A very powerful and popular leader, with an equally strong wife, who organizes patriotic campaigns for ordinary people while at the same time allegedly orders the torture of his political rivals. For many Chinese, this all sounds very familiar.. Reading Bo Xilai’s story, it feels like it’s all just a little bit of history repeating. It was enough of a similiarity, that Premier Wen Jiabao could use it against Bo at the NPC meeting.
How to avoid making the same historical mistakes again and again? There is no better way than having an informed public who can look to the lessons of history, particularly the darker periods in the past. Slavery in the United States. Apartheid in South Africa. The Holocaust in Europe. These all have had profound and lasting effects, none of which can be fixed overnight or even over many generations, but without a discussion of those horrible moments in a country’s past then progress is not possible. There is still a lot of racism in America, but could the US have elected its first African-American president in 2008 if the government prevented schools from teaching about the history of slavery and racism in America or if If it had kept African-Americans from writing about their own stories and own experiences, no matter how uncomfortable that might make the majority?
However, in China, history is neglected and often intentionally manipulated. A good example is the famine which occurred from 1958 to 1961. Over 30 million Chinese died of starvation and many of those deaths can be attributed to bad CCP policies during the Great Leap Forward. However, in our history text books, the tragedy was solely the result of “natural disasters.”
Former Senior Xinhua Reporter, Yang Jisheng wrote a famous book called Tombstone, which uses primary materials, many unreleased, to analyze the real political reasons behind the famine. Of course, the book is officially banned in China, but I was lucky enough to get a copy from my friend who went to Hong Kong. I couldn’t believe how much I never knew and was never taught.
Many Chinese, even the ones who lived through the starvation never mind the younger generation, don’t know about the real causes of the famine. My parents were only children back then. They remember being hungry all the time. A small piece of candy was their breakfast and their lunch. They also called the time the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” and never questioned the real cause. One of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century happened right here, and nobody talks about it.
Without proper introspection, the problems have a history have their way of resurfacing. The Great Leap Forward was over fifty years ago but the Great Leap Forward mentality still exists. China’s push to build the fastest train in the world as quickly as possible, whatever the economic and human cost. Local governments competing with eachother to report the highest GDP figures or have the biggest, tallest, or fanciest new buildings built in their district. Even in the private sector, Chinese companies want to be worldbeaters, expanding rapidly without always considering product quality for consumers or the environment.
One of my aunts was sent to Shanxi when she was young. The only thing she had to eat was a kind of cornbread and porridge. Whenever she came home to visit, my grandmothers would ask her to take as much food as she could carry with her. She always ended up dragging bags and bags of flours, pickles, pancakes, and snacks with her on the train.
Today her own children aren’t interested in her stories. Even I am surprised by how my aunt sounds like she is telling some other person’s story. There is no anger or discussion of why it happened or who started the campaign that took away a decade of her youth. We talk about what happened, but not why. I don’t know if it’s because she never thought about it, or tries not to think about it, or whether growing up in such politically sensitive time makes her reluctant to speak openly about her experiences.
Many people in my parents generation, even those who lived through the political movements of Mao’s era, can relate to what Bo was trying to do. During the Reform and Opening up, the restructuring of state owned companies meant a lot of people lost their jobs and fell behind as others became richer and richer. After 35 years as a worker in a factory, my dad is still a big supporter of Mao. The reason is simple and straightforward: During Mao’s time, people enjoyed equality and there wasn’t any corruption. Bo is connecting with that feeling and it won him a lot of support.
But there was corruption during the Cultural Revolution and it appears from the stories coming out of Chongqing that Bo wasn’t any less corrupt than the officials he may have tortured.
Once again, we do not know what is the truth and what is the lie. Will we ever really know what happened in the Bo Xilai case?
Every society has its problems, but my country will continue to suffer from the scars of history until we, and the Party, has the guts to face the unpleasant things and to learn from our mistakes.