Without the Right to Remember There Can Be No Freedom to Forget

By Chang Ping, published: August 23, 2014


(This is Chang Ping’s rebuttal to Frank Sieren’s Let Fairness Replace Anger [link in German], the second round of the Sieren vs. Chang Ping debate in June this year in Deutsche Welle about the June 4th massacre in 1989 in China. Read Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, Chang Ping’s rebuttal to Frank Sieren’s  From Tian’anmen To Leipzig [link in German], the first round of the debate– The Editor)


Matthias von Hein, a Deutsche Welle (DW) commentator, quotes George Orwell’s “1984” in his essay on the Tiananmen massacre anniversary: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” The Chinese Communist regime is in the process of carrying out this aphorism. I am therefore compelled to engage DW’s Beijing correspondent, Mr. Frank Sieren, on the history of the massacre.

Responding to objections I raised in a previous article, Mr. Sieren published “Replace Anger with Justice.” In addition to insisting in this rather brief piece that “it is incontrovertible that the 1989 incident is a lapse in the history of New China,” he puts forth assessments on several historical and contemporary questions of great significance. By asserting that “many Chinese wish to forget the Tiananmen massacre” and that “consumerism appeals to Chinese people more than memories,” Mr. Sieren cedes a wide berth for me to take this debate further.

No One Can Escape History

I am quite taken aback to see a German author claim that “many people wish to forget history.” In Germany, I have interviewed many organizations and individuals who study and manage issues of history, including the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship; The Foundation for Remembrance, Accountability and theFuture; the former Chief Prosecutor of Berlin, Christoph Schaefgen, who led the indictment of East German leaders including Erich Honecker and Egon Krenz; the head of the Stasi archives, Roland Jahn; and ordinary Germans I meet in daily life. Throughout these interviews, everyone keeps bringing up the same word,Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming to terms with the past.” It’s a word that keeps simplistic evasions of truth at bay, and inspires the utmost respect for the sincerity of German efforts at reexamining their own history.

When it comes to familiar quotations, this one from the Czech exile in France, Milan Kundera, is close to Chinese hearts: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” His works chronicle the agonized struggle of Czech intellectuals against the mandatory oblivion under Communist dictatorship. Nor is Kundera alone. From Solzhenitsyn to Herta Müller, the list of writers of conscience who fight to defend memories of what ought not to be forgotten grows long.

Lies Are Spawned by Fear

I am well aware that you cannot find scenes of such conscientious struggle in today’s China. On the contrary, there aremany who are reluctant to openly discuss the Tiananmen massacre and the Cultural Revolution, stressing the need to “drop the baggage and look forward.” Even those who are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo are mostly unwilling to put up a fight. Fighting back is futile, and the only way out is to put up and to put it out of your mind. Those who study historyknow that this is far from unique to China; in the former East Germany and other Communist countries things were exactly the same. Havel, the dramatist, dissident and eventual Czech President, captures in his play, “The Power of the Powerless,” a particular ludicrous moment in time: The manager of a grocery store, out of his own initiative, puts up a slogan on his shop window: “Proletarians of the world, unite!” Are we to believe that he is personally invested in the global solidarity of workers? Hardly. The truth is, in an autocratic society teeming with desperation, lies confer a sense of security.

If surveys were conducted in China during the Cultural Revolution or, for that matter, today’s North Korea, the vast majority is likely to describe their lives as blissfully happy. Can we therefore conclude that the Chinese and North Koreans much prefer authoritarianism, and we are to honor their “right to happiness?” The dissatisfaction Germans express toward theirown government must be greater than that in China. Does this mean China’s system is better than the German one?

Commemoration, Not Forgetting, Is Banned

Moreover, it is impossible to obtain statistics to support the conclusion that “many Chinese wish to forget the Tiananmen massacre.” What we do know is that the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party would consider all such assessments a joke. I personally attended Party propaganda meetings, and witnessed an extraordinary and palpable nervousness whenever the massacre anniversary drew near. Party officials were convinced that even a slight slack in thecontrols would see public opinion break through and bring the truth to light. For the CCP’s controls on free speech are in every way comparable to those achieved in the Eastern bloc countries of the Soviet era.

Of course people have the right to choose to forget. However, it is worthwhile to consider this thought with which I sign off all my posts in Chinese social media: “Without the freedom to criticize, compliments are worthless.” Rights are theoutcome of free choice. In a country where people have no right to commemorate, it is not only a luxury to speak about the right to forget, but a downright act of collusion with the oppressor. In a political environment where people are arrested and sentenced for going to a commemorative event held at a private residence, Mr. Sieren’s statement that “just as you cannot forbid people to commemorate, you cannot forbid them to forget” has no basis in reality. Such a position is not as rational as it strives to appear, and is regrettably lacking from a humanitarian standpoint.


Chang Ping. Photo from DW site.

Chang Ping. Photo from DW site.

Chang Ping (长平) was  former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend (《南方周末》).  He writes columns for the South China Morning Post, Deutsche Welle, and a number of Chinese language websites. Forced to leave China and then Hong Kong, he currently lives in Germany.


(Translated by Louisa Chiang)

Chinese original

6 responses to “Without the Right to Remember There Can Be No Freedom to Forget”

  1. […] By Chang Ping , published: August 23, 2014 […]

  2. nirevess says:

    The BRD has also had its “right to forget”. It has forgotten all the Nazis who were never purged and retired peacefully or went on with their various careers in Cold War West Germany and Cold War USA. I understand Mr. Chiang prefers to let that oblivion pass. Still, I agree with him on the rest.

  3. nirevess says:

    Sorry: Mr. Chang, not Chiang.

  4. […] 1989 in China. Read Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, and Without the Right to Remember There Can Be No Freedom to Forget, Chang Ping’s first and second rebuttals to Sieren. – The […]

  5. […] in 1989 in China. Read Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, Without the Right to Remember There Can Be No Freedom to Forget, and How Brainwashing Works in China, Chang Ping’s first, second and third rebuttals to […]

  6. […] Without the Right to Remember There Can Be No Freedom to Forget […]

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