In one of the biggest events at this year’s Hong Kong Book Fair, former Taiwan culture minister Lung Ying-tai said governments should tell the truth about their own history. The longer they put it off, the bigger price they would pay.
It was one of the most eagerly awaited events of the fair, with 2,500 people from Hong Kong, the mainland and Taiwan in attendance. Lung has written 17 books and is one of the few authors whose works are popular in the three parts of the Chinese world.
The subject of her talk was remembrance and how different people, even from the same family, have different interpretations of the past.
The space for historical truth on the mainland shrank further in early July with the dismissal of Yang Jisheng, one of China’s best known historians, from his post as chief editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a Beijing magazine staffed by veteran journalists and party members like himself.
In a farewell letter, Yang listed eight subjects that cannot be covered, including June 4, the separation of powers, putting the army under government (not party) control, Falun Gong, current party leaders and their families, and minority issues.
In April, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a warning to the magazine, saying that 37 of its articles had not been submitted for approval before publication.
The magazine was founded in 1991 and now faces the risk of closure because of constraints on what it can write.
Lung was asked by a mainlander who lives in Hong Kong what to do when the government covers up history. She said that, in 1975, she was 32 and had never heard of the “February 28 incident” of 1947, in which the Kuomintang security forces brutally suppressed an uprising by native Taiwanese. Thousands were killed or forced into exile. Under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek, who died in 1975, the subject was taboo.
“You cannot cover up the truth forever,” she said. “If a government does not have the wisdom to deal with history accurately, when it finally comes out, it will pay an ever bigger price.”
Hong Kong and the book fair have played a critical role in the recording and publication of China’s history. Taiwan under martial law and the mainland have gone to enormous lengths to filter out historical events to suit their political purposes. Only in Hong Kong was and is it possible to find books that gave a full and rounded account.
That is true today – this year there are a record 580 exhibitors from 33 countries, giving the public the opportunity to read history from many points of view.
Lung has a strong feeling for Hong Kong. She spent nine years here as a visiting scholar at City University and the University of Hong Kong before returning to Taiwan in 2012 to become minister.
Her son has lived here for more than 10 years. “I am half a Hong Konger and have always cared about the city and its happenings,” she said.
Many in the audience came from the mainland, especially Shenzhen and Guangzhou. “I am a fan of her books and came this time in order to listen to her,” said Feng Guopin, head of marketing at Shenzhen Television.
But he had not heard of Great River, Great Sea (大江大海), a book she wrote that tells individual accounts of 1949. It has sold 100,000 copies in Hong Kong and 300,000 in Taiwan – but is banned on the mainland.
“The HK Book Fair is the best and biggest in the Chinese world,” said Feng. “I am unfamiliar with Hong Kong but everything here is well signposted and organized. It is easy to find what you want, even if you do not speak Cantonese.”
That is also the view of Southern Metropolitan Daily of Guangzhou, one of the most popular newspapers on the mainland. “It allows readers from the mainland to see Taiwan, Hong Kong and foreign language books and to attend seminars and talks.”
In addition, unlike book exhibitions on the mainland held in halls far from the city, it is easily accessible. “We should learn from it,” the newspaper said in a commentary on Friday.
From 2013, under Lung’s direction, the Ministry of Culture launched the gathering of oral histories from ordinary people, from the different communities who live in Taiwan.
She believes that the historical memory of individuals is precious and should be cherished. History is not the preserve of the government.
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