A history of squelching historians

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 July, 2011, 12:00am


You might think the life of a historian is boring, but certainly safe. Apart from a paper cut, how much danger can a historian ever face from his work?

That's not the case with China. Digging into the past can be perilous, even if all it means is browsing through old newspapers and books.

One US-based scholar, Song Yongyi, was arrested in late 1999 while visiting China to gather Cultural Revolution material for the Dickinson University library in Pennsylvania. He was charged with stealing state secrets and only released the following year after an international outcry. The 'state secrets' were mostly purchases from mainland bookstores.

Hong Kong-based journalist Ching Cheong was arrested in 2005 for selling state secrets to Taiwan. The charges looked groundless as Ching was only collecting open information.

Now we have the unhappy experience of David Tsui, a Hongkonger who was jailed in 2002 for 13 years, and got out only last month, his sentence reduced for 'good behaviour'. His crime: photocopying material about the 1950-53 Korean war and sending it abroad, and using unauthorised materials for his 1999 doctorate in political science at Oxford University. The People's Liberation Army declared the material 'top secret' - but only after a Shenzhen court sentenced Tsui to jail.

It was an Alice In Wonderland reason to spend a decade behind bars, being sentenced for a crime that is defined as a crime after you are sentenced. And it had to have a chilling effect on other scholars.

Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, the saying goes. And in countries where you aren't allowed to learn from history? What happens to them?