Historians concerned as China launches ‘distortion’ hotline

Making historic ‘misrepresentations’ a reportable offence could affect even overseas study   

April 16, 2021
Culture Revolution
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A call by the Chinese government for citizens to report to a new hotline anyone who “misrepresents” the country’s history could place further restrictions on university teaching, especially online, professors have warned.

The Cyberspace Administration of China announced that people should report anyone who “distorts” the history, politics or leadership of the Communist Party (CCP) or “defames national heroes”. “Some with ulterior motives…have been spreading historical nihilistic misrepresentations online, maliciously distorting, denigrating and negating the history of the party,” said the notice. 

The hotline is the latest of several actions to control study in the humanities, including a recent warning to social scientists to stop “vilifying” the country in international journals. These announcements, combined with internet restrictions called the Great Firewall, could have an effect on even the overseas teaching of Chinese history.  

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, told Times Higher Education that while the hotline is new, “some of the worry was already there” and that “the new mood has already affected my own teaching”. 

“In online classes that included students based in China, I felt uncomfortable having online group discussions, even though my focus was on events of the Qing Era (1644-1912),” he said, citing as examples the histories of Xinjiang and Tibet. “I did not want students to feel that they might get called out by their classmates for taking a position on something I said about this issue that was seen as insufficiently patriotic.” 

The shift online has made a difference. “When discussions are in-person ones, you can get more of a sense of the dynamic in a group. But in this case I decided to substitute short one-to-one Skype conversations for longer and more frequent discussions sections,” he said.  

As for the new hotline, he added that “there is definitely a historical precedent of sorts for students ‘reporting’ on teachers, in the form of Red Guard attacks on teachers during the early stage of the Cultural Revolution”.  

While that eased in the 1980s, “there has then been a further ramping up of control over historical narrative during the last decade, as more and more topics are again being treated as politically sensitive”, he said.  

Steve Tsang, an expert on 20th-century Chinese history and the director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, told THE that the practice of “reporting” on critical comments had happened in the past.   

“Students were openly required to report on teachers and fellow students on incorrect political thoughts during the Cultural Revolution. So this is not new,” he said, referring to a period from 1966 to 1976. “What is unusual about the current situation and during the Cultural Revolution was the open call and requirement that this should happen.” 

Professor Tsang said that the space for studying modern Chinese history started to narrow in 2013, when Xi Jinping became the country’s leader. He predicted it would continue to tighten in the lead-up to the CCP’s 100th anniversary celebrations in July. 

“Chinese historians are at risk wherever they are, as the Party under Xi tries to extend its reach to rein in critics,” Professor Tsang said. “But not all will accept that. There are also historians of China outside of China who will sustain academic integrity and not bow to pressure from Beijing.” 

In 2019, Zheng Wenfeng, an assistant professor at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, was suspended after students reported him for questioning a tenet of ancient Chinese history.  

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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