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We Should Not Deny Our History

Recently, a number of countries have criticized Japan’s attempts to revise, or otherwise whitewash its atrocities during World War II, but none has been as vociferous as China.

On December 13, 2014, Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke at the Nanking Massacre memorial. It was the very first national ceremony commemorating the Nanking Massacre, which took place on December 13, 1937, a full 77 years earlier. His comments had the stated intention of forging peace, not hatred, between the two neighbors.

Xi stated, “History will not be altered as time changes, and facts will not disappear because of any chicanery or denials. … To forget the past means to betray and to deny the crime means to relapse.”

Xi’s remarks are reminiscent of the words of Albert Camus from Letters to a German Friend, “A national identity based on lies suffers from an inherent weakness that will eventually make it collapse,” and of Edmund Burke, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Each of us, in whatever country we live, must remember our past for to deny it means to relapse and to repeat it over and over again.

These remarks have meaning for the Chinese people on the eve of the 26 year anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Massacre on June 4, 1889. That meaning became all the more poignant in a new book from NPR correspondent, formerly of the BBC, Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, Oxford University Press, 2014.

As author Lim points out, “Chinese people are practiced at not dwelling on the past. One by one, episodes of political turmoil have been expunged from official history or simply forgotten — from 1957, when ­hundreds of thousands of ‘Rightists,’ including many intellectuals and Party members, were detained, tortured or driven to suicide; the famine of 1959-62, in which tens of millions starved to death; and the vast destruction produced by the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.”

Xi Jinping’s words may be the harbinger of the country’s movement toward the “China Dream” and its “national rejuvenation.” China and the world can surely learn from what happened in 1989, instead of, as Lim’s book suggests, putting the events of that day out of mind and out of memory so that China can relapse and continually commit similar acts while the world watches quietly or even sleeps through them over and over.

We, in the West, can remember, for example, Hillary Clinton’s oft repeated comments on human rights stated so clearly in 2009. Yes, we have to press the issue of human rights, “But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.” Has the United States forgotten its past and the basis for its founding?

The world considers the United States to be a beacon of Light and Freedom to the downtrodden of the world; so much so that the Chinese students who gathered at Tiananmen erected the Goddess of Democracy in the image of the Statue of Liberty.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A group of 11 Chinese students now living in Australia, the UK, and the U.S. learned for the first time what really happened at the Tiananmen Massacre, information that was never available to them in China. In honor of its 2015 anniversary, they put their lives at risk and made a rare public appeal to the People’s Republic of Amnesia to end its secrecy over Tiananmen and hold those responsible to account.

In 1989, at Tiananmen, the Chinese government tore down the Goddess of Democracy and, ever since, has been tearing down what she stood for. However, as long as a beacon of light remains and there are people to keep it burning, the facts are there to remind people of their history and to avail them of the opportunity to correct their actions so they don’t repeat it.