History ≠ memory
China is a nation with a long history but it is also a nation with no memory. At least not in the way we tend to define memory, a device for recording and passing down across generations an accurate representation of how past events unfolded.
In modern day China, whole chapters may be deleted or inserted into the book of history in order to fit the Communist Party’s desired narrative, namely that China has long been victimized by cruel Western powers and the Party is the only entity capable of protecting China’s interests.
Living in China for three and a half years, I had the opportunity to understand how people view hot-button issues like the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, America’s conflict with Huawei, the protests in Hong Kong, and most recently the coronavirus outbreak. Behind each issue, there is an active attempt to rewrite the history of how events unfolded.
In this piece, I explore how the narrative around the coronavirus was re-written in real time to strengthen the Party’s rule.
Background on collective memory loss in China
Chinese people are proud of their history, and rightly so. Many of today’s traditions hearken back to people or events from thousands of years ago — for example, the annual Dragon Boat Festival is thought to celebrate Qu Yuan, a statesman-poet who died in 278 BC. However, there exists a certain irony in China’s affinity for history in that even the most basic facts are often remembered incorrectly. In every business dinner, your conversation partner will almost invariably find an opportunity to interject with something about “5000 years of Chinese history!” (in reality it is closer to 4000 years).
History is, as they say, written by the victors. China has passed through myriad dynasties, each of which rewrites the history of times prior. The current dynasty, the Community Party of China (CPC), is no exception. The CPC has engaged in revisions of the 100 years prior to its ascent in 1949 with a seemingly unending supply of whiteout.
Take, for example, the 1900 occupation of China by the Eight-Nation Alliance, comprising the United States, Japan, the British Empire, Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, France, and Germany. The pain of this occupation, a particularly prominent trauma in China’s “Century of Humiliation,” is seared into the mind of almost every Chinese person I know. What is left out of classroom lectures is that the occupying armies invaded in response to the hyper-nationalistic Boxer Rebellion which began murdering Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians in 1899. It was a heavy-handed and violent effort to purge China of foreign influence. America’s participation in the incursion is used as evidence that the US has always been bent on stemming China’s rise. If you were to speak with a typical college-educated Chinese person about their understanding of the Eight-Nation Alliance, you would think America was the prime aggressor. In reality, the US only contributed 3,000 of the 50,000 troops and returned most of the war reparations that China was forced to pay after signing the Boxer Protocol.
Post-publication note: the purpose of the above example was not by any means to excuse the participating countries for their colonization of China during 1800’s, under which large swaths of China’s territory were carved up and controlled by Western powers. Nor is it to excuse the pillaging that followed the defeat of the Boxers. Rather, I wanted to relay my experience of talking to people about this topic, who had generally not discussed the violent, anti-foreign, and anti-Christian nature of the Boxer uprising in their classrooms. Nor did they discuss the fact that some 30,000 Chinese Christians were killed by the Boxers during the uprising. In other words, the nuance that typically surrounds historical events was not part of the standard curriculum. People didn’t willfully forget that these things happened — rather, they just didn’t learn about them in the first place, through no choice of their own.
Take, for another example, the Korean war, which started when the North Korean People’s Army invaded the Republic of Korea (South Korea) on June 25th, 1950. Until 2010, China’s official position asserted that American aggression caused the war. In reality, America acted in response to the invasion of South Korea by its Soviet- and Chinese-backed neighbor to the north.
In the Chinese version of World War II, Japan was defeated solely at the hands of the Communist Party. This revisionist history completely ignores the role of the US-backed KMT, which, after sustaining heavy casualties fighting the Imperial Japanese Army, was driven out of Mainland China by the CPC. It also ignores the two atomic bombs which led to Japan’s ultimate surrender. In my time in China, I only met two people who knew of the Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots who volunteered to help China fight Japan in 1941 to 1942. These events have been removed from the official history because they don’t further the narrative that 1) Western powers have always been out to get China and 2) the CPC is the sole guardian of the Chinese people.
