Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future, by Ian Johnson (Oxford, 400 pp., $25)

Western intellectuals once believed that China’s liberal-ish market reforms would lead, ineluctably, to liberal political reforms. A new generation is settling into the view that China will remain autocratic far into the future. In an elegant new book, journalist Ian Johnson charts a much-needed middle course. The Chinese Communist Party goes to great lengths to whitewash its bloody history. Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future is an account of the writers, scholars, filmmakers, and artists who push back. These dissidents are preserving China’s dark past in hopes of creating a brighter future.

“China’s surveillance state is real,” Johnson observes, “but it is not able to completely crush independent activists who avail themselves of digital technology.” He gives the example of Li Wenliang, the widely remembered doctor who warned of the spreading Covid-19 virus, was rebuked by the state, and then died of the virus himself. Li’s plight attracted so much attention online, before CCP censors regained control, that his entry on Baidu Baike, China’s answer to Wikipedia, still acknowledges that the government mistreated him. “That is a victory for China’s citizen journalists,” Johnson points out, “who brought all of this to light.”

The CCP normally suppresses all mention of its failures, which takes some doing, since the CCP has much to answer for. Sparks covers the brutal era of so-called land reform (1949–53), when millions of small-scale farmers died, many buried alive in soil they had dared to call their own. The book discusses the Great Leap Forward (1958–62), which saw desperate prisoners eating the livers and lungs of starved, meatless bodies. Many of the Great Leap Forward’s victims died not of starvation per se, but of excruciating constipation, with stomachs filled with bark, straw, and soil; Johnson tells of fields where, now, “skulls, femurs, and scapulas . . . poke out through the sand.” Johnson also details the massacres of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when “swollen carcasses swirl[ed] in daisy chains” downriver, “their eyes and lips already eaten away by the fish.” He recalls a school principal’s sadistic murder at the height of revolutionary hysteria: “The girls wrote slogans over her clothes, shaved her head, jabbed her scalp with scissors, poured ink on her head, and beat her until her eyes rolled into her head.”

Alongside these stories of terror and suffering, however, Johnson tells stories of dissent and defiance. He reaches back to the eleventh century, when Su Dongpo, banished from court “for opposing authoritarian-style reforms,” turned to writing subversive poetry: “[h]is message was eternal: the righteous person’s resistance to tyranny.” Johnson follows this thread to the 1960s, when Lin Zhao, imprisoned for counterrevolutionary thought, wrote verse in blood on her clothes. Prompted in part by Lin’s earlier poems, a group of students founded a covert anti-Maoist journal. They named it Spark, “based on the idiomatic expression xinghuo liaoyuan, or ‘a single spark can start a prairie fire.’”

Needless to say, Spark was a short-lived affair. Its sponsors were arrested and tortured. But the journal remains an inspiration, showing as it does “that the search for a freer . . . China [i]sn’t new.” Today’s resistance movement carries on the doomed students’ legacy. We can “see an endless cycle of creation,” Johnson says, “of new sparks that leap off the flint of history every time it is struck.”

Johnson paints compelling portraits of China’s guerrilla historians. A feminist professor, Ai Xiaoming, makes a film about a labor camp. A journalist, Jiang Xue, quits her job and interviews survivors of Maoist persecution. A teacher, Wu Di, runs a small samizdat publication that grapples with the Cultural Revolution’s impact. A former government official, Tan Hecheng, chronicles the atrocities that occurred in a remote county. Even if the CCP were invincible, Johnson submits, these people would be “worth knowing in their own right.” They are champions of conscience in the mold of Solzhenitsyn.

The CCP is known to exert digital control over its citizens. But as Johnson illustrates, technology cuts both ways. Unlicensed documentaries get produced with small, inexpensive digital cameras. PDF documents circulate by email and on memory sticks. Videos uploaded to YouTube, often through a VPN, are retransmitted into China, blocked, and retransmitted again. Chinese academics collaborate on the web with their counterparts abroad. When the government impedes one channel, they find another. “The most important question that this book raises,” Johnson writes, “is whether amnesia really has triumphed.” His answer is that, in a digitized world, it hasn’t and can’t.

