Sparks: China's Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future describes how some of China's best-known writers, filmmakers, and artists have overcome crackdowns and censorship to forge a nationwide movement that challenges the Communist Party on its most hallowed ground: its control of history.
The past is a battleground in many countries, but in China it is crucial to political power. In traditional China, dynasties rewrote history to justify their rule by proving that their predecessors were unworthy of holding power. Marxism gave this a modern gloss, describing history as an unstoppable force heading toward Communism's triumph. The Chinese Communist Party builds on these ideas to whitewash its misdeeds and glorify its rule. Indeed, one of Xi Jinping's signature policies is the control of history, which he equates with the party's survival.
But in recent years, a network of independent writers, artists, and filmmakers have begun challenging this state-led disremembering. Using digital technologies to bypass China's legendary surveillance state, their samizdat journals, guerilla media posts, and underground films document a regular pattern of disasters: from famines and purges of years past to ethnic clashes and virus outbreaks of the present--powerful and inspiring accounts that have underpinned recent protests in China against Xi Jinping's strongman rule.
Based on years of first-hand research in Xi Jinping's China, Sparks challenges stereotypes of a China where the state has quashed all free thought, revealing instead a country engaged in one of humanity's great struggles of memory against forgetting--a battle that will shape the China that emerges in the mid-21st century.
Ian Johnson is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has lived more than twenty years in China as a student, journalist, and teacher. His work appears regularly in The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and other publications, and for five years he was on the editorial board of The Journal of Asian Studies. He has won numerous prizes for his coverage of China, including a Pulitzer Prize.
Johnson will be joined in conversation with Ishaan Tharoor. Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today's WorldView newsletter and column. In 2021, he won the Arthur Ross Media Award in Commentary, a prize administered by the American Academy of Diplomacy. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. He also periodically teaches an undergraduate seminar at Georgetown University on digital affairs and the global age.