How China Twists History to its Favor

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Wednesday October 28, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Nations, according to political scientist Benedict Anderson, are composed of imagined communities; it follows that those imagined communities would naturally have their own national narratives.

How each story develops and who influences it is, however, a different matter. Certainly history plays its part, but the primary influence would always be the nation’s rulers, those that historically came out on top.

Whether those rulers are democratically elected or are dictators who grabbed power, adds to the mix. If dictators and one-party state chiefs have gained control, then the national narrative would too often aim to defend, justify, and glorify their right to rule.

This is the challenge that the democratic nation of Taiwan faces but not of its own narrative, rather it that of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), its enemy on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. There, the PRC leaders continually strive to incorporate Taiwan’s story into their own by fabrication or by force if necessary.

Taiwanese know that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has never ruled or even held a position of power in Taiwan, yet the CCP never fails to trot out memes claiming that Taiwan is an “inalienable part” of China and that it has been so “from time immemorial.”

Taiwanese also know their history; they are conscious of Taiwan’s indigenous origins as well as its colonial past and so any rampant attempts of the CCP to rewrite its history can be laughed off.

However, that does not hold for the rest of the world. How much of Taiwan’s history, do the people of other nations know?

Unfortunately, they know too little and therein lies the rub.

Many nations interested in maintaining their lucrative trade with China are all too willing to accept the CCP’s narrative and the “one China” principle that Beijing touts.

Those nations would of course have some background knowledge of how the CCP won the Chinese Civil War and that communists drove Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) out of China and across the Taiwan Strait to Taiwan but their understanding ends there.

What most nations and people do not know or forget is that seven years after the end of World War II, when Japan “officially” surrendered Taiwan in the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, it gave Taiwan to neither the CCP nor the KMT government in exile on Taiwan. I covered that in “World War II’s unfinished business” (Taipei Times, June 13, 2020)

Therefore, while the complexity of those times can and does mask some of the CCP’s continuous efforts to rewrite history, an event earlier than this month has again exposed how ongoing these attempts are.

At issue here is a spat between the French museum in Nantes and the PRC over a Genghis Khan exhibit that the French museum wished to sponsor in China’s Inner Mongolia.

This might seem small on the surface, but what it reveals is the depth of the CCP’s efforts to rewrite all history related to China.

Why did this simple exhibit raise such a stink? That is revealed in how Beijing, through the Chinese Ministry of Culture sought to eliminate the following titles from the exhibition: “Empire,” “Mongol,” and “Genghis Khan.”

Those words provide the takeaway from this issue, because most Westerners do have at least enough of a sense of history to know how vast the empire that Genghis Khan helped establish was. It was an empire that overshadows China’s past and present.

This incident also exposes the current trouble that the CCP is having in Inner Mongolia as it seeks to eliminate the Mongolian language and culture.

This is not the first such instance. Along with rewriting history, the CCP has been practicing cultural genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang as well as in Inner Mongolia.

In Tibet, China has sought to control Tibetan culture and religion by dictating the selection and education of the Panchen Lama. It is also waiting for the Dalai Lama to die so it can choose who will be his successor.

The internment and indoctrination camps in Xinjiang are already well known, as is the suppression of groups throughout China like the Falun Gong throughout China.

However, what makes the Mongolian threat more problematic to the PRC’s campaign to rewrite history is that the whole world does know the history of the great Mongol Empire and how it became the largest contiguous empire in the world.

It stretched from Korea in the east to Hungary, Poland and Egypt in the west and from in the north down to India in the south. It was so vast at its height; the Khanate that composed China was only one fourth of the empire. That is why the words empire and Mongol had to be eliminated from the exhibition.

Then there is the name of Genghis Khan, which means “universal ruler” and when it is combined with the words empire and Mongol, one can easily see how it “hurts the feelings” of the Chinese people according to local parlance.

This is the narrative of the vast Mongol empire, a narrative in which China played a partial role. This is not a narrative that the CCP would want circulating among the Mongolians.

There is more. An additional part of the Mongolian narrative is how the Mongols under Genghis Khan had their own divine right from heaven to conquer the world. While those in China with their concept of tian xia or “all under heaven” claim heavenly approval for past emperors, the Mongols operated under a similar notion.

It would not fit the PRC narrative if in the past, their emperor lost his mandate of heaven to a different heavenly mandate—that of the Mongolians.

In the Mongol vision, the world belonged to them. They had the divine right to conquer that world, and conquer it they did. In doing so, they turned Asia into the first global village. Such parlance does not sit well with any narrative that the CCP wants to develop.

It is easy to see why the CCP objected to the words in the French exhibition. How could they indoctrinate the Mongolians in Inner Mongolia if those words were allowed?

Space does not allow for a further deconstruction of the CCP narrative by also pointing out how China’s smaller Ming Dynasty was historically sandwiched between the Mongol Empire and the later Manchu empire that took the title of Qing.

Contrast all of this with the linear narrative by which democratic Taiwan presents its history. The Austronesian heritage of native Taiwanese is well studied and certain privileges are granted to those minorities. There are no forced concentration camps, no camps for reeducation, no organ harvesting of Falun Gong members and so on.

Taiwan did have a time under the one-party state rule of the KMT when a definite Han-centric narrative was promoted but that time has passed.

This is the difference between Taiwan and the PRC. Taiwan is willing to examine all its past and celebrate the differences and contributions of each period, even the Japanese era. China on the other hand seeks to mask the past under the CCP’s narrative.

Taiwan’s national story has not ended. It will proceed separate from that of the PRC. Indeed, the next step in its narrative will be a big one. Taiwan needs to to write a new constitution. That will be a challenge but it is needed to reflect Taiwan’s reality.