Ending historic debate, China makes it a crime to make fun of heroes

The young woman from Beijing began her article by complaining about online crowd gatherings, where recluses express misogynistic insecurities over the safety of office chairs. As provocative as it was, it could have gone unnoticed, except that she added another beat.

She poked fun at the toxic masculinity of users imagining themselves as Dong Cunrui, a manual war hero who, according to Chinese Communist Party tradition, died valiantly during the civil war that brought the party to power in 1949.

For this passing reference, the woman, 27 and identified in court only by her last name, Xu, was sentenced last month to seven months in prison.

His crime: violating a newly amended penal code that punishes the slander of Chinese martyrs and heroes. Since its entry into force in March, the statute has been enforced with revolutionary zeal, as part of an intensified campaign under Chinese leader Xi Jinping to sanctify the Communist Party’s version of history – and its vision of the future of the country.

China’s Cyberspace Administration, which controls the country’s internet, has established hotlines and online to encourage citizens to report violations. He even published a list of 10 “rumors” that are forbidden to discuss.

Was Mao Zedong’s Long March really that long? Did the Red Army avoid heavy fighting against the Japanese during WWII to save its forces for the civil war against the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek? Was Mao’s son Mao Anying killed in an American airstrike during the Korean War because he lit a stove to make fried rice?

Asking these same questions risks being stopped and, now, prosecuted. “This is a sign of the establishment of absolute political totalitarianism,” said Wu Qiang, an outspoken political analyst in Beijing.

The Chinese Communist Party has long controlled dissent, severely restricting public debate on topics it deems politically incorrect, from Tibet to the Tiananmen Square protests. The new law goes further. It criminalized as slander subjects that were once the subject of historical debate and research, including Mao’s regime itself to some extent. Since March, the law has been used at least 15 times to punish offenses against party history.

The campaign reflects Xi’s ambition to consolidate the moral foundations of the Communist Party’s supremacy, a theme the Chinese leader often refers to in his speeches and articles.

A live image of Chinese leader Xi Jinping speaking is shown at the media center of the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity in Kunming, China on October 12. | AFP-JIJI

The party could once rely on the financial incentives of a booming economy and the coercive control of the security state to cement its reign, but now appears to use political and historical orthodoxy as its foundation, said Adam Ni, director of the China Policy Center. in Australia and editor of China Story.

“There are limits to these tools,” he said of the economy and state security. “They need morality – moral legitimacy to maintain their rule. “

A version of the slander law was first passed in 2018, but an amendment to the country’s penal code that went into effect on March 1 allowed prosecutors to seek criminal penalties, including prison terms up to three years.

In April, a 19-year-old man in Nanjing was charged with denigrating victims of the Japanese massacre in 1937. A 63-year-old man in Beijing was charged with making fun of a Navy fighter pilot, the Lieutenant Cmdr. Wang Wei, who crashed in the South China Sea after colliding with an American surveillance plane in 2001.

At least three people were arrested in May for mocking comments after the death of Yuan Longping, a scientist who developed high-yielding hybrid strains of rice.

Authorities arrested a man in Nanchang last month after posting an irreverent commentary on the legend surrounding the death of Mao’s son in 1950. “This fried rice was the best thing to come out of the entire Korean War,” he said. he wrote.

Officials have championed the law as a necessary tool to combat what a director of China’s Cyberspace Administration, Wen Youhua, called “historical nihilism,” which officials often use to portray deviant views. .

“These people may be trying to gain clicks or eyeballs, but these behaviors obviously affect moral and legal outcomes,” Beijing law professor Li Liang told People’s Daily in April.

Xi, who is preparing for what will likely be a third term as Communist Party leader starting next year, will use a rally of the party’s elite in Beijing next week to pass a new resolution on the issue. history of the party – an official summary of the past and its course. Among Chinese leaders, only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping made such decisions, underscoring the ambition of Xi’s campaign.

“We must educate and guide the whole party to vigorously carry on the red tradition,” Xi said this year.

The tougher slander law came into effect shortly after the government revealed in February that four Chinese soldiers had died in a clash with Indian troops along the disputed border in June 2020. Within days , at least seven people have been charged with questioning the official version of the death toll, which is said to have been much higher.

They included Qiu Ziming, a leading blogger with 2.5 million subscribers on Weibo, the country’s Twitter-like social media platform.

Although he and the others were arrested under a long-standing article of the penal code called “arguing and causing unrest,” Qiu, 38, was prosecuted under the new law, even though the changes entered into force 10 days after commenting.

In May, after being shown confessing on state television, he was sentenced to eight months in prison.

The campaign inspired self-defense, with netizens denouncing potential violations.

The Jiangsu branch of China Unicom, a state-owned telecommunications company, came under investigation after a public outcry erupted when its Weibo account posted a recipe for fried rice on the day of the Mao Anying’s birthday. It is not clear whether the company faces criminal charges, but its account has been suspended.

Some of the cases involved historical events that Chinese historians have already debated and studied, at least so far.

A poster
A poster advertising “The Battle of Changjin Lake”, a film about Chinese soldiers fighting American troops during the Korean War, is displayed in a movie theater in Shanghai on October 19. | REUTERS

Last month, a former journalist, Luo Changping, was arrested in Hainan after writing a blog questioning the rationale for China’s intervention in the Korean War – and the catastrophic cost for those “volunteers” sent to fight and die there.

He was responding to a new blockbuster movie that depicts a major Chinese attack known as “The Battle of Changjin Lake”.

The film, which lasts 2 hours and 56 minutes, is filled with tearful patriotism for the selfless sacrifice of the soldiers who defeated the forces led by the United States.

“Half a century later, few Chinese have thought about the justification for the war,” Luo wrote on Weibo, before specifically referring to a doomed Chinese military unit “which did not doubt the ‘wise decision. ‘ Summit.

Made with government backing and heavily promoted in state media, it became the second highest grossing film in the country’s history, earning the equivalent of $ 855 million in the month it aired. , according to Maoyan, the ticketing service.

At the opening of the film, Ni, the researcher, noted on Twitter that the battle he portrayed had never been at the center of Communist Party propaganda before, as it had been seen as a costly strategic mistake, and not like the resounding victory depicted on the screen. Now he’s part of a new and unassailable version of history.

John Delury, professor of Chinese studies at Seoul Yonsei University and author of an upcoming book on the war, said that even within the confines of political censorship, Chinese academics have done “a lot of great work.” on the war and other events since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

With the changing political climate, that may no longer be certain.

“With that, obviously everyone is going to have to stop what they’re doing,” he said.

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