beijing, just before the Mongolian foothills, lies the satellite city of Tiantongyuan. Built during the euphoric run-up to the 2008 Olympics, it was designed as a modern, Hong Kong–style housing district of over 400,000 people, with plentiful shopping and a subway line into Beijing. But it was a rushed job, and planners neglected to put in parks, open spaces, or anything for the public other than roads, which were quickly choked with cars. Construction was pell-mell, and the area has aged quickly, its towers crumbling and cracking.
This rootless suburb is home to Remembrance, an underground journal that deals with one of China’s most sensitive issues: its history. E-mailed to subscribers as a seventy- to ninety-page PDF every other week, Remembrance’s articles and first-person accounts are helping to recover memories that the Communist Party would prefer remained lost. Remembrance has no listed address, let alone bustling editorial offices. But if it has a home, it is here, in one of Tiantongyuan’s concrete apartments, a dark, ground-floor unit lined with bookcases and stacked with boxes of banned books—a fittingly anonymous home for a publication that officially doesn’t exist.
Remembrance is part of the rise of unofficial memory in China, a trend that resembles the appearance in the Soviet Union during the 1980s of groups like Memorial, a historical research society that helped undermine the regime by uncovering its troubled past. Today’s China is more robust than the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union, but memory is still escaping the censor’s grasp, posing challenges to a regime for which history represents legitimacy. The government still controls official history through textbooks, museums, movies, and the media. But memory is more private, and setting it down on paper can be presented as a personal enterprise, even when the outcome is highly political.
Besides Remembrance, China has roughly half a dozen other samizdat publications that explore the past through accounts of personal experience, including Scars of the Past(Wangshi Weihen), Annals of the Red Crag (Hongyan Chunqiu), and Yesterday(Zuotian). In addition, there are a growing number of underground documentary films, including some that send students to collect oral histories in villages that suffered during the Great Leap Famine or the Cultural Revolution.
One Saturday this spring, several of Remembrance’s regular writers stopped by the Tiantongyuan apartment for a pot of Pu’er tea and a chat with the journal’s cofounder, the retired film historian Wu Di. As they arrived, Wu leaned back in his chair and gave a running commentary on each. Among them were a computer data specialist at a technical university (“the greatest specialist on Lin Biao!”), an editor of the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily (“obviously he has to keep a low profile”), and a befuddled professor who had to call Wu three times to get directions (“what an egghead—he knows everything about violence in the Cultural Revolution but doesn’t know how to hail a gypsy cab”).
Wu is a trim sixty-three-year-old who favors denim shirts, leather jackets, and black baseball caps. He is also a cautious man, who positions himself as a just-the-facts recorder of history. “I simply write true things,” he told me, as the visitors pulled up chairs to a big wooden table, pouring themselves tea and cracking sunflower seeds. “No one says you can’t sit in your own home and do a little research in history.”
The group began discussing its controversial effort to encourage people to apologize for violence they committed during the Cultural Revolution. Some thought thatRemembrance had done a good job by publishing articles and even organizing a conference, but others said they understood its critics, who claimed that the publication had taken sides in one particular case of a group of girls who had beaten to death a high school vice-principal in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution. That topic would return again and again during the course of the day—a sensitive issue that has divided intellectuals inside China and abroad. But first the group discussed potential contributors.
“One guy in our work unit, we see him in the yard walking alone each night. He published a book on June 4 [the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre] in Hong Kong called The True Story of June 4. After that no one dared to talk to him.” Wu smoothed over the awkward moment by announcing that he’d arranged lunch at an odd little restaurant that aims to promote traditional Chinese values. Before we left, he pulled me aside: “You might be interested in politics, but I’m not. I am just a historian.” And yet the distinction is fluid. Remembrance used to focus on the Cultural Revolution but over the past few years has broadened its concerns. As one contributor asked me: “When does history end?” 
It’s hard to overstate how politicized history has become in China, where politics and tradition give it a mythic, taboo quality. Communism itself is based on historical determinism: one of Marx’s points was that the world was moving inexorably toward communism, an argument that regime-builders like Lenin and Mao used to justify their violent rise to power. In China, each succeeding dynasty wrote its predecessor’s history, and the dominant political ideology, Confucianism, is based on the concept that ideals for ruling are to be found in the past, with the virtuous ruler emulating them. Performance matters in judging governments, but mainly as an expression of history’s verdict.
Shortly after taking power in 2012, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping reemphasized history’s importance in a major speech. Xi is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a top Communist who helped found the regime but fell out with Mao and suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Some thought this family trauma might lead the younger Xi to take a more critical view of the Mao era, but Xi has presented himself as heir to the founding generation, including Mao. In his speech, he said that the last thirty years of reform should not be used to “negate” the first thirty years of Communist rule—in other words, you can’t support China’s current policy of opening to the outside world and economic development but also criticize the Mao era. Both, he said, are one and the same, two sides of a coin.
The unstated reason is that Mao isn’t just China’s Stalin—someone whom the Soviet Union could discard because it still had Lenin as a less tarnished founding father. For the Communist Party of China, Mao is Stalin and Lenin combined; attack Mao and his era and you attack the foundations of the Communist state. Five years after the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, the Party issued a statement that condemned that era and Mao’s part in it, but also ended further discussion of Mao by declaring that “his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary.”
