10 Historical Questions That Can Get You Arrested in China

Slandering China's martyrs and heroes could land Chinese citizens in jail, thanks to a newly updated criminal code.

As part of the drive to protect such figures' reputations, the country's internet regulator in July released a list of historically nihilist "rumors" that citizens are not allowed to discuss.

The agency, called the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), has also reportedly launched phone and online hotlines for people to report those who raise the topics.

The law has, according to the New York Times, been enforced at least 15 times.

California-based China Digital Times (CDT) has shone a spotlight on the new code and translated the so-called rumors that could land people behind bars. Specifically:

  1. Did Chairman Mao Write His Own Poetry?
  2. Did China's First Premier Fall Out of Love With Maoism?
  3. Did the Well-Known Heroes Slip (Instead of Jump) off cliff?
  4. Was Chairman Mao's Son Killed for Egg Fried Rice?
  5. Is a Much-Celebrated Soldier's Diary Fake?
  6. Was the 'Long March' Shorter Than Claimed
  7. Did the Battle of Luding Bridge Actually Happen?
  8. During World War II, Did China Avoid the Japanese Army?
  9. Was Land Reform a mistake?
  10. Was the Korean War Fought in Self-Defense?

Speaking to Newsweek, Andrea Janku, a senior lecturer in the History of China at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) China Institute, says this "internet censorship campaign, has to be seen in the context of the larger project to further elevate Xi Jinping to a position that comes equal to that of Mao."

"The explicit aim is to bolster the authority of the party leader, to put the authenticity of the heroic deeds of the martyrs of the revolution beyond doubt, and to make sure that the CCP's [Chinese Communist Party] version of history is the only one".

Prof. Janku discussed the banned questions, first reported by CDT, with Newsweek...

1. Did Chairman Mao Write His Own Poetry?

Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong, Chinese Communist revolutionary and leader circa 1960s-c1970s. The Print Collector/Getty Images

Mao Zedong (1893-1976), aka Chairman Mao, the founding father of the People's Republic of China, was purportedly a prolific poet behind famous work Snow.

Mao's private secretary Hu Qiaomu, however, is said to have told a Chinese journal that Liu Shaoqi, a future vice president of China's communist party, was forced to "gift" the poem to Mao, who later rewrote four characters, in 1945.

China's internet regulator has dismissed the claim, saying the poem was written in 1936—five years before Hu began serving as Mao's secretary.

Janku finds the emphasis on the question about the authenticity of Mao's poem a little bizarre: "While there might be some speculation if there is a link here to Wang Huning (who authored some of this and previous leaders' theoretical writings), the point seems to be that the authority of the leader and the authenticity of their work - and 'thought' - is not to be doubted."

2. Did China's First Premier Fall Out of Love With Maoism?

Zhou Enlai (1898 - 1976) was the first premier of the People's Republic of China.

His wife, Deng Yingchao, however, allegedly wrote in her diary about her husband's discontent with Maoism in his later years, according to CDT.

An interview with one of Deng's former bodyguards was later released, the outlet reports, in which they stated she did not keep a diary.

3. Did the Well-Known Heroes Slip (Instead of Jump) off cliff?

According to the CCP, the "Five Heroes of Langya Mountain" were Chinese soldiers who in 1941 are said to have fended off Japanese troops on a mountain in Baoding, in north China's Hebei Province, before jumping off a cliff rather than surrender.

Two of the Chinese soldiers survived, it is said, but three others perished.

Historian Hong Zhenkuai's has disputed the story. He claims no Japanese troops were killed in the encounter and suggests the soldiers likely slipped off the cliff.

In 2016, Hong was ordered to publicly apologize for defaming martyrs and the CAC once again insisted the two surviving soldiers were saved by trees.

4. Was Chairman Mao's Son Killed for Egg Fried Rice?

Chairman Mao's eldest son, Mao Anying, was killed by an American napalm attack in North Korea on November 25, 1950.

The reason for his death has been disputed, CDT reports, with one story suggesting his demands to have egg fried rice—then a rare delicacy—exposed his unit's position.

For professor Janku this is another example of an insignificant event that cannot be proved or confirmed.

