Ian Johnson discusses his new book, Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future, which describes how some of China’s best-known writers, filmmakers, and artists have overcome crackdowns and censorship to forge a nationwide movement that challenges the Communist Party on its most hallowed ground: its control of history.
O’NEIL: Great. Well, good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us here in the room and all of those who are on Zoom for today’s meeting.
I want to welcome you to one of our Book Launch Series. We’re here with one of our fellow authors and here is the book that we’re going to be talking about today, Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future.
I’m Shannon O’Neil. I will be presiding over this meeting. I am the vice president of studies and the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America studies here.
And it is my joy/honor/privilege to be here with Ian Johnson. For those of you who don’t know him, he is our Stephen Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies. He’s the author of this great book. If I get it right, this is the fourth book that you’ve written.
JOHNSON: Fourth, yeah.
O’NEIL: Fourth book you’ve written. He’s also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, so he’s written hundreds or dare I say thousands of articles for all kinds of outlets—New York Times, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, and many, many, many more. And he has lived twenty years in China. Is that right?
JOHNSON: Mmm hmm.
O’NEIL: And now we’re lucky enough to have him with us here in New York.
So we are going to have a conversation up here for the first half-hour, then I’m going to open it up to all of you and your questions. So please be ready for those.
And let me start with the title, Sparks. But it comes from something particular. So what was Spark, without the S?
JOHNSON: Spark was the name of a student journal that was founded—that started in 1960 by students who were caught up in a political campaign. They were exiled to a remote part of China right in the midst of the worst recorded famine in human history, up to 45 million people dying. They saw horrible things—cannibalism, et cetera. And like a lot of people in authoritarian states, they thought, if only the top leaders knew they would do something about it. So they thought, we’ll start a journal to try to let people know what’s going on. And they got their hands on a mimeograph machine, and they made an issue, and then they got a very prominent young poet to contribute work. And they wrote very trenchant essays on authoritarianism, the lack of free speech in China, how farmers didn’t own their land anymore, and that this was one of the roots of the famine; that the government had unbridled control over everything in the state.
And then, as you might imagine, they were quickly arrested. Over forty people were arrested/detained. Three were executed. Most of them went to jail for a dozen, fifteen years in labor camps. And that might have been the end of it. And there were probably many, many examples of these kinds of protests in China.
But what happened was in the 1980s, after the Mao era had ended, some people were allowed to look in their police files. And like in any good authoritarian bureaucratic state, the police files were absolutely complete. And so this guy, Jiang Shunyen (ph), whose picture is here—and these are the students—some of the students who were involved in it—he was executed. His girlfriend at the time—she was now in middle age—she got to look into her police file and she found everything. She found love letters between the two of them. She found complete copies of the journals. All the—because they had been destroyed. They only published a couple hundred of each—of each issue. Confessions, police records, roughly five hundred pages’ worth of documents. And it just sat with her for a little while, and then something happened, which is digital technology, which made—allowed this to spread starting in the late 1990s.
O’NEIL: So almost thirty, forty years later, she’s using this. So what does she do? Or what do others with her do with all the information they find in these files?
JOHNSON: Yeah. So digital technology, immediately people are going to think of the internet, social media, Tinder. I don’t know what you think. (Laughter.) But in any case—Uber. But, no, she—they just made PDFs and started to email it to people. And so with PDF, you know, if you think back to the Cold War, Samizdat publications, you have somebody with a piece of paper—carbon paper or another piece of paper. Maybe you could do triplicate, quadruplicate. You hand-wrote on a typewriter your journal and passed it to somebody else, and they’d copy it, and they’d copy it. But with PDFs, of course, you can—once you make it, you can email it to a lot of people. And slowly, word of this magazine and this student movement spread. And I think what really shocked people was how current the analyses were in the late 1990s, the early 2000s, or even today, the problems of one-party rule.
And this triggered—became a touchstone for many people in China trying to recover memories of the past that the government has tried to erase. There was a great documentary film made about it by the director Hu Jie. There have been some articles and books written about it. And people—one of the main characters in my book, the journalist Jiang Xue, she didn’t know anything about it. So I said, oh, you’re from Tianshui; you must know about Spark. And she said, oh, I don’t know anything about it. I went home, emailed her the five-hundred-page PDF, boom—this data download, including everything. So she then uses this as a basis to start reinvestigating this and writing her own articles. So this is kind of what I—this is why I thought of this.
And I think unlike then, when there was just one little spark or a few little sparks, I think you have more of this going on now, although, obviously, with challenges.
O’NEIL: So let me ask you in some ways just on that you see more of this going on. How did you—how did you end up writing this book? I mean, how do—you talk in here—I mean, she’s one of them, but you talk about these sort of underground historians that are—that are in China. And how did you meet them, get to know them? How did you decide to write this?
JOHNSON: Yeah. So the term underground historian, people are like, well, what do you mean by that? I didn’t—I was trying to avoid the word “dissidents” because I think dissident in many people’s minds, it implies somebody who has a direct political program to overthrow the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, and they often may be somebody who’s completely isolated in society. A lot of the people I write about—most of the people I write about in this book are—have at least one foot in the system. They hold jobs. They’re university professors. They own property, raise families, and do stuff like that. Some of them face challenges, certainly in the Xi Jinping era, but they are able to keep doing this.
