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China doesn’t have to apologize – or does it?

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

The photo of Willy Brandt’s genuflection, taken on 7 December 1970 at the memorial dedicated to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, moved not only Europe. The Chancellor’s plea for forgiveness also touched the Chinese people at the time. Last December, on the 50th anniversary of Brandt’s gesture of humility, many Chinese still remembered it online. Comments demanded that Japan should also acknowledge its war crimes as distinctly as Germany once did.

However, no blogger wanted to question if any Chinese leader had ever apologized for or regretted his country’s mistakes. Only Ding Zilin, founder of the survivors’ association “Mothers of Tiananmen”, dared to publicly ask when the Beijing leadership would repent for the massacre committed on June 4th, 1989. Her parents’ initiative campaigned in vain, year after year, for the rehabilitation of their children killed that night – including Ding’s 17-year-old son. Without warning, soldiers had fired on protestors and students. The mothers’ calls to bring those to justice who were responsible for issuing the order went unheard, as did their appeal to today’s leadership to acknowledge the Tiananmen tragedy.

Beijing has no intention of doing so. On the contrary: It wants to force the whole world to forget the 1989 massacre. And Hong Kong is obliging. Pressured by the new security law, the “Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China”, which has organized the annual Tiananmen vigils for decades, was forced to disband. This week, the “Pillar of Shame” that has stood at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) since 1997 was to be dismantled. The Danish artist Jens Galschiøt had created the eight-meter-tall sculpture – intended as a permanent memorial to the victims of 1989.

The base of the eight-meter-tall ‘Pillar of Shame’.

Hong Kong needs to follow the example of the People’s Republic, where the mere mention of Tiananmen 1989 is taboo. Beijing’s censors even go one step further back home. They are reinterpreting Mao’s Cultural Revolution and other murderous campaigns of persecution as mistakes committed “with good intentions.” China, therefore, does not need to regret them. The textbooks have just been rewritten accordingly.

Since the Communist Party proclaimed the “dawn of a new socialist era” under the guiding principles of party leader Xi Jinping at its grand party congress in 2017, an old tradition has been reintroduced. It has always been a peculiarity of the Chinese national character neither to admit mistakes nor publicly regret them to save face.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the first generation of politicians had attempted to break up such old ways of thinking through political-cultural reforms, since they stood in the way of China’s modernization. In 1985, for example, the reformist party leader Hu Yaobang promoted the spectacular publication of a negative psychogram of the Chinese national character, written by the Taiwan-based historian and cultural critic Bo Yang (柏杨), whose book “The Ugly Chinaman” (丑陋的中国人) shook Chinese self-confidence.

Cover for Bo Yang’s famous cultural critique: “The Ugly Chinaman” who never admits mistakes. The Beijing edition, illustrated with cartoons by satirical old master Fang Cheng, was published in 2008.

Bo Yang wrote – with satirical exaggeration – that the Chinese are culturally and characteristically incapable of admitting their mistakes, let alone regretting them. He attributes this, among other things, to a deep-seated inferiority complex and the constant fear of losing face. The book, which became a bestseller despite ideological censorship, triggered a Bo Yang hype in China

Even the nationalist Global Times once praised him: with a wink, it wrote that the book “The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture” should, if possible, not be recommended to foreigners, lest they see “what we Chinese are really like. Since its publication in 1985, the book has sparked debate about the dark side in Chinese life.”

And in 2013 the Global Times wrote: “Chinese are not good at accepting criticism. In his book, Taiwanese author Bo Yang pointed out that the ‘sickness’ of the Chinese is their fear of losing face and their refusal to admit their wrongs. On hearing any criticism, their first reaction is not introspection but to strike back fiercely.”

China’s public accepted such criticism. Today, after only a few years, that is no longer imaginable. Beijing sees itself threatened, attacked, and slandered by foreign countries and brutally persecutes all dissent from within.

The phase of tolerance was short-lived, but it allowed former Red Guards to start to come to terms with their past in earnest. They confessed to crimes they committed during the Cultural Revolution, acknowledged guilt and responsibility. Another incredible collection of essays was published in 2014. Under the title “We Repent” (我们忏悔), misguided former Red Guards spoke out, as did well-known intellectuals with critical analyses. They repeatedly used the term “daoqian” (道歉), the strongest Chinese expression for deep remorse.

In 2014, the collection of essays “We Repent” was published by the renowned Beijing Citic publishing house, with the confessions of former Red Guards and analyses by well-known critical intellectuals. The banderole reads: “Showing repentance saves my soul. Showing tolerance saves the humanity of the other.” Such a book could not be published today.

Such attempts to come to terms with the past do not fit the agenda of today’s Chinese leadership, which, on its path to becoming a world power, won’t tolerate self-doubt or the admission of mistakes. Instead of objective historiography, patriotic propaganda is on its agenda.

Beijing just made an example of former investigative reporter Luo Changping (罗昌平). Last week, the 40-year-old was detained after posting a microblog about the patriotic war film “The Battle of Lake Changjin” set during the Korean War (1950-1953). The new blockbuster action film, which has broken all box office records, is a heroic saga in the battle of China against the USA.

Luo’s crime was to mockingly comment on one of the key scenes. Chinese soldiers freeze to “ice sculptures” in company strength in extreme sub-zero temperatures. In a play on words, Luo calls them sand figures (in the sense of fools) who blindly follow the “wise orders” of their commanders. In any case, there are few Chinese today who still openly doubt whether the war was once justified.

Luo allegedly had insulted heroes, state television denounced him by name. In furious anger, Global Times accused him of “spiritual treason” against the values of the Chinese nation, having “blasphemously” reviled the sacrifice of soldiers, and “insulted the People’s Republic.” Luo could now be sentenced to up to three years in prison under the new Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law passed in February.

“Why can’t we Chinese admit mistakes?” (我们为什么不认错) asked Chinese professor Yi Zhongtian (易中天) in a 2012 literary essay. He looked for answers in the feudal imperial order, classical culture, and the connection with the loss of face. The Cultural Revolution played a crucial role because it forced people at mammoth sessions to “deeply criticize their own selves and revisionism” (斗私批修). The incessant morally motivated, absurd self-incrimination and self-mortification “were the only time when Chinese could criticize themselves and admit to anything without really losing face.”

But the fear of admitting mistakes still weighs heavy on many people, Yi warns. Not coming to terms with them and overcoming them could lead to another Cultural Revolution.

Cartoon by Fang Cheng on the subject: Chinese and their fear of losing face. Satirical illustration in the Beijing edition of Bo Yang’s “The Ugly Chinese”.

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