Who Controls The Past? China's Pressure On Western Academics

Different versions of history
Different versions of history

Once again, life imitates art. In his masterpiece 1984, George Orwell wrote, "Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered."

This quote has proven particularly relevant in recent weeks as activists in the West suddenly became eager to tear down statues they consider offensive. But of course, the process of rewriting history is not new. Nor is it limited to the West.

In a recent article, the Financial Times describes how Chinese authorities have been using digitization to "systematically delete" from online databases used by scholars in China and abroad any historical documents from the 1950s that may "challenge the orthodoxy" President Xi Jinping wants to promote.

This will sound familiar to anybody who has read 1984: It is simply a 21st-century version of the work of Winston Smith, the main character, at the Ministry of Truth. In the real-world article, University of Michigan researcher Glenn Tiffert explains that as a result, "anyone who does research will come away misinformed or with a distorted view." But that is only the best-case scenario.

You don't mention the three Ts.

Zhang Lifan, a Chinese historian who has been banned from using social media because of his criticism of Mao Zedong, describes another, perhaps more worrying, consequence of this new form of censorship: "No one dares to do research on social movements, and most spend their time researching Xi's ideas and Marxism-Leninism," he told the Financial Times. "Many of those who teach the real history have been sacked or punished."

But in a new twist, Beijing has also recently tried to pressure Western universities, eager to attract much-needed funding as well as Chinese students, into doing its bidding. Cambridge University Press, the world's oldest publishing house, initially bowed to Chinese demands and blocked online access to "politically sensitive" articles (or articles disputed by the Chinese government) in its highly respected China Quarterly. The decision caused such an outcry that CUP quickly backtracked.

But as AFP reported in late August, other publishers have quietly resorted to censorship for the sake of business. "We frequently exercise self-censorship to adapt to different markets," a business development director for a British publishing house admitted.

A managing director at an Asian education publishing specialist summed it all up when he said that "it is in publishers' interest to not publish something that would anger authorities." In the case of China, he explained, "you don't mention the three "Ts': Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan."

And of course, if even Apple, one of the world's most powerful companies, yields to Chinese censorship demands, there is little chance of smaller organizations, let alone individuals, offering any form of resistance.

By consenting to what Étienne de La Boétie, a French political philosopher, described almost five centuries ago as "voluntary servitude," these actors are paving the way for the realization, at least in China, of another one of Orwell's ever relevant warnings: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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