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“Despite overwhelming odds, people inside China today still publish works and make films that challenge authority. Their ideas still spread, and when problems in society reach a boiling point, they are often looked to for ways of thinking about their country,” writes Ian Johnson in his new book, Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future. “The fact is that independent thought lives in China. It has not been crushed.”
“Since taking power in 2012, Xi Jinping has made control of history a top domestic priority. He has closed scores of unauthorized journals and museums and jailed those who oppose his version of the truth,” Johnson explains. “For modern Chinese leaders, history legitimizes their hold on power: history chose the Communist Party to save China; history has determined that it has succeeded; and history blesses its continued hold on power.”
Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), notes that “a growing number of Chinese see the Party’s monopoly of the past as the root of their country’s current authoritarian malaise.” Johnson draws parallels to the samzidat movement where dissidents circulated clandestine publications and helped undermine authoritarian rule in the Cold War. He describes a nationwide movement of counter-historians in China—university professors, independent filmmakers, underground magazine publishers, novelists, artists, and journalists—who “seek to correct the Party’s misrepresentation of the past and change their country’s slide toward ever-stronger authoritarian control.”
Through films and books that critique famines and political purges from the Mao Zedong era to videos and reports that document the government’s mishandling of COVID-19 under Xi Jinping, these counter-historians bypass censors and challenge a wellspring of Communist Party power.
“The events in Wuhan show the potential anger, dissatisfaction, and critical thinking that lies beneath the surface,” writes Johnson. “It is clear that the government lost control of how the history of the virus outbreak was being written—and even now seems unlikely ever to recover it fully.”
“For China’s future, the clearest implication is that state control does have limits,” Johnson contends. “China’s surveillance state is real, but it is not able to completely crush independent activists who avail themselves of digital technology.” As Johnson notes, “All they need is a computer and a data connection to mount their challenge.”
Read more about Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future and order your copy at cfr.org/book/sparks.
To interview the author, please contact CFR Communications at 212.434.9888 or [email protected].