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Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006

China swaps historical facts for fiction

HONG KONG -- At a time when Beijing is upbraiding Tokyo for its depiction in history textbooks of the invasion and occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s -- and used it as a reason for excluding Japan from the United Nations Security Council -- it has exposed its own politicization of history by shutting down a publication, Bing Dian (Freezing Point), the weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily, for an article on events in the late 19th century.

It is well known that Chinese history textbooks play down the disasters that resulted from Communist Party rule since 1949, such as the widespread starvation of the late 1950s associated with the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution atrocities of the 1960s and 1970s, but those were primarily domestic political events.

The closing down of Freezing Point on Jan. 24, however, stems from an article published Jan. 11 and written by a noted historian that criticizes the official depiction of China's relations with the West in the late 19th century. The author, professor Yuan Weishi of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, criticized a history textbook used in secondary schools in China.

One focus of his criticism is the depiction of the Boxer Uprising of 1900 -- a xenophobic campaign against Westerners as well as Chinese who had converted to Christianity or were closely associated with foreigners. In one month, Yuan wrote, 231 foreigners were killed, of whom 53 were children.

As for Chinese victims, Yuan wrote that "in Shanxi province alone, more than 5,700 Catholic followers were killed," and, in Liaoning province, "more than one thousand believers."

"The Boxers cut down telegraph lines," he wrote, "they destroyed schools, they demolished railroad tracks, they burned foreign merchandise, they murdered foreigners and all Chinese who had any connection with foreign culture." However, the textbook presented the rebellion as "a spontaneous patriotic action."

"All the children took up knives to become heroes who defend the nation," it said.

While the Boxers mindlessly destroyed everything associated with foreigners, including railway tracks, the textbook depicted such acts as having been taken to counter foreign invaders.

This was not the first time the publication had gotten into political difficulties for discussing historical matters. Last June, it published an essay in which it gave credit to Kuomintang troops, which were working together with Communist forces, in the anti-Japanese effort.

As a result, the party's propaganda department said the magazine had "glorified the Kuomintang and debased the Communist Party." Standard party propaganda depicts the Communists -- not the Kuomintang -- as having led the resistance to the Japanese.

However, on this issue, Freezing Point was vindicated because President Hu Jintao, in a speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, affirmed the contribution of the Kuomintang soldiers. But this was due also to political reasons: the Communist Party invited Kuomintang leader Lien Chan and other Taiwan opposition figures to Beijing last year in an attempt to forge a united front against President Chen Shui Bian, who supports Taiwan independence.

In December, it was again criticized by propaganda officials for an article marking the 90th anniversary of the birth of the late Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 triggered massive prodemocracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Propaganda officials complained because the publication had published its own article rather than simply reproducing what was put out by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Yuan wrote in his essay, "Modernization and History Textbooks": "We have the duty to tell the true history to our youth so that they will never forget. This is the required path to turn them into modern citizens. If these innocent children swallow fake pills, then they will live with prejudices for their own lives and go down the wrong path. This is the moment when we have to examine the problem about our history textbooks."

Commenting on the use of history to instill nationalistic feelings, he said: "It is obvious that we must love our country. But there are two ways to love our country. One way is to inflame nationalistic passions. In the selection and presentation of historical materials, we only use those that favor China whether they are true or false. The other choice is this: We analyze everything rationally; if it is right, it is right and if it is wrong, it is wrong; calm, objective and wholly regard and handle all conflicts with the outside."

As China becomes more powerful and influential, it must at the same time become a more responsible country and abandon its custom of putting politics in command, regardless of facts.

Frank Ching is senior columnist of the South China Morning Post.

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