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September 29, 2023

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future

Event Series: Other Initiative Events

Showing the Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future Video

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. These powerful and inspiring accounts have underpinned recent protests in China against Xi Jinping's strongman rule.

Based on years of first-hand research, award-winning journalist Ian Johnson’s new book Sparks: China's Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future (2023) 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-twenty-first century. In this talk Johnson will share highlights from the book, which 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.

This event is co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service Asian Studies Program, Center for Asian Law at Georgetown Law, and Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues.


Ian Johnson is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has lived more than 20 years in China as a student, journalist, and teacher. His work appears regularly in the New York Review of Books, 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.