Editorial: Exposing atrocity good omen for Xi's rule

16:00, Nov 26 2012

The lifting of a 26-year ban on a book exposing atrocities committed during China's Cultural Revolution provides an encouraging glimpse of the emerging superpower's direction under president-in-waiting Xi Jinping. It raises hopes of a softening of the repressive censorship that has shackled freedom of expression for decades.

Mr Xi, who was confirmed as the successor to Hu Jintao earlier this month, had already warned China's political and business elite that he would wage war against corruption. That is good not only for the people of China, but also for its trading partners. Doing business in countries riddled with corruption is not only harder, but it is also more expensive.

Fostering openness and transparency is a key weapon in the fight against graft. The more people can see and discuss what is going on around them, the more they are able to judge and challenge the way things are done. Crucial to that is the exchange of ideas and the freedom to express opinions and seek out the truth.

The decision to allow details about the massacre of entire families in China's Hunan province during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s to be published on the internet is an important step along that road. However, China has an awfully long way to go before its people can enjoy the liberties taken for granted by most citizens in the West.

The same weekend the censors permitted Tan Hecheng's account of the Hunan atrocities to be viewed online, British pop star Sir Elton John was dedicating his first concert in Beijing to dissident artist and civil liberties campaigner Ai Weiwei, whose 81-day detention last year sparked an international outcry.

The Times newspaper reported that Sir Elton - who had to submit his intended song list for vetting by China's culture ministry before the concert - waited until the end of his second number before making the dedication. The account wryly noted that the show was also likely to be his last in Beijing.

Unfortunately, the strict controls surrounding pop concerts, other entertainment and the exchange of ideas and information - including what can be accessed over the internet - are the norm in China. The decision to allow the publication of Tan's book is still very much the exception.

While the decision to lift the ban on the book allows ordinary Chinese people to learn about a horrific period in the country's history, it must also be seen in context. Mr Xi was exiled to the countryside under Mao Zedong, and his former leadership rival, discredited politician Bo Xilai, had strong support among latter-day Maoists. Although Mao continues to be revered by many in China, Mr Xi is unlikely to have any qualms about some of the gloss coming off his idealised image.

The decision to allow the information to be published and widely read is nevertheless an important milestone. The people of China have endured decades of being told what to think. At least in this one aspect of their long and often brutal history, they can now make up their own minds.


The Dominion Post