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

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Sun Peidong taught one of the few Cultural Revolution courses available in China. She worked for many years as professor of history at the prestigious Shanghai Fudan University, where she dedicated herself to helping students navigate this difficult and traumatic chapter of Chinese history.

However, as the space for delicate discourse began to shrink, she found herself among a growing number of scholars who were selected, censored, investigated, and ultimately punished by the authorities.

Then, in 2019, Song students reported her to the university and accused her of government “subversive activities.” She came to work and found printouts of her social media posts and statements posted at her door – a haunting scene evoking images of “big characters” posters that Mao Zedong’s Red Guard students used to denounce and attack opponents during the Cultural Revolution. After receiving threats against her family and facing mounting pressure, Sun decided to leave her post and her country early last year.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always followed history, especially under its current leader, President Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping, considered by many to be the most powerful leader to emerge in China over the past two decades, has always been preoccupied with history and his place in it.

Now, as he prepares to break precedent by seeking a third term in office next year, Xi presents himself as the country’s leading strength, guarding the party’s official history – and thereby securing its future.

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At this week’s closed-door decisive meeting led by Xi, China’s political and military elite approved a new resolution outlining the “key achievements and historical experiences” of the party’s 100 years of rule. The meeting marked the sixth plenary meeting of the CCP Central Committee of the highest level and was the last major meeting before the National Congress, which will be held twice a decade next year, where a new committee will be appointed.

The new decree is one of three ever issued in the history of the Communist Party. The first two – nominated under Mao in 1945 and Deng Xiaoping in 1981 – strengthened both figures at critical junctures in China’s journey and paved the way for significant political change. Scholars argue that in pursuing a solution, Xi is consolidating his status in the party and following in the footsteps of his most prominent predecessors.

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

Since taking office, Xi has always felt the echoes of history. In the first months of his first term, in 2012-2013, he went south to Guangdong province. The ride repeated the iconic winter travel in 1992, Deng, where he held a series of meetings to give new impetus to the country’s economic reform and the “openness” agenda, was a watershed in China’s development.

On Xi’s trip, he met with the country’s most influential politicians and spoke the importance of ensuring party control and how preserving the CCP’s historical legacy is key.

“Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapse? An important reason is that their ideals and beliefs have been shaken. He completely denied Soviet history, the history of the CPSU, Lenin, Stalin, and was engaged in historical nihilism. [a term referring to critical narratives that challenge the official version of history and party orthodoxy], – said Xi. “After all, no one was a real man. Nobody came out to resist. ”

Xi seems determined not to make this mistake. Over the years since then, he has increased the control of the Chinese Communist Party over its own historical heritage and strengthened its control over the country, even enshrining his political thoughts in the constitution and deletion limitation of two terms of office in 2018.

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

Such efforts were intensified this year, when July marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party. In March, the recently amended Criminal Code came into force, punishing those who slander the country’s heroes and martyrs. allowing the prosecutor’s office is seeking a prison sentence of up to three years. It is an extension of the first version of the libel law passed in 2018, which has since been used to silence Chinese citizens as well as those who make comments while abroad

Ahead of the centenary celebrations, the China Cyber ​​Security Administration announced in May that deleted more than two million “harmful” posts with “historical nihilism” from the Chinese Internet, which is being held back by a “firewall” preventing access to foreign sources. it’s the same launched Historical nihilism hotline that encourages Internet users to report deviating content and then released list historical “rumors”.

Prohibited conversations include seemingly trivial debates about the length of Mao’s Long March and whether Mao Anying – Mao Zedong’s son – was actually killed during the Korean War by an American airstrike because he insisted on lighting the oven to cook fried rice, thereby revealing your destiny. position to enemy aircraft.

Last month, censors closed the Chinese telecommunications giant’s social media account after it posted a recipe for fried rice in the days leading up to Mao Anying’s birthday on October 24, sparking outrage from nationalist netizens who accused the company of “insulting” soldiers. who fought in the war.

“By hiding past mistakes under the rug, China is missing out on an opportunity to learn valuable lessons and avoid mistakes in the future,” said Lijia Zhang, a factory worker and later writer who wrote the memoir. “Socialism is great!”, and was a co-author of an oral history of China. “Authorities who sing their praises can inspire a narrow nationalism that is already on the rise.”

According to Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a modern-day Chinese historian at the University of California, Irvine, not only has it expanded what is considered a taboo topic, but also increased attention to topics that are already known to be delicate. The struggle for historical memory is just one aspect of the party’s drive to homogenize aspects of Chineseness, such as religion, language and culture, he said.

“Over the last couple of years, there have been all sorts of attempts to make things uniform so that it seems like there’s only one way to be the right Chinese,” Wasserstrom said. “It’s part of this model: focusing on history as a field of controversy.”

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

Jennifer Altehenger, associate professor of Chinese history at Oxford University, called the resolution “unsurprising” given that July marks the CCP’s centenary. “I read this not so much as the seizure of power by Xi, but as the next step in the party’s mindset. These documents are aimed at finding common understanding. “

While past resolutions did address the Party’s “mistakes”, they did so in a way that pave the way forward. The two documents also highlight the CCP’s victories, she added.

Reflecting on the latest resolution from her new home in the United States, Song compared the current regime under Xi to those of other authoritarian systems in world history. After leaving China, the historian worked for a year as a visiting researcher at Science Po Paris, and recently became a professor of history at Cornell University in the United States, where she plans to continue her research on the Cultural Revolution.

“Dictators can be confident that everything is controlled according to their policies because they created and used an authoritative ideology to justify their absolute power and brainwash 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 precisely why the world needs to have a clearer understanding of these issues. ”

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