Only two leaders of China’s ruling Communist Party have been powerful enough to rewrite the nation’s history. Thursday saw President Xi Jinping become the third.
His version Chinese history is simple. The party is great and glorious, but always right. China will reach inevitable greatness if people continue to follow the party. China is on the brink of greatness right now. One leader will soon make this greatness a reality. This is the content of the resolution on “major achievements and historical experiences in party’s hundred year of struggle” that was passed by the Communist Party Central Committee in Beijing on Thursday.
The communique says the Communist Party has “walked through 100 years of glorious history” and “written the most magnificent epic in the Chinese nation’s thousands of years of history.” But the declaration is, crucially, also about the future: It lays the groundwork for Xi to serve an unprecedented third term as president, underlining a political supremacy not seen in China in at least a generation. The party’s establishment as the party’s core and party centre of Comrade Xi Jinping reflects the collective wishes of the entire party. It also reflects the political progress of the Chinese nation’s great rejuvenation. “It has decisive meaning for the development of party and state affairs in the new era and the historical progress of the Chinese nation’s great rejuvenation.”
Only two former leaders of the Communist Party, revolutionary founder Mao Zedong and economic reformer Deng Xiaoping, have issued historical resolutions before, in 1945 and 1981, respectively. Both resolutions consolidated the power of one man, who then led the country through transformative decades. Analysts believe
Xi does the same. This is consistent with his repeated declarations that China has entered “a new era” of revitalizion under his leadership. Despite a slowing economy and growing tensions with the United States, it’s a statement of confidence and party unity ahead of the 20th party congress next year, when Xi is expected to be given a third term. All of this is what one might call ideological sherpa, preparing for a big announcement which consolidates Xi Jinping as the paramount leader…and solidifies the party’s role as the driving force of historical destiny in China,” Rana Mitter (director of the University China Center, Oxford University) said. According to Thursday’s state media release, the resolution claims a century of uninterrupted success. In contrast to previous resolutions that admitted party errors while affirming overall correct leadership, this one focuses solely on party triumphs.
In the section on the Mao era, when tens of millions died of starvation and violence, the communique praises the party for leading the people in “the broadest and deepest social transformation in Chinese history” and taking a “great leap” toward socialism.
“Chinese people are not only good at destroying an old world, but also good at building a new world. It states that only socialism is able to save China and that socialism alone can develop China. However, it does not mention the Great Leap Forward collectiveivization campaign or the violence of the Cultural Revolution.
Such florid rhetoric is no surprise to anyone who has heard Xi’s previous remarks on history, read the new versions of party history issued this spring or seen the banners, slogans and museum exhibits about “studying party history and following the party forever” on display in every city across China this year.
Still, it is a striking divergence from Deng’s 1981 resolution, which walked a careful line between affirming the ultimate correctness of Communist Party leadership and rejecting the Mao-era mistakes that ravaged the country.
“The big focus in 1981 was to try to make a clear statement about why the party was on the right track now, even though it had made major mistakes,” said Jeff Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at UC Irvine. “This is much more, ‘Let’s focus on how well China’s doing right now.’ … It’s using history in a celebratory tone.”
Such framing also simplifies the party’s story to one of “clear-cut heroes and clear-cut villains,” Wasserstrom said. They are not to be found within the party, according to Wasserstrom. They’re to be found in the foreign powers that bullied China during the century of national humiliation and the Japanese and the Americans during the Korean War.”
The party has used history to promote nationalist narratives of united struggle against foreign enemies in recent years, especially as tensions rise between China and numerous countries over trade, technology, human rights, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, the South China Sea and other areas. As many foreign powers react to China’s militarization and aggression towards its minorities, neighbours, and border regions, it has created a domestic narrative that promotes nationalist narratives of united struggle against foreign enemies in recent years, especially as tensions rise between China and numerous countries over trade, technology, human rights, trade, and trade, particularly with regard to the South China Sea, Tibet, and Hong Kong.
That too is mentioned in the resolution, which says that “major changes unseen in the world in a hundred years” — a euphemism for American decline — have intertwined with the COVID-19 pandemic to create a “more complex and severe external environment.” Domestic economic tasks and coronavirus containment are also “extremely arduous,” the communique says.
The party’s answer to such challenges has been to stamp out all dissent and discussion of weaknesses or mistakes, past or present, and to ramp up propaganda and the cult of personality surrounding Xi. Every bookshop has stacks of his books on the front shelves. In village homes, posters of his face are displayed. In every city and town, you can find his slogans.
A profile of Xi published by the official Xinhua News Agency this week praised him as “a man of determination and action, a man of profound thoughts and feelings, a man who inherited a legacy but dares to innovate, and a man who has forward-looking vision and is committed to working tirelessly.”
Many observers, including some in China, recoil from this exaltation of a single leader. It is precisely what Deng, mindful of the tumult and violence of the recently ended Cultural Revolution, had tried in the 1980s to prevent by instituting 10-year term limits for Chinese leaders.
“There’s no doubt that Xi Jinping is abrogating many of the fundamental principles that Deng Xiaoping tried to enshrine in the leadership system,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.
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“He’s basically saying the Deng Xiaoping phase has ended. All of our eagerness to reform, willingness to accommodate foreigners and more collaborative attitude towards being in the world have ended. China is strong enough to act in the same way that great powers have always done. It can bully other countries and throw its weight around, and it’s either our way or the highway,” Schell said. “This is the new period.”
But the new resolution does not directly repudiate Deng. The new resolution praises Deng’s economic reforms, but ignores Mao’s criticisms. To project a new message, it ignores contradictory historical details. It says that all stages of party leadership were correct because they were led and are culminating in today’s age.
” History is not something the Politburo considers an academic study. It is another type of political language,” stated Mitter at Oxford.
There have been times in party history — notably in the early 1980s — when its leaders were willing to admit and examine past mistakes, if only to find a way forward for the nation.
Not anymore. Mitter stated that both Xi and the entire party have decided that open discussion of differing views on history is not an option. “At the moment, putting forward an almost entirely uncritical view of history is more useful politically.”
The communique ends with an announcement that the 20th party congress will take place in Beijing late next year. It will be “an extremely significant party congress, and a major event, in the party’s political life,” it states, without specifying how — as if there was any room for surprise.