BEIJING — In his small ground-floor apartment just a few blocks from Beijing’s landmark Bird’s Nest stadium, Chinese language teacher, writer and do-it-yourself documentary maker Xu Xing is urgently preserving what he can of China’s forbidden past.
Traveling usually by himself all over the country, the tall 58-year-old has recorded hours of interviews with everyday Chinese who were jailed, sometimes for years, on the barest of political charges during the decade-long spasm of social chaos known as the Cultural Revolution. Xu has edited that footage into documentaries that he only shows to those he trusts, in living rooms and coffee houses, preserving for history memories kept secret for decades.
“I want it so that this never happens in China again, so this is my tireless job,” Xu said on a recent afternoon sitting at his kitchen-top editing bay. “I tell the people I interview, ‘Clearly, I can’t bring you any money or other reward. The main thing I do is let other people know your story.’“
With the ruling Communist Party zealously enforcing its own version of Chinese history, Xu’s truth-telling is nothing less than an act of defiance. The government has largely succeeded in erasing or playing down whole swaths of Communist-era history by controlling what’s talked about in the country’s classrooms, museums and books, as well as in other areas of public life.
Ask the average Chinese under the age of 30 about the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy student activists centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which scholars say claimed the lives of at hundreds of protesters and bystanders, and the answer will likely be ignorance or at best vague recognition. The same amnesia cloaks other dark periods of 20th-century Chinese history such as the catastrophic famines of the late 1950s, widely blamed on the government’s push to rapidly industrialize, and the Cultural Revolution, which persecuted millions from 1966 to 1976.
Fu King-Wa, a journalism and media studies professor at the University of Hong Kong, said many of his students from mainland China learned of the Tiananmen massacre for the first time through his lectures.
Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese city, enjoys more freedom compared to the mainland, where Chinese who research and publicize the past on their own are often censored or jailed for causing trouble.
“This is authoritarian control of people’s access to information. They want to create a unified version of how to understand this historical issue,” Fu said.
Xu and other secret historians have taken it upon themselves to preserve photos, interview eyewitnesses and do the archival work that the Chinese government has banned most historians inside the country from doing.
You Weijie, whose husband died in the Tiananmen massacre, has conducted interviews with relatives of more than 40 other victims and stored the audio and video recordings overseas. Some are available online.
Tsering Woeser held onto dozens of her father’s old photos of the Chinese military destroying temples and persecuting Buddhist priests and officials in the far western region of Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. In 2006, a Taiwan-based publisher put out a book of the photos.
Others in China run underground history magazines or preserve their memories of China’s forbidden past in paintings.
These secret historians are exposed to police surveillance and, in many cases, to near-poverty, because they have little opportunity to make a living from their work.
Woeser, You and Xu said they were aware of the dangers they invited by speaking to The Associated Press, but said they had already been the targets of police scrutiny and were willing to run the additional risk.
“They’re afraid of this,” Xu said of Chinese authorities. “They don’t let anybody see this. This is their crime.”
The Chinese government’s concerns about historical revision was spelled out in what was believed to be a confidential party document leaked to the public in 2013 and first printed in a Hong Kong newspaper.
The document called out critics who consider the Chinese Communist Party to be “a continuous series of mistakes,” and warned that “historical nihilism” rejecting the party’s version of history “is tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the CCP’s long-term political dominance.”
For China’s secret historians, however, documenting that history is the only way to make sure its tragedies aren’t repeated.
Woeser, a Tibetan poet, said she had wondered as a girl why her father had taken photos of the destruction in the region, especially since he had been sent there as a Chinese soldier in the 1960s to help tighten the government’s hold. Later, she said, she herself returned to track down the people captured in those photos.
“A lot of people have already died,” she said, seated beside a private altar she’s built to the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama. “So I think this is a very urgent thing. Because memory is important to people, and if the person is there, the memory is there. If the person isn’t there, then the memory has disappeared.”
At different times, Woeser has been placed under house arrest for her work. You said she has also been placed under surveillance; police are permanently stationed on the ground floor of her apartment building. Xu is often stopped and questioned by local police while tracking down Cultural Revolution survivors.
What they find and record often clashes with how the Chinese government memorializes the country’s tumultuous history since 1949, when the Communist Party seized control after a brutal civil war.
In the government’s telling, the student protesters who filled Tiananmen Square demanding political reforms were launching a “counter-revolutionary riot,” and only 300 or so were killed, as opposed to about 1,000 victims counted by other sources. The famines sparked by the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, which scholars believe claimed upward of 30 million lives, are known in official versions as “three years of natural disaster,” with at most a few million perishing.
The Chinese government has acknowledged some fault for the Cultural Revolution, saying the political purges were “responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses… since the founding of the People’s Republic.” Still, the period is rarely mentioned in Chinese media, and few relics of the time appear outside private collections.
That amnesia comes at an enormous price, and not just for victims who have yet to see justice or compensation, said Xun Zhou, a history professor at the University of Essex who has interviewed hundreds of rural Chinese about the famines of the Great Leap Forward and other historical events.
Avoiding that history has prevented any move toward the kind of reconciliation that in other societies has helped to heal historical wounds, she said.
“If you’re going to have reconciliation, you have to talk about things in the open, you have to face these unresolved historical issues,” Xun said. “Now, there’s no national memory of history. There’s only individual memory, no collective memory.”
Rowena He, a Harvard University lecturer who has documented the Tiananmen massacre and its aftermath, said those unresolved tensions and that aversion to historical accounting have helped shape the China of today. The 1989 crackdown, in particular, and its subsequent removal from national memory taught Chinese not only to distrust politics but to fear history, He said.
“With Tiananmen, they didn’t just twist facts, they twisted the values,” she said. “Cynicism, detachment, materialism, it really changed the Chinese compact and the way people see themselves.”
You said she has devoted herself to her archival work so that the 1989 massacre and its victims, including her late husband, Yang Minghu, aren’t forgotten by Chinese society and the world.
Yang, then a 42-year-old civil servant, rode his bicycle to Tiananmen Square on the night of the massacre after he heard gunfire. He ended up being shot in the bladder and dying two days later, leaving behind You and their young son.
You has since joined up with other relatives of massacre victims to track down others who can testify about the bloodshed—with confiscation of her materials or worse a constant threat.
“Even though we’re weak because we don’t have power,” You said, “we don’t want to let these things disappear and let history drown them.”