Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Holes of Oblivion Open Up in China

One central feature of totalitarianism is the desire of those at the top of the movement to retain full—that is, total—control of their people. Total control requires, at times, the ability to lie, especially when facts on the ground fail to conform with past and present pronouncements. The strength of any totalitarian system can, in part, be measured by how successfully lies can be maintained and how effectively the movement can lie in spite of the facts.

A story out of China this week offers great insight into the totalitarian ambitions of some in China’s government, but also the fissures in that façade. As is now well known, Chinese President Hu Jintao is resigning, leaving office voluntarily when he had been expected to seek another term in power. Moreover, Hu is not maintaining any significant position of power in the new Chinese leadership, something quite unusual. And now the reasons have surfaced.

It seems that Hu was brought down by the emergence of a cover-up orchestrated by his most trusted deputy, Ling Jihua. The facts are such:

Mr. Ling’s son crashed his black Ferrari, killing himself and injuring two young women he was driving with. One of the women later died. Even though the crash and the son’s death were reported in the press, Mr. Ling set about erasing that news and denying it. He admitted the crash, but insisted his son was still alive, even creating false social media posts from his son to “prove” that he had survived. In addition, a major Chinese bank with connections to President Hu paid hush money to the families of the two women.

What is surprising is not so much the cover-up, but that it failed. As the New York Times reports,

Under normal circumstances, party insiders said, suppressing such news to protect the image of the party would be a routine matter. But Ling Jihua went further, they said, maneuvering to hide his son’s death even from the leadership.

Against Ling’s heavy-handed efforts, Chinese bureaucrats fought back. Intentionally or not, the police recorded the name of Ling’s son as Jia, a word that sounds like the word in Chinese for fake, and also a word similar to a retired party leader. That leader was furious about reports of his ignoble death. This and other accidents led to increasing pressure on Ling, and eventually the cover-up unraveled, leaving Hu embarrassed and eventually allowing him to be pushed out of power.

The fascinating story is yet another reminder of one of the most optimistic of Hannah Arendt’s repeated claims, that “The holes of oblivion do not exist.”  In other words, no totalitarian system is perfect and no matter how sophisticated the lie, if the lie is big and important enough, the truth will eventually come out. As Arendt writes:

Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.

It is always good to be reminded of this basic fact of the human world, that as artful as humans may be at lying, truth is stronger than the lie.



The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

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  1. In my modest opinion and even according to my limited knowledge upon Hannah Arendt, the statement “truth is stronger than the lie” doesn’t look very Arendtien. It¨s may be too absolute… Let me please to quote from her work in spanish: “Las mentiras resultan a veces mucho más plausibles, mucho más atractivas a la razón, que la realidad, dado que el que miente tiene la gran ventaja de conocer de antemano lo que su audiencia desea o espera oir” (H. A. “La mentira en política” en Crisis de la República, p.14) … This is the strength, the extraordinary but not invencible force of today’s mass media totalitarianism… I send you my regards, my kind consideration.

    • Your quote from Lying in Politics is certainly a key part of Arendt’s thought, that lying and the lie is seductive; the lie will often be more palatable than reality, especially for a people that is homeless and rootless, which means for a people without a strong sense of who they are. The need to believe in something solid will make lies compelling. That is central to Arendt’s thinking. And yet, what she repeats everywhere is that as compelling as lies are, they will eventually fall apart. To advance the lie indefinitely is simply beyond the power of human strategy. That is also fundamental to Arendt. It is the reason that Totalitarianism, as dangerous as it is, will never be the final destiny of humanity.

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