Pity China’s central government.
They can withhold the passport of their most famous artist, Ai Weiwei, and make him a virtual prisoner in his own country.
They can jail their most famous writer, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, making him a literal prisoner in his own country.
But what to do about radical writer Lu Xun (pronounced LOO SHOON), whose writings provoke deep, independent thought – the kind China’s leaders simply cannot brook?
Chinese authorities would jail him if they could.
But Lu Xun has been dead for 77 years.
So this year, as in the past, more and more of Lu Xun’s writings are being purged from high school textbooks, a fact that has some Chinese parents upset.
Revered as the most powerful Chinese writer to emerge from the 20th Century, Lu Xun was a full-blooded, independent thinker, untamed by any ideology and pointedly skeptical of politicians.
Moreover, he believed that memory – historical memory – is vitally important in the development of a nation.
And there’s the problem.
China likes to boast that it has “5,000 years of history,” and it does, studded with outstanding achievements.
But people are hazy on details about the last 65, that is, the period since the Communist Party took over.
That is by design.
The anti-right purges, the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre – all of these catastrophes took place under Party leadership. Historian Frank Dikotter points out that from 1958 to 1962 alone, 45 million Chinese perished from government violence and incompetence.
None of that is ever taught in schools.
Small surprise then that this year, Lu Xun’s story “The Kite,” which stresses the importance of memory, has finally been expunged.
Chinese scholar Liz Carter, citing an essay by colleague Paul B. Foster, notes that “The Kite” warns against forgetfulness, emphasizing that real enlightenment can only come with the careful development of historical memory.
An article posted by the state’s own Xinhua News Agency this week defended the purge, saying students “should not be reading anything too deep.”
That stirred indignant discussion online.
Soon, China Daily in its USA edition, quoted sources saying the purge never took place.
Lu Xun had something to say about that too.
“Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood. Blood debts must be paid in kind: the longer the delay, the greater the interest.”
Small wonder Lu Xun still strikes fear among the powerful.
Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller