Updated: June 30, 2021 3:29:57 pm
In 2012, soon after he became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping gave a speech at a foreign press briefing on what he sees as the road ahead for China. Ironically, in an address dedicated to the future of China, it was history that stood out as the focal point.
Xi pointed to China’s “five thousand years and more of evolution as a civilisation” in which the nation had made “indelible contribution to the progress of human civilisation”. He also spoke about the hardships and sufferings endured by China in modern history and how “since its founding, the Communist Party of China had made great sacrifices and forged ahead against all odds.”
The role of history has been paramount in a China led by the Communist Party. Journalist Ian Johnson in his essay, ‘The presence of the past- A coda’ (2016), takes stock of this when he writes, “Communism itself is based on historical determinism: one of Marx’s points was that the world was moving inexorably towards Communism, an argument that regime builders like Lenin and Mao used to justify their violent rise to power.”
History writing has been part of the CCP’s activities since the consolidation of Mao Zedong’s leadership in the party in the early 1940s. But it would be wrong to assert that the CCP is alone in this effort to tell a history suiting the party’s ideology. Similar exercises of state control over the past have happened in large parts of the world, including in India. “What’s interesting with the CCP is that you see from a very early stage, a very conscious decision that artists and intelligentsia, or cultural production of which history writing is a part, had to serve the interests of the party,” says Arunabh Ghosh, historian of Modern China at Harvard University. He explains this relationship between the professional historian and the state historically, when he suggests that there exists a 1000-year-old history in China of employing bureaucrats through a meritocratic exam. “What that means is that intellectuals have been employed in the imperial project in a systematic way,” he says, adding that the legacy of this system has affected the relationship between the intellectual and the state right down to the present government under Xi.
What also stands out in the history writing project in China is that the same party, over the course of a 100 years of its existence, has approached the history of China and that of its own differently at different moments in time. As the party evolved, so did its relationship with the past. What was marginalised under Mao is now glorified by Xi, critical moments of CCP’s history suppressed or recovered to suit the party, while leaders, once crucial to the party, are now deemed as uncomfortable faces in its memory. While on one hand discussing episodes such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests is almost taboo, on the other hand important leaders of the CCP who later fell out with the party like Gao Gang and Liu Shaoqi are erased from history text books.
“The CCP’s use of modern history has several different elements to it. The one specific aspect being promoted by Xi Jinping as party leader is a strong prohibition on what the party calls historical nihilism,” says Rana Mitter, Professor of History and Politics of Modern China in Oxford University. The phrase is used to describe public doubt over the CCP’s description of past events. “For instance, a historical trajectory that suggests a Marxist style inevitability of the party’s journey from when it was founded in July 1921 to the present day, that is acceptable and encouraged. Discussions over the last 40 years of opening up and reform through the party’s efforts are encouraged. But the difficulties are in talking about parts of history that don’t fit into this narrative, such as the great leap forward of the 1950s which was an economic experiment by Mao that went terribly wrong and killed approximately 15 or 20 million people through starvation,” explains Mitter.
Remembering Mao Zhedong and his revolution
The significance of Mao in the history of modern China can never be overemphasised. Mao to China was what Stalin was to the Soviet Union. He was the founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, and yet under him the country experienced some of the bloodiest and most controversial episodes in its history.
After coming to power, Mao consolidated his control over the country through campaigns against landlords and counter-revolutionaries. His anti-rightist campaign between 1957 and 59 is known to have led to the execution of hundreds and thousands of critics of the party. The Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign initiated by Mao in 1958 to reconstruct the Chinese agrarian economy according to a Communist model resulted in what is believed to be the greatest famine in the history of the country.
Then came the Cultural Revolution, a movement that lasted for 10 years and led to unprecedented class violence and destruction of cultural artefacts. A 1994 report in the Washington Post suggests that Mao was responsible for more than a 100 million deaths, caused by the dozen or so campaigns launched by him between 1949 and 1976 when he died.
Dealing with the memory of Mao and his activities have been critical in the history writing project of the CCP. Five years after Mao died, the CCP issued a statement condemning the era and ended all further discussions on Mao by declaring “his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary”.
Unlike Stalin in the Soviet Union, the legacy of Mao was not easy to discard by the CCP. As Johnson explains in his essay, “Mao is not just China’s Stalin- someone who the Soviet Union could discard because it still had Lenin to fall back on as its founding father. For the Communist Party of China, Mao is Stalin and Lenin combined; attack Mao and his era and you attack the foundations of the Communist state.”
“Immediately after Mao’s death, when China embarked on reform, the party had to explain the preceding period under its rule. The best way to explain the atrocities like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution was to put all the blame on Mao,” says Xun Zhou, Reader in the department of History at University of Essex. “At the same time, the party’s coming to power had a great deal to do with Mao, so it can’t dismantle him either. Therefore, they suggested that Mao had become an old man and was confused.”