And I say historians. Yesterday I gave a talk at Harvard and the first question was, well, how do you define a historian? And so I was like—(laughter)—wrong place to—
O’NEIL: It’s a very Harvard question. (Laughter.)
JOHNSON: —to make—to me this assertion, right? (Laughs.) But I said that, you know, so you have this person I mentioned, Jiang Xue, who’s also on the cover here, she’s not by most definitions a historian; she’s a journalist. Yet, I think she does create historical knowledge by unearthing things. Some of these people have Ph.D.s and have academic positions, but many of them are autodidactic in their—in their—in the way they go about things. Some of them just are trying to get things on the record—make video interviews, oral history interviews with survivors, with witnesses of that era before they die out so that future generations of Chinese people will have this data that they can use.
So I—that’s why I call them historians. And I got to know them simply, you know, by you meet one person and another person. And actually, I think a lot of people are—most people in the world I think are happy to talk about what they do once they trust you and they think you’re not going to misrepresent their work. So that was it. You know, and when people didn’t want to talk or they felt it was too sensitive or something, then I just respected that. But otherwise, I tried to follow them over many years in the field while they were doing work to see how they went about doing this.
O’NEIL: Great. So one of the really interesting things in the analysis I found in this book was you have sort of this term that you call—I don’t remember if it’s official forgetting or forgetting history. And there’s sort of the—you have this idea that the Communist Party, you know, this is part of—this is one of their tools. This is one of the things they do. And talk a little bit about why you think sort of controlling history or changing history over and over again over time periods, why that’s so important to the Communist Party. And then we can talk a little bit about, you know, the reaction that you—the people that you’re talking about who react to it. But why do they use this? Why is this important to them?
JOHNSON: For the party, history is legitimacy. The myth that everybody learns in China that’s in—that underlies exhibitions, et cetera, movies, video games, whatever you want is that the Communist Party saved China—that China had been laid low in the nineteenth century, the opium wars, et cetera; there were well-meaning patriots in the late nineteenth century, the first half of the twentieth century, they all failed; only the Communist Party put China back on its feet and laid a path for prosperity. And you know, there’s a kernel of truth in this, obviously; China is more prosperous than it was in the past, et cetera. But they don’t allow any other interpretation of events, and that in this telling only the party can rule China, and this is in a way performance legitimacy, if you want to say. They say, we’ve done such a splendid job—yeah, a couple of mistakes here and there, but basically a great job. And if you challenge that, then you pull away one of the pillars of their support because it—needless to say, it’s not through elections that they rule China. It’s through this claim that history has put us in power to save China, to rule China, to make China great. And that’s why it’s so important that they control it.
O’NEIL: I found also in your book that they control it, but they also change what they control, right? They’re trying to—they decide to change the kinds of things that they want to be part of the official history. So talk a little bit about how you’ve seen that change over time as, you know, the time you’ve been in—you know, when you were living there, that you’ve studied and you’ve written about. What are the big changes that you’ve seen or evolution of what official history has been?
JOHNSON: Well, one of the things that I found striking that sort of hit me in 2021, at that point Xi Jinping issued a new document on party history. So there’s been three times in the party’s hundred-year history where they’ve told exactly how history should be interpreted through a major, overarching document. Once was 1945. Mao did it once; it was in 1981. Deng Xiaoping did it. And then Xi Jinping did it again in 2021.
And you know, sometimes when you’re thinking of history, say, in our country, or in, say, open societies more generally, things that are in the past can be sometimes looked at more honestly and forthrightly because you can say, well, now when we think of what happened to Native Americans we can—many people have called it genocide, right, and we can see it much more clearly what happened than when we were right upon it. But in China, it’s the opposite. In China, in this telling of history that Xi Jinping promulgated in 2021, the Cultural Revolution and these other traumas from the last century got even less ink. So it isn’t, like, easier to talk about those events because they’re in the past; it’s almost harder because they’re trying to elide this, smooth it out into one seamless sort of gleaming seventy-five-year history of strength and success.
So that’s something that kind of caught me, the way they just keep—it’s almost like they’re honing it more and more, making the story better and better with each telling, so it becomes almost like a too-true or a just-so story or something like that.
O’NEIL: So what does that mean for your protagonists, for your underground historians? As they change this, where do your—some of your characters pop up? Is it that they’ve been telling this story all along but all of a sudden they’re on the wrong side of the new official story, or is it that they—how do you see them playing or, you know, iterating off of this sort of evolving official story?
JOHNSON: Yeah. One of the people I write about, this very garrulous, eccentric journalist in Hunan province, Tan Hecheng—and one of our guests here today is the translator of one of his major works, Stacy Mosher—he was—he tried to write the story of this massacre that had happened in the Cultural Revolution in 1985 for this official party magazine that he worked for called Hibiscus, like literary magazine. And his editor said, you know, it’s a little sensitive right now, but I bet if we just sit on it for twenty years—(laughter)—when you get older, by 2000, you can talk about this. For sure, 2020, before you retire, why don’t you write then? And he was like, hmm, I’m not—I’m not going to do that. (Laughter.) And just as well, because now he really can’t talk about that stuff. So he—people like that have seen for sure I think the window of things close, and this has been especially true under Xi Jinping.
