The Party Works to Ensure Nothing, Especially Not History, Will Spoil 100th Anniversary

On July 1, the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. The Party was actually founded on July 23 but the mixup, although acknowledged, has never been rectified—perhaps because the date has a certain numerical symmetry with other important anniversaries: August 1, the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, and October 1, the founding of the People’s Republic of China. At Reuters, Cate Cadell reported on Party officials’ attempt to “securitize” Beijing ahead of the event:

People on a citywide list of residents suffering from mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, received house calls and phone checks from authorities, a common practice ahead of major political events, according to two people who received the calls and a doctor who said many of their patients had been contacted.

[…] Four merchants on China’s top e-commerce site, Taobao.com, told Reuters they had been banned from shipping items including gas bottles and other flammable products to Beijing residents beginning in June. Taobao’s owner, Alibaba, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

[…] Two people working at the Tianjin-based censorship unit of social media firm Bytedance Ltd and one Beijing-based censor for Chinese search engine Baidu.com said they had received new directives in recent months on removing negative commentary about the anniversary. Neither company immediately replied to requests for comment.

“There’s no room for error,” said one Bytedance staffer, who declined to be named because they are not permitted to speak to foreign media. [Source]

Details on how the centenary will be celebrated have been kept under close-wraps but observers expect a live performance in Tiananmen Square. The centenary will not be marked by a military parade, a staple of earlier important anniversaries. Instead, according to Bloomberg News, Xi Jinping will make a speech in the Great Hall of the People:

Xi will make the speech as part of an event Tuesday in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, where he will also hand out red, gold and white medals adorned with the party’s hammer-and-sickle emblem to “outstanding” individuals and groups, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The address is one of several events this week planned to mark the party’s founding in 1921 in Shanghai by a handful of revolutionaries.

[…] Xi will make an important speech at an event Thursday, the Ministry of National Defense said last week. Warplanes and helicopters have been seen flying in formations above Beijing spelling out “100” and “71” for July 1, the state-run Global Times reported, citing an aerospace publication.

[…] The award Xi will hand out is called the July 1 Medal, the official China Daily reported. It was created this year to honor distinguished members and organizations, the English-language newspaper said, becoming the party’s highest honor. [Source]

But the occasion has been as much an exercise in the Party’s control over its own history as it has a celebration. The Party jealously defends its claimed monopoly on historical truth. In recent months, it has launched a campaign against “historical nihilism” and targeted academics who deviate from official history with, in the words of one scholar, “White Terror.” At The Financial Times, Sun Yu and Tom Mitchell used an imperious lecture delivered by an official from China’s education ministry as a launching point to reflect on the Party on the eve of its 100th anniversary:

Last month a senior official from China’s education ministry addressed more than 100 government colleagues and scholars at a closed-door event to discuss the centenary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist party, which will be officially marked with great fanfare in Beijing on Thursday.

Wang Binglin lectured his audience on controversial subjects, such as the party’s iron grip on history ever since Mao Zedong seized power 72 years ago. In particular, he warned the scholars in attendance to be careful when speaking and writing about the party’s violent land redistribution campaign in the early 1950s that claimed the lives of as many as 2m people.

“Playing up [the attack on landlords] is historical nihilism,” Wang said, referring to the term used by President Xi Jinping to criticise anyone who deviates from the party’s official historical narrative. He also noted that certain information in China’s national archives was likely to be marked as classified and off-limits forever: “Making such information public is of little help for you historians and will also be bad for the party.”

[…] The mixture of condescension and confidence implicit in Wang’s remarks — that what is good for the party is good for China — provides a perfect encapsulation of the country under Xi. [Source]

The run-up to the centenary has featured an intense nation-wide propaganda campaign designed to inculcate love for the Party and an orthodox view of history in China’s population. The drive has been accompanied by government-choreographed “flash mobs,” group songs professing love for the Party (including a 15-minute rap featuring verses from 100 rappers), film and opera screenings, and, in Beijing, the inauguration of a new Party history museum.

“Red Tourism,” the practice of visiting important sites from the CCP’s past, has attracted renewed attention. Visitors to Yan’an—once the CCP’s wartime base and today a “Red Holy Land”—reached 73 million by 2019, tripling since Xi’s ascension to power in 2012. At The New York Times, Sui-Lee Wee and Elsie Chen reported on Red Tourism’s new found popularity and the commercialization of communist heritage:

Mass swearing-in ceremonies aren’t typical group tour activities, but this is “red tourism” in China, where thousands of people flock to places like Yan’an to absorb the official version of the party’s history. At these sites, schoolchildren are told how the Red Army, later renamed the People’s Liberation Army, was created. Tourists gaze at an ensemble of chairs used by Xi Jinping, China’s leader, and other guests when they visited Mao’s home. Retirees take selfies with flower-adorned statues of Mao and Zhu De, the Red Army commander.

[…] The thing about China is that there’s only one origin story, and it’s not up for debate,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia and an expert in Chinese politics. “History is at the core of propaganda in China. It’s vital for the party that people feel an emotional connection to that history, and you’re only going to get that on the ground.”