As a result of their education, most people view the 1949 annexation of Xinjiang, which was previously operating essentially as an independent country, as an act of liberation from greedy landlords. Very few Han Chinese know that this “liberation” involved forcing Uighur Muslims to renounce their religion, raise pigs, and eat pork. In my time in China, I only met one person who knew this. To my surprise, he interpreted these events as evidence of the CPC’s generosity towards the Uighurs: “We were teaching an uncivilized group of people how to raise a valuable animal they could sell and earn money. What's wrong with that?”
Memory loss in recent history
Events from the present day are also rewritten to further the narrative that China is a victim of Western injustice.
America’s aggressive stance against Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, which on the one hand claims to be entirely independent from the Chinese government but on the other hand confidently says that Beijing will retaliate on its behalf in the face of continued American pressure, is taken by Chinese citizens as evidence that America is cruelly bent on stemming China’s rise. However, well-documented cases of Huawei’s IP theft go unreported in China. When Huawei’s former CFO, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in late 2018, her complicity in helping Huawei skirt American sanctions on Iran were not discussed in Chinese media. She was simply a victim of America’s politically-driven war against Huawei.
The Western world’s outcry against atrocities committed in Xinjiang are seen as America using human rights as a “political tool to smear China’s image.” The more nationalistic voices in China claim that the unrest in Hong Kong, which in reality are a result of an ill-conceived extradition bill introduced in 2019, are due to US meddling.
As a result of the constant propaganda barrage, most people seem to retain only those memories which further a narrative that Western powers act, and always have acted, primarily to prevent China’s rise. Events that fail to drive this narrative are reinterpreted or expunged from both history books and present-day reporting, and thereby from dinner table conversation or classroom debate. Thus, the memories of these events never take shape in China’s national conscience.
A timeline of memory loss during the Covid-19 epidemic
I saw this “expunging of memory” happening as I watched the coronavirus disaster unfold. On December 30th, a doctor named Li Wenliang warned his colleagues that SARS had returned and was making its way through his hospital. He was subsequently brought in for questioning by local police and forced to sign a letter acknowledging that he was wrong to spread rumors (after all, the disease turned out to be something other than SARS). The virus spread unchecked for weeks until hospitals began filling up and the situation became untenable. On January 23rd, the Wuhan government announced it was shutting the city down.
For a short time between late January and mid February, the consensus within China seemed to be that the virus started in Wuhan and expanded from there. However, at some point the CPC realized that their association with a virus that had tanked the Chinese economy and taken at least 3,000 lives (though likely many more) would strike a critical blow to their legitimacy.
And so they began rewriting history:
- On February 6th, citizen journalist Chen Qiushi disappeared after posting videos to YouTube that both criticized the CPC and showed how dire the situation was in Wuhan. The CPC could not allow people like Chen to give an unfiltered view of what was happening in Wuhan if they were to successfully control public perceptions of the outbreak.
- On the same day, Li Wenliang succumbed to the virus he tried to warn people about. His time of death was altered from approximately 10:00 PM on February 6th to 2:58 AM on February 7th. My friends speculated this alteration was made for two reasons. First, it allowed the government to say that they spent five hours making every effort resuscitate him. Second, by waiting until most people were asleep to declare Li dead, they reduced the chance of people taking to the streets in anger. People were furious about his death.
- On February 8th, a picture of a young woman in Shanghai holding a sign demanding freedom of speech circulated on social media. At this point, I had been in China for three years and had not once seen or heard a single person publicly make this demand. Within days, this image disappeared from the Chinese internet.
- A February 21st report from Japan’s Asahi News stating that some of America’s 14,000 flu deaths may have actually been Covid-19 was used within China to cast suspicion on America as a potential source of the virus.
- On February 22nd, a Chinese Academy of Sciences research institute in Yunnan said that the virus didn’t originate at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. Although this conclusion may be true, it was used to push a narrative that the virus didn’t originate in China altogether.
