Changing the Narrative of a Nation, Chinese and American Style

As 2021 begins, America and China are the two most powerful nations on earth, representing divergent notions of how a country should be governed. Two very different ideas about freedom, the economy, the individual, God and more. Perhaps the most interesting way the two nations differ is how history is handled by those in charge of the narrative of the nation.

In a story published in late December in The Wall Street Journal, titled "Xi's China Crafts Campaign to Boost Youth Patriotism," reporter Liza Lin described how President Xi Jinping (who is also the general secretary of the Communist Party) and his apparatchiks are using slick videos on social media to drive patriotism in their country. "It's more sophisticated than anything Beijing has attempted in the past," the author noted. And more than anything Mao Zedong, chairman of the People's Republic of China, ever tried.

"One episode of a popular video series called Year Hare Affair, co-produced by a Communist Party organization, featured a bald eagle dressed in an American flag plotting with talking cockroaches to create chaos in Hong Kong," the Journal's story said. "Cute Chinese rabbits show up to fight off the cockroaches."

A student at a Beijing university told Lin that he'd gotten hooked on the cartoons, and while he knew they were a product of the Communist Party, he believed they were accurate. The cartoons would "shape the thinking of the next generation of Chinese," the student said.

"Under Mr. Xi, patriotic education has become sharper and more widespread," the WSJ story continued. "Chinese authorities learned from recent unrest among teenagers and young adults in Hong Kong that indoctrination has to start young."

"We need to seize this critical period that determines and forms teenagers' values and guide them so they can do up life's first buckle," Xi explained at an August 2018 meeting, according to Lin.

Xi's goals were laid out back in 2019. The 9,000-word report concluded that "patriotism is the most natural and simple emotion of the Chinese. We must insist on starting from when they are babies, focusing on consolidating the roots, concentrating on the soul," Lin wrote.

But the seeds of the current patriotism push can be traced back to 2013 when Xi came to power. "That year, party leaders wrote a policy memo," Lin wrote, "which warned of seven threats to the party, including the rise of Western notions of civil society and a free press. It called on party members to strengthen resistance to infiltration by outside ideas."

Xi's effort included the appointment of a new education minister hired to advance his agenda. Textbooks were rewritten in entire sections, and high school students were compelled to study a new politics volume, according to Lin, titled "Socialism in the New Era With Chinese Characteristics."

Then came the most ominous part of Lin's reporting. "Three Chinese teachers described in interviews what they said were efforts to silence debate in schools over the party's achievements," she wrote. "They said they were asked to give poor grades to exam essays if students took unapproved stances."

It got worse. "The charters of some prestigious universities were amended to place absolute adherence to party rule over academic independence," Lin wrote. "This year, China updated its Law for the Protection of Minors, striking 'independent thinking' from the list of assets schools are meant to cultivate."

The Chinese Communist Party has also gone to great lengths to erase the worst aspects of China's history, especially the student protests that gripped Beijing in 1989. One photo memorialized the massacre and mass arrests that followed: the picture of a lone man standing in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square in defiance of his government.

Two decades later, writer Louisa Lim visited four universities in Beijing and showed students a photo of "Tank Man." Out of the 100 students she approached, only 15 correctly identified the picture. Those results were no accident. As Lim explained in her book, The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, the Chinese authorities were determined to blot out public memory of the protests.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s. Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images

In America, we face a very different problem. Many leftists and progressives who don't care for America, free market capitalism or our nation's founders are promoting the most shameful aspects of our history, while erasing from public memory our most positive stories. It's China in reverse. And a very different brand of amnesia—and self-hatred—is being promoted.

There's no better example than The 1619 Project, launched by The New York Times in 2019 and coming to a public school near you, if it hasn't already arrived. The Times doesn't just challenge the story of America's founding; it rewrites American history. It casts America itself—and capitalism too—as central villains in the story. A story of a white supremacist nation founded on bad faith, lies and exploitation.

But don't trust me. Here's what the authors had to say about their mission: "It aims to reframe the country's history, understanding 1619 as our true founding," the Times proclaimed—1619 being the year the slave trade made it to American shores.

Princeton sociology professor Matthew Desmond's opening salvo in the Times had this title: "In order to understand the brutality of capitalism, you have to start on the plantation."