Johnson’s love of China shines through on every page. His book celebrates Chinese art, literature, poetry, and architecture, past and (except for the architecture) present. You mourn with him as he recounts the “auto-cultural genocide” inflicted on the country by the CCP—the relics smashed, the temples razed, the rituals quashed. He wants readers never to forget that there was once another way. “The Chinese Communist Party’s enemies,” he roars, are “the lasting values of Chinese civilization: righteousness, loyalty, freedom of thought.” The underground intellectuals “represent an open, humane China that has always existed and for which people have always struggled.” In a sense, these rebels are new: they use electronic tools that the CCP can oppose but never destroy. But they are also old. “Like the ancients, they leave physical markers at . . . sites of memory: tombstones, memorial tablets, or stones engraved with [victims’] names.”

Yet the heart of the matter, in Sparks, is not culture, but something more fundamental. “I can write an article any way you want it,” one scholar tells Johnson, but “I can’t turn black into white. Somehow, I just can’t do that.” Says another: “I’m one of those people who gets really angry when he sees something wrong. I have to speak up.” The urge to uncover, declare, and spread the truth is a universal desire of the human heart. Johnson’s subjects are in constant conversation with other times and places. They read the philosophers of the Enlightenment and the dissidents of the Eastern Bloc. They attend lectures on Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s King Lear. (“Are the politics of our era ‘when madmen lead the blind?’” one speaker asks.)

Not that the truth always wins. Johnson shows us the value of conviction but also the danger of certainty. Those who think truth arrives prepackaged—who are sure that “History” is on their “side”—have no use for freedom. In China, this outlook has led to mass slaughter and untold cruelty. In the United States, that outlook lies behind the permanent revolution, in our universities and elsewhere, and the denunciations of anyone who balks at radical change.

Sparks points the reader to simple and important lessons. One is the folly of assuming that because an institution is imperfect, it must be torn down. Look closely enough at real tyranny, and you’re bound to lose your appetite for utopia-inspired demolition. Another is the value of allowing dissent. It is often the critics, the doubters, and the heretics who drive knowledge forward—who ensure that the truth does, on occasion, prevail.

Johnson has no illusions about China’s immediate future. Under Xi Jinping’s repressive rule, “Communist Party myths dominate China’s textbooks, museums, films, and tourist spots, and are a constant theme of China’s top leaders.” The CCP engages in “sophisticated form[s]” of censorship, ensuring that most people “agree with the government version of events.” Johnson recognizes that the state’s “acts of disremembering” have succeeded in “warp[ing] the country’s collective memory.”

All the same, Johnson’s writing is so engaging, and his cast of characters so impressive, that you find yourself thinking, despite yourself, that the CCP’s days might be numbered. The Party is forever cracking down on opposition; yet whenever the underground historians are “even just a little bit free,” those historians spring back to work. The Party can’t keep track of them all, and they exploit every moment of weakness (such as the Covid-19 pandemic’s confused outset). Those historians are sending “messages in a bottle to be read in a future China.” They want their descendants to see that “when things had never been darker, Chinese people inside China did not yield to comfort or fear.” 

These men and women “know they will win,” Johnson reports, “not individually and not immediately, but someday.” They are the heirs of Su Dongpo, whose poems have long outlived the dynasty that laid him low. Inscribing their memories and their protests into their flash drives, onto the Internet, and, even now, onto the rocks and shrines of China, they evoke Byron’s romantic heroes:

For I will teach, if possible, the stones
To rise against Earth’s tyrants. Never let it
Be said that we still truckle unto thrones;
But ye—our children’s children! think how we
Show’d what things were before the World was free!

Photo: Spondylolithesis/iStock


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