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'Sparks' author Ian Johnson on Chinese 'challenging the party's monopoly on history'

Oxford University Press

One of the first things Xi Jinping did after being named general secretary of China's ruling Communist Party was tour an exhibition at the National Museum on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square.

It was called "the Road to Rejuvenation." News photos showed Xi and other top leaders standing reverently before photos and artifacts that traced the long arc of China's modern history. The symbolism was hard to miss.

In his new book Sparks: China's Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson says Xi unveiled the concept of the "China Dream" at the museum on that fall day in 2012. "That goal was closer at hand than at any time in recent history, Xi said, because the nation had learned from its history," Johnson writes.

In the following years, Xi would put on display a dogged obsession with controlling the historical narrative — shuttering independent journals, muzzling outspoken scholars, jailing critics he accused of "historical nihilism," and re-drawing the boundaries around school curricula.

Yet through it all, a handful of people chronicling China's "grassroots history" has been fighting back. Johnson calls it a movement, and his book tells their stories. They are people like the filmmaker Ai Xiaoming, who made a documentary about an all but forgotten forced labor camp in the desert. And the journalist Jiang Xue, who has protected the history of an underground journal from the late 1950s that attempted to record the privations, and desperation, experienced during the famine resulting from the Great Leap Forward.

NPR caught up with Johnson recently. Below are excerpts of the conversation.

Your book is about these creators of "minjian lishi" (民间历史), grassroots history, in China, and you write that it amounts to a movement. I want to dive into that in a little bit. But first of all, maybe you can talk a little bit about the backdrop, about the context in which this is happening.

This is a movement that really I think — this is one of the things I try to push, promote, in this book or try to make clear in this book — that's been going on since the founding of the People's Republic of China nearly 75 years ago. And even before that, going back to before the party went into power, people who have been challenging the party's monopoly on history. But it is continuing today, even in Xi Jinping's China. And I want to push back on some of the dominant ideas that we sometimes get abroad, that there's absolutely nothing going on in China except for a dystopian surveillance state. I think that's definitely part of the story, for sure. And I've reported on a lot of human rights problems and challenges in China over the decades — and it is worse now than it was five, 10, 15 years ago. But there are still people who are at it today. There are still people who are keeping alive the idea of a more decent, humane China that confronts its problems of the past and thereby lays the groundwork for a better China of tomorrow. These people have not been crushed.

Describe why you call it a movement.

There's a way of looking at protests as a three-act play, and we often look at the third act, when people are out on the streets with placards, something like Tiananmen Square in 1989, as being a classic example of that, for example. Or the Falun Gong protests of 1999 and 2000 ... when there's real action and you can see it. But the the foundational work for any successful movement is usually laid in person-to-person contacts in very often more personal ways than we imagine. It's not social media, right? Social media is completely overrated in terms of getting social movements and change off the ground. You can get a straw fire like that. But ... to get people to really commit to something, you have to have the person-to-person relationships, and that's the sort of thing that I try to describe in China. It's it's not, you know, millions and millions of people across the country [recording and consuming grassroots history] but I would say it's tens and tens of thousands of people who are interested or active in this kind of movement. And it's much more widespread than it was, say, four or five decades ago.

Why do you think this exists? Can't the party snuff it out? Why doesn't that happen?

People want a more just country and they think that in order to do that, you have to, you know, deal with your past and so on and so forth, and you have to challenge the party's right to rule and so on and so forth. But the mechanics of how it's really taken off, I think, over the past two decades are basic digital technologies...This is the digital technologies of email, PDFs, of digital cameras, which are make it possible to make a documentary film...You can make a magazine on a PDF. This has really been a game changer.

There are magazines in China, underground history magazines, one in particular that I write about in China in my book, that have been going on for 15 years, since 2008, and they have 340 issues now and they're still publishing every two weeks. Now, that begs the question, as you say, why doesn't the government just snuff it out? I think there's a couple of reasons for that. If you wanted to be cynical, you could say, well, the government doesn't think they're a threat, so they just let it go. But that doesn't then explain why the government makes such a big deal about history... I think the thing is that they can arrest some of the better known people, but people who are just privately investigating something and circulating it on a slow burn level, that's harder for the party to get a grip on. Individuals, again, yes, you can follow somebody all the time and harass them and put them under house arrest and cut their their Internet connection. But you can't really do it to all these people all the time.

It's the same cast of characters who've been involved in [that journal, Remembrance] all these years, right? Their survival, that's interesting to me.