For decades, many independent Chinese historians have tried to dig deeper, usually by publishing their memoirs and internal documents abroad. .. Read more:
China’s Brave Underground Journal - 2
In downtown Beijing, just a little over a mile west of the Forbidden City, is one of country’s most illustrious high schools. Its graduates regularly attend China’s best universities or go abroad to study, while foreign leaders and CEOs make pilgrimages to catch a glimpse of the country’s future elite.
Founded in 1917, it has been lavishly rebuilt over the past few years, with a sleek new gym, dining hall, and classrooms—a monument to a rising country. But to many Chinese people of a certain age, the Experimental High School Attached to Beijing Normal University conjures up another image—that of a group of fanatical girls torturing their vice-principal to death.
For years, the event has been of interest to foreign scholars of the Cultural Revolution; it is a Lord of the Flies story that has attracted academics investigating female violence, filmmakers trying to document the mindset of violent Red Guards, and researchers trying to piece together how many people were killed, by whom, and how. In China, the story is more veiled. In official accounts it is usually mentioned as an example of the chaos that the country should avoid, and it is heavily censored to conceal the fact that many of the young women were children of the Communist elite, and today are prominent members of society.
But this is changing, part of a broader movement intended to shift discussion of sensitive questions from the private into the public sphere. Led by samizdat publications like the online journal Remembrance,* accounts of violence—including the vice-principal’s killing—are being published and passionately debated. More remarkably, people are even apologizing publicly for their actions, setting off long-overdue discussions about how China should deal with its violent past, especially when many of the victims are dead. Is it best to forget, which the country has largely done, or is there merit in digging up the past? And is it possible to have a cathartic confrontation with the past in a country with no real public sphere?
Over the past year, the apologies for wrongdoing have come in rapid succession. One man in Jiangsu wrote in a magazine about how he had informed on his mother, leading to her execution. In Beijing, an editor wrote an account of how he’d beaten a peasant who he thought hadn’t shown enough enthusiasm for Mao’s ideas. And in Shandong, a man took out a small advertisement in a magazine, saying that he had beaten and spat on teachers but now, approaching old age, “I cannot forget what I have done wrong.”
The most widely reported was last year’s apology by Chen Xiaolu, the son of a famous general. Chen said that he had led a Red Guard–style police unit but failed to protect teachers at his school from being humiliated and beaten savagely by students. Chen was widely praised for his apology, but after about a month censors closed down discussion—taking the relevant blog pages off line—because the issue was too sensitive. In an interview, Chen said one motivation for speaking out is his fear that many behavioral patterns haven’t changed in China. “In 2011, people were beaten during the anti-Japanese protests,” he told me. “People still have that violence, that anger.”.. 
None of the apologies has touched a deeper nerve than one made earlier this year by a reluctant sixty-five-year-old woman—one of the girls who had stood by as her vice-principal was sadistically tortured to death. Song Binbin had been one of the school’s student leaders as the Cultural Revolution unfolded starting in May 1966. The daughter of a famous general, Song Renqiong, she participated in writing vitriolic “big character posters” denouncing the teachers and administrators of what was then an all-girls school. Taking their lead from China’s god-like leader, Mao Zedong, she and other classmates concentrated their attacks on authority figures, who Mao said had betrayed the Party.
In the girls’ school, this meant that the top suspect was the school’s vice-principal and Party secretary, Bian Zhongyun. A fifty-year-old mother of four, Bian was a staunch Communist who had joined the Party in 1941 and worked in a guerrilla base before the Communist takeover in 1949. She was seen as formidable, in charge of discipline.
At the start of the summer, Bian had been beaten by some young people but the violence had eased. Mao had left Beijing, and moderates had tried to get a grip on the situation by sending “work groups” to factories and schools to restore calm. But when Mao returned in July, he recalled the work groups, and urged students to resume their attacks on authority. Bian was beaten badly on August 4. That evening she told her husband that the girls would kill her. He urged her to somehow escape, but she was proud and certain she was a good Communist. The next day when she left for the school, she formally shook her husband’s hand, as if to say farewell.
Bian was tortured all day. In Though I Am Gone (2006), a moving and detailed documentary on the killing by the director Hu Jie, witnesses say the girls wrote slogans over her clothes, shaved her head, jabbed her scalp with scissors, poured ink on her head, and beat her until her eyes rolled into her head. When she started foaming at the mouth, they laughed and ordered her to perform manual labor by scrubbing the toilets. She collapsed and died there, her clothes soaked in blood and feces. Hours later, some students carted her away in a wheelbarrow. When students mentioned Bian’s death to Party officials, they brushed it off as not inconsistent with Mao’s orders.
Song’s direct role in Bian’s killing is unclear. She has never been credibly linked to the beating, but as one of the student leaders, many assumed she must have at least known about it. Still, all accounts show that it had been an anarchic and confusing day, and she might not have done any worse than the scores of other girls who were in the school at the time but did nothing to stop the violence. What makes her case special is what happened in the next few weeks, and how she dealt with it in the following decades...
The Crises of Party Culture: by Yang Guang
The crises of Party culture become clear with a single glance. The CPC is called the ruling party, yet it operates according to secret party rules: this is an identity crisis. Its formal ceremonies and slogans are like those of an extremist church, and it has long lost its utopian doctrine that stirred the passion of the people: this is an ideological crisis. It tells beautiful lies while accepting bribes & keeping mistresses: this is a moral crisis. The totalitarian system is in the process of collapsing, yet political reform is not in the foreseeable future: this is a political crisis. It has corrupted traditional values & also rejected universal values, rendering Party members & government officials at a spiritual loss: this is a crisis of values.

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