Monopolized Past and Future Struggle as PRC Turns 70

Ahead of Tuesday’s showcase of homegrown military technology to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, NPR’s Emily Feng described the occasion’s symbolic importance, political context, and careful stage management:

With this year’s celebrations, China officially surpasses the longevity of that other great communist power, the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991 amid a wave of liberalizing reforms that outstripped Moscow’s control.

[…] The celebrations — which will include a parade involving 15,000 troops and showcasing some 160 warplanes and 580 tanks and other weapons — are being billed as a key moment in China’s of triumphing over foreign invasion and imperialism. They are also being used as an opportunity to project strength as the People’s Republic faces increasing dissent to a more aggressive, centralized form of rule under President .

[…] Xi has framed this week’s celebrations with a series of carefully choreographed events designed to maximize his political messaging that the Chinese Communist Party is central to China’s well-being.

Earlier this month, he warned young cadres in an opening speech at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee of “a series of major risks and tests the country faces, adding that maintaining a fighting spirit and strengthening the ability to struggle is a must in meeting the targets set by the Party,” according to state news agency Xinhua. Throughout his speech, Xi repeatedly referenced “the ability to struggle,” a phrase from the era of China’s founding communist ruler, Mao Zedong, that invokes revolution and ideological purity. [Source]

The place of the term “struggle” in Xi’s rhetorical arsenal has received renewed attention since that speech, in which it appeared 56 times. Tracking its resurgent and novel usage under Xi, David Bandurski wrote at China Media Project that it “invokes not just the need for unity toward common goals, or a can-do attitude, but warns instead of deep and potentially traumatizing division,” adding that “the choice of discourse at the upper levels of the Chinese Communist Party is rarely ever incidental, and never, ever casual.” The struggles Xi referred to, Bandurski suggested, range from trade conflict with the U.S. to possible intra-Party disunity. Bandurski returned to the theme later in the month, examining an official “study and propaganda campaign” involving a search for “China’s ‘Most Beautiful Strugglers.'” (See more on the contest from Carl Minzner on Twitter)

The language of struggle has surged throughout the Xi Jinping era, a likely sign of internal tensions within the Party as well as a broader ideological tightening under a leader who sees himself as cast in the revolutionary mold of Mao Zedong, and has even imitated Mao Zedong’s signature.

Xi’s recent invocations of “struggle” likely have a great deal to do with the clear and present difficulties facing the Chinese Communist Party, including economic weakness and an ongoing trade war with the United States, internal strife over Xi’s drive to consolidate and centralize power around himself, the international backlash against China’s ambitions, and so on.

But struggle is in the Party’s blood, coded in what it likes to call its “red genes” (红色基因), the heritage of revolution and revival it continues to claim as the spiritual base of its legitimacy. In this context, it’s not a surprise that the whole notion of “struggle” has been ritualized as part of the CCP’s commemorations ahead of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. [Source]

Geremie Barmé also examined the term “struggle” at China Heritage in an extended introduction to translated passages from former Tsinghua professor Xu Zhangrun and Hong Kong academic and journalist Yi-Zheng Lian.

Today, commentators foreign and Chinese alike may fixate on Mao-like features of Xi’s rule such as his amassing of power (although Xi has more titular positions and greater real power than Mao) and a rather shoddy personality cult (the focus of which, as we have previously noted, is relatively ‘personality-free’), but what perhaps is more significant is his obsession with conflict and struggle, in particular, his helping to foment and prosecute a series of civil wars. Instead of being part of a concerted effort to address the social and economic issues that contributed to the violent uprising in Tibetan China in 2008, Xi and his colleagues purposefully turned a conflict that had been simmering since the protests of 1988 into an ongoing state of emergency. (That earlier period of repression in Lhasa was a factor in the political trajectory rise of the local Party boss, Hu Jintao, just as the crushing of student protests in Shanghai in late 1986 enhanced the career of that city’s satrap, Jiang Zemin, following the 4 June 1989 Beijing Massacre.)

