The Historical Nihil-list: Cyberspace Administration Targets Top Ten Deviations From Approved History

Since his ascension to the top of the Party in 2012, Xi Jinping has shown little tolerance for “historical nihilism,” a catch-all term for critical appraisals of the Party’s rise and rule. The Party made a concerted push to enforce approved narratives about its own past during the run-up to the centenary of its founding in July. In April, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), a powerful regulatory agency tasked in part with censoring the internet, launched a “historical nihilism hotline,” through which internet users could report on those out of step with Party orthodoxy. In late July, the CAC—apparently no longer content with the “I know it when I see it” standard—released an official list of historically nihilist “rumors.” A video accompanying the statement highlighted 10 examples and then set out to debunk them, with the goals of refuting rumors that puncture the Mao myth, defending revolutionary martyrs from slander, and “clearing up” major events in Party and People’s Liberation Army history. CDT translated the top 10 list, and solicited commentary from a number of experts to contextualize it. Thoughts from Jeremy Brown, Brian DeMare, Jeffery Wasserstrom, and Andréa Worden are included below.

  1. Did Hu Qiaomu author “‘Snow — to the tune of Spring in Qin Garden”?
  2. Did the Party center unseal Deng Yingchao’s diary to research its own history?
  3. Did the Five Heroes of Langya Mountain slip (instead of jump) off the cliff?
  4. Was Mao Anying martyred because he gave his position away while making egg fried rice?
  5. Is Lei Feng’s Diary fake?
  6. Was the Long March less than 25,000 li?
  7. Did the Battle of Luding Bridge actually happen?
  8. During World War II, did the Communist Party avoid confronting the Japanese army directly?
  9. Zhou Bapi and Huang Shiren were good landlords. Was Land Reform a mistake?
  10. America never planned to invade China. Was the Korean War not fought in self-defense?

In comments provided to CDT, Jeremy Brown, a historian at Simon Fraser University and recent author ofJune Fourth: The Tiananmen Protests and Beijing Massacre of 1989,” suggested that the trivial nature of the list’s “rumors” may have been exactly the point: 

This is such a bizarre list, full of trivial distractions, that my initial reaction is that it is meant to deflect attention from more meaningful and controversial moments in Party history (rectification in Yan’an, suppression of counterrevolutionaries, Anti-Rightist Movement, Great Leap Famine, Cultural Revolution, Shadian Massacre, Beijing Massacre, Karamay Fire, and so on). In other words, the topics on the list of “rumors” are actually safe and okay for people in China to discuss and debate online. In fact, Party authorities want people interested in history to spend time and energy debating stories and trivialities that can be easily deflected in a short video. The purpose of Party history inside China is to correct “mistakes” and promote a “correct” story that affirms the Party’s greatness. Other topics are so sensitive that they cannot be discussed at all; to mention them as rumors would be to acknowledge that they are worth discussing and debating on the basis of historical documents that can be publicly scrutinized.

Context and commentary on each of the top 10 rumors about Party history follows: 

  1. Did Hu Qiaomu author “Snow — to the tune of Spring in Qin Garden”? 

Snow” is Mao Zedong’s most famous poem. After describing the wintry expanses of northern Shaanxi in the first stanza, Mao went on to survey leaders from China’s past in the second. In the final two lines, he rendered his judgement: “For truly great men, look to this age alone,” implicitly claiming his spot atop the pantheon. But did Mao actually write the poem? The question is of paramount importance. As Perry Link wrote in a review of Mao’s poetry in translation, “Mao the poet and Mao the political animal cannot be separated.” 

The origin of the controversy is an interview Hu Qiaomu, Mao’s long-time secretary, purportedly gave to the history journal Yanhuang Chunqiu. Hu allegedly claimed that Liu Shaoqi forced him to “gift” the poem to Mao in 1945, after which Mao rewrote only four characters. The CAC dismissed this claim by asserting that the poem was written in 1936, five years before Hu began serving as Mao’s secretary. It also shared a letter Hu wrote soon before the 1965 publication of his first poetry collection. “I’ve never written verse before,” he wrote. Hu’s daughter also asserts that he did not write “Snow”: “My father, with his personality, could never have written with the daring style of the Chairman.” Most scholars—Western and Chinese—believe Mao was indeed the author of his own poetry. 

