China's airbrush aimed at history

Collecting newspapers lands Song Yongyi in jail. China says he confessed to his crimes on Tuesday.

At the massive, Soviet-style Museum of Chinese History in central Beijing, workers concealed behind camouflage netting are pounding away at the structure.

The sound of hammers and chisels echoes across nearby Tiananmen Square as the edifice, one of the first monuments the Communist Party built to itself following the 1949 revolution, is reshaped for the new millennium.

"History is being reconstructed," says a museum official as she points at the red-brick exhibition hall.

Although she was talking about the museum, the official could have been describing history itself, which has been hammered, chiseled, destroyed, and rebuilt since the party came to power 50 years ago.

"Like all Communist governments, the Chinese Communist Party is always trying to airbrush its history," says a Western official. He says the imminent trial here of a US-based historian, Song Yongyi, appears to be just the latest tactic the party is using to try to mold the recording of its past.

Mr. Song, who along with his wife was detained last summer by State Security agents, was charged Dec. 24 with "the purchase and illegal provision of intelligence to foreigners" for researching the radical last decade of Chairman Mao Zedong's reign. On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry claimed Song had confessed to all the facts behind the government's charges. But Beijing has prevented Song's lawyer from visiting him in prison.

Song, an expert on the Cultural Revolution and a librarian at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., was arrested for gathering newspaper articles and other officially published accounts on the era, says David Strand, Song's colleague at Dickinson.

Professor Strand, himself an expert on Chinese history, says Song's incarceration on such vague charges is frightening because it means that "almost any American scholar, tourist, student or businessman could similarly be arrested." Song is a native Chinese whose US citizenship has not yet been finalized.

Song traveled to Beijing last July to collect materials on the Cultural Revolution, the 1966-76 movement Mao launched to erase China's past and to wipe out his revolutionary rivals. The struggle saw the torture, jailing, or death of millions of scholars, artists, priests, and poets.

After Mao's death the government opened China's doors to the West and permitted foreign and Chinese scholars to begin research on the Cultural Revolution. But journalists and historians here were prevented from publicizing the worst excesses of Mao's rule.

Song's wife, Helen Yao, says "the security agents at the prison showed me a bunch of newspaper articles from the Cultural Revolution, and said Song Yongyi was trying to steal state secrets."

Ms. Yao, who returned to the US after being released in November, says she told the guards, "These are not secret materials - they were published by the Chinese government itself."

"The agents said 'these materials may not be secret inside China, but they become secret if they leave the country,' " she adds.

The Cultural Revolution is just one phase of the past that the party is trying to rewrite or delete. "The party's legitimacy and belief in communism are already fading, and the Chinese government apparently fears that opening its historical records could undermine it even more," says Merle Goldman, professor of Chinese history at Boston University.

Absent from the museum, for example, are any chronicles of the 1957 anti-rightist movement, when hundreds of thousands of China's educated elite were sent to labor camps; or of the 1959-1962 famine triggered by fanatical economic policies.

High school history books similarly lack descriptions of widespread pro-democracy protests in 1989, when troops and tanks cleared student demonstrators from Tiananmen Square.

While scores of democracy activists were arrested then for trying to publish accounts of the crackdown, Song's detention is much more alarming, say many China scholars in the US.

"Mr. Song ... was meeting his professional obligations as librarian, bibliographer, and scholar when he was detained," says a petition written by Strand and 100 other top China scholars in the US, Europe, and Australia.

Strand says he sent out a mass e-mail to notify these scholars about Song's arrest, and "was surprised by the speed and strength of the response." On Wednesday, Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pa. asked Congress to grant citizenship to Song and called on China to free him.

Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese history at Columbia University in New York, says, "This episode is going to cast a chill over [US-China] exchanges ... because people get the message that the police are sending" - probing too deeply into the party's past could be dangerous.

Although Mao often said that "the Soviet Union's today is China's tomorrow," Professor Goldman says that Beijing is unlikely to follow Moscow's lead in opening the Communist Party's archives "until a Gorbachev-like leader takes power in China."

But the party now faces a new threat to its policing of the past and the present from the Internet. Although the State Secrets Bureau this week outlined new measures to punish Web surfers who divulge undefined "state secrets," the strategy is unlikely to prevent more Chinese from gaining a more balanced picture of the country and its rulers.

"The Communist Party's history is a fake history - it's all lies," says a young artist in Beijing. "But with the Internet, it will become harder and harder for the government to fool the people."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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