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have been using digitization to "systematically delete" from online databases used by scholars in China and abroad any historical documents from the 1950s that may "challenge the orthodoxy" President Xi Jinping wants to promote.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

That Man In Mariupol: Is Putin Using A Body Double To Avoid Public Appearances?

Putin really is meeting with Xi in Moscow — we know that. But there are credible experts saying that the person who showed up in Mariupol the day before was someone else — the latest report that the Russian president uses a doppelganger for meetings and appearances.

screen grab of Putin in a dark down jacket

During the visit to Mariupol, the Presidential office only released screen grabs of a video

Russian President Press Office/TASS via ZUMA
Anna Akage

Have no doubt, the Vladimir Putin we’re seeing alongside Xi Jinping this week is the real Vladimir Putin. But it’s a question that is being asked after a range of credible experts have accused the Russian president of sending a body double for a high-profile visit this past weekend in the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

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Reports and conspiracy theories have circulated in the past about the Russian leader using a stand-in because of health or security issues. But the reaction to the Kremlin leader's trip to Mariupol is the first time that multiple credible sources — including those who’ve spent time with him in the past — have cast doubt on the identity of the man who showed up in the southeastern Ukrainian city that Russia took over last spring after a months-long siege.

Russian opposition politician Gennady Gudkov is among those who confidently claim that a Putin look-alike, or rather one of his look-alikes, was in the Ukrainian city.

"Now that there is a war going on, I don't rule out the possibility that someone strongly resembling or disguised as Putin is playing his role," Gudkov said.

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