By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Understanding the 100th year of the current regime in China Part Two
We started this multi-part investigation about the CCP/PRC, with the premise that Chinas cultural past is crucial for understanding its national presence. Where we pointed out that early on already Historian James Harrison considered the CCP party's actions of rewriting Chinese history as "the most massive attempt at ideological re-education in human history." For example, left out from CCP/PRC history books is that most communists entered politics through nationalism whereby leading nationalists in turn (including Sun Yat-sen and his successor Chiang Kai-shek) similarly adopted Leninist precepts thus creating a right-left overlap something the CCP/PRC tries to ignore and erase. And also that at the CCP’s birth in 1921, communism was the least promising of many contending political forces in a country devastated by floods, famines, warlordism, and corruption. The 12 men who founded the party were fascinated by the new, poorly understood ideology of Marxism, which contended for influence with liberalism, social democracy, anarchism, fascism, and other isms that claimed to show how to restore China’s greatness.
On 1 July 2021, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will celebrate its centenary anniversary. Over the past several months, the country has been inundated with a 24/7 tsunami of propaganda. Bookstores are filled with newly minted books with the ubiquitous hammer-and-sickle on their covers. China’s consumer goods industry is churning out a surfeit of communist kitsch, busts, buttons, statues, posters, plates, paintings, commemorative coins, and other memorabilia. Commemorative films play on television and in movie theaters. Work units and school children are being organized to go on pilgrimages to revolutionary sites (so-called “red tourism”).
Thus as seen above some efforts fall into the formats one might expect before an important date. But these traditional exercises have been supplemented with new elements that seem aimed at saturating the public consciousness and people’s conversations while reinforcing Xi’s position as the country’s paramount leader. A massive public education campaign focused on CCP history was launched in February. It included the release of 80 national propaganda slogans, including several with Xi at the center, a scale that the China Media Project described as “unprecedented in the reform era.”
As the CCP readies the 100th birthday cake, it is worth reflecting that, among commentators of a certain age, both inside and outside China, few expected this moment to come. In 1991, it was widely assumed that the collapse of Soviet communism heralded the demise of what had started as its Chinese franchise (the Comintern in Moscow was heavily involved in the CCP’s establishment.) And yet, here we are. Either all modernizing roads do not, as was once thought, lead to liberal democracy, or China is taking the mother of all detours.
And as recently mentioned in the South China Morning Post: “Don’t believe a word that Xi Jinping tells you about China’s history. Let’s think properly about what that history was across the 20th century. And that’s difficult to do because over the last five, six, seven years, the archives have shut down in China.”
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has established a specialist history unit to propagate the official version of the past. And this year Beijing set up a hotline for citizens to report historical nihilism to authorities.
The latest edition of the CCP's official concise history condenses the decade-long turmoil of the Cultural Revolution into three pages.
The party's official records show that it opened its first congress in Shanghai on July 23, 1921. But the anniversary of foundation was set on July 1 because, according to a record, Mao merely remembered that the first party congress had been convened "in July" when the CPC decided on the date of the anniversary in the 1930s. Plus, by now several of the attendees have been airbrushed out of official accounts, some of them accused of collaborating with the Imperial Army in the treacherous civil war and Japanese occupation in the 1930s.
It seems clear from the available evidence that an organization calling itself the Communist Party of China was born a full eight months before the First National Congress as evidenced by the bulletin Gongchandang (left), published in November 1920 by Chen Duxiu’s Shanghai group:
In fact, history weighs heavily on Xi, who keeps mentioning the Soviet collapse. He is waging a campaign against what he calls “historical nihilism”, that is, any grumbling about communism’s past. One Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, is held up as the archetypal nihilist for denouncing Stalin’s brutality in 1956. That event haunts Xi. Party literature says it led to the Soviet Union’s demise. Much of Xi’s energy is focused on making sure the party learns the Soviet lesson. Mao must remain a saint.
As the Economist reported yesterday: The most dangerous threat to Mr. Xi comes not from the masses, but from within the party itself. Despite all his efforts, it suffers from factionalism, disloyalty, and ideological lassitude. Rivals accused of plotting to seize power have been jailed. Chinese politics is more opaque than it has been for decades, but Mr. Xi’s endless purges suggest that he sees yet more hidden enemies.
And in the July/August 2021 issue of Foreign Affairs Jude Blanchette Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes: The CCP’s long experience of defections, attempted coups, and subversion by outside actors predisposes it to acute paranoia, something that reached a fever pitch in the Mao era. Xi risks institutionalizing this paranoid style.
But to ensure that history really appears to be on its side, the party spends an inordinate amount of time rewriting it and preventing others from wielding their pens. Few Chinese leaders have done so with as much verve as Xi, who launched his reign in 2012 by making a major speech at an exhibition on Chinese history. Since then, he has waged war on “historical nihilism,” in other words, those who want to criticize the party’s missteps. Xi has many goals, such as battling corruption, fostering innovation, and projecting power abroad through his Belt and Road Initiative, but controlling history underlies them all.
This belief in the power of history is one of the few constants in the CCP’s hundred-year saga. Though based on one creed, its ideology has actually been a blunderbuss of strategies: it started as a group of orthodox Marxists who looked to the industrial proletariat to lead the revolution, lurched to a rural-based party that tried to foment a peasant rebellion, morphed into a the ruling party dominated by a personality cult built around Mao Zedong, transformed itself into an authoritarian technocracy, and now presents itself as in charge of a budding superpower dominated by a strong, charismatic leader.
