By: Emily David |
Watch video of conference here.
General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ is rooted in principles of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” with the goal of building a culturally strong and prosperous China (People’s Republic of China or PRC) under the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). To achieve the ‘China Dream’ it is essential for the Party to be a critical part of both China’s past and present to successfully usher China into the future. As such, the CCP has actively dominated the narrative of China’s modern history, politicizing the very nature of the PRC’s struggles and successes. In April 2013, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued the “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” also known as ‘Document No.9,’ which identified seven existential and political threats to the Party including constitutionalism, civil society, historical nihilism, universal values, and the Western view of media. The document rejected any attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Party through the questioning of its historical narrative, and demanded strict adherence to the Party line. Yet, China’s effort to control and politicize history is hardly new; rather, it has been a consistent thread throughout the life of the Chinese Communist Party. As the PRC’s military and economic prowess continues to grow, concern mounts over how the CCP’s ideology may influence the current international rules-based, liberal, world order. Understanding and assessing the CCP’s manipulation of China’s political history is critical in understanding the role China’s leaders intend to play in shaping norms and in creating an internal and international environment conducive to protecting their core interests.
On February 23rd, 2017, the Project 2049 Institute hosted a conference titled “1984 with Chinese Characteristics: How China Rewrites History.” The conference brought together expert panels to address the costs and implications of the CCP’s deliberate distortion of key moments in China’s past. The conference hosted two sessions. The first focused on “Problems on the Periphery” and the impact of the CCP’s involvement in Tibet, Southeast Asia, and Korea. The second discussed China’s domestic historical revisionism, emphasizing how the modern reform era beginning in the 1980’s has resulted in a stronger and more defiant CCP today.
(Left to Right: Miles M. Yu, Amy Chang, Li Jianglin, and Kelley Currie; Source: The Project 2049 Institute)
For the authorities in Beijing, a central tactic for maintaining legitimacy is the shaping of historical narratives to serve political objectives. This has been the case since the founding of the Party, but has intensified considerably under the leadership of General Secretary Xi Jinping. Xi, himself, is very troubled by historical nihilism, which he defines as an argument made against China’s―and the Party’s―official record. Both Imperial China and the PRC have maintained an official record depicting China as a victim of Western imperialism. One component of this narrative includes an expansionist rewriting of history, in which all the largest conquests of previous dynasties (Han and non-Han) are considered fundamental elements of the Chinese race and identity. These interpretations of history, then, become part and parcel of a discourse of territorial expansionism. While all countries rewrite history, China’s revision of history is uniquely Party-driven. This has critical implications for modern Chinese foreign policy; with Xi at the helm, the CCP propagates its artificial historical accounts to dominate the region in its aims to restore its prior global preeminence, and to legitimize a return to Imperial China’s illustrious past. The Party’s desire to present China’s history as a glorious era compliments Beijing’s strategy to demonstrate its ‘win-win’ policies, and magnanimous and beneficent nature. By this logic, Beijing refutes any opposition to Chinese hegemony as ‘anti-China’ and serving an imperial (or Western) interest that seeks to contain China. Such opposition poses an existential threat to the legitimacy of the Party’s leadership, which creates the potential for dangerous future consequences.
The PRC’s involvement in the Korean War left a lasting impact on the way in which the people of China view the United States’ involvement in Korean issues today. China draws from its interpretation of the Korean War as part of an ongoingnarrative of American aggression. The CCP interprets the United States’ involvement in the Korean War as continuous acts aimed to subvert the Chinese communist system. The Chinese narrative asserts that the United States is the most dangerous threat to the Party’s ideological system. Since China views the Korean War as a failed attempt by the U.S. to undermine the CCP, China exploits this narrative to argue that the United States continues to be an enduring and persistent threat. Given that China believes the collapse of the North Korean regime would be the most advantageous way for the United States to penetrate China’s borders and undermine the CPP, this encourages China to bolster support for maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula.
China has constructed a campaign to paint the CCP occupation of Tibet as a period ofliberation and reform, whereby the CCP freed Tibetans struggling under Buddhist feudal “slavery” or serfdom. The CCP’s rewriting of history in Tibet is comprised of three major periods. The first (1950-1951) is known as the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet,” which was actually quite brutal. In a settlement, signed under duress, known as the ‘17 Point Agreement,’ Beijing claims to have driven away imperial forces, returning Tibet to the ‘great motherland.’ The second period (1951-1959) was “Implementing the 17 Point Agreement,” described as the cultivation of a “United Front of Patriots,” whereby the CCP established Party affiliated groups in Tibet. This “United Front,” however, was actually used to monitor the territory and people in an attempt to bring the Tibetans under CCP control through forced allegiance to the Party. The third period (1959-1962) is known as the “Democratic Reform” era. The CCP claims this was a process of Tibetan democratic and socialist revolutions, yet this actually was a time of severe suppression of Tibetan uprisings against the CCP, and widespread famine due to CCP collectivization policies. Through the overarching narrative of ‘Tibetan liberation,’ the CCP has attempted to propagate the perception that the CCP’s “benevolent acts” have actually rescued Tibetans from a dismal alternative to CCP rule. The Party has further exploited this distorted historical narrative to justify China’s territorial claims. Yet, despite Tibet’s “Special Autonomous Region” status, legitimate historical analysis reveals that the CCP hascontinuously persecuted Tibetans in their efforts to subsume Tibetan society.
