‘In the Steps of Deng Xiaoping’ - Xi Jinping’s Visit to Lyon, Academic Freedom, and the Re-Writing of History

President of China, and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, is visiting France this week. Airbus contracts will be signed, and French wine exports discussed, but the Chinese delegation has also decided to incorporate a cultural and historical aspect to events by visiting the site of the former Sino-French University Institute (1921-1946) located in Lyon. At first sight this visit would seem to be a wonderful photo-opportunity for the city of Lyon. However, are local and national politicians aware of the political and symbolic implications of this decision? Prudence is demanded when history is turned into a show by a state determined to control public utterances and historical accounts concerning it both at home, and now abroad. Indeed, the Chinese news stories already circulating show that a main objective of Chinese coverage of the visit is to emphasise a return to the orthodox sources of Communist Party legitimacy by allusion to the supposed presence of Communist Chinese legends Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping in Lyon. The latter however is a total historical fallacy. A second objective is demonstrating the PRC is retrospectively responsible for and in control of all of China’s modern history irrespective of its past political colours.

Sticking to the seemingly political and symbolic neutrality of economics would have permitted the City of Lyon to save face. Certainly, hosting a state visit of the leader of the largest dictatorship on earth is less than glorious, but the attractive contracts sugar-coat the pill that would otherwise have been difficult to swallow.

However, Lyon also benefits from a very particular historical relationship with China, and not simply through its well-known silk trade connections. Thanks to the history of the Sino-French University Institute, Lyon was fortunate in being the site of a unique intellectual, academic and educational experiment with China. Between 1921 and 1946, numerous residents of this elite college for Chinese students would become celebrated pioneering academics and scientists, certain of them occupying high functions, while others became famous authors, poets and painters. For a long time neglected in France, this venture initiated by progressive and anarchist Chinese intellectuals is well-known in China itself, and constitutes an important episode in the country’s political and intellectual history.

Over the past few years the Lyon municipal authorities have come to understand the potential of this major cultural capital and a small museum telling the Institute’s story has been created in its former premises. During his visit President Xi will visit Fort St. Irénée — the original site of the Sino-French Institute now student accommodation for French and foreign students alike. In preparation for the President’s visit the original 1921 Chinese and French names of the institute engraved over the old archway have been re-gilded, and a nearby building requisitioned for a temporary exhibition which the Chinese leader will briefly visit on 26th March.

Thus unique heritage was obviously a deciding factor in the choice of the Chinese President’s extra-Parisian leg of his visit (other cities such as Lille and, the home to Airbus, Toulouse, had also been contenders for this favour), but it would be naive to think that this decision was motivated by anything but Chinese internal political considerations. The authorities of the People’s Republic of China know better than anyone that History, it its spectacular and falsified version, is a remarkable tool in reinforcing the legitimacy of power.

President Xi JInping’s visit to Lyon will necessarily be the opening item on China's flagship news programmes this coming week. Footage of the President in this mythic Sino-French melting-pot will be no less fictional than the successful Chinese TV soap « Our Years in France » which told the story of young Chinese revolutionary students in 1920s France, and which also evoked the history of the Institute. Over images of the great leader in Lyon, the news announcer will mention the homage rendered to the late revered leaders Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, held to be illustrious former residents of the Institute, even though in the Archives there is no trace of their ever having been there. The message will be clear: Xi Jinping is returning to the historic sources of the Chinese Communist movement and confirming his alignment with his hardline predecessor.

The fact that Lyon’s Sino-French Institute had no connection with the Chinese Communist Party, and that the Chinese and French founders of this atypical institution took the trouble to inscribe political and religious neutrality into its rules of conduct, are mere details. The media show could not care less about historical truth. And beyond the supposed Communist legacy of the Institute, is quite simply the PRC state’s desire to recuperate, and monopolize the telling of, all modern history, even that in which the Chinese Communist Party had no part.

However, the Chinese authorities know that history must be manipulated with caution, for it can reflect back badly. The exhibition in honour of Xi Jinping, approved in advance by the Chinese authorities, will note that one of the founding fathers of the Sino-French Institute was a certain Cai Yuanpei, who came to Lyon several times, notably to sign the founding charter of this institution which would prepare its students for advanced study in France. The exhibition will also mention that Cai Yuanpei was a great educator, a one-time Minister of Education, and former President of Peking University.

What it will not foreground is that Cai Yuanpei was an ardent defender of the independence of universities, of freedom of expression and of intellectual pluralism. Even less likely will be any mention of his role as a founder of the Chinese League for the Defence of Civil Rights. Indeed, the politically liberal and humanist opinions of Cai Yuanpei are the antithesis of the policy currently implemented by the new Chinese President, and the situation in Chinese universities today, even in the relatively tolerant Peking University, would doubtless have led the illustrious Cai Yuanpei to despair.

Over the past few months, the hardening of political control, of censorship and suppression of dissident voices has led to some spectacular consequences. There are numerous examples: In October 2013, Xia Yeliang, known for his opinions in favour of political  reform, was fired from Peking University on the grounds of academic incompetence; in December 2013, Zhang Xuezhong, Professor of Law at the East China University of Politics and Law suffered the same fate for his calls to respect the 1982 Chinese constitution; even more serious is the case of the renowned and respected professor at the Central Nationalities University, Ilham Tohti, a pacific  and moderate defender of the rights of the Uighur minority, who was arrested several weeks ago and accused without any foundation of the crime of promoting separatism, a crime punishable by death. Several of his research students are also in detention. All have been denied legal representation.

What a paradox then to see the leader of a state engaged in a ferocious struggle against independent voices now taking advantage of a photo opportunity in an institution founded by the historic defender of intellectual and academic freedom, Cai Yuanpei. And how unfortunate for Lyon that Xi Jinping should have chosen the city to reinvent and exploit history so as to reinforce his legitimacy during the 25th anniversary year of the fateful Spring of 1989 that ended so disastrously for China’s people. Let us recall that the 4th June Massacre at Tiananmen, where students had gathered to demand greater freedom, and the bloody and violent repression that followed it, were ordered by Deng Xiaoping, then in supreme command of the country.

Reporting on the preparation for the Lyon visit, the local newspaper tells us that the Chinese delegation will want to walk ’’in the steps of Deng Xiaoping.’’ What is certain is that in terms of political and intellectual heritage, it is undeniable that Xi Jinping's Lyon pilgrimage honors the methods of Deng Xiaoping rather than the hopes of Cai Yuanpei.


Gregory B. Lee, Professor of Chinese Studies, University of Lyon (Jean Moulin)
Florent Villard, Associate Professor of Chinese Studies, University of Lyon (Jean Moulin)

Le Club est l'espace de libre expression des abonnés de Mediapart. Ses contenus n'engagent pas la rédaction.