O’NEIL: So tell his story a bit, or what he wanted to write and what happened.
JOHNSON: Well, he—I would say it’s a horrible story, but there was nine thousand extrajudicial killings. There was massacres that took place in this one county, led by party members. And the party, after the Cultural Revolution, under the reformist party leader of the time, Hu Yaobang, sent an investigation team. A thousand cadres went down into this county. And he went with them, because as a—as a state journalist he was considered part of a team. And they unearthed everything, found out what happened, and they tried to punish some people. And then they went back to Changsha or to Beijing, where they all came from, and then the political winds changed. Hu Yaobang lost power. They couldn’t write about it.
And he continued, though. He said he felt he’d given his word to the people he had talked to. He said, so future generations of Chinese will not suffer massacres like this, that they won’t suffer from these kinds of problems, I owe it to them; I have to do this. And so he has this—yeah, this very—he’s a very colorful person, but he’s—and a bit crazy, because having investigated this kind of horrible thing for almost all of his life. He would go down summers, his times off he would have, he’d travel down there and talk to more and more people, and published this immense opus in the 2010s which he kept sort of expanding and expanding about—it’s about six hundred pages in Chinese, I think. But with Stacy’s work, it was whittled down to a more manageable sort of four hundred fifty pages. (Laughter.) But he, yeah, published this fantastic work about that.
And he was marginalized, though. So he has one foot in the system, still kept his job, but he was never given a promotion, never given sort of a raise. He wasn’t allowed to kind of do anything. He wasn’t totally thrown out of the system. His daughter went to university and, you know, he—so it’s kind of a balancing act, I think. And for him, it’s harder and harder to talk about that in public or in China. He feels it’s become more—it’s sort of a more and more—I used to see him quite a bit because he spent a lot of time in Beijing, where his daughter lives, so.
O’NEIL: So you mentioned, you know, things are changing under Xi in especially the last, you know, decade or so. So talk a bit about—you just started talking about it there in that particular case, but talk a bit about that space for these alternative interpretations and how that’s changed in this last decade.
JOHNSON: Yeah. If you think of Xi Jinping, we don’t know the exact reasons why he was appointed, of course, but he was part of this movement in the party to, I think, sort of bring things back under control. They felt the pendulum had swung too far on a variety of things. And so even before he took power in 2012, the party was reining in social media, they were closing down the big influencers on social media, et cetera, et cetera. The future Nobel Prize-winning—Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo was arrested, and so on and so forth.
So he came in and immediately made history. One of his signature policies, I would say—one of his key cornerstone policies—in 2012, his first public appearance was at the National Museum of China in this exhibition, in this permanent exhibition which is still there today called The Road to Rejuvenation, which tells this sort of mythological story starting in the Opium War all the way to the glories of today about how the party saved China. And then the next year he said that he sort of ruled out criticism of the Mao era, and it went on. 2016, he closed down this alternative history journal that his own father had endorsed. His father had been a victim of the Mao era to some degree. He was a high-ranking party official and he had endorsed the magazine, given it a piece of calligraphy. As one—as one does in China when one is a senior leader and one likes something, one writes calligraphy and gives it to the magazine. And he—but it didn’t matter to Xi Jinping; he closed that down. And then, in 2021, this capstone new directive on party history.
So the room for maneuver for these people is less than it was before. Probably the heyday of all of this would have been twenty years ago, roughly. But what interested me and the people I profile are people who are active today, in the Xi era. So I really only began researching this in 2014 or something like that, so this is not in the 2000s. These people were—most of these people were active in the 2000s, but they’re still active today, still doing things today.
O’NEIL: Let me ask you about sort of the role of digital because, you know, in your story about Spark, the reason that it kind of rejuvenated and is back and then that people know about it, you knew about it and now we know about it, was the digital side, right? You could send a PDF or you could send it out there. But you know, we also have the sense that China and sort of the heavier, you know, China hand on keeping down these things is also very digital too, right, its surveillance and its (assets ?). So talk a little bit about how you see that balance of, you know, a more digital experience in life providing opening but also perhaps making it much easier to shut these kinds of voices down.
JOHNSON: Yeah. We’re probably very familiar with the surveillance state in China—digital cameras all over the place, internet censors, and so on. And that’s all very real, and that’s made it very hard for people to have even—to have discussions on even relatively harmless issues or things that the party should support or officially does support. But I think there is, to some degree, a value in this digital resistance; I mean, things that can be done we take for granted now but have really changed the game, things like digital cameras. If you think of how a documentary film or a film had to be made thirty years ago versus how it’s made now, you ca have a small, handheld camera with image-stabilization software. You don’t need a tripod. You don’t need a cameraman. You don’t need a giant thing. You don’t have to send the film off to be processed. You can edit the whole thing on your laptop. And that’s allowed people to make very ambitious films.
