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Why China Can Buck Global Trends

The `Chinese amnesia' - a propensity to forget past tyrannies - helps leaders maintain control

By James L. TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 1991



BEIJING

PUBLIC response to ``Red Lantern,'' a Peking Opera production, reveals why China is likely in 1991 to remain frozen in repression as other socialist countries warm to liberal freedoms. The hero of the opera, in a fervent farewell to the communist revolution, declares that the bond uniting workers is even stronger than ties among family.

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As the underground communist agent is hustled away to martyrdom, the sell-out audience at the China Peking Opera House explodes in shouting and clapping.

The political message for 1991 in ``Red Lantern'' appears not on stage with the hero, an icon of the fanatical Cultural Revolution, but in the audience.

The cheers for the hero show that many Chinese can easily set aside memories of their suffering during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), China's most traumatic period under communist rule, say operagoers and members of the ``Red Lantern'' cast.

The ovation reveals one of the strongest forces for continued communist repression in China in 1991: the mass, deliberate forgetting of past tyranny.

Widespread denial of past injustice reinforces efforts by the leadership to renew stifling political and economic controls. And it undercuts advocates of the reforms that could head off eventual economic turmoil and political unrest, say dissidents and Western diplomats.

Privately, Beijing residents are quick to denounce China's leadership. But they shrink from public protest, convinced that it is futile and ultimately self-destructive.

As its citizens bury their resentment and memories of suffering, China is forgetting lessons from the past that could help guide its next struggle for liberal reform, dissidents say.

Exiled dissident Fang Lizhi called this tendency ``the Chinese amnesia'' in a magazine article last year.

Dr. Fang's phrase implies that the denial of history is something suffered rather than willed by Chinese. But many Chinese who apparently know the truth accept official distortions of the past.

``Chinese people have very short memories about politics,'' says a scientist who asked that his name not be printed. ``They think it's in their best interests to put their political suffering behind them and just think about their own basic livelihood.''

The scientist was dismissed from a research job for having joined the pro-democracy movement.

The popular resignation has left the political initiative securely in the hands of the conservative leadership. Indeed, Beijing residents widely seem to expect that political reform will only come ``from above'' after the Old Guard, by passing on, clears the way for an enlightened leader.

The political inertia caused by ``the Chinese amnesia'' is evident at Beijing University, a spawning ground for the 1989 protests and earlier progressive movements.

University officials have isolated the sophomore class to ensure that independent-minded upperclassmen don't unravel the sophomores' political indoctrination from a year at military camp.

Officials hope that when all activists have graduated and today's sophomores are seniors, the university will be completely compliant, according to upperclassmen.

``Activism? I've never thought it to be a possibility,'' says a sophomore after several of her classmates declined to be interviewed.