In its centenary year, the CCP’s revisionist history
In July, the Communist Party of China (CCP) will celebrate its centenary. This is the most important event in the CCP’s political calendar. It presents an opportunity for the leadership to highlight developmental achievements, which are seen as critical to its legitimacy. Economic development, however, is one of many factors that feed the algorithm of legitimacy. Viewing the question of legitimacy simply from a transactional prism of the party ensuring developmental outcomes in exchange for obedience is reductive, resulting in a misunderstanding of what sustains CCP rule in China. History, or more precisely, building and guiding a supportive historical narrative is crucial too.
Soon after assuming power as CCP general secretary in late 2012, Xi Jinping clamped down on what he warned were “nihilistic” views of history. Since then, there has been an effort to weed out deviations from the party’s historical canon. The CCP’s version of history draws upon the narrative of the century of humiliation to then present a neat classification of periods within which China has “stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong” under CCP rule.
Such simplistic framing overlooks the different visions of the directions that post-Qing China could have taken, the grave failures of Mao Zedong’s time in power, and the policy contestation that led to and followed the start of reform and opening up. These rarely ever get reflected in official public discourse, for doing so would undermine the notion of a party driven by a “historical purpose” and vision towards a destination called national rejuvenation. As Ouyang Song, former director of the Party History Research Office, argued in a recent People’s Daily piece, it is important to stick to the “main line” of party history. Forming the “correct view of history,” for him, also requires the party to focus on Xi’s thought as “the fundamental guide.”
Ouyang Song’s piece was part of the centenary propaganda push that the People’s Daily began in January to highlight the “century of struggle” while emphasising the “new struggle” that lies ahead. Since then, every day, the paper has discussed historical events in order to capture the essence of “red history.” In these narratives, there are heroes and martyrs, who, driven by revolutionary zeal, overcame adversity to forge the “New China”. For example, earlier this month, Gao Xiang, president of the Chinese Academy of History, argued that as soon as it was established, the CCP “took up the historical mission of achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. He claims that the party “united and led the Chinese people in a bloody battle” against the Japanese “imperialists” and “reactionary” Kuomintang.
The reality, however, is far messier, and to say that these stories embellish the past is a gross understatement. But their goal is not to provide factually accurate accounts. The objective is to frame a unitary view of the past while building linkages to the present.
This is something that Xi Jinping has proven rather adept at throughout his time in power. For instance, in October 2017, after the 19th party Congress, he travelled to Shanghai to the site of the first party Congress, which was held in 1921. Likewise, the 2019 campaign of staying true to the party’s original aspirations focused on ensuring that the cadre maintains “unity in thought, political orientation and action”. Often, the party’s discipline or anti-corruption campaigns draw on lessons from periods of “self-revolution”. These refer to instances of intense internal contestation and purges. This is evident again in repeated references to the Yan’an rectification movement since last year, as Xi moves to consolidate power across law enforcement organs.
In essence, for the party, history serves many purposes. It is a tool to glorify, vilify and mobilise when needed; an instrument to reinforce the inevitability of its rise; a trend that is driven by certain “laws,” grasping which can ensure greater and continued power; a bestower of legacy; an instructive guide for self-revolution; and of course, a battlefield in which defeat can present an existential challenge.
Manoj Kewalramani is fellow, China Studies, at the Takshashila Institution
The views expressed are personal
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