One of the people I profile is this feminist academic, but very prolific documentary filmmaker, Ai Xiaoming. And she—Professor Ai has made twenty-odd documentary films, including a six-hour opus on this infamous labor camp in northwestern China. And these are people who have great ambition and drive, and they’re familiar with the works of—great documentary works like by Claude Lanzmann, Shoah. They’ve watched all these films. And they may be a little bit autodidactic in how they do it—they haven’t been to a film academy, et cetera—but they’re trying to make works of equal scope and ambition. And I think that that’s kind of remarkable. So I think that’s allowed them to push back—if not push back against the party so much, at least to keep things alive and to keep things for another day. And I think that’s maybe how some of them come down on this, that they want to at least keep the flame alive for future generations of Chinese.
O’NEIL: And so, for instance, with her documentary is—it’s easier to make them, but what about that distribution? Is it—you know, what’s the balance of, you know, opening yourself up, being very vulnerable if these things get out there and, you know, people can find her—especially those, you know—you know, enforcement—party enforcement can find her and finding a bigger audience? How do you see that balance evolving?
JOHNSON: I think in her case, she has a lot of restrictions. She was just told last year that she can’t leave China for another ten years, until 2032. They were very specific about that. And—otherwise, she would go abroad to—she’s been invited to go to talks and to get awards and stuff like that, but she can’t leave.
But, yeah, I think the balance—I think the balance is difficult for those kinds of people. But I think that overall they’re willing to persevere because they have this fundamental belief that’s been inculcated by most stories in China over the years, stories that every schoolchild knows that sort of history in the end vindicates the righteous person; that might does not defeat right. And this is probably a universal human ideal or hope, but this is something that you find in every school textbook. China’s first great historian, Sima Qian, suffered greatly so that he could write. He was disgraced and even castrated, and ended up having—writing his first—the first great history of China. And so people see themselves in that tradition, of people who are persecuted now but who will be recognized later.
O’NEIL: Let me ask you, I mean, this book is particularly about these historians and documentarists and the like, but you’ve written a lot about civil society and religious groups and others, and you know, a broader—and talk a little bit about that space for people, sort of independent, you know, thought and organization and ideas. And how do you—how have you seen that change over the, you know, twenty-plus years that you were living or, you know, going to China?
JOHNSON: Well, the space has basically evaporated—(laughs)—is the short answer.
I wrote a first book on China called Wild Grass, which looked at grassroots civil society organizations. And I finished writing it in 2001, and then the—9/11 happened, actually, and the publisher said let’s hold off a little bit. So the book was ultimately published in 2004. And my three case studies that I had, they—all three people failed in setting up their civil society piece. And at the time, when the book came out people were like, gee, you know, you’re really negative. (Laughter.) Like, everybody, they all failed. What’s up with that? Couldn’t one of the people at least succeeded, you know? And, well, I thought, you’re right, but I felt like ultimately they will succeed or something like that.
And in the 2000s it was quite hopeful for civil society. There were more and more groups and organizations forming. But that was, I think, part of that, from the party’s perspective, pendulum swinging too far. So civil society has been almost entirely closed down, unless you want to define completely apolitical religious associations or something like that, pilgrimage associations as civil society, which they may be to some degree. But certainly anybody with even a tinge of a political agenda, they are—they have been closed down.
So whether—but I don’t really consider these people to be part of civil society in the sense of an organization. I think it’s an overall—it’s a movement, but it’s an inchoate movement. It’s something that’s happening in China, but it’s not part of any sort of organization. The party could close that down too easily. Yeah.
O’NEIL: So here, if you’ve been reading the news, obviously, things look a little grim in China, right? We hear lots of stories about economic slowdowns, about young people not having jobs, about sort of demographic challenges, all these things coming. And for many years, at least, you know, the sort of economic prosperity and growth was one of the (ballasts ?), right, that the party was touting. And so as you look forward, how do you see, you know, the sort of uncertainty on the economic side? One, what does that mean for the kinds of things—these sort of alternative histories? What does it mean for any kind of space in the future? Is it—you know, if they lose their legitimacy, might there be more space down the road? Or is it just that it’s so difficult that any—how do you see this balance between, you know, allowing people some entrepreneurship and thought and the like, which would maybe rejuvenate the economy, potentially, but this need for control and the fear, perhaps, that you see from the top?
JOHNSON: One interesting development was the white paper protests last year. As you might recall, they were called that because people were holding up pieces of white paper because they didn’t even want to write anything on it, but it was to show that they were kind of censored. And that was a reflection of a couple of years of real hardship that the party had put people through, and I think the realization by a lot of people that it was increasingly unnecessary and that it was—might have made sense in 2020, but by the second half of 2021 didn’t make any sense, and certainly by 2022 these endless lockdowns, the hardship, the suffering, the many cases of people dying because they couldn’t go to a hospital because of lockdowns and all that sort of thing, that it just didn’t make any sense. So people protested.
And some of the people I write about in the book, they came to more public prominence. One of the people, for example this documentary filmmaker, Ai Xiaoming, she wrote a very well-regarded or very popular diary about her time in Wuhan. The journalist Jiang Xue became—her essay has become extremely popular, went viral. And if you—so if you think to those protests, they could be seen as an outlier. Certainly, in the ten years at that point of Xi Jinping’s rule, they were outliers. They hadn’t been, really, protests like that. But they could also be harbingers for future problems that are quite possible. And one doesn’t have to be a complete pessimist to construct a scenario which I think is becoming more and more real with each sort of passing day or month that Xi Jinping is kind of divorced from reality; that he’s pursuing counterproductive policies on the—certainly on the economic front; and that this will lead to—and on top of that, you have long-term problems in society such as demographics which would challenge even the most enlightened, forward-thinking government. But in this case, you could—it’s not—it’s not impossible to think of social tensions rising up.
