Murong Xuecun, the outspoken Beijing-based writer and anti-censorship champion, calls China an obscurantist system “designed to make people stupid, foster mutual hatred, and degrade their ability to think critically and understand the world” in his latest broadside, penned for Foreign Policy.
The article, “Let Them Eat Grass,” is ostensibly about China’s Great Famine revisionists — of which there are apparently plenty — but Murong merely peppers those folk with jabs and body shots –
Remarkably, the focus of contention is not the cause of the famine, but whether it actually occurred. Many believe a small number of ill-intentioned conspirators fabricated the famine. Some see it as short-lived, restricted to a small area, and think that it was absolutely impossible for tens of millions to have starved to death. One netizen, who went by the name Fact Checker, asked, “If so many people starved to death, where are the mass graves?” Wu Danhong, an associate professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing and a prominent leftist, wrote on Sina Weibo: “I have verified that between 1959 and 1961 in my profoundly impoverished hometown there were instances of people consuming tree bark and some were so hungry they contemplated suicide. But they endured and no one died of starvation. The entire village suffered from diseases of hunger but none died. Perhaps some political rightist whose circumstances were bad to begin with starved to death.”
Professor Wu’s comments inspired many others, including the baffled (“My hometown is poor, so why haven’t I heard about people starving to death?”) and the caustic (“If so many people starved to death, why didn’t your mother?”). Someone who went by the name Li Weiling wrote: “I’ve seen a lot of articles written by people who were sent down to labor in rural villages in the 1960s which claim they had to survive on water and locusts and the result was edema. I really don’t understand why they didn’t plant vegetables and grains. They were sent down to the countryside to labor, weren’t they?” Li inspired another comment from someone who went by the name smallcat823: “If there was no grain, why didn’t they eat wild herbs? I hear wild herbs are delicious.”
– before laying the big right hook:
Most people in China suffer from an inability-to-accept-facts syndrome. They only believe what they want to believe and can’t see facts that are painful or contradict their own views. A school curriculum that ignores all policy failures since 1949 exacerbates this syndrome.
“This syndrome is the source of many conflicts in contemporary China,” he writes. We’d be remiss to not mention that the syndrome is by no means exclusive to this country — I grew up in a state that tried to take evolution off the high school state curriculum twice — but institutionalized amnesia here appears worse if only because the stakes seem higher. The history is more recent, larger in scale, more traumatic, and simultaneously, the younger generation is more divergent, many of them with no interest in the burdens of the past, or what we might call “social memory.”
So as a society, how do we move on? Dredge up more materialistic mortar as stopgap until those who still remember are dead — and along with them, the forgettable past? These are the difficult questions that have always confronted China. They spend most of the time unseen, tugged with the undertow, but will, like an unpleasant reminder or its morbid physical commensurate, occasionally bob toward the surface, bloated and grotesque, waiting for someone brave enough to pull it ashore.