The advocacy of a unitary ‘China Story’ since late 2012 is aimed at reimposing a dull national homogeneity, one that is subservient to the cyclops-like vision of Party. It also contributes to Xi Jinping’s ‘forever war’ on history, truth-telling and political and social diversity.

[…] The constant refrain heard in Communist China may talk about the need for social stability and unity — policies first articulated by Deng Xiaoping in the early post-Mao era — but official thinking and language never strayed that far from the camping-style and militaristic origins of the Communist Party (for a discussion of China’s militant language, see On New China Newspeak 新華文體). Under Xi Jinping, it has been evident since late 2012 that the leader’s Maoist origins and obsession with struggle as the core value of political and civilian life have come to rule China once more. [Source]

In one of the subsequent translations, Yi-Zheng Lian describes the ongoing Hong Kong protests as a return of this tradition of popular struggle, “with a surreal, postmodern twist: this time, in one of the world’s leading financial centers and against a Communist juggernaut.” In the other translation, taken from one of the written critiques that led to his suspension from Tsinghua, law professor Xu Zhangrun lamented what he had previously described as the “gunpowder-like stench of militant ideology” under Xi Jinping.

People should not forget that for over thirty years the power-holders imposed a pitiless philosophy of class struggle through constant political movements. During those decades not only were the butchers themselves sacrificed on the altar of ideology — ‘mourned in turn after others had been mourned for’ [a quotation from the Tang poet Du Mu’s 杜牧, ‘The Great Palace of Ch’in — a Rhapsody’ 阿房宮賦] — but more importantly the countless multitudes of China were caught up in the maelstrom. It feels like only yesterday that bloody violence swept the land. Having barely survived that calamity you can just imagine how people must be reacting to the renewed drumbeat of war. The word ‘Struggle’ weaves through this threnody. People can only imagine the worst, for the drumbeat signals an end to all the talk of peace, and rather presages civil war. At times of crisis, a state of emergency is the Red Empire’s default posture [such a crisis being the economic problems besetting the country in 2018-2019]. It’s the ‘killer app’ they turn to in response to any major threat. [Source]

In an interview on the looming anniversary last week, MERICS’ Kristin Shi-Kupfer commented similarly on this reflex:

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, China has stepped up propaganda and censorship – and policing. Last week, Beijing moved 150.000 police officers to the border with Hong Kong. What is the CCP so nervous about?

Whenever the Chinese party leadership sees threats to its claim to absolute power, it always can only retreat to its own particular logic by opting for surveillance and oppression. These instruments often work alarmingly well these days due to new digital technologies like face recognition and big data analysis. But oppression drives people underground. Dissatisfaction is suppressed, like in some psychoanalytic defense, and it can pop up again at any moment much more forcefully.

Beijing has yet to present its people a truly inviting, colorful, diverse vision of China. The “China Dream” of the Communist Party is one involving collective strength and pride, but also personal struggle. Xi has recently emphasized this latter point time and again by reminding his fellow Chinese “happiness is something that must be fought for”. But young people in Hong Kong, for example, don’t want to be forced to do everything. They want to have a say and a vote about issues concerning their future, their earnings, and their data. Those are the things for which they have been taking to the streets for the past months. [Source]

The anniversary has highlighted the Party’s aggressive claim to a monopoly over China’s history, as Chris Buckley wrote at The New York Times:

[…] The pageantry of the 70th anniversary reveals how thoroughly the party has rewritten China’s past to reflect Mr. Xi’s turn to communist traditionalism — what he calls reviving the party’s “red genes.” He offers an unabashedly triumphant vision of China’s past, and its future. It is a patriotic message that resonates with many Chinese, even in Xinyang, a region of rural counties and towns that suffered greatly under Mao.

[…] Under him, the Communist Party has promoted revolutionary nostalgia and played down the strife of the Mao era. The anniversary celebrations, which culminate on Tuesday with a military parade in Beijing, have reinforced this rosy depiction of the past 70 years as a near-uninterrupted march of economic and technological progress, enshrining them through oversize floral displays in Beijing. On Monday, Mr. Xi paid his respects to Mao’s preserved body in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.

