China Keeps Trying to Crush Them. Their Movement Keeps Growing.

Credit…Illustration by Linda Huang; source photograph by Tsering Dorje


By Ian Johnson

Mr. Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spent two decades in China.

  • Sept. 21, 2023


“In 1959, a group of university students in the northwestern Chinese city of Tianshui embarked on a quixotic plan. China was in the midst of the Great Famine, a catastrophe caused by government policies that would kill as many as 45 million. These young people had witnessed farmers starving to death and cannibalism; they also saw how the government had brutally punished or killed people who appealed for help. They felt someone needed to do something to spread word of what was happening. They decided to publish a journal.

The students called it Spark, after a Chinese expression, “xinghuo liaoyuan,” or “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” They hand-wrote the essays onto plates and, with the help of local officials, used a mimeograph machine to run off copies.

At just eight pages, and with no photos or graphics, Spark looked primitive. But it was filled with articles that got to the heart of China’s authoritarian politics — then and now: Farmers weren’t allowed to own property, all of which belonged to the state; top leaders brooked no opposition; corruption was endemic; and even critics loyal to the regime were persecuted. The lead article on the first page set the tone:

“Why did the once progressive Communist Party become so corrupt and reactionary less than ten years after coming to power, with complaints and rebellions at home, and falling into an embarrassing situation abroad? This is because the people’s world is regarded as its private property, and all matters are managed by party members.”

There would be no second issue. Within months, 43 people associated with the magazine were arrested. Three were later executed, and the rest were sentenced to years in labor camps.

Strips of yellowed paper with handwritten Chinese characters on them sit on top of a beige background.
Four young people wearing black jackets pose in front of a building in a black and white image.

Spark had lasted less than a year and seemed extinguished. Over the Chinese Communist Party’s nearly three-quarters of a century in power, it could have been forgotten, nothing more than one of countless small acts of outrage against the party’s unchecked powers. Instead, for many Chinese people, its story is now synonymous with resistance to one-party rule.

How? Through the efforts of China’s counterhistorians, a group of citizens united in their desire to tell the whole story of Communist Party rule, to include in China’s collective memory events like the famines of the last century and the virus outbreaks of today. One key member of this movement is a 49-year-old journalist named Jiang Xue, whose determination to tell the true story of what happened in her hometown — to not let yet another piece of China’s history get lost or distorted — helped turn Spark into a source of inspiration to those who follow in its creators’ footsteps, making it a testament to the limits of even the harshest measures to crush resistance.” . . . .