buruma183_Mark Schiefelbein-PoolGetty Images_china xi Mark Schiefelbein-PoolGetty Images

History by Decree

The difference between official national narratives of heroism and victimhood is not as great as it might seem. The point of history as propaganda in China and Russia today – and, indeed, in Israel – is that it legitimizes those in power.

NEW YORK – Song Gengyi, a journalism teacher in Shanghai, was fired last month for doing her job. She had encouraged her students to verify official accounts of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, the orgy of mass murder and rape perpetrated in the then-Chinese capital by the Imperial Japanese Army. Another teacher, Li Tiantian, who protested against the firing, was punished by being committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Verifying facts is what journalists are supposed to do. But because the atrocity in Nanjing during the Sino-Japanese War has become a cornerstone of Chinese nationalism, and thus of the Communist Party of China’s propaganda, any critical scrutiny of what precisely happened is seen as criticism of the Chinese government.

Perhaps this needs some explanation. Until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, official Chinese accounts paid little attention to the Nanjing Massacre. History under Mao was instead a heroic tale of communist victory over fascist and bourgeois oppressors. Nanjing had been the Chinese Nationalist capital at the time of the Sino-Japanese War. The massacre was thus a story of Nationalist defeat, not communist heroism.

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