The past thirty or forty years have been this amazing period of economic growth, 9 percent growth on average for the first thirty years. That papers over a lot of cracks in society. There have been a lot—there’s been a lot of turmoil, really, over that period also: Tiananmen, the crackdown on the Falun Gong movement which sent thousands of people to labor camps, et cetera. But still, tomorrow’s a better day and you think that my kid can go to college, my kid will be able to afford an apartment, et cetera, et cetera. You tend to keep your head down and just try to focus on your family and making your life better. But if that is called into question, then I think you begin to look for alternative explanations for reality because the party’s explanation is clearly then not working. And in that case, I think there becomes more demand for people like this. Just like as we saw in the white-paper protests, I think we could see more of that in the coming decades.
O’NEIL: So I’m going to ask one more question and then I’m going to open it up to all of you here in the room as well as online. So please be ready with your questions.
And this question takes us out of China and here. So, how can those here constructively support some of this opening? Whether it’s journalists or it’s policymakers or business leaders or others, what is it that, you know, those in the, you know, quote/unquote “West” or other places can do that won’t hurt these people, that would be actually helpful.
JOHNSON: Well, in my conclusion I plead sort of or challenge civil society in open societies and open countries of the United States through Western Europe, Japan, et cetera to engage more with these people. It’s been sort of surprising to me that there’s been no major retrospective of Ai Xiaoming’s works or of Hu Jie’s works. These are ambitious, major documentary filmmakers, but for whatever reason maybe they don’t have a sort of arthouse enough angle. Maybe their stuff is too they put their heart too much on the on their sleeve or something. I’m not too sure exactly why. But I think, like, we don’t take them as part of our intellectual world, or we tend to think of them as something exotic in this faraway country. But they should really be part of our world.
There’s, you know, a Columbia University professor, Saidiya Hartman, who’s kind of an academic superstar; long New Yorker profiles of her for her work—her fictionalized accounts of enslaved people and the techniques that she uses to sort of fill in that void in our history, that we don’ know what people exactly thought who were brought over on the ships. There are Chinese people doing the same thing, you know, and it would be interesting to have them on panels, to bring them over.
I think also foundations could support more translation work. I don’t know the exact economics of publishing forty, fifty years ago, but my impression is that it was more—the publishers maybe just had more money sloshing around and they were willing to spend money on translating Central and Eastern European writers. But I think a lot of those people who were sort of household names in the ’70s and ’80s would not have been household names or wouldn’t have been known today because they wouldn’t have passed whatever B-school test on profitability for—and so I think that if they’re not willing to do it, then foundations could step in. And they have in some cases. They have done some work. But there’s so much more. There’s so many of these works that haven’t been done.
For example, the novel I’m alluding to that fits right into that is a novel called Soft Burial, and it’s about the campaign against these people who are called landlords. But they were really just small landowners, the gentry that had sort of run China. And in the early—so in the early—late ’40s/early ’50s, the party killed about 1.5 million of these people. The novelist Fang Fang has written a book, a novel called Soft Burial, about that. The very well-known translator Michael Berry at UCLA has got this novel locked and loaded, ready to translate it; can’t find a publisher. Nobody will publish it. You know, I’ve even written some publishers and said, hey, take this on. But you know, it’s costly. You’re going to have to pay him to do that and the profit margins aren’t really there. But foundations could step in to help in that regard, too, I think.
There’s some of that being done in terms of documentary work, documents, party documents and official types of things so we understand what the party’s doing. But let’s also try the other side of the equation and translate more of these novels, more of these essays, the journalistic work, and so on.
So let me invite the members in the room, those online with any questions. Let me start right over here, sir.
Q: Thank you, Shannon. I’m Craig Charney of Charney Research.
You know, you mentioned Sparks and the Spark that was the journal. Spark, of course—Iskra—was the name of an important Russian pre-revolutionary journal. So I’m wondering both to what extent the kids involved have identified themselves with the revolutionary tradition or, on the other hand, to what extent they identify themselves with the dissidents of the Samizdat era. You mentioned that they published information on human rights, and I immediately thought of the Chronicle of Current Events, which was the Samizdat version of that. Likewise, have any of them become theoreticians the way Havel was with the power of the powerless? So I’m wondering kind of where they—who they identify with and who they see their intellectual roots as.
JOHNSON: Oh, thanks. That’s a great—the journal Spark, I wondered about that also, but they—it was named after this idiomatic expression in China, a single spark can cause a prairie fire, which is probably—seems like an idiomatic expression in English also. (Laughter.) But anyway, so that was in that specific case.
The modern base, a lot of the people I write about look to the intellectuals from Central and Eastern Europe very much. The journalist I mentioned, Jiang Xue, she quotes Havel quite a lot. She also quotes Hannah Arendt and other thinkers from that sort of part of the world. I think they’re somewhat inspired by it.
