The latest episode of The President’s Inbox is live! This week, Jim sat down with Ian Johnson, the Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. They discussed Ian’s new book, Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future, which documents grassroots efforts to challenge the Chinese Communist Party’s telling of the country’s history.
Ian Johnson, the Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how Chinese filmmakers, journalists, and artists are challenging the Chinese Communist Party’s version of history.
Here are three highlights from their conversation:
1.) History buttresses political power in China. Chinese leaders through the millennia have sought to control the telling of history as a way to cement their authority over the country. Ian noted that “each dynasty would rewrite the previous dynasty's history and show that that dynasty fell into corruption and that the new dynasty had to take over power from the old dynasty, and that's why it was allowed to rule the country.” Chinese leaders are not alone in rewriting history to serve their political needs. Other autocrats have as well. Russian President Vladimir “Putin does the same thing,” Ian observed. “Russia was going into decline at the end of the Soviet Union. [Former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin couldn’t really keep the country together. Putin had to stand in and right the Russian ship.”
2.) The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is cracking down on historians who challenge its historical narrative. Ian sees obvious signs that the CCP is anxious about the challenge that dissident historians pose. The way he put it, the party is experiencing “a fear of loss of control.” Despite the ongoing crackdown, Chinese filmmakers, journalists, and artists are keeping records that go against the CCP’s telling of history. Digital technology like USB thumb drives enables underground historians to circulate their work without relying on printed copies that can be seized, while more widespread access to virtual private networks allows users to bypass censored content.
3.) The United States should engage with China’s underground historians. Ian argued that the U.S. government should engage “with the kinds of people I profile in the book.” He urged universities and institutions to “invite more of these people to come over for fellowships and to talk for film festivals, to show their films, to show that there is another China out there.”
If you’re looking for more of Ian’s work, check out his recent Foreign Affairs article, “Xi’s Age of Stagnation.”