The recent shutdown of 133 WeChat public accounts offering history related content is part and parcel of a broader ideological tightening in China that reaches across media, the arts, education, entertainment and the internet.
It is no surprise that the move comes just as the General Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party announced new guidelines for ideological work at Chinese universities, “championing the concepts of Marxism, the Chinese Dream, socialist core values and traditional culture.” After all, the formation and interpretation of every single one of these values hinges to a great extent on how one understands China’s history and its place in the world.
Now, as ever, history is a matter of immediacy for China’s leadership.
The Eight Nations Alliance parades in Beijing after intervening in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The event is mentioned in a commentary in today’s People’s Daily as one distorted by WeChat public account “This is Not History.”
China’s leaders reserve the right — the power, that is — to shape the country’s historical discourse, which has always been an integral part of its overall project of “public opinion guidance.” This is why the approach of important historical anniversaries, like that of June Fourth or the Cultural Revolution, has always set leaders on edge.
WeChat is coming under attack because it has emerged as an alternative platform offering unwelcome versions of history through public accounts, or gonghao (公号), that can attracts tens or even hundreds of thousands of viewers. Public accounts are the new bedrock of We Media, or zimeiti (自媒体), in China, and they have prompted a wave of content experimentation.
I think we can safely suppose that WeChat is very, very far from out of the woods.
Readers might note two pieces in particular in the official People’s Daily, published today and yesterday in the “People’s Commentary” section on page five. Yesterday’s “commentary” is written by Xu Danei (徐达内), generally speaking a very credible Chinese expert and columnist writing on new media trends in the country.
Xu’s piece begins by enumerating the welcome conveniences offered by WeChat, and then moves on to the dangers — rumours and unverified information. It’s an argument we’ve heard from Chinese officialdom over and over again, concerning news portal sites, then Weibo, and now WeChat: rumours are a scourge, a public health threat, and they must be mobilised against.
Xu’s commentary concludes with a bootlicking caution that seems quite out of character: “Of course, Tencent has been advancing the platform all along, with the reporting and complaints function on the backend constantly improving. Recently, the ‘original content’ label (原创标签) has also been tested, and can be seen as a further effort at advancement on Tencent’s part. I’m sure that as a mature internet company, it can continue to do better and better.”
Today’s piece on page five deals directly with those history related public accounts that were recently expunged from WeChat. Rather than comment — I think it speaks rather nicely for itself — allow me to just give readers a taste.
“A Respect for History is the Bottom Line in Enjoyable Reading” (尊重历史是制造悦读的底线) People’s Daily, People’s Commentary
By Ma Zhifei (马知非)
Stories from history can be full of life, but ensuring that the people read true stories, and the acceptance of accurate Party histories and national histories, that is the bottom line in satisfying public demands.
Recently, in accord with the law, the Cyberspace Administration of China (国家互联网信息办公室) ordered the shutdown of 133 public WeChat accounts that were disseminating distorted views of history, including “This is Not History” (“这不是历史”). And the body said it would strengthen its enforcement online, scrutinising those communication tools and platforms that web users reported as having salient problems. When this news [from the Cyberspace Administration] came out, the reaction online was strong.
“To know our path, we must first know history.” Living as we do in a country with a deep history, understanding the history of the Party and the nation is naturally something every person desires. The richness of history related materials available to us in the new media age is, by and large, a very good thing, demonstrating that our country and its people hanker for a better understanding of historical events . . . Enthusiasm for history is becoming a larger social wave.
But if what enters this flood is not pure water from the source, if instead it is polluted, the damage can spread quickly. If the research of history is not undertaken on the basis of systematic study of actual historical materials . . . then there is no way to draw out the true experiences of history, or to reveal its true principles.
The WeChat public account “This is Not History” previously made a number of posts purporting to “test” facts concerning the intervention in China of the Eight-Nation Alliance (八国联军侵华) [during the 1900 Boxer Uprising], the Battle of Pingxingguan [in 1937], and other events. The method used was essentially the haphazard assembling of historical facts in a far-fetched manner, or their presentation in a one-sided or slanted manner.
What deserves our reflection is how this sort of WeChat public account trampling on history became so “hot”? Their articles sought to titillate with claims of “revealing secrets” or claims that “You didn’t know.” Once you clicked into the articles you found that the style of these historical stories or little-known anecdotes was quite different from traditional historical reading materials — so they could easily leave a deep impression.
Add to this the impact of online promotion [through social networks] and people were left with the impression from the sheer number of readings and shares through friend forums (朋友圈) that many others were reading this just as they were. What followed was the baseless manufacture of a “hot topic,” and what began as something people either believed or were skeptical about became fodder for conversation around the dinner table, as though people were privy to a “secret” others didn’t know. With time, falsehood became truth, having an imperceptible impact on people’s views of history.
. . .
The shutting down those WeChat public accounts that distorted history has earned applause from many serious historians, but the public appetite for content about history has not abated. These shutdowns are just the first step. What we need even more is for history to enter mass communications in a way that is true and systematic, and at the same time accessible and popular. Once we have strangled these false histories, we must consider how we can ensure that authoritative history “flies into the homes of the ordinary folk.”