- On February 27th, infectious disease expert Dr. Zhong Nanshan went on TV to tell the country that the virus may not have originated in China. Dr. Zhong is well respected and trusted because of the role he played in the 2003 SARS outbreak.
- On February 28th, a false translation of a CNN news clip was shared ad-nauseam on social media. The translation indicated that the American CDC admitted the virus originated in the US. Because there are hundreds of millions of people in China who do not speak English well, these types of false translations are surprisingly effective.
- On February 29th, Dr. Zhang Wenhong stated during an interview that the virus most likely originated in Wuhan. After this, he all but disappeared from his increasingly regular television appearances. Dr. Zhang was a rising star in the early days of the outbreak, respected for his no-nonsense attitude. He won people’s hearts by publicly demanding that members of the CPC deploy to the front lines to relieve overworked nurses and doctors.
- On March 1st, the CPC enacted a new internet security law giving them broader authority to silence discussion about the virus on social media platforms. Under the new rules, only people that had the government’s blessing were allowed to discuss the virus on certain social media platforms.
- Next, while any expression of doubt over the official narrative was muted, they allowed and encouraged conspiracy theories to flourish.
- On March 3rd, I tried to publish a video on Bilibili discussing America’s response to the virus. I was at first told that the content of the video was too negative and therefore could not be published. I revised the video, giving it a more positive spin. After the video was rejected a second time, I called the censorship department and was told that they are no longer allowing people to discuss the coronavirus outbreak. This is not to say that all coronavirus content disappeared from Bilibili; rather, only approved voices got to post such content.
- On March 11th, Chinese officials and diplomats began pushing a conspiracy on Twitter that the US military brought the coronavirus to Wuhan (despite the fact that another branch of the Chinese government had already debunked this conspiracy theory). Because Twitter is banned in China, only bits and pieces trickle back behind the Great Firewall. Chinese netizens are forced to draw conclusions based on both false and spotty information. Generally speaking, they tend to side with their government’s version of the narrative.
- On March 16th, a petition was started on Whitehouse.gov that condemns the term “Chinese virus” and says it is unacceptable to blame China “especially under the circumstances where the origin of COVID-19 is not scientifically definite yet.” While I agree that it is wrong to blame China and Chinese people for the virus, it is necessary to hold the CPC responsible for allowing it to spread unchecked from December 30th, 2019 until January 23rd, 2020. If the CPC had acted earlier, the global spread of Covid would have been dramatically reduced.
- On March 20th, China Central TV (CCTV), the most influential broadcaster in the nation, interviewed an expert about America’s progress fighting the virus. The expert stated that America’s speed in developing a vaccine was an obvious indicator that American scientists had the genetic sequence of the virus in their hands well before the Wuhan outbreak. In other words, the virus is likely a US bioweapon that was used to attack China.
- On March 21st, Global Times and others begin to point to the possibility of cases existing in Italy in November. This tactic of muddying the waters about the origin of the virus gives consumers of Chinese news the impression that it is simply impossible to know where it originated.
- On March 22nd, the Chinese Ambassador to the US disowned the conspiracy theory propagated on March 11th. However, he continued to paint the question of where Covid-19 started as something unknowable, stating it is “very harmful” for journalists and diplomats to speculate about its origins. At this point in time, there were no serious scientists outside of China who thought the virus originated anywhere but China (and so it remains today, in mid-July, at the time of publishing).
- Around March 28th, CCTV misquoted Western researchers and broadcasted false translations claiming that the virus did not start in Wuhan.
The propaganda initiatives detailed above do not represent an exhaustive list. Nonetheless, taken together they illustrate what the CPC’s propaganda department does to manufacture desirable memories and delete undesirable ones.