Mr. Xi’s recasting of China’s history has left less and less room to reflect on traumas like the tens of millions who starved to death across the country from 1958 to 1960. That worries scholars who believe that the calamities of that time still offer lessons for China.

[…] “Critical voices have been silenced,” said Hong Zhenkuai, an independent historian who has challenged the denials of catastrophic famine. “The danger is that if you don’t reflect on the errors of the past, don’t acknowledge the mistakes that were made, you’re incapable of drawing warnings from history.” [Source]

Elsewhere, CNN’s Ben Westcott and Lily Lee spoke to three men born on the day of the PRC’s founding to hear their contrasting experiences of its history.

Buckley wrote that “who was remembered, or overlooked, put in sharp relief Mr. Xi’s authoritarian recasting of Chinese history.” Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang explored the theme of selective attention in an op-ed at The Los Angeles Times:

“There are actually two Chinas,” Chinese scholar Qian Liqun said in a speech. “One is the China amplified by the historical narrative and propaganda machinery, a China that strides triumphantly and is unstoppable. The other is the China ravaged and denied, perishing in the darkness.”

As a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, I know something about that other China. It’s one where people are routinely imprisoned for speaking out for a more just and free society, where a critical comment online about the president can get someone forcibly disappeared, and where a person can be declared mentally ill and sent to a psychiatric hospital for seeking compensation for expropriated land.

It is the China where a million Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region are now being detained solely because of their ethnic identity, while many of their children are forcibly housed in state-run boarding schools. It is the China where millions of women have suffered the trauma of forced sterilizations and abortions, and where children cannot go to school because they were born outside of the One-Child or Two-Child policies.

“The other China” is the one whose existence the Communist Party denies and forbids anyone to speak about. [Source]

U.S.-based physicist Yangyang Cheng recounted her own education in Party-approved history in a letter to the country of her birth at ChinaFile:

When I left you, I had no illusions about your authoritarian nature. You fed me a smorgasbord of your history, some parts decadent, some bare, some missing key ingredients, and many sealed containers forbidden to the touch.

You told me that you liberated the peasants from the landlords, but not about the brutality you inflicted in the process. You described the Great Famine as “three years of natural disaster,” but not as a result of your failed policies. You blamed the decade of turmoil during the Cultural Revolution on a few individuals, but you never acknowledged the full extent of the carnage, or reckoned with the system that enabled it. You have claimed territories as though they have been yours since time immemorial, and you have suppressed minorities to paint a mirage of ethnic unity. You jailed the fact-seekers and silenced the critics, making their names taboo, in life and in death.

I had to leave you to find out the truth about you. With all that you had hidden from me and each lie you told, how could I trust you again? With everything I knew of you now, how could I join the chorus that sings your praise, in hopes of drowning out dissenting tones?

[…] “The ones who are not of my kind, their hearts must be different.” Your most fervent supporters criticize the protesters in Hong Kong with this ancient phrase. Originating from the Commentary of Zuo, published in the fourth century BC, the line was used by officials in Lu, the birthplace of Confucius, to denigrate the people of Chu, where my ancestors lived. I wonder if the ones who hurl this quote in your name recognize the historical fallacy, whether they need the aggressive rhetoric to hide their own insecurity, whether they scream to drown out their inner voices of doubt. [Source]

Writer Jianan Qian also reflected on historical education and its effects in an op-ed at The New York Times, partly in response to scenes of overseas mainland Chinese confronting supporters of the protests in Hong Kong:

The first thing to note about Chinese patriotism is that it was born out of conflict. Unlike in a democratic country where the people vote to elect their leaders, the Chinese Communist Party first claimed the mantle of legitimacy after the Sino-Japanese War. That is, the party led the Chinese people to eventually overthrow “the rule of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism,” and “founded the People’s Republic of China,” as the preamble of our Constitution puts it. As a result, to love the state means to endorse the party. “Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China,” the famous “red” song goes.

