I’m off to spend three weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam today, so blogging will be light aside from a few scheduled posts. While this isn’t specifically a research-oriented trip, I chose these countries in part because I wanted to see what life looks like in places that had experienced civil wars and are about 20 years farther along in their recovery than the places I study in Africa. As evinced by a few of my recent posts (here and here), I’ve been trying to get outside of my tendency to focus narrowly on central Africa and work towards doing more cross-regional comparison. Africa is often discussed as a continent uniquely predisposed to violence, but I’m quite convinced that this isn’t true, and I’m looking forward to beginning to build my familiarity with other areas.
I was recently discussing my rationale for this trip over dinner with a friend who’s also spent some time in Rwanda. He made the excellent point that if I were interested in looking at the ways in which governments work to shape historical memory of traumatic events, the apt comparison would actually be between Rwanda and China. In his view, both the scale of the violence (during the genocide in Rwanda and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China) and the degree to which state culpability for these events has been whitewashed and manipulated to suit current political realities seem comparable.
I know very little about Chinese history beyond what I’ve gotten from Wikipedia, and I haven’t really started looking into the implications of this statement yet. But it’s got me thinking: why doesn’t more literature look for commonalities across categories of political violence rather than within them? By this I mean that genocides are compared to other genocides (as in this paper by René Lemarchand [PDF]), civil wars to other civil wars, and terrorism to other cases of terrorism. My understanding of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution suggests that neither was primarily aimed at the genocidal elimination of ethnic minorities, as occurred in Rwanda in 1994. And yet all of these episodes were about states using various types of violence to attempt to remake society in their preferred image, be it as an industrialized nation or a nation free of Tutsis and MDR supporters. Both the Cultural Revolution and the Rwandan genocide were episodes of violence that took place largely in response to political uncertainty among national elites. And in both cases, the scale of violence was explained in large part by the existence of a relatively strong and centralized state. (By comparison, there’s a lot of ongoing violence in the DRC today, but it’s perpetrated by a wide range of actors, rather than being state-led.)
Of course, Rwanda and China are incredibly different in most other ways, starting with the fact that Rwanda’s entire population is a rounding error in Chinese statistics. But maybe there’s something to be said for avoiding the tendency to group like with like – Africa with Africa, civil war with civil war – and see what might be learned from unexpected comparisons.