The post-amnesia world
Unsurprisingly, throughout this propaganda blitz, the government made use of the age-old narrative: China is a victim, the virus was brought here by the US or by Italy. By early April, after six weeks of aggressive propaganda, my impression from talking with friends and neighbors in Shanghai was that most people believed the virus originated in America. I lost a friend after getting in an argument about where Covid-19 started.
The social media posts calling for freedom of speech that characterized the early part of February had all but stopped. Articles written about Li Wenliang were censored. It was as if people had completely forgotten about the fear and anger they felt in the early days of the outbreak.
Of course, in addition to placing selected content in front of you in order to reinforce a narrative, the censors remove undesirable content as well. This happens in the physical world, too.
A neighbor of mine in Shanghai had a Li Wenliang portrait hanging on the tree in his yard. Within days, the portrait had been removed.
In China, how and when you grieve about Li Wenliang’s death is a political matter, not a personal one, and thus your expression of grief is subject to government control.
Another piece of protest art similarly disappeared from my neighborhood.
Similar to America, social media in China plays an important role in shaping narratives. The difference is that in the US, government officials cannot control what you see or what is off limits.
Many people have become distrustful of state media outlets like People’s Daily and CCTV. They often turn to Weibo (think Twitter) and WeChat Public Accounts (think Medium or Substack) for news and analysis of current events. The friend I mentioned getting in an argument with above had read posts on WeChat suggesting that because the Wuhan Institute of Virology was partially funded by the NIH, America must have known about the virus and played a role in leaking it from the lab.
I know this is anecdotal and does not prove anything. Nonetheless, my intuition is that when people are starved for credible information from their country’s journalistic institutions, they will have a lower threshold for believing conspiracy-esque news delivered through other channels. As discussed above, these channels can also be manipulated by government officials. No matter which sources you get your news from, state media, independent media, or social media, the state is the ultimate arbiter of what content you see.
Memory loss of things yet to happen
There is only one true history of what happened between late December 2019, when Li Wenliang warned his colleagues about the virus, and today. But, as discussed above, the things which evoke memories of this history have been systematically altered or dismantled. In five, ten, or fifteen years from now, what will school kids learn about the origin of the virus? I would posit that they will not learn a story about how wild animal trade and poor sanitation caused the outbreak (similar to what happened in with SARS in 2003).
To give a contrasting example, in Korea, where 250 students needlessly died when the Sewol ferry sank in 2014, five years after the incident the Seoul city government opened a new memorial to the deceased. The aim? To preserve memories. To ensure that past failures are not forgotten and thus not repeated.
When you are as far down the rabbit hole with a lie as the CPC is on Covid-19’s origin, there is no hope of backtracking towards truth. Doing so would cause too much doubt and scrutiny by the people they set out to deceive. “If that was all fake, what else is?” This is a question the Party cannot afford to have Chinese people asking.
Chinese people alive today remember the Opium Wars and the occupation by the Eight Nation Army and the Rape of Nanjing as if these events happened to them personally. But many people in China do not remember Tiananmen. Most people do not remember that the Daxing’anling fire of 1987, which burned over 2,500,000 acres and left 50,000 people homeless, could have been mitigated were it not for a governance structure that prioritized meetings and bureaucracy over action and transparency. Virtually no one remembers the 1994 fire in the Xinjiang city of Karamay that killed nearly 300 schoolchildren, whose deaths could have been avoided if the officials at the scene had not ordered the children to stay in their seats while they themselves fled.
Losing memories to history is as inevitable as the passage of time. But in open democracies we study the controversial events of our past. We debate whether or not it was moral to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. We debate whether or not America should have participated in the Vietnam war. In 2006 when I was a senior in high school, five years into the war in Afghanistan, my English Literature teacher spent a full class period discussing what a failure the war had been. These discussions and debates create memories for us — memories of moral failures, past and present. These memories of the past can guide us towards better decisions in the future.
As a country, China does not have this, and it does not seem to be on the horizon. I fear that the memories of things yet to happen will, like the experience of the Covid-19 outbreak, be lost soon after they’re formed.