Yan Lianke: China’s version of history has created “amnesic generation”

“I used to assume history and memory would always triumph over temporary aberrations and return to their rightful place,” writes author Yan Lianke in this New York Times op-ed. “It now appears the opposite is true.”

China is winnowing memory out of its people, creating an “amnesic generation,” Yan argues. It’s “state-sponsored amnesia,” a phrase designed to send shivers up one’s spine.

In March 2012 I met Torbjorn Loden, the Swedish professor of Chinese language and culture, in Hong Kong. He told me that while briefly teaching at Hong Kong’s City University he asked the 40 students from China in his class what they knew about the June 4 Incident, the pro-democracy movement that ended in bloodshed in 1989, and if they were familiar with the names Liu Binyan and Fang Lizhi, two prominent democracy advocates of that era. All the students from China looked around at one another, mute and puzzled.

That reminded me of something another teacher told me. She had asked her students from China if they had heard about the death by starvation of 30 to 40 million people during the so-called “three years of natural disasters” in the early 1960s. Her students responded with stunned silence, as if she, a teacher in Hong Kong, was brazenly fabricating history to attack their mother country.

It’s a harrowing read. One imagines, in the not-too-distant future, a council of elders who are the gatekeepers to this country’s history confined to the damp underground vaults, like humpbacked keymasters or retired court eunuchs, above which a light-splotched surface bears the heavy tread of intellectual pygmies gallivanting across rivers of concrete or painted grass, happy to be content, chasing the currency of survival. Mao will still be on the money. Teflon domes overhang. Youngsters laugh through pleated fingers. And slowly, they die underneath, forever.

On China’s State-Sponsored Amnesia (NYT)

    3 Responses to “Yan Lianke: China’s version of history has created “amnesic generation””

    1. Jonathan Alpart

      Bleak stuff. I’m curious how this compares to other countries’ dealings with their bad histories. I recall reading something not to long ago about how Argentina has been coming to terms recently with their los desaparecidos. Hopefully it won’t be long before China officially brings this all out of the shadows.

    2. Jesse

      Dude, younger generation forgetting about T1ananmen is well known. Like…5 years ago it was like this. Not a new story. And like it is in any other country, its the few that choose (yes… they have a choice) to open their eye who can see the history, easily

      What’s more interesting is when you show people pictures of Tank Man. Even people who know about the events in June do not know about Tank Man because that was never shown on Chinese TV and is really just a symbol to Westerners… .

    3. Frank Scimone

      Is China’s amnesia that much different than ours?
      By Frank Scimone

      I was quite amused by Yan Lianke’s recent article in ‘The New York Times’ on ‘China’s state-sponsored amnesia’. I agree with what he wrote and respect his courage. However, the article is based on the assumption that freedom of the press has existed, and exists today, in the West. It does not. Journalists can only do their best – which, I am sorry to say, is often not the case. The Western media has a great deal to account for in either not reporting important topics, or doing so many decades too late. The fact that advertising is one of the largest source of income does little to help when it comes to a ‘free and independent press’. Nor do issues of ‘national security’, such as the War on Drugs.

      A few days after the appearance of Mr Yan’s article a group of investigative journalists revealed that some 130,000 people or companies avoid paying taxes by tucking their money in off-shore ‘tax havens’. The amount of this non-taxed wealth is greater than the GNP of many of the world’s largest economies. While the working man spends his life paying taxes, many of the world’s wealthiest millionaires and billionaires get away with paying few, if any, taxes at all. Also, it is a known fact that many countries legally allow multinationals to open headquarters at postal addresses, whereby they pay an extremely low rate of taxation. Here, too, the world’s wealthiest avoid paying taxes on incomes which far exceed the GNP of many countries.

      During the United States housing crisis millions of Americans were thrown out of their homes. Countless billions were available to save banks. Why didn’t people receive some form of assistance with their mortgages? These millions of people paid taxes their entire lives, unlike many banks, or those who invest in them.

      We all know about the millions who died under the rule of Stalin and Mao. What about the millions of Russians who have died since ‘privatization’ was introduced after the fall of the Soviet Union? Despite its many drawbacks, Eastern Europe had a system which guaranteed employment, housing, health insurance and inexpensive public transport. In the past centuries, monarchies, communist and fascist dictatorships – as well as capitialist and social democratic nations – have all enjoyed periods of growth and enormous prosperity at one time or another. After winning the Cold War, the West decided to throw out the baby along with the bathwater. Proving that one rigid dogma was better than another was an enormous blunder.

