by Martin Yip
History is written by the victors, they say. I spent much of the past summer in two interesting locations – Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, and Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Both countries share a history of communist rule which are, interestingly enough, depicted from contrasting angles.
There is a Museum of Communism in Prague that reviews the history of the Czech Republic around the era of communist rule. (I strongly recommend it for anyone visiting the city.) That era was regarded as the years of ‘unfreedom’. The exhibitions detailed how people suffered low living standards under the communists. How the secret police interrogated and tortured dissidents. How Jan Palach, a university student, set himself on fire to mobilize his fellow citizens in the fight. Finally, the Velvet Revolution toppled the communists in then Czechoslovakia, and freedom and democracy were won.
In Beijing, at least on the outskirts, the (nominal) communists were pictured rather differently. At bus stations, advertisement boards proudly proclaimed the twelve Core Socialist Values; other slogans included ‘If the People Have Faith, the Nation Has Strength’, ironically enough since Chinese Communist Party ideology is atheist. In the microdistrict I lived in, signs along the jogging track described the achievements of the Party in the past eighteen sessions of National Congress.
Obviously, the Czech Republic and the PRC have very different political ideologies and institutions, which explains why they tell stories about communism differently. Granted, having different perspectives may give us clearer perceptions of objects and issues; but not all perspectives are equal. It is a grave and dangerous fallacy to claim that because there are multiple perspectives, each of them must capture some part of the truth, or that the truth can be approximated by ‘balancing’ these perspectives or being ‘neutral’ about them. After all, on Hitler’s account, the Holocaust was justified.
In many situations, we might wonder what would be the ‘right’ thing to do or ‘right’ words to say. It is an open question whether we know of objective moral truths, on the basis of which we can derive absolute rights or wrongs. Often we turn to others for advice, and they each offer their take on what’s right or likely to be right; yet, the responsibility is ultimately on ourselves to develop a sense of right and wrong by adjudicating among these perspectives.