So why the touchiness? Perhaps because the Party—to this day—has retained the Leninist-Stalinist legacy of the Party leader as both political and intellectual authority. Although many of Mao’s seminal works of theory were composed by others, he is hailed as a theoretical genius. Xi Jinping is similarly praised within the Party. Centers to “study, research and promote Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” have sprung up throughout the country. Xi is not the author of his eponymous Thought: that distinction falls to Wang Huning. Unlike Mao’s, Xi’s oeuvre is light on poetry: his only published poem is an ode to Jiao Yulu, a Mao-era cadre whose image was resurrected in the 1990s as a model for cadres wading through the corruption of Reform and Opening China. 

  1. Did the Party center unseal Deng Yingchao’s diary to research its own history? 

Although the Party obsessively records its own history, most archives remain tightly sealed. As such, diaries and memoirs have proven to be invaluable sources for those looking to understand the Party’s internal dynamics. They occasionally unveil unsavory truths. The diaries of former premier Zhao Ziyang, smuggled out of China disguised as tape recordings of Peking Opera and children’s books, cast new light on the Party’s reaction to the 1989 student movement and Reform and Opening. Li Zhisui, Mao’s personal physician, wrote a memoir of his time treating the Chairman that cast Mao as a lecherous megalomaniac. In her alleged diary, Deng Yingchao, Zhou Enlai’s wife and an important Party member in her own right, purportedly wrote about Zhou’s deathbed disillusionment with the Maoist project and the state of China under CCP rule. The diary is also tied to speculation about Zhou’s sexuality. A 2016 book, The Secret Emotional Life of Zhou Enlai,” sourced partially from Deng’s diary, claimed that Zhou Enlai was likely gay. To counter these claims, the CAC aired an interview with one of Deng’s former bodyguards, who claimed she was not in the habit of keeping a diary. The CAC also claimed that the “forgers” behind Deng’s diary had also manufactured other diaries purportedly written by high Party officials, including that of Lin Biao, Mao’s hand-picked successor who died in a plane crash in highly mysterious circumstances.

  1. Did the Five Heroes of Langya Mountain slip (instead of jump) off the cliff? 

In 2013, historian Hong Zhenkuai, once the executive editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu, published the results of his investigation into an epic tale from People’s Liberation Army history: The Five Heroes of Langya Mountain. The official narrative holds that in 1941, a band of five soldiers volunteered for a suicide mission to provide cover for retreating PLA troops. They climbed atop a mountain peak and killed dozens of Japanese soldiers. Facing certain capture after running out of ammunition, they leapt from the cliff on which they were trapped. Only two survived the plunge. Japanese troops, deeply affected by their opponents’ heroism, bowed down on the spot. 

Hong Zhenkuai’s report detailed a less glorious narrative. His archival research in Japan suggested that no Japanese troops were killed in the encounter. Hong also hypothesized that the soldiers likely slipped off the cliff. He wrote, “Although it is understandable that propaganda might have been exaggerated back then for the sake of encouraging the military and the public to resist Japan’s invasion, by now people want to know the historic truth.” A Beijing court disagreed. In 2016, Hong was ordered to publicly apologize for defaming martyrs. The CAC asserted that the two surviving soldiers were miraculously saved by trees, and noted that the Five Heroes of Langya Mountain defamation case is now a “guiding case” for the Supreme People’s Court

In 2018, slandering martyrs became a criminal offense. Earlier this year, former investigative journalist Qiu Ziming was arrested for picking quarrels and provoking trouble after suggesting on Weibo that the death toll from 2020 clashes between Chinese and Indian troops was higher than official reports let on. He was sentenced to eight months in prison in May. Six other Weibo users were also arrested for “slandering” martyrs, and Chongqing police engaged in “online pursuit” of a 19-year-old outside of China after he “slandered and denigrated the heroic officers and soldiers protecting our borders.” 