And it was also born out of shame. Growing up, we learned that the Qing government was so weak that it signed many unfair treaties with the Western and Japanese colonizers over the course of the 19th century. We learned that even after the empire fell apart in 1911, the new government, dominated by warlords, was corrupt enough to let Japan occupy Shandong province after World War I. We learned that millions of our countrymen had been killed during the Sino-Japanese War. We internalized the trauma of the Nanjing Massacre in 1937-38.

[…] Of course we should remember our history. But when I try to understand my friends in China, and those horrible overseas Chinese nationalists, I think about the way lessons about our colonized past have morphed into a crackdown on voices that differ from Beijing’s. We have been victims in the past, and so now Chinese people must share “one heart” and “one faith.” We must all want to see China grow into a strong nation, one that defies the best efforts of our collective enemies to thwart us — and anyone who criticizes government policy or doubts a government narrative is “un-Chinese,” a “running dog” of foreign forces.

We are trapped in this rhetoric. Nobody wants to seem unpatriotic, so in the increasingly tense political climate in China, moderate patriotism is silenced and extreme patriotism is becoming the loudest, if not the only, voice. [Source]

While orthodox Party history presents the People’s Republic as a historical inevitability, Ian Johnson argued in a recent essay at The New York Review of Books that despite having “inherited the borders and mentality of an empire,” China is not doomed to be “an empire united by force and without an inclusive way of ruling its disparate territories and ethnic groups.”

It needn’t be this way. Many of China’s best minds—writers, academics, filmmakers, artists—have grappled with the issue of how to create new shared values or ideals. The Tibetan poet Woeser and her partner, the Chinese writer Wang Lixiong, have written that China needs to pursue real reconciliation among its ethnic groups and an airing of grievances, instead of treating minorities paternalistically as little brothers and sisters in need of Chinese civilization. Likewise, the now-jailed Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti has argued forcefully not for Xinjiang’s independence, but for real autonomy and an equal status for the Uighur language in the region’s schools—a concern shared by many in Hong Kong because of Beijing’s plans to push Mandarin Chinese over the local Cantonese dialect.

These thinkers and many others argue that the government’s intense “patriotic education” is forcing a narrow, Beijing-centric vision on China, instead of tolerating the diversity that should be viewed as normal in any country, especially one this large and made up of so many peoples. And they say that China will never become a rich country if it doesn’t foster a more open society, one in which problems can be publicly discussed and independent institutions coexist with the state.

The Hong Kong demonstrations show that this is possible. Left to their own devices, people organized a mass protest movement. They apologized when some participants were excessively violent. And they came up with realistic measures to defuse tensions. None of this was done by the government, either in Beijing or Hong Kong. But China’s rulers have no faith that anything but force can keep this sprawling country intact. Thus their ultimatum to anyone who strays from their narrow vision of the Chinese nation: submit or be crushed. [Source]

In an NYT op-ed on Tuesday, Georgetown University’s James A. Millward described aggressive escalation of this status quo under Xi Jinping.

At Bloomberg Opinion, Pankaj Mishra also highlights other possibilities, writing that China “is still far from possessing the moral prestige and political originality that its own greatest thinkers and leaders desired for it”:

Xi may impress some with a display of Chinese military hardware. But the nationalism he seeks to turn into a civil religion is not only felt to be oppressive by many people — whether Muslims in Xinjiang, Buddhists in Tibet or protesters in Hong Kong. It is also profoundly derivative, without Chinese characteristics.

[… P]ossibility is kept alive by some Chinese thinkers at least. In a recent book, “Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique,” Xu Jilin, one of China’s major public intellectuals, laments that the national pride sweeping the Chinese today is born out of beating the West at its own game rather than devising the rules of a new, less destructive game.

Refusing to be over-impressed by China’s material success, Xu delves into its moral, intellectual and spiritual traditions. He offers a vision of China as a tolerant society — one that has recovered its civilizational values of pluralism and practices them domestically as well as internationally.

This might seem very utopian. But China’s own national icons wished for nothing less, and a troubled world has reason to expect much more from a formidable country on its 70th anniversary than a commonplace military parade. [Source]

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