Another prominent element often found in PRC narratives is the insistence that China has never invaded nor interfered in the internal affairs of other states. Yet, this ignores the fact that since the Mao era, the CCP has made an effort to promote communist insurgencies throughout Southeast Asia.[i] As the representative to Stalin’s communist front in Asia, Mao Zedong and the CCP sought and created opportunities to support work with indigenous communist movements abroad. For Mao, supporting revisionist and anti-colonial movements in Asia was both ideologically necessary and essential to China’s security interests. To understand China’s involvement in Southeast Asia today, it is useful to assess China’s actions in Burma. Despite the CCP’s avowals of support for the current Burmese government, China’s furtive encouragement of communist insurgency in Burma has had a long-term, negative impact on the politics and development of Burma as a country; on the whole, China’s involvement has engendered ongoing turmoil and political conflict. Currently, groups whose roots derive from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which was created by China’s revolutionary export program, continue to ferment instability and serve as a major source of illicit narcotics and trade. These groups, and China’s engagement with them, are a source of great consternation to the first democratically elected government in Burma, which has been trying to establish a nationwide peace process. Even in the face of their official “no conflict, no confrontation” rhetoric, China continues to harness these groups to extract resourcesand exploit Burma as a strategic lever in the region.
(Left to Right: Randy Schriver, Robert Suettinger, Louisa Greve, Cao Yaxu; Source: The Project 2049 Institute)
The Chinese Communist Party’s main strategic goal is Party preservation. Domestically, this has led to a major effort by the CCP to redefine its history, especially since the time of China’s modern reform era. During that period, Deng Xiaoping used the “1981 Resolution” to continue pursuing the Party’s aim of revolutionizing the greater evolution of the Chinese state. Deng also utilized this document to cement his preeminence over other political rivals following Mao’s death in 1976. Regardless of some severe consequences from Mao’s policies, and in spite of the mounting opposition to Mao Zedong Thought and the ousting of the ‘Gang of Four’, Deng employed the “1981 Resolution” to consolidate Mao Zedong Thought as China’s guiding principle in an effort to stymie debate and solidify his place at the top. Since China’s modern reform era, the CCP’s approach has been based upon personal power in leadership. To maintain the Party’s control on power, a central leader must guide the way. Mao was a core figure; Deng was a core figure, and today Xi Jinping asserts himself in the same manner. Thus, the CCP has chosen to rewrite the Party’s history because China’s political system has operated on personal power processes and mechanisms that include the manipulation of history for individual gain and the preservation of the Party state.
The Chinese Communist Party has erected a narrative that the U.S. government is collaborating with groups in China to instigate a ‘color revolution.’ These groups, called the “New Five Black Types,” include human rights groups, dissidents, Internet opinion leaders, religious believers, and disadvantaged groups. As such, the CCP feels justified in the practice of rewriting history to discredit these five groups in order to delegitimize the United States’ alleged efforts to subjugate China. Personal stories of people affected by China’s revision of history throughout the past 40 years detail patterns that elucidate the calculations behind the Chinese government’s acts of repression. Just four of countless examples include: 1) the purge of a journalist reporting on social injustices; 2) the persecution of pastors attempting to create an open church; 3) the closure of an NGO that worked to aid disadvantaged women; and 4) the oppression of a grassroots-level people’s representative. The CCP’s distortion of facts suggests that the desire to ‘save face’ ultimately motivates the Party’s harsh policies. By shifting the focus of the narrative off of the Party’s oppressive acts, China successfully hides its own transgressions behind a larger enemy— the United States.
The CCP’s rewriting of history offers important insights into the CCP’s interests and the potential consequences of China’s constructed historical narratives. Randy Schriver, the President and CEO of the Project 2049 Institute, notes the significance of understanding why Beijing conducts assaults on historical truths as it allows us to decipher the CCP’s true domestic and global intentions. Overall, the cases examined demonstrate China’s desire to be portrayed as a powerful, yet benevolent, global leader led by the Chinese Communist Party. However, when analyzed closely, the CCP’s detachment from reality, and stringent strategy of historical reconstruction, indicates a fearful state that is grasping for control to conceal the truth whenever reality does not align with its interests. The result is the CCP’s forceful effort to maintain dominance and strengthen Party rule within China, and its greater willingness to counter perceived threats and assert Chinese power beyond its borders.
This conference was held by The Project 2049 Institute as part of a program to study the history of the Chinese Communist Party (#CCPhistory). In support of this program, the Project 2049 Institute has commissioned four research papers that analyze crucial elements of the CCP’s history including, “The Logic of Historical Nihilism: Analyzing the PRC Orthodoxy on the Origins of the Korean War,”“Dangerous Truths: The Panchen Lama’s 1962 Report and China’s Broken Promise of Tibetan Autonomy,” “The People’s Republic of China and Burma: Not Only Pauk-Phaw,” and “Negotiating History: The Chinese Communist Party’s 1981.”
Emily David is a Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute where her research focuses on the Chinese Communist Party, cross-Strait relations, and U.S.-Taiwan relations. She recently completed her Master’s degree in Chinese Politics, Foreign Policy, and International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.
[i] The Ashgate Research Companion to Chinese Foreign Policy, (Surray, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2012), p. 115.