Over the years, however, there has been a shift in the party’s stance on the Maoist years. Under Xi, there has been a revival of Mao’s popularity. Ironically though, Xi is the son of a top Communist official, who fell out with Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Consequently, when he came to power in 2012, many thought that he might take a more critical view of the Maoist era. That, however, was not the case.
Jayadev Ranade, president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, in an article published earlier this year, notes the shift in the historical narrative of Mao in the latest revised version of the CCP’s history published in 2021. “The ‘Brief History’ and the study campaign have political significance. They promote Xi Jinping’s image and elevate him as one of China’s three most important communist leaders at par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping,” he writes. Ranade also notes that there is a much-reduced emphasis on the Maoist era in the new version of the party’s history and that the decade-long period of the Cultural Revolution which was a lengthy 11,000 word chapter in the older version is now reduced to a single page. References to party rectification, the anti-rightist struggle, ‘Great Leap Forward’ etc. are absent.
Speaking about how the legacy of Mao has been repurposed under Xi Jinping, Ghosh says, “Xi Jinping is the first leader since Mao who, in terms of the language of the party and the ways in which he is described, is very akin to the ways in which Mao was described.”
“One of the reasons for this shift is that much of the nationalist pressure in China does not come from liberals. Somewhat surprisingly to many, it comes from those who are neo-Maoists. They feel that today’s China is too capitalist. They feel that the current party is not doing enough to commemorate what Mao was about. To that extent, much of the current government’s shift to make the image of Mao more favourable is to actually please those who consider themselves the true heirs of Mao,” says Mitter.
There is also the factor of time that has gradually erased much of the memory of the horrors of Mao’s campaigns. Zhou says the revival of Mao’s popularity is not just through the CCP’s leadership. There has been a resurgence of Red culture in China as well as globally.
“In contemporary China, Mao Zedong is remembered as a revolutionary leader but also revered as a deity by ordinary citizens across the country. The image of Mao is evoked differently by different people. For some he is a symbol of a more egalitarian world (in ideology if not in reality), while others see him as an icon of the culture of rebellion. Mao’s image is also sellable both within China and globally, appearing on everything from posters, ornaments to bowls and cups,” she says.
“Also, it has been a long time since the Cultural Revolution. Majority younger people don’t know much about what happened in the Mao era. They have never experienced it. So there is a tendency to romanticise the past.”
History in service of nationalist society
The year 1989 is yet another landmark moment in the history of modern China. A student protest that began on account of the sudden death of CCP general secretary Hu Yaobang, soon turned into a movement centred on broader issues such as corruption, democracy, freedom of the press and the like. Thousands of students marched down to Tiananmen Square and as the protests kept developing the administration responded with both placatory as well as hardline tactics. On June 4, the government declared Martial Law and an estimated 300,000 troops of the PLA were called in to suppress the protest. Estimates of the number who died range from 1000 to 3000 and several others were wounded. The suppression of the Tiananmen protests was widely condemned by the global community.
This period of domestic turmoil received a further shock when the Soviet Union disintegrated between 1988 and 1991. “The message that a lot of the CCP leaders took was that if this can happen to the Soviet Communist Party, then this can happen to us, and how do we then prevent it from happening,” says Ghosh. One of the things that the party did very consciously after the crackdown at Tiananmen is to change the content of education.
Thereafter, one of the campaigns it mounted in the early 1990s is the Patriotic Education Campaign. The primary goal of the campaign was to construct a historical memory of China in which the CCP had played a major role in the country’s independence and the influence that foreign countries had on it. The CCP made a list of books, films and songs to enhance the spirit of nationalism among children in primary and middle schools across the country. “In the new textbooks, a patriotic narrative replaced the old class struggle narrative. The official Maoist ‘victor narrative’ (China won national independence) was superseded by a new ‘victimisation narrative’, which blames the West for China’s suffering,” writes Professor of diplomacy and international relations Zheng Wang in his article, ‘National humiliation, history education and the politics of historical memory: Patriotic education campaign in China’ (2008).
“So there is a generational shift. You see a kind of popular consciousness that is prickly about nationalism, that has been successfully engineered among kids born in the late 80s who started going to school in the 90s,” says Ghosh.
Scholars agree that what began in the 90s, has reached new heights under the Xi Jinping years. One way of doing so for the party is to promote itself aggressively as the defender of Chinese culture and traditions. Interestingly, till the 90s, most of these traditions were labeled as ‘feudal superstitions’.
Johnson in his book provides examples of traditional funeral practices and religious music performed in Daoist temples being heavily discouraged. He explains that unlike his predecessors, Xi has fewer qualms about the past. “As a good Communist he and his government still push Communist heroes, such as Lei Fang and, and he appeals to Communist ideals when calling on party cadres to be more honest and less corrupt,” writes Johnson. But at the same time, “Xi’s ideological program includes a much more explicit embrace of traditional and religious imagery.”
