Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future by Ian Johnson - review by Rana Mitter

Rana Mitter

Scholars versus Censors

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future


Allen Lane 400pp £25

In the case of most societies, the best place to study, research and write about their modern history is inside the country itself. History is a cosmopolitan discipline, but there’s no doubt that there are more historians of American history in the United States than elsewhere, more historians of modern France in France and more of modern Italy there than outside the country.

This may seem self-evident, but it’s worth noting because of the anomaly surrounding modern Chinese history: while there are immense numbers of brilliant historians of China working in that country today, political constraints mean that for historians of the modern period, China does not provide the freest and broadest environment for the writing of history. In addition, materials for modern Chinese history, particularly for the period of communist rule since 1949, are often unavailable to scholars within China, leading to the peculiar situation where they fly to the West to read material in archives and libraries that also exists in China but is unavailable.

Ian Johnson is one of the most experienced and thoughtful Western journalists writing about China. His previous books include The Souls of China, an account of the recent rise of Christianity in the country and the attempts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to suppress it. Now he has turned his attention to one of the most important battles in contemporary China: the struggle to control history. During his decade in power, Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping has become increasingly concerned to make sure that only a single, authorised version of China’s modern history is visible, one shaped by the supposedly inevitable victory of the CCP itself. The past decade has seen a further narrowing of the already restricted space in which to discuss some of the most traumatic events of the recent past, most notably the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Johnson has undertaken detailed research with some of China’s ‘guerrilla’ historians, people who are trying to preserve the parts of China’s history that are in danger of being censored out of existence. He meets Ai Xiaoming, a documentary filmmaker and the granddaughter of a famous Nationalist Chinese general. One of her key works is on Jiabiangou, a notorious labour camp in northwestern China where prisoners were worked to death in the 1950s and 1960s. On the edge of the Gobi desert, the camp needed little guarding because escape was near-impossible. In recent years, survivors and relatives have tried to preserve some of its history and Ai’s films are part of that effort.

Ai’s career is remarkable for several reasons. One is her sheer bravery in seeking to tell a story the state would rather remained hidden. Her work is also an example of how new technology can assist the production of history in China. Cheap and easily portable cameras make it easy to record oral history, and the growth of social media means that videos can be posted and shared widely. Of course, China’s never-ending censorship regime means that there is a constant cat-and-mouse game when it comes to uploading material, but there are more advantages than twenty years ago on the side of those who want to tell an unconventional story. Other tactics to get round the crushing and vaguely defined restrictions imposed by the party are also available. One writer, Yang Xianhui, told the story of some of Jiabiangou’s inmates using fiction, presenting history through short stories.

Working through official channels does not guarantee protection or consistency. One major journal, Yanhuang Chunqiu (‘China Through the Ages’), operated for decades under the protection of liberal CCP figures, publishing material on party history that showed the rivalries and complexities that underpinned its rise to power. In the mid-2000s, its deputy editor was Yang Jisheng, author of Tombstone, a devastating account of the millions of deaths from starvation caused by the Great Leap Forward of 1958–62. However, in 2016, the journal was shut down, eventually reappearing under a much more compliant editorial board. In contrast there is Jiyi (‘Remembrance’), a bulletin of historical research that does not seek official recognition or distribution but operates as a limited-circulation newsletter, enabling its revelations on the Mao era to escape censorship.

One of the saddest chapters in Johnson’s book concerns changes in Hong Kong since the passing of the National Security Law in 2020 in the aftermath of pro-democracy protests. The government has used the law not just to clamp down on the small number of violent protesters, but also heavily to constrain the freedom of speech that was a given in Hong Kong from the final phase of British rule in the 1980s through the handover to China and up to the 2010s. Hong Kong has moved from being a place where most opinions and forms of speech were permitted to one where people are cautious to speak or write in case they are accused of sedition or violation of national security, categories of offence that are only vaguely defined.

While Hong Kong’s space for political discussion has been sharply narrowed, its academic freedoms have been left a little wider, not least as China has some desire to maintain the image of Hong Kong as an internationally open place for research. On the whole, however, the signs are worrying. One day in 2022, Johnson was sent an encrypted message by his friend Bao Pu, son of Bao Tong, the policy secretary of Zhao Ziyang, the liberal CCP general secretary placed under house arrest in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square protests. As the founder of New Century Press, Bao Pu had become well known for publishing memoirs and documentation supplied by CCP figures who could not publish them openly on the mainland. Thanks to him, Hong Kong had become an unofficial safety valve, a place where historically important memoirs could be published and preserved without breaking the political taboos that shape the mainland. The National Security Law, however, made booksellers extremely nervous about holding the kinds of books Bao produced. Bao’s message explained that the existing books would be destroyed by the warehouse where they were stored unless another home could be found for them. Eventually, Johnson was able to make sure that sets of the books were sent to major Western research libraries – another case of priceless material on Chinese history only being available outside the country.

Johnson’s account is moving and full of human character and detail. It’s a compelling read, beautifully written, and the product of deep research carried out in China over many years. Yet it’s a sad book, too. In the early 2000s, one Chinese historian of the Second World War was told by an interviewee that he was old and didn’t fear death, but did worry about dying before he could record his story. Most authorities in China today would rather that the stories of mass death and trauma in the era of Mao disappeared along with those who lived through them. The historians, chroniclers and filmmakers celebrated by Johnson are doing their best to prevent that from happening. This book is an exemplary tribute to their efforts, made lucidly comprehensible to a Western audience.

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