For example, at the turn of this—the beginning of this year, Jiang Xue wrote a really great essay about the white paper protests and she quotes Havel. Havel had a famous essay saying, who are the young people—who are these young people who stood up to protest in the late ’80s and so on and so forth? And so she says, who are the young people in China? Who are these people? Because they’re supposed to all be brainwashed. They’re all supposed to be nationalistic dupes and so on and so forth, and yet they did challenge the party in a limited way last year. And so I think she—they are inspired by those—by that movement.
O’NEIL: Yeah, right there.
Q: Thank you. Elliot Waldman. I work at a(n) investment fund called Point72.
Could you talk a little bit about the second part of your subtitle, the Battle for the Future? What kind of vision of the future do these historians and journalists and documentarians generally have? You mentioned they’re not dissidents explicitly, but what do they see as the stakes of their work heading into the next, you know, generations?
JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s a continuum. There are people who view their work sort of academic, that they just want to write papers on this and they maybe don’t have such an agenda. Then there are other people like this journalist I mentioned, Jiang Xue. She has much more of an agenda that she’s trying to—I don’t want to say undermined, but she’s trying to certainly challenge the Communist Party on its sacred ground of control of history.
I don’t think they have—this is not an organized movement, so they don’t sort of have a ten-point plan or anything like that. I think the overarching view is that they want to complicate people’s ideas of history. They want to show these other sides of Chinese history. And many of them are also very, very patriotic in some ways. They view this as their duty as Chinese people to tell their country’s stories and that all the research done on the Cultural Revolution isn’t done only by Western academics. They say, you know, it should be done also by Chinese people inside China, not people who have been forced to leave. And so that’s sort of a matter of pride for them. But I don’t think they have a definite agenda.
O’NEIL: I’m going to turn to online and then I’m going to come back to you, Dan. Yeah.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Raj Bhala.
Q: Hi. Thank you for this fascinating book and presentation. I’m a professor of international law the University of Kansas and teach in trade and law and Islamic law.
My question is whether you see any parallels to what you’ve been writing about so eloquently to India. Of course, their histories are very different. The Hindutva movement, a Hindu nationalist movement, is also rewriting history by some accounts, including the history of Mahatma Gandhi and the founders of the country. And I’m wondering—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—complete contrast when you look at it from a Chinese perspective.
JOHNSON: Yeah. I don’t know India well enough to really comment on that, but I would say that it is common in many authoritarian states to rely on history as a prop. I mean, Putin does that also. He makes all these outlandish claims—territorial claims based on Russian history. We see that, of course, around the world.
In China, it has a particular resonance, perhaps, because this is something—the control of history is something that dynasties sort of used to legitimize their rule as well, and it’s something that is sort of part of every schoolchild’s education, that history itself is almost a sacred calling. But I think you’re right that other countries do that as well, especially when they go down this nationalist path.
Q: Thank you so much.
A comment. I’ve experienced the airbrushing of history firsthand in terms of how we define what market economy status means, for example. Since WTO accession to today, that’s something I, like, constantly am trying to hold the line on a little bit.
But my question is this: Do international historians of China, including in the United States, keep the flame for veracity here? Or are they being captured and nudged by the official history work that is the domestic tension that you’re describing?
JOHNSON: Well, there are some academics who, I think, pull their punches on China or are very concerned about getting access to China. And this is—of course, when you’re doing some sorts of work, especially if your research relies on field work, and if you don’t have access to the country, it’s very hard. So then they often will go there and do things, maybe say some things that are somewhat cringeworthy. But I think overall the answer, though, is no. I don’t think most do.
And I think that there’s much more synergy between people inside China and people outside China, especially exiled groups; that I see much more interchange. One of the magazines that I write about, this Samizdat history magazine Remembrance, I just got the 343rd issue emailed to me yesterday or the day before. They’re partially edited by Chinese grad students in Texas, and so they have some help, some infrastructure support. Most of the writing is still done inside China, but they get some sort of backend help here. And then it gets distributed also here back into China, and so on. So I think there’s a much more fruitful interchange.
O’NEIL: I want to come here.
Q: Hi. Maggie Lewis, Seton Hall Law.
I wondered what the reaction has been of your Chinese citizen friends inside and outside of China, recognizing it’s probably hard to get this to them inside China. And then wondering, are you looking to do a translation probably not from a China-based press but from Taiwan—(laughter)—or other Chinese-language press outside of China and Hong Kong?
JOHNSON: Yeah. People’s Publishing House is not going to take this book. (Laughter.)
The second part is, yes, the Taiwan publisher Gusa—G-U-S-A—or Bachi (ph), they were in the news earlier this year because the head of the publishing house was nabbed when he went back to Shanghai. And anyway, they’re publishing it. They’re still—they’re still working—they’re still working on the translation right now.
You know, overwhelmingly, people have just been thrilled that somebody is writing about it. So, you know, one of the questions I get is, are you getting these people in trouble because you’re naming them? Of course, I—the prime directive—(laughs)—it’s like Star Trek; the prime directive for journalists in China is do no harm, and so you don’t want to get people in trouble and you have to check with people beforehand how comfortable they are. And if people aren’t comfortable or if it changes, then that’s fine; you can anonymize them or—but no one in this book is anonymized. I don’t—and if I did, it would be very clearly noted. But overall, I think that people are happy to—especially the main characters that I write about, they’re already—they’ve already taken so much flak they’re sort of like, it’s fine, great, go ahead. (Laughter.)