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project's leader and spokesperson, made some bold claims too. "Our democracy's founding ideals were false when they were written," she declared. A bit later, she had another whopper. "Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery," she wrote.

Historians across the country, many of them good old-fashioned liberals, were shocked at the sheer inaccuracy of those claims.

"To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding," Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz told the Atlantic's Adam Serwer.

Wilentz co-signed a letter to the Times outlining the egregious distortions being peddled by the 1619 Project, along with American Revolution specialist Gordon Wood of Brown University and others.

"The idea that the Revolution occurred as a means of protecting slavery—I just don't think there is much evidence for it, and in fact the contrary is more true to what happened. The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world," Wood explained.

King's College Historian Tom Mackaman was equally critical. "No serious historian disputes that slavery is a critical element of American history. But the uniqueness of this tragic experience was that it gave rise to the most intransigent antislavery movement the world has ever known," he wrote.

Mackaman went on to accuse the Times of "concocting a historical narrative without facts," adding that the 1619 Project was "a travesty of history." Worse, he accused the Times of "advancing a racialist narrative based on distortions, half-truths, and the falsification of historical events."

Many historians were especially concerned about the scale of the project. "I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing, especially since it's going to become the basis for high school education and has the authority of The New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways," Wood lamented.

Wood has it only partially right. The Times has many allies aiding it in this effort to teach American children in our public schools to hate their own country. Nonprofits like the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting have released lesson plans and reading guides for K-12 public schools, Random House Children's Books announced plans to publish four 1619 Project books for young readers, Upfront, a newsletter that the Times produces for schools with publisher Scholastic, is also providing material for classroom instruction.

This is all happening with the backdrop of ever declining numbers of young Americans citing pride in their country. A mere 24 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 said they were extremely proud to be American in 2019, according to Gallup. Contrast that with 57 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64, and 63 percent over 65. For the second time in as many years, fewer than half of all Americans said they were extremely proud of their country.

What might help that number rebound? A more complete understanding, say, of someone like Thomas Jefferson. Few historians tell the story of Jefferson better than Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, author of The Founder's Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It.

In a recent speech, he noted that most American schoolchildren know only two things about Jefferson: that he owned slaves, and wrote the Declaration of Independence. It's what they don't learn about Jefferson that matters most to Arnn.

They don't learn that when our nation first expanded, it was into the Northwest Territory, and that slavery was forbidden in that territory. They don't learn that the land in that territory was ceded to the federal government from Virginia, or that it was on the motion of Thomas Jefferson that the condition of the gift was that slavery in that land be eternally forbidden. If schoolchildren learned that, they would come to see Jefferson as a human being who inherited things and did things himself that were terrible, but who regretted those things and fought against them.

Arnn was just getting started about what schoolchildren—and even most Americans—don't learn about Jefferson.

On the scale of human achievement, Jefferson ranks very high. There's just no question about that, if for no other reason than that he was a prime agent in founding the first republic dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.The astounding thing, after all, is not that some of our Founders were slaveholders.

Arnn then went on to provide a context for evaluating Jefferson, something completely missing from most discussions of history.

There was a lot of slavery back then, as there had been for all of recorded time. The astounding thing—the miracle, even, one might say—is that these slaveholders founded a republic based on principles designed to abnegate slavery.

Most important, what schoolchildren don't learn is that Jefferson was a complicated man, like the rest of us.

They don't learn what Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just," he wrote in that book regarding the contest between the master and the slave. "The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."

These are not mere omissions by folks at the 1619 Project and other leftists hell- bent on promoting their own version of American history, but something far more devious and cynical. These ideologues, according to Arnn, are committed to a rendition of the past that leaves us less free. And less human.

To present young people with a full and honest account of our nation's history is to invest them with the spirit of freedom. It is to teach them something more than why our country deserves their love, although that is a good in itself. It is to teach them that the people in the past, even the great ones, were human and had to struggle. And by teaching them that, we prepare them to struggle with the problems and evils in and around them. Teaching them instead that the past was simply wicked and that now they are able to see so perfectly the right, we do them a disservice and fit them to be slavish, incapable of developing sympathy for others or undergoing trials on their own. Depriving the young of the spirit of freedom will deprive us all of our country. It could deprive us, finally, of our humanity itself. This cannot be allowed to continue. It must be stopped.