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China’s National Memory Laws and the War on Storytelling

03 May 2023
By Guang Yang
Wait in Preparation for the Enemy, Annihilate all Intruders! (1972)  By the revolutionary committee of Lihua Paper Mill (Shanghai) and the revolutionary committee of Shanghai Shipyard. Source: B/

Fighting historical nihilism has been high on the list of Xi Jinping’s fight for regime security. As China reverts increasingly backwards into an era of thought control and totalitarian rule it is once again the people that suffer. 

Five years have passed since China unveiled the Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law amid public outrage at five Chinese youths who cosplayed imperial Japanese soldiers while taking photos at a renowned war monument in downtown Shanghai. Taking effect in May 2018, the civil bill prohibits “distortion, defamation, desecration, or denial of the deeds and spirit of heroes and martyrs” as well as praises of invasions on China. To further tighten the screws, a provision was also added to China’s criminal code in early 2021 under which violators can be criminally punished with up to three years of prison sentences, along with hotlines and Apps set up by the administration inviting snitches to report on “illegal” history comments.

Dozens of netizens have been arrested and charged after their controversial social media posts had been discovered. For instance, a Weibo influencer was sentenced to seven months for satirising the blind loyalty of the “Ice Sculpture Company”— a group of Chinese soldiers who were frozen to death during a Korean War battle due to poor logistics and cruel commands.

China’s assertion of history has been coupled with state-led media propaganda campaigns featuring nationalist discourse and a victimhood mentality, producing a toxic online culture. There have been massive grassroots witch-hunts into the alleged “traitors to the Chinese nation” (hanjian) and foreign brands that purportedly “insulted China” (ruhua).

Despite cliches about China’s political indoctrination, crackdown on freedom of speech, or the rubber-stamp legislative system, the authority’s policing of national memory by means of law is worth extra attention for two reasons. First and foremost, such memory laws, by the working definition of the Council of Europe, “enshrine state-approved interpretations of crucial historical events and promote certain narratives about the past” while discrediting or outlawing others. Commonly adopted in European countries where genocide and other atrocities had taken place, memory laws ban the promotion and whitewashing of fascism or totalitarianism such as Holocaust denials.

Accordingly, China’s judicial system was calibrated to accommodate the Party’s political objectives including “public opinion guidance,” domestic mobilisation, and regime survival. The CCP’s attempt to dictate the elucidation of modern Chinese history aligns with Xi Jinping’s new doctrine on “comprehensive national security,” a supreme paradigm stressing ideological struggle. As repetitiously mentioned in Xi’s addresses and official documents, one of the Party’s existential threats is “historical nihilism,” a term encompassing any “heresy,” criticism, or interpretation opposed to the official narrative. In this regard, China’s memory laws are aimed at cleansing the Party of problematic truths that are “tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the CCP’s long-term political dominance.”

Second, China’s resorting to coercive judicial measures suggests that the nation-wide “Patriotic Education Campaign” might have lost efficiency in the digital era. Implemented in the 1990s following the Tiananmen Massacre, the campaign has “reintroduced [students] to the imperialist past and to re-experience its bitterness and shame.” By comparing China’s modern achievements to its past humiliations at the hands of foreign imperialist powers, the Party has been able to legitimise and glorify its leadership while glossing over past failures. When territorial disputes and international conflicts occurred, the institutionalised historical consciousness empowered the government to rally public support by invoking the “centuries of humiliation” language.

However, this once-powerful political instrument has been increasingly undermined by the growing awakening to alternative viewpoints on China’s Web, which offers easier access to information and knowledge despite censorship. In the search for regime security, China’s criminalisation of online parodies has sought to uphold the political indoctrination framework and extend the Party’s authoritarian control across cyberspace.

To understand China’s reading of history, it is necessary to grasp the nature of memory and identity, which are under constant and cyclical processes of construction, reconstruction, and deconstruction. According to French historian Pierre Nora, “memory crystallizes” within “sites of memory” including both symbolic architectural spaces and intangible social norms and cultural practices. Through acts of remembrances like memorial services, transgenerational transmission takes place whereby individuals adopt the ancestral past and inscribe traumatic experiences into their own life story, engendering a shared identity and sense of belonging. Connecting the past to the present, the “chosen trauma” reproduces an illusion that “historical continuity persists” and hence holds nation states together as an “imagined political community.”

However, to maintain a consistent and cohesive “biographical self-narrative of a state,” memory construction is inevitably selective and mandates the act of “forgetting.” As a result, historical remembrances “do not always correlate with historical truths” and can be resisted by minority groups whose identities are being repressed and annihilated by such inaccuracy. As demonstrated by recent studies on China’s disaster nationalism during COVID-19, collective memory is highly politicised and always subject to control and contestation.

In sum, China’s punitive memory laws have served as coercive measures to constitute a hegemonic national memory tailored for the Party’s interests. However, as foreshadowed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is highly problematic to assume that people suffer from selective amnesia, and even more foolish to believe that history can be forever sanitised.

Guang Yang is the research assistant at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in international relations at ANU. His field of interest includes China’s political economy, foreign policy analysis, and Northeast Asia history.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.