  1. Was Mao Anying martyred because he gave his position away while making egg fried rice?

On November 25, 1950, Mao Zedong’s son and potential successor Mao Anying was killed by an American napalm attack in North Korea. A long-circulating rumor holds that young Mao’s insistence on cooking egg fried rice, then a rare delicacy, exposed his unit’s position to American planes. (Another version of the rumor contends that a hankering for braised apple peels led to his demise.) The rumor has even inspired a tongue-in-cheek holiday, “Chinese Thanksgiving,” during which netizens thank the dish for liberating them from hereditary dynasties. As noted in China Digital Times Weekly, “Last year, cooking vlogger Wang Gang came under nationalist attack after posting an instructional video on egg fried rice on October 23, the eve of Mao Anying’s birthday.” To historian Brian DeMare, the inclusion of Mao Anying on the list was a mistake, spreading a trivial controversy that most had never heard of: 

I find the very existence of this “Top Ten” list puzzling. I fear the bureaucrats behind the list made a classic blunder, drawing attention to rumors they hoped to squash. As a professor of modern Chinese history, I have never had a student ask me about Mao Anying and egg fried rice. I suspect, however, that this will now be a staple in my courses for years to come. 

The CAC cited a letter written by Cheng Pu, a senior member of People’s Volunteer Army commander Peng Dehuai’s staff, to the daughter of a soldier who died alongside Mao Anying to disprove the “rumor.” Cheng wrote that their camp lacked the cooking equipment necessary to prepare fried rice and the story was a complete fabrication. 

On Twitter, Joseph Torigian, a historian of elite Party politics, weighed in on what really happened:

  1. Is Lei Feng’s Diary fake?

Lei Feng was, quite literally, the poster boy of Mao-era propaganda. The young PLA soldier’s beaming ushanka-clad visage graces classroom walls to this day, often accompanied by select quotations from his diary. His diary recorded his good deeds and, a year after his untimely death at age 20 in 1962, became required reading as part of a “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign designed to inspire China’s youth to sacrifice for the nation. Lei’s diary is a propaganda concoction, however, and there are questions as to whether Lei himself ever existed as presented. The CAC offered no proof of Lei’s existence beyond an assurance that his life as documented in photos “really happened.” 

In 2013, the 50th anniversary of the “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign, one internet user was arrested for pointing out that: “The high-end apparel that Lei Feng bought for himself in 1959 — leather jacket, woolen pants, leather shoes — would have cost about 90 yuan at the time, but his pay was only 6 yuan a month.” One Douban user calculated that to collect as much manure as claimed in his diary, Lei would have needed to “encounter a piece of dung every eleven steps” for nine hours. But authorities continue to make use of his image. Before the one year anniversary of the 1989 Beijing massacres, the state attempted to revive Lei Feng’s image to rehabilitate the PLA’s own tarnished reputation. Whether man or myth, Lei Feng’s image has been exploited by the Chinese state to satisfy its own narratives, as Andréa Worden wrote in a 1990 piece she shared with CDT: 

“Lei Feng, like everything else the autocratic leadership uses and abuses, is, in the end, not for the service of the people, but for the desperate maintenance of its own power. He is one of the most striking examples of how language and logic is turned on its head in a totalitarian system.”

Some stories about Lei’s diary are certainly tall tales. The most famous one, that Lei Feng’s Diary was part of West Point’s curriculum, started in 1981 after a Xinhua reporter mistook an April Fool’s Day article for straight news. He only owned up to the error in 2015. The Party, aware of Lei’s limited cachet in the modern world, is in the process of creating Lei Feng counterparts for the new era. One candidate is Huang Wenxiu, a young cadre who perished in the Guangxi countryside while engaged in poverty alleviation efforts. A number of state-media produced videos lauding Huang’s sacrifice have been posted to Youtube but their view counts number only in the hundreds, underscoring the difficulty of creating national propaganda models in a skeptical digital age. 

  1. Was the Long March less than 25,000 li? 

The Long March of revolutionary myth was a glorious strategic retreat. Against nearly incalculable odds, Mao Zedong led thousands of Communist troops along a winding route from Jiangxi province to Shaanxi, fighting rear guard actions against the KMT all the while. Retracing the epic journey has become something of a pilgrimage among outdoors enthusiasts and history buffs. Many feel compelled to write about their journeys: see these accounts in The New York Times (1984), The Atlantic (2014), and Supchina (2021). Today, sites along the Long March have become attractions for “Red Tourism.” One visitor told NPR’s Emily Feng: “Chairman Mao had almost magical abilities and amazing foresight. He saw China’s big changes would fall on the next generation of leaders, like Xi Jinping [….] Xi is carrying out Mao’s legacy.”

