In Resolution on History, Party Depicts Glorious Future

A major Chinese Communist Party conclave on history has consecrated Xi’s place next to Mao in the pantheon of Party leadership. The Sixth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress ended on Thursday, November 11, with the passage of a resolution on the Party’s history; it was only the third such resolution to be passed, and the first since 1981. The first resolution on Party history was passed in 1945 during Mao’s bloody Yan’an Rectification campaign and established him as an infallible, or at least untouchable, leader. The Party’s 1981 resolution was a limited reckoning with Mao’s legacy that included a condemnation of the Cultural Revolution and paved the way for market reforms. Experts believe that the text of this latest resolution will lay down a red carpet for Xi’s third term in power as China’s “helmsman.” At The Wall Street Journal, Keith Zhai reported on the plenum, Xi’s solidification of power, and what comes next:

“Not everyone in the party is convinced that this centralization authority and the valorization of a supreme leader is the best way to build the party and strengthen China,” said Timothy Cheek, a professor at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. “The historical resolution will decidedly answer those concerns, claim the moral high ground and, importantly, define political disagreement or dissent as disloyalty and treachery.”

[…] The affirmation of Mr. Xi’s political supremacy gives him added power in picking his allies to rise in the ranks at the new party congress next year, when he is expected to defy precedent in recent decades to take a third term as party leader.

[…] “Controlling the narrative of history and using that to suppress alternative points of view has been a key element in the party politics,” said Alfred Wu, a professor at the National University of Singapore. “It also reveals Xi, after controlling everything from the military to decision making, is now trying to go deeper and pursue the control of minds.” [Source]

Reporters in attendance at the plenum’s concluding press conference compared notes on the wording of the pronouncements, as well as the dull, scripted nature of the presser itself:

The late Sinologist Simon Leys observed that in communist societies, the past is always in flux while the future is immutably glorious. History may be subject to change, but it must not be questioned—that is “historical nihilism,” a catch-all charge used to silence narratives that challenge the Party’s supremacy. Last month, a young woman in Beijing was sentenced to seven months in prison for mocking the toxic masculinity of a war hero celebrated in Party history textbooks. “For the Politburo, history is not an academic investigation. It is another form of political language,” Rana Mitter of the University China Center at Oxford University told The Los Angeles Times. Yet this latest resolution will differ greatly from the previous two. Instead of criticizing the Party’s past mistakes, this resolution is focused on its major achievements and experiences. At The New York Times, Chris Buckley surveyed expert opinion to understand why Xi sees a resolution on history as crucial to his present hold on power:

“This is about creating a new timescape for China around the Communist Party and Xi in which he is riding the wave of the past towards the future,” said Geremie R. Barmé, a historian of China based in New Zealand. “It is not really a resolution about past history, but a resolution about future leadership.”

[…] Mr. Xi “sees history as a tool to use against the biggest threats to Chinese Communist Party rule,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University who has studied Mr. Xi and his father. “He’s also someone who sees that competing narratives of history are dangerous.”

[…] “He is like a sponge that can take all the positive things from the past — what he thinks is positive about Mao and Deng — and he can bring them all together,” said[ Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, a retired professor at the University of Vienna who studies the party’s use of history] of the party’s depiction of Mr. Xi. In that telling, she said, “he is China’s own end of history. He has reached a level that cannot be surpassed.” [Source]

A Twitter thread from historian Joseph Torigian delved into the historical significance of the resolution:

Many analysts believe Xi pursued a resolution on history in order to secure a third term as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CCP. Although it is widely believed that he will remain in power after 2022, there is serious debate over the manner in which he will do so. In a paper for The Center for Strategic & International Studies, Richard McGregor and Jude Blanchette laid out four scenarios for Xi’s political future: (1) that he retires and engages in an orderly transition of power; (2) that he creates a succession plan to step down in 2027 or 2035; (3) that Xi falls victim to a coup or leadership challenge; and (4) that he unexpectedly dies or becomes incapacitated. At Made in China Journal, Ling Li put forth a fifth alternative—that Xi resurrects the position of Party Chairman, which was created for Mao in 1945 and shelved in 1982, six years after Mao’s death. Li argues that this would serve Xi’s two main goals: “to continue to rule and to micromanage the succession process.” Promoting his own ideology (“Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”) is widely seen as a means to ensuring Xi’s political dominance. At Reuters, Yew Lun Tian, Gabriel Crossley and Tony Munroe reported on the elevation of Xi’s signature ideology:

At this week’s meeting, known as the Sixth Plenum, the party elevated the role of Xi in one of its ideologies by crediting him for the first time in an official document as “the main innovator” behind “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.

The party had previously defined this ideology as the product of “the experiences and collective wisdom of the party and the people”.

[…] Commenting on the move Jude Blanchette, an expert on Chinese politics at Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the messaging around Xi from the party was assuming “cult-like features”. [Source]

Ardor for Xi, however genuine, is beginning to resemble a state-mandated personality cult. The text of the communiqué outlining the substance of the resolution crowed that Xi Jinping Thought marks “a new leap” in adapting Marxism to China—a heady claim. One netizen remarked that Xi managed over 2000 Chinese characters’ worth of mentions in the communiqué, more than Mao Zedong (910 characters), Deng Xiaoping (360 characters), Jiang Zemin (260 characters), and Hu Jintao (200 characters) combined. Chinese students at all grade levels must now study Xi Jinping Thought in school. Before the plenum, Xinhua even published a 12,000 character pean (widely mocked by netizens) to Xi’s talent and love of country:

The Party is confident that Xi will lead it to greatness. Others are not so sure. Sun Peidong is a Chinese historian of the Cultural Revolution who, in a tragic irony, was hounded out of Fudan University by her students. In an interview with The New Statesman, she noted that history is not as teleological as the Party would have us believe: “Dictators might feel confident that everything is controlled according to their playbook, because they’ve produced and utilised an authoritative ideology to justify their absolute power and brainwash the people. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall was unexpected.”

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