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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have been using digitization to "systematically delete" from online databases used by scholars in China and abroad any historical documents from the 1950s that may "challenge the orthodoxy" President Xi Jinping wants to promote.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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