Although the Party claims the march was 25,000 li long (equivalent to 12,500 km or approximately 7,700 miles), those who have actually retraced the route have found it to be considerably shorter. In 2003, two Britons measured the entire journey at 3,700 miles, telling The Associated Press: “It was still a remarkable achievement in endurance and courage [….] The fact that it’s shorter than originally believed doesn’t diminish that in any way.″

The CAC breezily dismissed those modern calculations as “unscientific” while emphasizing that the soldiers often retraced their steps in the course of military engagements, significantly extending the march’s length. 

  1. Did the Battle of Luding Bridge actually happen? 

One of the most celebrated events on the Long March was the Battle of Luding Bridge, during which a small group of soldiers secured a bridge across the Dadu River under heavy fire. In “Red Star Over China,” Edgar Snow breathlessly relayed stories fed to him by Mao and others at Yan’an about the battle: 

“Never before had the Sichuanese seen Chinese fighers like these — men for whom soldiering was not just a rice-bowl, but youths ready to commit suicide to win! … Suddenly, on the southern shore, their comrades began to scream with joy. ‘Long live the Red Army! Long live the revolution! Long live the thirty heroes of Dadu River!’ For the Whites were withdrawing, were in pell-mell flight!” 

But did the battle actually happen? In a speech at Stanford University, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski claimed that Deng Xiaoping told him the “battle” was largely the concoction of propagandists:

“Well, that’s the way it’s presented in our propaganda. We needed that to express the fighting spirit of our forces. In fact, it was a very easy military operation. There wasn’t really much to it. The other side were just some troops of the warlord who were armed with old muskets and it really wasn’t that much of a feat, but we felt we had to dramatize it.” [Source]

Deng had a habit of making dismissive comments about Party history to foreign guests. In one famed account, actress Shirley MacLaine told Deng that a Chinese scientist told her he was happy to be sent down to the countryside. Deng responded: “He lied. That was what he had to say at the time.” It is hard to imagine Xi making similar comments. For its part, the CAC cited internal CCP and KMT documents, as well as contemporaneous media reporting, as proof of the battle’s historicity but offered no specifics. 

  1. During World War II, did the Communist Party avoid confronting the Japanese army directly?

China made enormous sacrifices in World War II: 14 million people died and 80 million people were displaced. Most mainstream scholarship holds that the CCP generally refrained from engaging in direct battle with the invading Japanese Army, but the Party’s own narratives cast it as a leading force in the war. At The Wall Street Journal last year, Howard French reviewed Rana Mitter’s “China’s Good War,” in which Mitter argued that China’s revisionist history of World War II is an attempt to claim it was “present at the creation” of the international world order: 

China’s goal of gaining broader acceptance of its leadership in the world has come to involve recasting World War II altogether. The priority of lionizing Mao and his comrades in founding Communist China has given way to a desire for international legitimacy and admiration. Mr. Mitter shows how this has meant repurposing World War II as China’s “good war,” a conflict in which the enormous sacrifices made resisting the Japanese after the 1931 invasion of Manchuria bought crucial time for Western powers to gather their strength to confront and defeat Japan in the Pacific. Making such arguments has required China to gradually rehabilitate the long-reviled Nationalists, if not as a political movement at least as combatants. [Source]

As proof of the CCP’s contributions, the CAC cited a number of the Party’s theoretical contributions to anti-Japanese warfare including the 1935 August 1 Declaration, a call for a united front with the KMT, and Mao’s 1938 lecture series, “On Protracted War,” that outlined the CCP’s strategy for defeating Japanese imperialism. (On the 80th anniversary of its publication, “On Protracted War” became hugely popular as a manual for winning the trade war with the United States.) The CAC argued that the Party served as the “national vanguard” of resistance. 

