Remaking History as Reform Anniversary Approaches

At The Wall Street Journal this week, Chun Han Wong describes a museum "upgrade" in Shenzhen which elevated top leader Xi Jinping in celebrations of the 40th anniversary of landmark economic reforms:

When a museum paying tribute to China’s economic reforms opened here in December, visitors were welcomed by a panoramic sculpture depicting a local visit by , hailed in Communist Party for launching the country’s rise to prosperity.

Then in early June, the museum was closed for what it called “upgrading.” When it reopened in August, the sculpture was gone, replaced by video screens showing local development and a beige wall adorned with a quote from President .

China’s Communist Party is celebrating the 40th anniversary of policy overhauls, widely credited to Deng, that transformed an impoverished country into the world’s second-largest economy. Yet much of the state-backed fanfare has focused instead on Mr. Xi, playing up his economic credentials while diluting Deng’s prominence in party lore.

“This is mythmaking in action,” said Julian Gewirtz, a historian at Harvard University who has studied Chinese economic reforms. In shaping narratives about China’s future, Mr. Xi is “claiming greater authorship over China’s past.”

[…] Deng has been a towering figure in China, even after his death in 1997. He is revered for guiding the country’s economic transformation and its transition from Mao’s one-man rule—with its lurches into radical politics—to an era of collective, stable and relatively predictable leadership. His policies set clearer divisions of duties between the party and government and allowed the party’s dominance to slip. De-emphasizing Deng’s role helps Mr. Xi unravel some of those policies. [Source]

The renovation continues a long-running campaign to boost Xi’s personal image, including mythologisation of his time as a sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution. The government jealously guards its monopoly on historical authority. Besides their notorious avoidance of a reckoning over the events of June 1989, authorities have waged war on "historical nihilism," meaning accounts that challenge Party-approved orthodoxy. This has involved legislative protections for the reputations of revolutionary heroes and martyrs, and prosecutions of those who question or mock them; the takeover of liberal historical journal Yanhuang Chunqiu; pressure on the Cambridge University Press to block access to journal articles by users in China; and the jailing of distributors of books including "How The Red Sun Rose," an unflattering description of the Communist Party before its rise to power.

Wong commented further on his visit to the museum on Twitter:


Gewirtz, the Harvard historian quoted in Wong’s piece, highlighted the balance of prominence in the commemorations early last month:

AFP’s Benjamin Carlson offered more evidence of Deng’s de-emphasis and the elevation of Xi Jinping and his father, Communist revolutionary , from a Beijing museum visit earlier this month:



At China Media Project last week, David Bandurski wrote that the painting in Carlson’s third tweet had attracted wider notice, and offered a comparative illustration of the “notable increase in attention paid to Xi Zhongxun in the official People’s Daily” since the younger Xi came to power.

Some scholars have grumbled against the painting on the grounds of opposing “,” saying it entirely expunges Chairman Hua Guofeng. Even more people have observed, however, that in the painting it doesn’t seem as though Xi Zhongxun is giving a report, or huibao (汇报), on the special economic zone, but rather is lecturing Deng Xiaoping. This reading, of course, goes very much against the grain of the typical Chinese Communist Party narrative about the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, which is that this idea was first raised by Deng Xiaoping.

[…] In the five years from 2007 to 2012, “Hu Yaobang” appeared 64 times in the People’s Daily. By contrast, “Xi Zhongxun” appeared 24 times in the paper. So Hu Yaobang, you could say, had 2.7 times the exposure in the Party’s flagship newspaper in the five years prior to Xi Jinping’s rise to power.

The situation has reversed in the Xi Jinping era. In the five years from 2013 to 2017, “Xi Zhongxun” has appeared 98 times in the People’s Daily, 2.3 times more than the 42 appearances for “Hu Yaobang.” We should also note that in the past year — the last half of 2017 and the first half of 2018 — “Hu Yaobang” has not appeared at all, even as the 40th anniversary of Reform and Opening is upon us.

[…] The gap opened starting in early 2016, and it was gaping by the end of that year, as Xi Jinping was anointed as the “core leader.” We see the gap depicted very clearly in “Early Spring,” the oil painting on display at the National Art Museum, and its reinvention of history tells us a great deal about the current environment surrounding the commemoration of 40 years of reform. The “Early Spring” belongs to the New Era of Xi Jinping. [Source]

Greater emphasis on the Xis is not the only trend at work, however, as Gewirtz noted in response to a People’s Daily commentary on August 13:

(Read more on Xiaogang from Sixth Tone.)

Oxford University’s Patricia M Thornton also commented:

For more see the continued discussion on Twitter.