To Steer China’s Future,
Xi Is Rewriting Its Past
On November 11, the leaders of China’s ruling Communist Party set the stage for President Xi Jinping to extend his rule next year, praising his role in the country’s rise as an economic and strategic power and approving a political history that gives him status alongside the most important party figures. In the argot of Communist politics, at the sixth plenum of the Nineteenth Central Committee — one of China’s most important political meetings — the CCP passed a “historical resolution,” cementing Xi Jinping’s status in political history. In unusually effusive language even for a Chinese leader, a party statement said it was “of decisive significance” for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Only two former leaders of the Communist Party, revolutionary founder Mao Zedong and economic reformer Deng Xiaoping, have issued historical resolutions before, in 1945 and 1981, respectively. Both resolutions consolidated the power of a single man who then steered the country through transformational decades. Xi’s resolution does the same; it underscores his frequent proclamations that China has entered a “new era” of rejuvenation under his rule.
No Chinese leader in recent times has been more fixated than Mr Xi on history and his place in it, and as he approaches a crucial juncture in his rule, that preoccupation with the past is now central to his political agenda. Xi’s version of Chinese history is simple: The party is great, glorious and always correct. As long as people follow the party, China will rise to inevitable greatness. It stands on the cusp of greatness now, and one leader will soon make that greatness a reality: him.
Xi’s conception of history offers “an ideological framework which justifies greater and greater levels of party intervention in politics, the economy and foreign policy. For him, defending the CCP’s revolutionary heritage also appears to be a personal quest. He has repeatedly voiced fears that as China becomes increasingly distant from its revolutionary roots, officials and citizens are at growing risk of losing faith in the party.
No sane person can deny that China has become a global power within a few decades. Its rise has been most conspicuous during the rule of the incumbent president, Xi Jinping. It is under his leadership that China is now a great world power as he has asserted his country’s place on the global stage much more strongly than any of his predecessors since Mao Zedong, China’s paramount leader during the Cold War.
The main elements of President Xi’s thoughts draw on sources much more longstanding — looking back to its own history, both ancient and more recent. It is a manifestation of what George Orwell famously described when he wrote, “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.”
Here are five of recurring themes in President Xi’s thought:
1. Confucian ways
“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” — Confucius
For much of its history, Chinese society has been built upon the pillars of Confucianism. Confucius’s principles became associated with traditional Chinese values, such as an orderly society, deference towards elders and respect for (and by) benevolent rulers. For centuries, civil servants had to pass a gruelling exam based on the sishu, the four Confucian texts.
Confucianism underpinned China’s dynasties until the revolution of 1911, when the overthrow of the last emperor spurred a backlash against Confucius and his legacy from radicals including the new Communist Party. Mao remained deeply hostile to traditional Chinese philosophy during his years in power (1949-1976) as he considered the Confucian belief system to be bourgeois and reactionary, a philosophy that had too long kept the people in check.
Although Confucianism had become anathema during Mao’s rule, it is enjoying resurgence under Xi Jinping. It is because Confucius (551-479 CE) constructed an ethical system that combined hierarchy, where people would know their place in society, with benevolence, the expectation that those in superior positions would look after their inferiors.
Today, China celebrates “harmony” (hexie) as a “socialist value,” even though it has a very Confucian air. And a hot topic in Chinese international relations is the question of how that term “benevolence” (ren), another key Confucian term, might shape Beijing’s relations with the outside world.
Even Xi Jinping’s idea of a “world community of common destiny” has a traditional philosophical flavour about it — and Xi has visited Confucius’s birthplace of Qufu and cited his sayings in public.
2. A century of humiliation
The historical confrontations of the 19th and 20th centuries still deeply shape Chinese thinking about the world. The Opium Wars of the mid-19th century saw Western traders use force for the violent opening of China’s doors. Much of the period from the 1840s to the 1940s is remembered as a “century of humiliation,” a shameful era that showed China’s weakness in the face of European and Japanese aggression.
During that era, China had to cede Hong Kong to Britain, territory in the north-eastern region of Manchuria to the Japanese, and a whole range of legal and commercial privileges to a range of Western countries. In the post-war era, it was the USSR that tried to gain influence in China’s borders, including Manchuria and Xinjiang.
