When Xi Jinping uses history for the future
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has just published a new resolution on its historical achievements and experiences. The fact that this is just the third history resolution in 100 years of the party’s existence underscores its significance. The first history resolution in 1945 established Mao Zedong’s unquestionable leadership. The second one, under Deng Xiaoping in 1981, addressed Mao’s failings and provided the impetus for China’s economic reform. The 2021 resolution was adopted at the sixth plenary session of the 19th central committee. For a document meant to be about history, the text is overwhelmingly dedicated to Xi Jinping’s rule and the party’s future direction. But then, in politics, history is rarely about the past. Pieces in the party-State media and Xi Jinping’s explanatory note, which was published along with the resolution, confirm this.
For instance, a lengthy article in the People’s Daily argued that the purpose of a historical resolution is to “strengthen the high degree of unity of the whole Party politically, ideologically and organisationally; to unify the thoughts and consensus of the whole Party; to unify the will and actions of the whole Party; and to lay a more solid ideological foundation and develop a spiritual force for the Party to start a new journey.” In other words, resolutions about history are used by leaders as instruments to forge party unity and ensure political alignment towards future policy direction.
In this context, it is evident that this document isn’t about addressing past moments of turbulence and friction or engaging in meaningful reflection. This is not to say that tumultuous moments do not find mention. Wang Ming’s so-called “Left dogmatism,” the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s “theoretical and practical errors concerning class struggle” and the “counter-revolutionary cliques of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing” are mentioned. But these occupy one paragraph in an over-27,000-word document. Interestingly, the document also avoids any specific criticism of Mao’s personality cult that was part of the 1981 history resolution.
In his explanation, Xi argued that the past resolutions had “settled controversies on major issues in party history in the period from its founding to the early stage of reform and opening up, and their basic points and conclusions remain valid”. He also talked about having an “objective,” “holistic” and “rational outlook” towards past mistakes, with the aim being “strengthening ideological guidance and theoretical analysis”. In essence, he wants to ensure strict control over the past, for it to serve the future.
Therefore, the resolution is essentially about establishing a glorious narrative around the party’s 100-year journey. In doing so, it places the CCP at the heart of all life in China. The party, represented by its chief representatives, is the key protagonist of modern Chinese history. At the same time, the role of these chief representatives is critical. These men have thought, acted, innovated and steered the party, the State, economy and society towards goals motivated and derived from the original aspiration.
In this narrative of history, the party even squeezes out the people. As a recent People’s Daily piece explained, “throughout the resolution, one theme is clear: in all the struggles, all the sacrifices and all the creations, the Communist Party of China has united and led the Chinese people for the purpose of the happiness of the Chinese people and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” From the perspective of the future, this narrative not only legitimises a more invasive role for the party across all segments of society but also implies the necessity of this approach in order to achieve national rejuvenation and modernisation.
Beyond that, the resolution is essentially about Xi Jinping. In his note, Xi said that the idea of a history resolution was first proposed in March 2021 by the politburo. Following this, a working group was formed, with Xi at its helm. This group was basically in charge of drafting the resolution. While opinions were sought and the politburo standing committee, the politburo and retired party cadres, among others, were consulted, the text of the resolution indicates a significant strengthening of Xi’s authority.
For instance, the resolution praises the central committee with Xi at its core for having “demonstrated great historical initiative, tremendous political courage, and a powerful sense of mission”. It is Xi’s leadership that has led to the launch of “major initiatives, pushed ahead with many major tasks, and overcome a number of major risks and challenges,” while also having “solved many tough problems that were long on the agenda but never resolved, and accomplished many things that were wanted but never got done.” At the same time, the document also praises him as a thinker. Xi is the “principal founder of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” This thought is not just a “leap” in adapting Marxism to Chinese conditions; it is 21st century Marxism and will now play the “guiding role” for the party’s endeavours. In essence, the resolution positions Xi as a man of unique intellect, acumen and leadership skills, who has been established as the core of the central committee and the whole party.
From this flows the argument of the importance of persisting with Xi at the helm, particularly given the profound changes that the world and China are currently undergoing. The road from the sixth plenum now leads to the 20th Party Congress, where one way or the other, it appears to be a near certainty that Xi will emerge in charge.
Manoj Kewalramani is chair of the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at Takshashila Institution, and author of Smokeless Wars: China’s Quest for Geopolitical Dominance
The views expressed are personal