This glorification of China’s ancient past is best illustrated by Xi’s embrace of Confucius, the sixth century Chinese philosopher. Ironically, the party under Mao, had tried to uproot Confucian thought from Chinese society as they believed it to be a feudal leftover that hindered the growth of socialism. Xi, in contrast, visited the hometown of Confucius soon after taking over the role of president, and pledged to read Confucian texts. The following year, he became the first Communist Party leader to commemorate Confucius’ birth anniversary.
Yet another historical episode that is widely remembered and made use of in this ethno-nationalism project of the CCP is the Second World War. Mitter, in his book ‘China’s good war: How World War II is shaping a new nationalism’ (2020), analyses how museums, movies and social media in China discusses “the war of resistance against Japan”, as WWII is known there. “During the Mao era, class identity was central to China’s self-definition,” writes Mitter. In the last few decades, a “new form of non-class-based national identity” was needed. “World War II with its message of shared anti-Japanese struggle across class lines, proved to be a powerful vehicle for that new nationalism,” Mitter writes.
History in service of an international superpower
The narrative of WWII has in fact played a major role in China’s claim towards a global superpower. Mitter in his book quotes a speech of Xi in which he says, “The Chinese people’s victory in the War of Resistance against Japan was the first complete victory in a recent war where China resisted the invasion of a foreign country.”
“In those words lies the value of the Second World War for the story of China’s rise to global power,” Mitter writes.
In recent years, China has emerged assertive in its territorial claims, for instance, over the East and South China Seas. At the same time it is also interested in shaping international organisations. For that effect the CCP uses the narrative of the war and its defeat of Japan to claim an elevated place in the postwar global order. As Mitter notes, Chinese thinkers argue, “China, like the United States, should be able to draw on its own record as one of the victorious allied powers to define its own vision of the region. Like other allies, China also seeks to legitimise its own behaviour and give itself prestige by virtue of its contributions to the wartime victory.”
In its historical narrative, China also references back to an older global order in which it was at the apex. Journalist Howard W French in his book, ‘Everything under the heavens: How the past helps shape China’s push for global power’ (2017), writes “for the better part of two millennia, the norm for China, from its own perspective, was a natural dominion over everything under heaven, a concept known in Chinese language as tianxia.” By this the Chinese meant a “vast and familiar swath of geography that consisted of nearby Central Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia.”
French notes that at the foundations of this resilient Pax Sinica lay a basic proposition: “Accept our superiority and we will confer upon you political legitimacy, develop a trade partnership and provide a range of what are known in the language of modern international affairs as public goods.”
“The ‘system’ referred here has long been known in the West (and yet among the Chinese themselves) as China’s tribute system,” French writes.
As the modern world was born in the 19th and 20th centuries with the triumph of Western imperialism, the Chinese found their supreme status increasingly downgraded. The CCP in its nationalist propaganda, has over and again used this narrative of collective injustice to the Chinese. “In its textbooks and its nationalist propaganda, China itself has styled the one-hundred-year period during which the modern world was built as its Century of Humiliation, with Britain’s opium wars and the sack of Beijing by both Britain and France accorded pride of place,” writes French.
Similar use of history is made in advancing claims over large parts of South, Southeast and East Asia. For instance, the party proposes a claim on the islands of the South China Sea on the grounds that it was in Chinese possession for centuries since the time of the Han dynasty in the second century CE. Several scholars have critiqued these arguments and called them ‘fictionalised history’.
Speaking how successful the CCP is in its use of history in their politics, Mitter says, “in its domestic projection of international claims, the party has been very successful. So it tells its population things like we fought in WWII and lost millions of people, and so we were allowed to be co founders of the United Nations.”
“The shortcoming of the use of history is in China’s international projection,” says Mitter. “Most countries overseas may have great respect for what China suffered and also contributed to the history of the last 150 years. But what they do not accept is that China’s sufferings and sacrifices means that it must have special claims over, for instance, territory disputed with Japan, or that in the South China Seas.”
Ian Johnson, ‘The presence of the past- A coda’ in ‘The Oxford illustrated history of Modern China’, ed. Jeffery N. Wasserstrom, Oxford University Press, 2016
Zheng Wang, ‘National humiliation, history education and the politics of historical memory: Patriotic education campaign in China’ , International Studies Qarterly, 2008
Rana Mitter, ‘China’s good war: How World War II is shaping a new nationalism‘, Harvard University Press, 2020
Howard W. French, Everything under the heavens: How the past helps shape China’s push for global power, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
Jayadev Ranade, ‘China’s Communist Party revises its history yet again in time for use by Xi Jinping’, Center for China Analysis and Strategy, 2021
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