  1. Zhou Bapi and Huang Shiren were good landlords. Was Land Reform a mistake?

Land Reform was the Communist Party’s first truly nationwide political program. Villagers were assigned class labels based on cadastral surveys and other markers of wealth. People with substantial (and at times, not so substantial) landholdings were labeled “landlords,” and their land was expropriated. Hundreds of thousands of “landlords” were also executed. The violent process inspires controversy to this day. In 2017, Maoists attacked Fang Fang, the Wuhan author later targeted by nationalists for her lockdown diary, for her sympathetic portrayal of landlords in the novel “Soft Burial.” In the weeks before the 2021 centenary of the founding of the CCP, senior officials warned that “Playing up [the attack on landlords] is historical nihilism.”

Zhou Bapi and Huang Shiren were the fictional antagonists of “The Cock Crows at Midnight” and “The White-haired Girl,” respectively. The CAC sidestepped any engagement with their morality and instead asserted that land reform was an imperative step in ending feudalism and providing economic, political, and societal liberation to China’s peasants. 

In commentary provided to CDT, Brian DeMare, a professor of History at Tulane University and author of Land Wars: The Story of China’s Agrarian Revolution, wrote about Land Reform’s long legacy—and what Xi could stand to learn from his father: 

I suppose I should be thankful that the list singles out land reform as worthy of attention. I have been writing about these campaigns, in my view the most important moment of rural revolution, for decades now. But the list’s treatment of land reform (Zhou Bapi and Huang Shiren were good landlords… So Land Reform was a mistake?) is particularly confusing. I am very familiar with Huang Shiren and would agree with the bureaucrats behind the list that Huang, a sexual predator, was an evil person in need of punishment. He was also, however, a fictional character created by party propagandists. He is beyond redemption. Zhou Bapi was also a fictional character, but one with a clear historical inspiration. I have seen arguments that the “real” Zhou Bapi was nothing like his fictional counterpart, and it would not surprise me if that was the case. Yet the innocence of individual landlords, while obviously important to their families, is a rather small perspective to view land reform. These were massive campaigns that changed the lives of hundreds of millions of farmers! As to the idea that land reform was a “mistake,” readers of my book Land Wars know that land reform was in fact needed. Land was unevenly distributed and far too many farmers were desperate for land. The real question concerns the specific policies that the party enacted over six turbulent years of agrarian reform. Here I will defer to Xi Zhongxun, a senior party leader who boldly told Mao Zedong that it was unjust to pass on class labels to future generations; sadly, this is exactly what happened. I don’t blame the list makers for not knowing about how Xi Zhongxun pushed back against Mao’s land reform policies: my book, like so many other recent works on PRC history, is essentially banned in mainland China. But they have certainly heard of Xi Zhongxun’s son: Xi Jinping. I look forward to a publisher translating my book into Chinese so that Xi Jinping’s citizens can learn more about his father and his role in land reform. More open discussion of PRC history seems the best way to combat these rumors. 

  1. America never planned to invade China. Was the Korean War not fought in self-defense?

This “rumor” about the Korean War might be the most politically sensitive of all. An official Chinese history of the war published in 2020 found that “China had no choice but to send its army to fight on Korean soil” in order to stave off possible invasion and U.S. aggression. The CAC cited President Truman’s decision to send the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait and U.S. troop’s push across the 38th parallel as proof of American aggression. American histories generally tell a different story. Last year, Xi’s highly charged rhetoric during celebrations of the war’s 70th anniversary left many observers interpreting his words as implicit warnings to the United States. In a comment via email, Jeffery Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and author ofVigil: Hong Kong on the Brink,” describes the continued political salience of the Korean War as a tool to keep “the passions of the era of resistance” alive: 

The one that interests me most involves the claim that the United States was planning to invade Korea and that therefore the Korean War was fought in self-defense. The “Resist America, Support Korea” campaign was an important one in the early history of the PRC. Since 1949, the CCP has rooted in its legitimacy in the idea that by taking control of the country it finally brought to an end a long period when China was bullied by other countries (referred to as “century of national humiliation”). There is a desire, though, to keep the passions of the era of resistance to that bullying alive, to emphasize the value of ending it. Presenting the U.S. as invaders of Korea was one early example of this. Later ones include the assertion that popular movements, whether on the mainland in 1989 or Hong Kong more recently, are the work of nefarious foreign actors. To describe the roots of the Korean War being very different from a simple effort by the U.S. to take land closer to the PRC border and potentially move on from there undermines the use of the story of Chinese involvement as a kind of extension of earlier sacred battles against evil invaders.

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