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HomeAsiaRadio Free Asia Presents: The Unfiltered Story of Modern China's History

Radio Free Asia Presents: The Unfiltered Story of Modern China’s History

A partly anonymous team of journalists and historians is creating an archive of uncensored historical material to allow the Chinese people to “reclaim their history” from the ruling Communist Party’s official narrative, according to its founder.

The China Unofficial Archive, founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former China correspondent Ian Johnson, is “dedicated to making accessible the key documents, films, blogs, and publications of a movement of Chinese people seeking to reclaim their country’s history” since the Communists took over in 1949.

It includes books, films and documentary records from key points in China’s recent history, including the Great Famine of the late 1950s to early 1960s under late supreme leader Mao Zedong, memoirs of the political turmoil of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and former Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong’s personal account of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

“We believe that public domain books, magazines, and films should be widely available, and that there is an inherent value in making different voices heard,” the bilingual Archive’s About section reads.

The non-profit archive was co-created and is co-maintained by Chinese journalist Jiang Xue and others “who prefer to remain anonymous,” it says.

Johnson, whose recent book “Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future” portrays the same people his archive hopes to serve, told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview he hopes that more Chinese people will gain access to materials through the archive that are unavailable in China due to government censorship.

“I noticed talking to a lot of people that … although there’s a lot more information possible to share in China, like people emailing PDFs and that sort of thing … it was sometimes difficult to find more information,” Johnson said.

“Somebody might send you a book about a topic, but it would be difficult to find other books on the topic or other authors on the topic.”

Providing access

Currently, the archive has a backlog of around 175 films that are currently being digitized that have yet to appear on the site, which Johnson said is around “75% or 80%” focused on people still living under censorship, with the remainder aimed at non-Chinese overseas.

Johnson had the idea to set up a “clearing house” for useful historical research material for those who lack access to big research libraries in major universities like Harvard.

“My primary goal was to help people who are doing this kind of research to simply have access to existing materials, all the books and the documentary films, etc,” he said.

Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former China correspondent, is the founder of the China Unofficial Archive. (Cai Yaozheng)

Johnson was careful to note that he doesn’t endorse any of the material on his site as better or more truthful than any other material.

“We have chosen these titles because we think that they’re useful and important,” he said. “But we aren’t saying necessarily that we agree with everything written by this author or that sort of thing, so in that sense, it is a bit like a library.”

“We think there’s maybe an inherent value in a better flow of information,” he said, adding that the website aims to serve the needs of ordinary people and “citizen historians.”

The site is unlikely to be accessible to internet users behind the Great Firewall of government censorship in China unless they employ special tools to get around government blocks and filters.

“That’s to be expected,” Johnson said. “We’re looking to reach the people who are trying to research and, and write their country’s history.”

“The raw numbers of people is small, but I think they can also be influential people in the long run,” he said.

‘Just the beginning’

The archive has plans to keep on adding new resources from what Johnson termed “a huge amount of potential material.”

“What we’ve put on the site right now is just the beginning,” he said.

Not everything is eligible, either. Johnson and his team will steer clear of posting any book that is currently still on sale, although they plan to post an entry signposting readers to publishers and bookstores in the case of some publications.

Books that are still readily available in libraries around the world are unlikely to get a spot, whether they’re on sale or not.

But books that are out of print, or whose publishers have been shut down, or have been banned from sale will be made available, according to Johnson.

“We don’t want to hurt [anyone’s] ability to earn a living,” he said.

Even with that content ruled out, there is plenty of new material being published by what Johnson described as “an amazing explosion” of citizen historians in the past two decades in China.

“Sometimes in Hong Kong, sometimes just as a PDF, sometimes they make a film and put it on YouTube or some other place like that,” he said. “I don’t think many people, certainly outside of China, realize how much has been done about that.”

“It’s remarkable that it’s primarily written by Chinese people inside China under often difficult conditions and without the benefits of being a professor at a big university and a budget and graduate students to help you do all the dirty work, right?”

<“These are people often working on their own and under quite difficult circumstances,” Johnson said. “And so I thought it was an important trend that needed some highlighting and in this way by putting it all together.”>

“It shows the scope of this movement.”

Edited by Luisetta Mudie and Malcolm Foster.

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