China’s Communist Party revisits the past to regroup for future

Jun Mai
·4-min read

A new campaign to educate China about Communist Party history is meant to be a rallying point to consolidate support for its policies and loyalty to the leadership, according to analysts.

President Xi Jinping, who will oversee the campaign, launched the project on Saturday in an address to dozens of top party officials in Beijing, urging the officials to learn from the past – a reference to party loyalty.

“[We] must guide the entire party to learn positive and negative lessons from its history, and resolutely follow the central leadership’s line,” Xi said, adding that “party unity” was the “life of the party”.

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Provincial party leaders across the country would establish new agencies to enforce the campaign, Xi said.

He said the campaign would also target the public with “innovative means” such as films and television programmes.

Xi also reminded the cadres that it was even more important find to “wisdom” in the party’s past.

“[We] must prepare in our minds and at work to respond to the changing external environment in the longer term,” he said. “And keep raising awareness, improving [our] experience of and ability to overcome [problems] in our governance.”

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While the campaign covers the party’s history since its founding in 1921, it would focus on the “historic successes” achieved since 2012, the year Xi became the country’s leader.

The campaign is a key part of the party’s celebrations for its centenary in July. The anniversary is Beijing’s most important political task this year and Xi has promised a “grand celebration” to mark it. Officials across the country have been told to ensure social stability for the event.

Cai Lesu, a retired Tsinghua University history professor, said the campaign would be used to rally support for the leadership.

“It’s not about cultural education but about political and thought education,” Cai said. “The interpretation of the history will be decided by present needs.”

Launching the campaign, Xi made clear that he would not tolerate “historic nihilism”, a reference to challenges to Beijing’s official historic narrative.

Early into his leadership, he said history was a matter of life and death for the party.

“An old Chinese saying goes: ‘To destroy a country, destroy its history first’,” he said in January, 2013.

Xi, then two months into his role as party general secretary and not yet president, slammed unnamed “hostile forces” that challenged China’s official account of the past.

“Their real purpose is to confuse the hearts and minds [of the people] and instigate subversion of the leadership of the Communist Party,” he said at the time.

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As he consolidated power in the following years, the party further restricted discussion of contemporary history. In 2016, Beijing sacked and replaced the senior editors at Yanhuang Chunqiu, a prominent liberal magazine that frequently discussed mostly dark chapters of the party’s past.

In 2018, the national legislature also passed a law that made attacks or insults of national heroes punishable by law.

Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University, said the party’s tradition to periodically review history went back to the revolutionary days.

The party has famously adopted two resolutions about thepast – one in 1945 to establish Mao Zedong as the absolute ruler of the party, and another in 1981 as Deng Xiaoping turned the page on Mao and embarked on long-needed market reforms.

“[In this year’s campaign] history will be revisited to give the party’s rule renewed legitimacy,orat least that is what it is meant to achieve,” Gu said. “It will also be used to prepare for the party’s 20th national congress.”

Xi is expected to stay on as the party chief in 2022 when the party gathers for its five-yearly power transition meeting.

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