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Memory, Forgiveness and Forgetting

March 14, 2005

If China is to find true greatness, it needs to be honest about its turbulent past

By Orville Schell

By the time former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and Premier Zhao Ziyang died in January, he seemed to have already vanished from the consciousness of most citizens of China. Because he had been under house arrest ever since that fateful May night in 1989 when he tearfully appeared in Tiananmen Square, and because the leaders who succeeded him controlled the media, Zhao became a kind of political antimatter.

Should anyone care if a country's method for dealing with its inconvenient history and unjustly disgraced leaders is to try to forget them? Are there consequences in failing to heed George Santayana's warning that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it?

China's leaders may have thought that they were following a different apostle, for Friedrich Nietzsche believed that "in forgiving and forgetting, things that have happened can be undone." But China has never stressed the "forgiving" part of Nietzsche's recipe. It is true that some "enemies" may have been "rehabilitated" after being accused of political crimes. (After the Cultural Revolution, both Deng Xiaoping and Zhao had their verdicts reversed.) But the Party's historical forgetting has tended to be selective and opportunistic. Not to be so readily forgotten (or forgiven) is the predatory history of the West toward China or Japan's brutal occupation of the country. These the Party tirelessly remembers and flogs, because it serves its purposes to do so.

Nelson Mandela once said "true reconciliation does not consist in merely forgetting the past." On the contrary, reconciliation requires an exhumation of the past, an examination of the evidence, a making of amends, and then a slow processing of injustices until they gain the status of less toxic history. And of all the great nations of the world, there is none with so large a reserve of undigested, poisoned history than China. Think of the killing of 1 million landlords, the Hundred Flowers Movement, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Think of Tiananmen, and the repeated ideological cashiering of leaders and mistreatment of dissidents since then. China has made little effort to work through the psychologically complex process of acknowledgment, apology and repentance. Instead, its leaders have remained frozen in stubborn postures of self-justification.

True, as measured by recent public expressions of dissent, their strategy—aided, of course, by the benefits of a vibrant economy—has so far seemed to come liability-free. But one wonders how long such avoidance will serve China. As Guan Zi, a text written around the 4th century B.C. on statecraft noted: "Those who would question the present should investigate the past. Those who do not understand what is to come should look at what has gone before." Even Deng Xiaoping once declared: "Our principle is that every wrong should be righted."

These lofty ideals have not been met. Instead, the Party has continued to manipulate the past. In the process, it has left China in a situation where its leaders all too often find themselves on the wrong side of their own history.

In this time of unmatched Chinese economic accomplishment and global success, what is still missing from China's political landscape is the kind of confident, bold leadership that is capable of looking honestly at the historical record; of acknowledging errors, failures and even great crimes; and of then making amends so that society can realign its official narratives with the truth. For it is no easy task for a society to live in a healthy fashion while enmeshed in a fabric of lies.

In pondering how China might begin to escape from its elaborate web of political fictions, one thinks of the gestures of contrition that German leaders have made toward other Europeans. Willy Brandt penitently fell to his knees in the former Warsaw Ghetto; Helmut Kohl reached for the hand of French President François Mitterrand in the bloodstained fields of Verdun. Such symbolism is the stuff from which true forgiveness is born and historical credibility restored. The death of Zhao presented one more opportunity for China's leadership to begin the long, slow process of doing something similar. Alas, this challenge has not yet been met. And one suspects that until Chinese leaders start to acknowledge the accumulated wrongdoing for which they and their predecessors have been responsible, the question of their nation's true greatness—which can never be a purely economic judgment—will elude them.

Orville Schell is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley