Many wrongs, but not that many rights

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2012, 12:00am


There is a terrible passage at the end of Andre Malraux's novel La Condition Humaine, often translated as Man's Fate, which describes Kuomintang troops cranking up a steam train's furnace - to throw communist prisoners into it alive.

I don't know if this really happened. Perhaps Malraux, an ex-communist, intended this to be a universal statement of man's cruelty to man. But if you were Chinese you couldn't read it other than as one about our cruelty to our own countrymen. This passage came back to me after reading a commentary this week by Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times' excellent foreign affairs columnist.

After visiting the National Museum of China in Beijing, Rachman writes: 'There is almost nothing about the even more terrible things that Chinese people did to each other, largely because most of these crimes were committed by the Communist Party, which still runs the country.'

The communists and the nationalists both did plenty of awful things, but the Kuomintang couldn't hold a candle to Mao Zedong after the Great Leap Forward-induced famine and the Cultural Revolution.

Rachman observes there are at least two opposing tendencies in modern Chinese history. The party-sanctioned version focuses on the opium wars, western imperialism and Japan's war-time atrocities. The western version emphasises Mao's iniquities, the Tiananmen Square killings, and party corruption and human rights abuses. Both versions are true, but incomplete. As a result, there have been plenty of misunderstandings.

Westerners should recognise the threats a rising China supposedly poses have so far been more hypothetical than real; and their biases are a product of hypocrisy towards their own imperialist past. But we Chinese have some serious historical reckoning to do, too. Will the party ever have the courage to look itself in the mirror?