State violence and historical memory in Rwanda and China

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.

9 thoughts on “State violence and historical memory in Rwanda and China

  1. I’ve been enjoying your comparative posts, and I’m excited to see how your research takes shape if it ends up moving towards this broader type of comparison. Something I thought might be interesting (though you’ve probably already read it) is Theta Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions, its one of those Big Deal books on political violence, and its also (I thought) a unique comparison, looking at large revolutions and breaking down all of the differences and similarities in how things actually played out. Bonus, China is one of the cases. I have a few other Chinese history/politics books in my to-read list, I’ll share the news once I actually get to them :)

    Enjoy your trip! So jealous.

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    1. Awesome, would love to hear your thoughts on the Chinese history books! I skimmed Skocpol for class last year, but it would be good to go back and read it properly. In general I’ve valued what I’ve read of the new institutional history types like her.

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  2. Hi again – My second response is to the idea that the African continent is uniquely predisposed to violence. (Seriously – who says that?) The more I learn about world history (and human nature), the more obvious it becomes that violence (in one form or another) has been part of almost every culture, throughout history. Aggression is part of our biological and psychological heritage (for better it worse). It’s how people choose to use, or control, or channel aggression that can make a huge difference In the quality of family, community, or society in general. So the idea that the African continent Is uniquely predisposed to violence is, (in my view), completely ridiculous.

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  3. My field of study is quite different from yours, but in recent years there has been a tendency to look for patterns and solutions outside of the traditional library. We seek to learn from and apply information management principles to all sorts of situations. Libraries and librarians are not the only ones seeking to find, acquire, classify, and organize information. It’s a kind of horizontal rather than lateral thinking, and it’s an instructive and enlightening exercise. In my opinion we are just getting started on this approach, but there are probably more learned information professionals who could articulate this much better than I. Thank you for pointing out the option. I will give it more thought. Safe travels.

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    1. I like your image of horizontal rather than lateral thinking. And I love the point about how looking outside of your own discipline translates so well across fields! We’ll have to discuss more when I see you in September.

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  4. Hi Rach, I hope you’ll receive this email once you’ve safely arrived in Hong Kong! Just read your blog post comparing genocide in China and Rwanda. I don’t know a lot about the history and Context of the Cambodian genocide in the 1970’s – it happened in proximity to the Vietnam war (and The secret bombing of Cambodia). I’m pretty sure Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge attempted a radical Restructuring of Cambodian society – I think the genocide was Focused on intellectuals, the former government, and anyone who They perceived as “elite”. Pol Pot, like Ho Chi Minh and (I think) Mao Tse-Tung, became radicalized while studying In Paris. (Not sure who influenced them in Paris – the world might have been a happier place if they had focused on wine, women, and French food!) But I digress.

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    1. “Not sure who influenced them in Paris – the world might have been a happier place if they had focused on wine, women, and French food!)”

      Yeah sure…but that obviously didn’t take!~ Lol
      Have to say I disagree with you about Ho Chi Minh, though.

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