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Rebecca Liao

How China’s Collective Amnesia Hinders Its Development

(Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever Mo Yan is up to right now, he is likely doing with knowing chuckle. The toast of China just a couple of weeks ago in the wake of his historic Nobel Prize in Literature, he has been all but forgotten in the frenzied run-up to the 18th National Party Congress, which will begin on Thursday in Beijing. Virtually no official information has been released about what to expect as China undergoes its largest handoff of leadership in a decade. The resulting vacuum has attracted the best speculative and analytical energies of most China watchers, from seasoned experts to armchair pundits on Weibo, China’s Twitter. But even the most absurd prognostications have been vastly outdone by the normally stoic Chinese government, which saw prognosticators’ mock Politburo-shuffling chess games and raised with bans on ping pong balls, cranks for taxi windows, and boats in Beijing.

No stranger to the absurd, Mo Yan won the Nobel for his depictions of “hallucinatory realism,” a phrase from his Nobel citation picked up by every major media outlet that covered his win. But Mo Yan’s work is more complicated than a fantastical take on reality. He specifically works with distortions of memory, colored as it is by imperfect recall of events and powerful human emotions, ultimately inefficacious in making much sense of the past. Regardless of the literary vehicle, Mo Yan’s wider metaphor is always China and its tendency to forget, and thus repeat, sometimes violent injustice.

In the course of preparing for each National Party Congress, China’s leaders undertake a fair amount of self-refection. While they are fully cognizant of rampant social inequality, moral deterioration and pressures for political reform, they clearly do not share the robust perspective of Mo Yan’s long-remembering characters. The objective of their reflection is not to move closer to the historical roots of China’s problems, but rather to achieve distance by way of sterilization, eliminating any psychological obstacles to China’s forward march. As a result, China’s sense of its past, and therefore itself, is systematically incomplete.

If there were a singular problem China should focus on, it is this: How can it come to know its identity when it looks at its history without the aid of memory to help recognize and understand itself?

This question has never been more urgent than in the midst of the ideological wrangling leading up to National Party Congress. Each five-year plan issued in conjunction with the Congress forces China to confront its struggles with self-definition. The plans are carefully wordsmithed, their text often failing to betray the vigorous hand-wringing in the background about what China has become and what it should be. Unlike elections in the United States and most other developed countries, China’s process of selecting a new government does not have the comfort of governing principles taken for granted as part of the country’s firmament. Very little seems to change from one congress to the next. (After much speculation that Mao Zedong Thought would finally be officially abandoned, an 18th National Party Congress spokesman confirmed yesterday that it is still on the list of ideologies central to China’s constitution.) The hard questions of national identity are nevertheless always explored because China still sees itself, accurately or not, as a grand experiment. Incremental change is a chance to remake or create—not simply to improve—governing bodies, economic infrastructure and social relations.

In the last decade, China has decided it is no longer satisfied with being a unique success story while the rest of the world languished in economic doldrums—it wants to be a unique story that others seek to imitate. Instead of being known for correctly executing a known (i.e. Western) approach, China yearns to be credited with inventing something new. China is beginning to make noticeable intellectual contributions to modern socio-political thought, at the very least furiously writing its intellectual story, if not developing its theories, to catch up with its rise in the economic and political world order. However, China needs to first discover its organic uniqueness before it can be shared with the world.

For the past thirty years, China’s technocrats have approached their work with an objectivity so relentless as to be nearly de-stabilizing. Perpetually viewing themselves from the outside, they enjoy the fruits of their pragmatism only until the next crisis brings forth a fresh torrent of fundamental self-doubt. In the long run, China cannot build the story of its founding principles anew every time it considers a set of economic or political reforms. Perhaps it ought to take a page from Mo Yan’s books and make peace with its past, or allow a violent catharsis. China’s leaders have been avoiding this sort of emotional turmoil for decades, but any temporary instability that resulted would arguably be less potent than China’s ongoing failure to know itself.

The Ministry of Education is taking a step in the right direction. According to one of its publishers, it plans to introduce one of Mo Yan’s novellas into the official curriculum, where it will sit alongside Marxist-Leninist teachings and Mao Zedong Thought. That could all change, though, if Mo Yan gets too carried away with his newfound power and continues to make statements such as, “I hope [jailed dissident and Nobel Peace-prize winner] Liu Xiabo will win his freedom soon.” It would be a pity if his Nobel lecture at all resembles his performance at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, during which, in front of heir apparent Xi Jinping, he delivered a dutifully flat speech. The real irony of Mo Yan’s body of writing is that he knows the really horrific stuff is easier to forgive and therefore forget. And even he cannot get away with chronicling the unforgivable.

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Rebecca Liao

Rebecca is a China-watcher and attorney based in the Silicon Valley. In addition to China, she writes about the arts, politics and culture (and occasionally law!). An archive of her work can be found at The Aleph Mag. A graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Economics, and Harvard Law School, she loves watching friends make music and will often join in after a sufficient amount of…food. She tweets at @beccaliao.