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China Again Whitewashes History

Beijing Twists the Anniversary of a Massacre to Back its Claim on Taiwan

You can tell a lot about a government by how it describes past events and by which political anniversaries it chooses to mark. On February 22, China announced it would commemorate the “228 incident” – the 1947 massacre in Taiwan of perceived anti-government protesters. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson An Fengshan praised the demonstrations as a “righteous act that…comrades took upon resisting authoritarian rule and fought for their basic rights. It was part of the people’s liberation.” But this is a twisted characterization of events that marks little other than Beijing’s narrative that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic.

A man stands in front of a convoy of tanks in the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in this June 5, 1989 file photo. © Reuters/Arthur Tsang

Beijing knows a thing or two about revisionist history and selectivity in political anniversaries. To mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015, Beijing called for accountability for the suffering caused by Japan. In 2014, President Xi Jinping presided over the first national commemoration of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre by Japanese forces in China.

But if independent voices want to mark other key political dates, share their version of history, or demand accountability for China’s role in those events, the government typically silences them. 

Have we seen accountability for the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, during which Chinese security forces killed untold numbers of protesters demanding a clean and democratic government? No: Instead each year Beijing marks the occasion by silencing the elderly parents who continue to pursue justice for their loved ones’ deaths. Does China use March 10 – the day some Tibetans commemorate the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese Communist rule – to debate whether policies in Tibet are acceptable to people there? Often it’s the opposite: Those who try to mark the occasion or discuss policies, even in subtle and private ways, are detained. Nor has Beijing managed to tolerate independent public discussions in China of the immense damage done by the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution – some of modern history’s greatest mass tragedies.

Until Beijing is willing to allow anyone who wants to peacefully and publicly examine history, to call on the government to account for its own conduct, and change policies as a result, its calls lauding resistance against authoritarianism are cynical and devoid of credibility. 

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