Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Persistent Memory of Historic Wrongs in China: A Discussion of Demands for "Reappraisal"

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Persistent Memory of Historic Wrongs in China: A Discussion of Demands for "Reappraisal"

Article excerpt

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In June 2007, the Chengdu Evening News carried a tiny ad- vertisement, a single line containing 13 characters. It read, "Paying tribute to the strong mothers of the June 4th vic- tims!"((2) According to later reports, the sub-editor in charge of advertisements, who was only 18, had not recognized "June 4th" as a politically sensitive reference to the date of the suppression of protests on and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing and elsewhere, 4 June 1989, and had therefore failed to reject the ad. His 21-year-old colleague had surmised that the date might refer to a local mine disaster. Both young men and at least one other editor were fired for their lapse.((3) The person who had placed the advertisement was quickly identi- fied and subjected to six months of criminal investigation under surveillance on suspicion of state subversion.((4)

The fact that an urban youth working as a newspaper sub-ed- itor could fail to recognize the traumatic date of "6-4" shows that the government has had some success in its single- minded effort to suppress the memory of this event. Indeed, pictures that we call "iconic," such as that of the June 4th "tank man," may elicit no recognition at all amongst young Chinese university students.((5) Individuals with relevant per- sonal experiences have never been allowed to exchange, com- pare, and challenge their memories in public in a way that would allow for these individual recollections to become part of a shared history. In China, as opposed to overseas, no col- lective memory of the event has been created.

Even so, a contentious issue remains: should the party-state's verdict on June 4th be reversed? Should the protesters of 1989 be rehabilitated? And should other victims of political criminalization - for instance, victims of the Anti-Rightist campaigns, of the suppression of Democracy Wall writers, etc. - be rehabilitated as well? The political and legal pa- rameters of this discussion have changed since 1989, with an increasing number of calls for redress in a great variety of other cases of conflict between citizens and party-state au- thorities. While no longer liable to the blunt political con- demnations of the June 4th aftermath, some of these cases involve public acts of defiance that are just as likely to pro- duce iconic images((6) and phrases.((7)

This essay discusses efforts to obtain redress for historic wrongs, committed in the context of political campaigns and the suppression of popular movements, as central cases of persistent injustice((8) originating from an historically distinct era or connected with a distinct event in history. Historic wrongs of the recent (P.R.C.) past continue to define citi- zen-state relationships in China today. The discussion here places the topic in the wider context of two different avenues of redress in China, one liberal and one authoritarian in na- ture. These two avenues are court litigation on the one hand, and the Chinese system of petitioning - or "letters and vis- its" - for submitting grievances to party and state authorities (including courts) on the other.

The submission of grievances belongs to an authoritarian form of political governance. For a long time, this form dom- inated demands for corrective reappraisal (pingfan ...) of historic wrongs. An authoritarian conception of "wrong" or "grievance" (yuan ...) underlying such demands does not allow complainants to question the right of the government to determine what is politically correct. But as many examples show, citizen responses to injustice are changing. An exercise of the right to free speech in order to articulate and shape the memory of these events is at the centre of many more recent citizen actions taken to address historic wrongs. Such actions include attempts to sue the government in court or to get the state to prosecute perpetrators of historic wrongs, as well as commemorative efforts such as the advertisement mentioned above. …

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