      The social-democratic systems of northern Europe have also come under enormous pressure to change their systems. I have lived for more than 30 years in the Netherlands. The image of the Netherlands as a tolerant, successful and free society has to a large extent become a fable. In the 1970s businesses started to import large number of ‘cheap workers’ from ‘non-Western’ countries. At the time it was the easiest solution to make a quick buck. Now, the country has millions of immigrants, along with growing intolerance and xenophobia. Immigrants, southern and eastern Europeans and the elderly are often openly insulted in the media. They are ‘to blame’ for the crisis.

      Also, the euro was forced down the throat of the Netherlands and many other countries. In addition, many efficient public facilities were privatized. They have been replaced by inefficient and bureaucratic institutions led, all too often, by the unqualified.

      Speaking of amnesia, where were the headlines and editorials many decades ago when something could have been done about limiting the effects of global warming? Cutting done the world’s forests, polluting the seas, paving much of the globe’s surface with cement and allowing many hundreds of milions of cars to spit exhausts into the air can only lead to environmental destruction. One does not need proof for what is logical, or for what can see with one’s own eyes.

      Much of US President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was based on the environment. Since being elected the word seems to have nearly vanished from his vocabulary. Instead, the US is investing many billions of dollars in shale mining and other polluting sources of energy. Why has this money not been invested in electric cars, public transport and alternative energy? The wind and sun can supply more than enough power. Short-term monetary and strategic interests have again gained the upper hand.

      The trouble is that most people believe that what is in their own interest is for the best. It is a basic fallacy of human nature. And those with the most money have the most say. Also news and propaganda are often one and the same. Who decides what ‘news’ is important?

      One of the media’s greatest challenges is the War on Drugs. In many countries there is little information concerning the effects of various drugs, nor is there discussion about why the War on Drugs is being waged in the first place. Very few people know anything about the matter. Which is strange, since hundreds of millions of people have either used or have experimented with drugs and millions have died as a result of the War on Drugs.

      I was dumbfounded when I learned decades ago that heroin does not damage bodily organs. In fact, alcohol and tobacco do much more damage than most so-called ‘hard drugs’. I have been researching this subject for 30 years – as well as first hand – and have never seen evidence to the contrary.

      Around half of those who are addicted to heroin have some sort of chemical imbalance in the brain known as the Endorphin Deficiency Syndrome – their DNA makes them prone to addiction. Most of the rest have had a traumatic childhood or other problems. This drug, or medicine (morphine and other derivatives) does not in and of itself cause bodily harm. [In fact, I recently read that some 80% of the world's (legal?) heroin is sold in pill form at US pharmacies.] Since those who smoke (or – unfortunately – inject heroin) become addicted, the brain severely limits its production of one of the body’s most vital substances. However, since many procure diluted and often harmful heroin, take an overdose by mistake, use addictive substances which are harmful, or cannot take care of themselves because they are (by government decree) criminals and the dregs of society, heroin is blamed for their deaths. Not the war. It is as if the authorities destroy the lives of heroin users – who often suffer from severe medical and social problems – and then ensure that they die or live lives of deprivation. The authorities then turn around and say: drugs kill. Most of these deaths could easily have been prevented if the authorities had taken a different attitude towards what should be a social and medical issue.

      The War on Drugs (marijuana, cocaine and heroin) in the US has led to the production of methamphetamine on a massive scale. I have read that there are now some 1.5 million methamphetamine addicts, a substance which is extremely harmful. The War on Drugs in Central and South America has perhaps caused millions of deaths.

      The US has an enormous prison population – millions of small-time users, dealers and couriers have been arrested. However, the wealthy who consume the drugs and the overwhelming majority who have made millions in trading drugs rarely linger in US jails – the same applies to other countries. Those who suffer and are imprisoned are the poor and the – at least relatively – innocent.

      The trade in illegal drugs is worth hundreds hundreds of billions of dollars. Also, many billions are earned from bribery, which has a corrupting effect in countries where police and government officials are either greedy or underpaid. Millions of the world’s poor earn their living from the trade in illegal plants. And last, but not least, the rehabilitation of drug addicts has also become a billion-dollar industry.
      Limiting the effects of substance abuse can only be achieved through legalization and treating the issue as a social and medical problem. It is time that we journalists speak out against this ongoing state-sponsored amnesia.

      The author is a writer, journalist and translator who has lived in the US, Israel, the Netherlands and Sicily.


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