And there’s also the feeling that some people have that if I’m better known then it’s harder for the authorities to move against me. I’m not sure if that’s always the case, but I think that it can to some degree afford a measure of protection.
O’NEIL: Let me go up here first and then to Sheridan.
Q: Thank you. I’m Rory MacFarquhar from the investment company Gemsstock Limited.
Could you say just a couple of words on the official and unofficial interpretation of Tiananmen Square and how, you know, something that actually occurred in the living memory of presumably every Beijing resident over forty is not talked about or talked about by these people?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Tiananmen is one of those issues that the party has had to deal with in a variety—with a variety of tactics. The craziest one that I saw recently was some AI-generated photo of tank man. You know tank man, the famous picture of the guy standing in front of a tank? This one, tank man is taking a selfie of himself with a tank behind. So you’ve got the camera up here and there’s the barrel of the gun behind him. (Laughter.) It’s just like, this is—no, this is in China, right, so it’s sort of to say, hey, it was, like, a crazy time on Tiananmen Square; you know, we’re all having fun taking selfies with the PLA. I don’t know how far that is going to go. That seems like sort of one of those things that might not be such a great idea.
But the party has said—has admitted that people died, but they kind of will say that—they’ll emphasize that soldiers died. And while it’s true that a few soldiers died, and the—but the overwhelming number were ordinary citizens who died. The party tries to reverse that and say, well, you know, a lot of soldiers died and maybe some other people died. But actually it was chaos, it was tumult, and to basically erase that history as much as possible. I think this is one of these cases where, as things recede into the distance, they’ll make it a prettier and prettier picture or just sort of completely erase it entirely. But I think that the—overall, there’s always these elements of truth.
One of—one of the scenes I sort of describe in the book, I went to this historical archive outside of Nanjing because I was very interested in the history of this temple complex, which is sort of on a par with a cathedral in Europe. And they had these things called gazetteers, which are local histories, that are done by the local government. After the Cultural Revolution, the gazetteer that was issued—it’s, like, in 1988 or 1990—said the temple was destroyed mainly in the Cultural Revolution. Now the most recent gazetteer said the temple was mostly destroyed by Japanese in World War II; doesn’t mention the Cultural Revolution at all. And so that’s the kind of rewriting of history that goes on.
Tiananmen will be harder, right, because many people can find out about it without too much effort. But they try to say, you know, it was—maybe the cleverest spin is something like, you know, it was a really bad time, and that’s why we need stability. And kind of just try to leave it at that, right? And: We don’t want to have that again, right? So that sort of message is what they give.
O’NEIL: Right here.
Q: Hi. Thanks. Sheridan Prasso from Bloomberg.
I wonder if you can, Ian, place this book in the kind of history of your own work in terms of when you were writing about Falun Gong you kind of knew that they were doomed to fail. And the human rights lawyers, you kind of knew that they weren’t really going to work out. But yet, in this work it seems like you have some optimism that they’ve found a space to operate. Do you think it’s—would you put that in terms of kind of the history of sort of failed efforts at, you know, creating/opening spaces? Or would you say that this is actually something that can last and the battle for the future might actually be won?
JOHNSON: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more optimistic. (Laughter.) It’s usually the other way around, maybe.
I think that this movement has survived. I have a very optimistic line in there about how the party has given it its best shot and the party now sits there, its leader aging, the economy slowing. He’s increasingly isolated, and yet these people are conditioned to think of success as long-term, like over the generations. And so there they know in their lifetime they may not succeed but they want to keep this going. And I think right now they are keeping it going with help from people overseas, which I think is a bit of a change, especially Chinese exile groups and so on.
You know, I haven’t really investigated this too much, even though I’ve been in New York now for a couple of years, but it’s something I should look into a bit more, but it seems like there is more interaction and more flow back and forth, more useful flow, these salons and stuff that you see and young people being very interested in this. I gave a talk yesterday at Harvard and there obviously—university and a lot of young people, but a lot of young Chinese people were just really, really interested and wanted to find out about that, and I think it runs against this simplistic narrative that all young people have been brainwashed and that patriotic education has worked entirely. That’s probably true for the majority of people but it’s probably true in any society that the majority of people don’t push for change, right, and change usually starts with smaller groups of people pushing for change, and that later, with the right circumstances, of course, that can—they can succeed. But it isn’t a foregone conclusion, but it is a possibility, I think.
O’NEIL: Go right here.
Q: Hi. (Off mic)—Harvard University. (Laughs.) Sorry I missed you there yesterday. So yeah, thanks, Ian.
You have nicely cast this as a kind of state versus society or state versus a segment of society story. I’m wondering, though, to what extent this is also a sort of battle going on within society. And to what extent are there kind of nationalist or statist kind of a base of support for that narrative organically, within society, such that, you know, yes, maybe if the sort of freedom of speech were improved today in China this would explode; maybe it would fizzle? To what extent is there a base that you see of kind of the nationalist historiography independent of state coercion?