One is, they have been careful to stop their historical explorations around the year 1980. So they're not talking about Tiananmen Square or COVID or something like that. They're looking more at the Mao era... They don't go directly into the current era of Chinese politics, so that protects them to some degree.

The other thing, which is an interesting takeaway that I didn't realize when I went into this project is the productive interaction between people inside and outside China. You know, it used to be in the past when a dissident went overseas, they were kind of isolated and they often became sort of a sad figure or somebody who was railing against the party or something like that. And they had zero impact back in China. But now there are a lot of people in China who have contacts overseas and back and forth, people traveling back and forth a lot more. So in the case of Remembrance, they have young grad students and young historians, Chinese national historians in the United States and elsewhere who helped them edit it and keep it going.

This is not mass market stuff for the most part, which you point out in the book. So what's the point? Why does it still matter? I mean, as you ask near the end of the book, is this is the work they're doing pointless or is it trailblazing?

Right now, one of the main people I write about, she quotes — there's a famous quote by Hannah Arendt that in dark times, any bit of light blinds us. And we don't know, is this just a candle flickering in the darkness or is this the blazing sun that will become important? And I think now there's a little bit of flickering, but what we don't know is what will happen in the future. I think any social movement starts with small groups of people, small numbers, and it can grow over time. Things that were once considered outlandish or radical are now considered mainstream.

The characters who you talk about in the book all make sacrifices to do what they're doing so. Why do they do it?

The one thing I wanted to make clear was that ... they're not dissidents in the classic sense of somebody who's completely dropped out of society and is railing against the government. All the people, pretty much all the people in my book have one foot inside the system. They own an apartment. They have jobs... So what motivates them, I think, is just a belief that many people have, that in order for any society to move forward it has to be able to confront its past. And many of them are also, in a way, very patriotic. I can remember talking to some of the people who write about the Cultural Revolution. They say, you know, we don't want all the research on the Cultural Revolution to be done at Western universities. It shouldn't all be done at Harvard or Stanford. It should also be done here in China. And so as Chinese people, we want to be doing this research, too. And even though right now it can't be widely published inside China, we want people in the future to know that at this time in the 2020s, there were people inside China who were doing this kind of research, who were documenting the people, the eyewitnesses before they died out, making videos, documentary films. Some of it maybe just a message in the bottle to future generations, but they view it as kind of a sacred duty to tell their country's history the way they see it.

Do you think their actions in some way speak for a larger group, or to a larger group, and have an outsized impact?

It's hard to know in an authoritarian state, you know what the interest is. But history in China has always been really popular and people are really history obsessed in China. So I think that their work does speak to a broader group of people who are interested, may be in different versions of reality than the reality presented by the Communist Party, its whitewashed history and its justification for ruling the country, which a lot of people can kind of tell, doesn't really hold up... These people do offer more credible explanations for how things unfolded in the past, and I think that's why when there are cracks in the system, such as last year, after all the big COVID protests, these people rise up and that's where they may come up again in the future as well.

You write in near the end of the book, "In essence, the Chinese Communist Party's enemies are not these individuals, but the lasting values of Chinese civilization, righteousness, loyalty, freedom of thought." Can you explain that a bit?

If there's one central idea, it's the idea of righteousness. And along with that is the idea that truth will prevail as well. And I think that [these grassroots historians] view the suffers of the past, of the Mao era, but even of the current era, as people who deserve justice and that some kind of justice has to happen in order for a moral society to be constructed. This is a really old idea going back to Confucius. So you don't have to be a believer in any sort of Western ideas to be attracted to this if you're Chinese. There was one guy I talked to who uncovered this this massacre in southern China in the 1960s. And, you know, he was a very sort of crude and funny, garrulous old guy. And he says, you know, I can kiss [a--] as well as anybody, but there's one thing I can't do and that's turn black into white.

What does this movement say about China? In writing this book, what did you learn about the telling of history in China today?

One of the things I want to acknowledge with this book was to challenge the idea that there is no free thought in China, that the Communist Party is one that Xi Jinping controls absolutely everything. I wanted to show that there are still people in China who do have visions of another kind of China. There is another China out there. And that when we look at China from abroad, we sometimes have this idea that it's completely hopeless and that there's nothing worth knowing or experiencing there. And I think this is one of the reasons, for example, for the incredible drop off in the number of young people today studying Chinese going to China.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.