"It sounds like the type of story people will tell each other when having dinner," she said, "but the point again is to emphasize that heroes can't be neither doubted nor ridiculed".

5. Is a Much-Celebrated Soldier's Diary Fake?

Lei Feng was a young a soldier in China's "People's Liberation Army" (PLA) whose image was used in several propaganda campaigns, according to CDT, after his death aged just 21 in 1963.

Chinese students later had to read his diary in schools as part of a "Learn from Lei Feng" campaign, CDT reports, in a bid to inspire desire for patriotic sacrifice.

In 2013, the 50th anniversary of the "Learn from Lei Feng" campaign, one internet user was arrested, The New York Times reported, for suggesting Lei sought luxury.

They had written online: "The high-end apparel that Lei Feng bought for himself in 1959- leather jacket, woolen pants, leather shoes-would have cost about 90 yuan at the time, but his pay was only 6 yuan a month."

Lei Feng
Lei Feng, Chinese soldier of the People's Liberation Army, c1962. In the posthumous Learn from Comrade Lei Feng campaign, initiated by Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong in 1963, Lei (1940-1962) became the symbol of nationwide propaganda. He was portrayed as a selfless, modest man devoted to the Communist Party, Chairman Mao and the Chinese people and was held up as an example for the youth of China to aspire to follow. Lei was killed in an accident while on duty. Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images/Getty Images

6. Was the 'Long March' Shorter Than Claimed

In 1934, during civil war, Chinese communists broke through Nationalist enemy lines and began an epic trek known as the "Long March" which marked the emergence of Chairman Mao as their undisputed leader.

But some have reportedly questioned the length of the trek, which is said to have begun in Jiangxi province and ended in Shaanxi.

Prof. Janku thinks the question is irrelevant. "Whether the trek was 25,000 li or a little less, what is important is that the leadership feels that if people are arguing that the claim is wrong they are in fact trying to diminish the heroic deed. The same would apply to the story of the battle of Luding Bridge," referencing a battle (see below) that has gained near mythical status in China.

According to the SOAS professor, the entire story of the Long March is a propaganda coup in the first place. "Ultimately, it is the story of a glorious defeat. Fewer than 10% of those who started the trek arrived at its endpoint in Yan'an. The CCP was close to being wiped out."

She told Newsweek that an American journalist who visited Yan'an in those years played a crucial role in building the myth of the Long March. "You could say it is an example par excellence of what Lu Xun (the famous writer) has called 'the spirit of AQ' (based on the protagonist in one of his most famous short stories): the Chinese propensity to turn defeats into victories.

"The difference is obviously that there was nothing to mock about Mao's Long March. The CCP's ultimate victory in 1949 cemented this story."

7. Did the Battle of Luding Bridge Actually Happen?

During the Battle of Luding Bridge during the Long March, a small group of soldiers secured a bridge across the Dadu River under heavy fire.

However according to CDT, in a speech at Stanford University, a former national security advisor to China, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said a former party chairman had told him the "battle" had been embellished for propaganda purposes.

8. During World War II, Did China Avoid the Japanese Army?

An estimated 14 million Chinese citizens were killed during the World War II.

Some academics argue that the CCP avoided engaging in direct battle with the invading Japanese army, even if the party insists that they were a leading force in the war.

9. Was Land Reform a Mistake?

In a nationwide political program, the communist party took land from those it deemed to have considerable landholdings, who it dubbed "landlords."

In a May 2021 speech Wang Binglin, a senior official from China's education ministry, warned academics writing about the violent land redistribution campaign.

According to a Financial Times report in June, he said: "Playing up [the attack on landlords] is historical nihilism."

10. Was the Korean War Fought in Self-Defense?

1950: Korean War begins
Public Domain

China has long argued it fought in Korea to avoid a potential invasion and U.S. aggression, China Digital Times reports, noting that the U.S. version is quite different.

Overall, Janku said, "these are all things that people do actually talk about and don't really do any serious harm to the party's authority. More likely, it indicates an ever more tightening regime and increasing control of the public/social media sphere".

A story that will be "crowned," Janku added, with an upcoming third official version of CCP history soon.

Update 11/23/21, 7:50 a.m. ET: This article and subheadings have been updated with additional attribution to China Digital Times, which first reported on the list of banned questions.