JOHNSON: I think—you know, there are definitely nationalists in China. You see them in social media all the time. Of course they are unchallenged by anyone currently. Twenty years ago, fifteen years ago, it was a bit different, but now they have free rein and they can do and say what they want. It would be interesting to see if there were a debate in society, but right now that’s hard to see. I do think, of course, if China suddenly had Westminster democracy or something like that that we might well see a nationalist party that could be more nationalistic than the CCP take power, maybe a party that pledged, you know, to invade Taiwan tomorrow, and that kind of party could win. So it’s not at all a foregone conclusion that China will have a happy ending if only it would open it a little bit.
O’NEIL: Right here, please.
Q: Hi. My name is Joyce Lai.
So you mentioned that, like, how technology has enabled these people to be more, I guess, prolific with their writings and to be able to share it more, right? So, like, nowadays we actually have computing networks that are decentralized and people are able to basically save things now, not on somebody’s server but in an uncensorable way. But I find it really odd that I haven’t really seen that being used too much by people like the people that you’re writing about, or maybe that does exist and I just don’t know about it. So I’m wondering, like, if you see stuff like that and if you think that could be useful to journalists or historians that are in those situations.
JOHNSON: Yeah, there was a very interesting profile in the New York Times three or four months ago, maybe two or three months ago, by Vivian Wang of a computer programmer who had done similar work like that in China and he had saved all kinds of information in very hard-to-crack systems and he had been—gone on the offensive and thought he had anonymized himself but the party, the security apparatus had spent a lot of time tracking down, figuring out who he was. It took them a couple years and they eventually arrested him, and he had done this anonymously. And the profile was sort of of his wife who wasn’t even aware of everything that he had done. She thought he was just holed up in his room doing whatever on the computer. (Laughs.) And so yeah, I’m not sure, exactly.
The people I profile are not so much—and I’m also sort of skeptical of the super-tech fix, that there’s some way of encrypting it or whatever, that no one can crack and no one will know about. Twenty-odd years ago when I wrote about Falun Gong, people then were using software PGP, Pretty Good Privacy, which encrypted emails and you could encrypt—at that time almost sort of uncrackable, and that worked for a while. But people I’m writing about, it’s more about network building and it’s more on a low-key personal basis; it’s more people knowing each other, talking to each other, and yes, through emails and stuff like that but also through simple things like USB sticks, saying, here’s a great film, take a look at it, and that kind of thing, which I think, if we look at the history of how movements are built, it tends to be that kind of grassroots networking that’s more successful in the long run or at least it’s a precondition for the big sort of blowup that we tend to look at. We tend to look at the protests on the street. That’s the thing that gets our attention. But it’s stuff that builds up to that. And if it’s just a protest, then it can be like a straw fire and it’s gone, but successful movements tend to be built with a lot of one-on-one networking and I think this is what digital technologies can make easier.
O’NEIL: In our last few minutes here, you know, a lot of analysis here and thinking about the state and people, but one of the amazing things about this book is the stories, and as one would expect from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, they’re well told, but I want to bring you back and ask you to tell one of these stories. And you can do the ones you want but the one that really struck me in the reading was the story about the ditch, and so you can choose that one, you can choose a different one, but lay out a bit the story and how some of these, you know, underground historians have done it.
JOHNSON: Yeah, the ditch is one name, one translation for Jiabiangou, which is a notorious labor camp from the Mao era where thousands of people died. And it was the—it became known through a couple of people who wrote memoirs and who wrote short stories about it in the late 1990s, and that sort of spread knowledge of it. And then the director who I mentioned before, Ai Xiaoming, who’s made a couple dozen films, she went up and did this enormous, long documentary film about it. And what was, I think, really interesting was how intensely low-tech it is.
She—and I think it was one of the hallmarks of these films is that they don’t want it to look like some slick government propaganda film. They want it to be gritty and they want to show themselves at work, the challenges. She went up there and did the whole film with just one assistant, who was a volunteer. She paid her own way. There was no funding and no foreign funding, because that could be really—could get you in trouble. And she spent just a long time meditating on the landscape. This is sort of a theme in my book is the landscape of memory, and walking around the areas she could still find, you know, scapulas and various other femurs and other large bones in the sand. (Laughs.) And she—and talked to a lot of different people.
But it’s mainly—her film is about the past but it’s also about efforts to commemorate it today. And so she uses that story as a way to talk about memory today and she talks about this person who wanted to put up a stele, you know, a stone slab to commemorate the dead, and initially he got the slab to put up; it’s a big tombstone. But afterwards I think the government realized it was a bad idea and they smashed it and he was only able to save a couple of fragments of the tombstone. But that kind of a battle is what the film is about and she spent a long, long time working on it and she did it really all at her own cost. It’s quite, I think, a remarkable film.
O’NEIL: So there are booksellers outside, if anyone wants to pick up a book. I am sure—I’m going to offer up Ian to sign books as well, which I’m sure he’ll be happy to do. But this is really—it is a sober but very optimistic take, as we’ve heard, on where perhaps China is—not its history but its future goes. So please join me in thanking Ian. (Applause.)