Ian Johnson

In his latest book, Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future, the Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes a movement of underground historians, trying to safeguard the country’s history from eradication by the communist party, in a discussion at Politico.


What is the most important takeaway from this book?

The conventional wisdom about China is that the Communist Party has won. Dissent is crushed. The surveillance state rules. This book shows that this view is too simplistic. These are dark times but there are still people actively challenging the party by documenting its biggest failings, from famines of the past to its Covid policies of the present. These people make underground documentary films and videos, or produce samizdat magazines and books. They have not been crushed.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while compiling this book?

I thought that history would mainly matter to older Chinese people. But young people face soaring unemployment and a bleak social landscape. Some talk of dropping out or trying to emigrate. But as we saw in last year’s “white paper” protests, many others can become much more active. And they do so by drawing on the works of the public intellectuals that I profile.

How might a more accurate rendering of Chinese contemporary history by “underground historians” – rather than the CCP-sanitized version –  impact Chinese public perceptions and attitudes toward the U.S?

The U.S is portrayed in the Chinese media as the country’s bogeyman. Many people swallow this nationalistic line, but China’s growing economic problems and social stagnation are causing many others to look for more credible explanations. The underground historians document how China’s problems are homegrown. If these ideas spread – and I think they will, as the economy enters a period of stasis, in part because of demographic problems and a rigid political system – then more people will see that it is not the U.S that is at fault for China’s problems. Instead, they may realize that it is the Communist Party’s policies that have led China away from growth and stability. But this is a long-term process. China isn’t facing an imminent upheaval. Instead, we’re seeing something akin to what happened in the 1960’s and 1970s in Eastern Europe, when the regimes there seemed unbeatable, but were developing grave problems that home-grown critics began to document.

More at Politico.

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