China Guards Its Historical Heroes With New Law

China Guards Its Historical Heroes With New Law

As President Xi Jinping entrenches Communist Party rule, new law mandates ‘all of society’ honor its heroes and martyrs

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A new law in China will guard the legacy of official heroes and martyrs, a group that includes Fang Zhimin, shown here in 1935. PHOTO: XINHUA/ZUMA PRES

Eight decades after his grandfather was killed during the Chinese civil war, Fang Huaqing is fighting to defend his legacy as a Communist hero.

Mr. Fang has filed legal complaints against online critics of his ancestor’s record over the past year. His campaign got a boost Friday, when China’s legislature passed a law that requires “all of society” to “honor, study and defend” Communist Party-approved heroes and martyrs.

The law, which takes effect Tuesday, subjects anyone who defames members of that select group to potential criminal penalties and civil liabilities.

Mr. Fang has called the “Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law” a necessary, if belated, measure to protect the reputation of national heroes. “A nation that doesn’t uphold its own history has no future,” said the 52-year-old deputy director of a provincial government archive.

Enforcing control over Chinese history is a priority for President Xi Jinping, who has staked the legitimacy of Communist rule on claims that he and his ruling party are guiding China’s return to greatness.

Heroes and martyrs feature prominently in Mr. Xi’s propaganda campaigns, which often hark back to the party’s revolutionary roots. Officials have said that strong legislation is needed to promote patriotism and squelch “historical nihilism”—an official epithet for skepticism about the party’s contributions to China’s progress.

Authorities more aggressively policing history have already banned books, censored academic articles and denounced critics of official versions as disloyal dissidents who want to destroy the party and ruin China.

Public discussion of Chinese history is already curtailed by party oversight and the potential censure or dismissal of dissident scholars. The law will bring the threat of legal punishment into that environment.

Some writers and academics said it would also help clear the way for the party and Mr. Xi to dominate public discourse.

“What the party decides to be true can no longer be challenged,” said Wu Si, a former chief editor of the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu. The magazine was known for its liberal writings on Chinese history before party officials took over its management in 2016.

In a signal case, a Beijing court in 2016 ordered a writer and former editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu to apologize for questioning elements of the “Five Heroes of Langya Mountain,” a patriotic legend taught to schoolchildren.

Last year, the national legislature approved a preamble to a civil code of law that provides for civil liabilities for damage done to the “name, image, reputation, and honor” of heroes and martyrs.

An official with the legislature said the government has certified and recorded about 2 million heroes and martyrs. The government runs a martyrs database online that shows names from the past century or so.

While the government laid out requirements for martyrdom in 2011—stipulating that deaths must have occurred in the course of public service—what constitutes a national hero is less clear.

Opponents of the law said that those large lists, combined with the law’s vague provisions on defamation and punishment, are likely to circumscribe debates over wide swaths of modern Chinese history.

Officials said the law would help curtail erroneous historical perspectives. “No one should use academic freedom as a front for damaging the reputation and honor of others,” Yue Zhongming, director of the legislative planning office of the National People’s Congress’s standing committee, told reporters after the law was passed.

Mr. Fang’s own efforts started in January 2017, when he came across online articles criticizing his grandfather, Fang Zhimin, a Chinese Red Army commander who was captured by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces in early 1935 and executed months later. The commander’s writings in captivity, including an essay titled “Lovely China,” later prompted Mao Zedong to acclaim him as a national hero.

The online posts alleged that Fang’s troops engaged in kidnappings for ransom and a military unit from Fang’s 10th Red Army was responsible for the 1934 kidnap and murder of an American Protestant missionary couple, John and Betty Stam. Contemporary American accounts of their deaths generally blamed “Communist bandits,” without providing specifics.

“My grandfather would never have done such dirty things,” said Mr. Fang, the grandson, who is also an adjunct professor at an elite school for party officials.

Mr. Fang lodged a police report, accused party historians of neglecting their duty and advocated for legislation to protect the reputation of national heroes.

Police in Jiangxi—the Fang clan’s home province—detained a man and a woman in August for allegedly circulating the online posts and defaming Fang Zhimin. A local police spokeswoman confirmed the case and said the two individuals received counseling over a detention period that lasted no longer than 15 days. She declined to provide further details.

Mr. Fang also filed a lawsuit against the pair, Xu Lufei and Yu Xiangyan, seeking unspecified damages, but dropped the case this month after they apologized for insulting his grandfather. Mr. Xu didn’t respond to a social media message seeking comment; Ms. Yu couldn't be located.

The law passed Friday invests police and authorities overseeing culture, education, media and the internet with responsibilities to protect the reputation and dignity of heroes and martyrs, and actively promote their legacy. Internet operators are required to promptly deal with online defamation.

The law mandates punishment for people who “glorify wars of aggression or acts of invasion”—a revision to the December draft made in response to recent incidents where some younger Chinese, pejoratively described as “jingri,” or spiritually Japanese, posed for photographs in World War II-era Japanese military uniforms and shared them online.

State media have ramped up publicity this month with a propaganda campaign titled “For National Rejuvenation: A Roll of Heroes and Martyrs.” Fang Zhimin was the first hero profiled by state broadcaster China Central Television, whose flagship newscast opened one evening in early April with a segment honoring his wartime exploits and legacy.