This experience has created a deep suspicion toward the intentions of the outside world. Even seemingly outward-looking gestures such as China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 were underpinned by a cultural memory of “unfair treaties” when China’s trade was controlled by foreigners — a situation which today’s Communist Party has vowed never to allow again.
In March this year, an ill-tempered public session between Chinese and American negotiators in Anchorage, Alaska, saw the Chinese push back against US criticism by accusing their hosts of “condescension and hypocrisy”. Xi’s China does not tolerate the idea that outsiders can look down on their country with impunity.
3. Forgotten ally
However, even terrible events can yield more positive messages. One such message comes from the Chinese phase of World War II, when it fought Japan essentially alone after being invaded in 1937, before the Western Allies joined the Asian war at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
During those years, China lost more than 10 million people and held back over half a million Japanese troops on the Chinese mainland, a feat commemorated widely in history books and in films and television.
Today, China portrays itself as part of the “anti-fascist alliance” alongside the US, Britain and the USSR, giving itself moral ballast by reminding the world of its role as a victor against the Axis powers.
China also draws on its historical role as a leader of the Third World in the Mao era (for instance, at the Bandung Conference of 1955, and in projects such as the building of the TanZam railway in East Africa in the 1970s) to burnish its credentials as a leader today in the non-Western world.
Modern history remains a key part of the way that the Chinese Communist Party perceives its own legitimacy. Yet elements of that history — notably the terrible famine caused by the disastrous economic policies of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62 — remain almost unmentioned in China today.
And some modern wars can be used for more confrontational purposes. The last year of bumpy US-China relations has seen new films commemorating the Korean War of 1950-53 — a conflict which the Chinese remember under a different name: “the War of Resistance to America.”
4. On your Marx
The historical trajectory of Marxism-Leninism is also deeply embedded in Chinese political thinking, and has been very actively revived under Xi Jinping.
Throughout the 20th century, Mao Zedong and other major communist political leaders took part in theoretical debates on Marxism with immense consequences.
For instance, the notion of “class warfare” led to the killing of a million landlords in the early years of Mao’s rule. Even though “class” has fallen out of favour as a way of defining society, China’s political language today is still shaped by ideas of “struggle,” “antagonism” and conceptions of “socialism” as opposed to “capitalism”.
Major journals, such as the Party’s theoretical organ Qiushi, regularly debate the “contradictions” in Chinese society in terms that draw extensively from Marxist theory.
Xi’s China defines the US-China competition as a struggle that can be understood in terms of Marxist antagonism.
The same is true for the economic forces in society, and their interaction — the difficulties in growing the economy and keeping that growth suitably green are interpreted in terms of contradiction. In classic Marxism, you reach an agreed point, or synthesis — but not before you work through often painful and lengthy “antagonisms”.
The past century of Taiwan’s history shows that the issue of its status waxes and wanes in Chinese politics. In 1895, after a disastrous war with Japan, China was forced to hand over Taiwan, which then became a Japanese colony for the next half century. It was then briefly unified with the mainland by the Nationalists from 1945 to 1949.
Under Mao, China missed its chance to unify the island; the American Truman administration would have probably let Mao take it, until the People’s Republic of China joined the North Koreans in invading South Korea in 1950, prompting the Korean War and suddenly turning Taiwan into a key Cold War ally.
Mao launched attacks on the Taiwan coast in 1958, but then ignored the territory for the 20 years after that. After the US and China re-established relations in 1979, there was an uneasy agreement that all sides would agree that there was One China, but not agree over whether the Beijing or Taiwan regime was actually the legitimate republic.
Forty years on, Xi Jinping is insistent that unification must come soon, while the aggressive rhetoric and fate of Hong Kong has led Taiwan’s public, now citizens of a liberal democracy, to become increasingly hostile to a closer relationship with the mainland.
In October this year, speaking at an event marking the 110th anniversary of the revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty in 1911, President Xi said unification in a “peaceful manner” was “most in line with the overall interest of the Chinese nation, including Taiwan compatriots”. But, he added, “No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”