[…] Beyond fueling party devotion and lore, “red tourism” has been good for business. In 2023, the industry’s revenues are expected to reach $153 billion, according to the Qianzhan Research Institute, a data consultancy. That represents an average annual compound growth rate of 14.1 percent from 2019 to 2023. Wanda said it was planning a second “red” attraction. [Source]

Efforts to pass down “red genes” to the next generation have accompanied the push to propagate Party history. From China Media Project:

One key focus of the Party’s campaign to secure its position at the center of Chinese life and identity has been the nation’s youth. One of the most commonly seen phrases in Chinese schools in recent months has been “transmitting red genes, telling China’s story well (传承红色基因, 讲好中国故事).

[…] Back in February, the Ministry of Education issued its “Guide to Introducing Teaching Materials on the Revolutionary Tradition Into the Primary and Secondary School Curriculum” (革命传统进中小学课程教材指南), which called for the nationwide implementation of Xi Jinping’s directive to “begin education in revolutionary traditions from childhood” (革命传统教育从娃娃抓起). The next month, the ministry announced a campaign of education in Party history for primary schools at every level across the country. The campaign, “Studying Party history from primary, forever walking with the Party” (从小学党史, 永远跟党走), was designed specifically for the commemoration of the CCP’s centennial. It outlined teaching priorities for local governments and schools, and pointed them to resources like this website, which offers short historical videos produced by the People’s Daily on such topics as “peaceful co-existence” and the “peaceful liberation of Tibet.”

While campaigns of education on CCP history have dominated the headlines this year, the push to double down on history to consolidate the Party’s central position in fact goes back to the second half of the Hu Jintao era. In the Xi era, the phrase “education in the revolutionary tradition must start at childhood” (革命传统教育要从娃娃抓起), which made it into a headline in the People’s Daily yesterday, dates back to a speech Xi Jinping gave in April 2016 on a visit to a revolutionary museum Anhui province’s Jinzhai County. Speaking almost graphically about the need to pass on “red genes” to the next generation, Xi said in that speech: “Education in the revolutionary tradition must begin with children, focusing not just on inculcation with knowledge but also the strengthening of emotional cultivation, so that red genes seep into the blood, and soak into the heart.” [Source]

The Party’s effort to forge uniform historical memory has not wholly succeeded. At The Los Angeles Times, Alice Su reported on youth dedicated to preserving historical memory at the cost of their freedom:

He stood in Tiananmen Square, wearing sneakers, track pants and a black T-shirt printed with the date of a massacre.

It was June 4, 2019, the 30th anniversary of the killing of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. Dong Zehua, then 28, hadn’t even been born when tanks clattered over the square and the world watched. The events on that bloody day in 1989 weren’t taught in school or ever mentioned in Chinese media. But Dong knew what had happened.

[…] To Dong’s surprise, two other young people were in the square the morning he arrived: Yuan Shuai, 24, a recent college graduate from Inner Mongolia working at an advertising company in Beijing, and Gao Tianqi, 21, a Beijinger attending university abroad who’d come back for the summer. Gao carried a yellow umbrella — a symbol of Hong Kong’s youth-led democracy movement — with the number “30” written on it in black marker.

[…] The three were arrested within hours. Yuan and Dong were convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and sentenced, respectively, to six and seven months in jail. Gao was let go after 38 days of detention without trial. [Source]

It just such such events that caused Andrew Nathan to term July 1 China’s “anxious” anniversary in The Wall Street Journal:

Still, the CCP is worried—and for good reason. There is an obvious tension between its self-interest as a ruling party and its stated long-term goals for China. By 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, the CCP has declared that it intends to make China a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and modern socialist country.” The great dilemma for the party is that the citizens of such a highly developed country are unlikely to accept the infantilizing control that its increasingly authoritarian regime imposes on them. A generational shift is under way in China, with traditional values giving way to more liberal attitudes, and it does not favor the long-term prospects of the CCP.

[…] Although the regime is not democratic in any Western sense, it interacts with its citizens more than most outsiders understand. Local governments maintain digital comment boxes where citizens can report service problems or anonymously accuse officials of corruption or abuse. When small-scale demonstrations occur over issues like unpaid wages and land seizures, officials often respond with what scholars Yanhua Deng and Kevin O’Brien call “relational, ‘soft’ repression.” They mobilize people respected by the demonstrators to persuade the crowd to back off. In rural areas, officials often lean on members of respected families or leaders of local temple associations to get villagers to give up land for development, comply with unpopular regulations or stay silent in the face of official abuse.

[…] In the most recent Asian Barometer Survey for which data are available, carried out in China in 2014-16, 21% of respondents identified themselves as city dwellers with at least some secondary education and enough household income to cover their needs and put away some savings. Compared with non-middle-class respondents, these Chinese citizens are almost twice as likely to express dissatisfaction with the way the political system works (32.5% versus 17.2%) and more than twice as likely to endorse liberal-democratic values such as independence of the judiciary and separation of powers (47.4% versus 20.4%). And these attitudes are even more pronounced among the younger members of the middle class. [Source]

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