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12 November 2021

How the Chinese Communist Party is policing the past to secure its future

What a “historical nihilism hotline” and a new party resolution tell us about Xi Jinping’s vision for China.

By Jessie Lau

Sun Peidong used to teach one of the only courses on the Cultural Revolution available in China. For years, she served as a history professor at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University, where she dedicated herself to helping students grapple with that complex and traumatic chapter of Chinese history.  

Yet when the space for sensitive discourse began shrinking, she found herself among an increasing number of academics being singled out, censored, investigated and eventually punished by authorities.

Then, in 2019, Sun’s students reported her to the university and accused her of state “subversion”. She arrived at work to find print-outs of her social media posts and allegations posted on her door – a haunting scene that evoked images of the “big-character posters” used by students of Mao Zedong’s Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution to denounce and attack opponents. After receiving threats to her family and facing mounting pressure, Sun decided to leave her post and her country early last year.

The policing of history has always been pursued by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – never more so than under its current leader, President Xi Jinping. Considered by many to be the most powerful leader to emerge in China in the past two decades, Xi has always been preoccupied with history and his own place in it.  

Now, as he prepares to break precedent by seeking a third term in power next year, Xi is presenting himself as the nation’s leading strongman, safeguarding the party’s official history – and, in doing so, securing its future.

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[See also: Why a China-centred future is still uncertain]

This week, in a crucial closed-door meeting headed by Xi, China’s political and military elite approved a new resolution that outlines the “major achievements and historical experience” of the party’s 100-year rule. The meeting marked the sixth plenary session of the CCP’s top-level Central Committee, and was the last major gathering before next year’s twice-a-decade National Congress, where a new committee will be appointed. 

The new resolution is one of only three ever issued in the history of the Communist Party. The first two – put forward under Mao in 1945 and Deng Xiaoping in 1981 – fortified both figures at critical chapters of China’s trajectory, and paved the way for significant political changes. By securing a resolution, Xi is cementing his status within the party and following in the footsteps of his most illustrious predecessors, scholars say.

“This resolution will set the vision and tone for a new chapter in China’s history: the next 100 years of CCP rule,” said Diana Fu, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “Xi, as the helmsman leading the country into this new chapter, will be elevated to the same status as Mao and Deng. Its significance cannot be overstated.” 

From the time he took office, Xi has always been conscious of the echoes of history. In the early months of his first term, in 2012-13, he travelled south to Guangdong province. The trip mirrored an iconic winter journey in 1992 by Deng – where he held a series of meetings to reinvigorate the nation’s economic reform and “opening-up” agenda – that became a watershed moment in China’s development. 

In Xi’s trip, he met the country’s most powerful politicians and spoke about the importance of securing party control – and how preserving the CCP’s historical legacy is key to doing so. 

“Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason is because their ideals and convictions wavered. It completely denied Soviet history, the Soviet Communist Party’s history, Lenin, Stalin, and engaged in historical nihilism [a term referring to critical narratives that challenge the official version of history and party orthodoxy],” Xi said. “In the end, nobody was a real man. Nobody came out to resist.” 

It’s a mistake Xi appears determined not to make. In the years since then, he has tightened the Chinese Communist Party’s grip over its own historical legacy and consolidated his control over the country, even enshrining his political thought into the constitution and removing the presidency’s two-term limit in 2018.  

[See also: The West isn’t dying – its ideas live on in China]

While the Chinese Communist Party has always censored parts of China’s history deemed to be politically sensitive, in recent years there has been a dramatic escalation in its efforts to control perceptions of the past. In state media and speeches, authorities have warned Chinese historians and citizens to fight against “historical nihilism” in order to maintain the stability of both the party and the nation. 

Such efforts have been ramped up this year, which marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party in July. A newly amended criminal code punishing those who slander the nation’s heroes and martyrs took effect in March, allowing prosecutors to seek prison sentences of up to three years. It’s an expansion on the first version of a slander law passed in 2018, which has since been used to silence citizens in China as well as those who make comments while overseas.

Ahead of the centenary celebrations, China’s Cybersecurity Administration in May announced it had deleted more than two million “harmful” posts with “historical nihilism” from the Chinese internet, which is contained by a “firewall” that prevents access to foreign sources. It also launched a “historical nihilism hotline” encouraging internet users to report content deviating from the party line, and later released a list of historical “rumours.” 

The banned discourses include seemingly trivial debates over the length of Mao’s Long March, and whether Mao Anying – Mao Zedong’s son – was really killed in the Korean War by an American airstrike because he insisted on lighting a stove to make fried rice, thereby exposing his position to enemy planes.  

Last month, censors shut the social media account of a Chinese telecoms giant after it posted a recipe for egg-fried rice on the days surrounding Mao Anying’s birthday on 24 October, sparking outrage from nationalist users online who accused the company of “insulting” the soldiers who had fought in the war.

“By brushing past mistakes under the carpet, China misses the opportunity to learn valuable lessons and avoid future mistakes,” said Lijia Zhang, a factory worker-turned-writer who penned the memoir “Socialism is Great!”, and co-authored an oral history on China. “The authorities singing their own praise may inspire a narrow nationalism which is already rising.” 

Not only has there been an expansion of what is considered a taboo subject, but there’s also been intensified scrutiny over topics already known to be sensitive, according to Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine. The battle over historical remembrance is just one aspect of the party’s push to homogenise aspects of Chinese-ness, such as religion, language and culture, he said. 

“In the last couple of years, there have been all kinds of moves to homogenise things, to make it seem like there’s only one way of being appropriately Chinese,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of that pattern: focusing on history as a field of contestation.” 

[See also: Why there is no solution to our age of crisis without China]

While past resolutions have included reflections on the party’s own perceived past mistakes – for instance, the 1945 resolution evaluated perceived missteps in the first 34 years of revolution, while the 1981 resolution addressed the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution – this new one is expected to focus on the party’s – and Xi’s – successes.

Jennifer Altehenger, associate professor of Chinese history at the University of Oxford, called the introduction of the resolution“unsurprising” given the passage of the CCP’s centenary in July. “I’m reading it not so much as a power grab by Xi, but as the next step in the party’s thinking. These documents are about trying to find a common understanding.”

Although past resolutions indeed examined the party’s “mistakes”, they did so in a manner that was meant to create a path forward. The two documents also highlighted the CCP’s victories, she added.

Reflecting on the latest resolution from her new home in the US, Sun compared the current regime under Xi to that of other authoritarian systems in global history. After leaving China, the historian spent a year as a visiting scholar at Sciences Po Paris, before recently taking on a role as a history professor at Cornell University in the US, where she plans to continue researching the Cultural Revolution. 

“Dictators might feel confident that everything is controlled according to their playbook, because they’ve produced and utilised an authoritative ideology to justify their absolute power and brainwash the people. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall was unexpected,” Sun said. 

“Of course, China’s digital authoritarianism has been more powerful than any previous regime in human history. But this is why the world must have a clearer mind on these challenges.”

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