Three interlocking ideas unite these stages. Many Chinese patriots have held one since the nineteenth century: modernizing China means making it wealthy and powerful rather than free and democratic.1 Another, also shared by Chinese patriots, is that only a strong state can achieve this. And finally, that history anointed the Communist Party to achieve these utilitarian goals.
A teacher and her students in Lianyungang, China, pose with Communist Party emblems during a class about the party’s history in June 2020:
As we have initially seen, China’s major aim in World War I was the return of Qingdao and the surrounding Shandong Peninsula. Germany had occupied the Chinese port city of Qingdao in 1897, negotiating a forced lease on the city and its surroundings that, like the British lease on Hong Kong’s New Territories, was due to run through 1997. But in 1911 and 1912, the Qing dynasty, which had signed those treaties, was overthrown. The new government in Beijing, known as the Beiyang government after the army corps that formed it, negotiated with foreign powers to restore China’s territorial integrity. It sought the restitution of lands given up by the Qing dynasty in the unequal treaties of the 19th century, starting with Qingdao and the Shandong Peninsula.
The problem for China was not that Germany refused to cooperate. It was that Germany’s territory in the Shandong Peninsula had already been taken, by Japan. At the beginning of World War I, the United Kingdom, desperate for Japanese naval support in the Pacific, had offered the country the German naval base at Qingdao in exchange for entering the war on the Allied side. Japanese forces took Qingdao in November 1914.
When news reached China on 2 May 1919 of accepting the Japanese claims, it shocked the nation. The hopes of those who had marched to welcome victory in November were dashed. Such was the uproar that the Chinese delegation did not sign the Versailles Treaty on 28 June.
The 3,000-strong demonstration involved students from a dozen institutions in the capital and ended with a small riot. They marched to the Legation Quarter intending to present letters of protest to the Allied ministers, but it was a Sunday - and a beautiful spring one, so the diplomats were largely out of town in the Western Hills. After some hours of confrontation with police, the students marched to the home of Cao Rulin, then Minister of Communications, but formerly Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, and deeply involved in the 1915 negotiations with Japan and the secret loans of 1918.
Some of the marchers broke into the compound and set part of the house alight; Cao himself fled to the safety of a hotel in the foreign-controlled Legation Quarter. He would not be the last to do so: imperialism’s friends and foes alike found it convenient to have such safe havens just a short hop away. The Chinese Minister to Japan, who was also in the house, was less lucky and was badly beaten.1
Students of Beijing Normal University after being detained by the government during the May Fourth Movement:
This became a nationwide assault on imperialism and China’s prevailing culture. Demonstrations began to be held across China, and across Chinese communities overseas. The most potent weapon available was the boycotting of Japanese goods or the services of Japanese firms.
Modern China's right-left overlap
Thus modern China’s history is not a history made by foreigners, but its domestic history was an internationalized one, at times very heavily spiced with them.
As we have already seen in part one nationalism has long been ingrained in the Party’s ideology and identity, with a long historical line connecting the Party of today with the nationalist ferment of the late Qing Dynasty. The core theme animating the Party across that stretch is the search for something that could restore China to its former greatness and would help it achieve the goal of “national rejuvenation.” Today, that phrase is at the center of Xi Jinping's political project, but it has a deep history that has pervaded China’s political exertions for almost two centuries.
This concept went at least as far back as Sun Yat-sen and was invoked by almost every modem Chinese leader from Chiang Kai-Shek to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. In this sense, National rejuvenation provides a sense of mission not only for China’s domestic reforms but also for its grand strategy. Also, in the case of Xi Jinping, for example, during a high-profile tour of an exhibit at the National Museum of China in November 2012, shortly after he became leader of the CCP, he exhibits at that time was called the "Road to National Rejuvenation," and Xi said that the Chinese Dream is the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" (中华民族伟大复兴; 中華民族偉大復興; Zhōnghuámínzú Wěidà Fùxīng).
For many years, the orthodox view in the People's Republic of China was that after the demonstrations of 1919 and their subsequent suppression, the discussion of possible policy changes became more and more politically realistic. People like Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao shifted more to the left and were among the leading founders of the Communist Party of China in 1921, whilst other intellectuals, such as the anarchist writer and agitator, Ba Jin took part in the movement.
In From Rebel to Ruler, his new history of the CCP, Tony Saich of the Harvard Kennedy School argues that the party also owes its survival to two much more hard-edged institutions: its organization and propaganda departments.
Saich gives a memorable account of a fellow Dutchman, Henk Sneevliet, who in 1921 was sent by Moscow to liaise with Chinese Communists. Sneevliet was present at the CCP’s first meeting and was singularly unimpressed by them, so much so that he advised against forming a full-fledged party. Instead, he argued that progressives should first pursue broader goals and link up with potential allies as a way to avoid destruction.
But for example, where all Chinese should study the history of the CCP for its 100th anniversary, the Party’s first General Secretary, Chen Duxiu, should not be mentioned. This whereby the bulletin Gongchandang published in November 1920 by Chen Duxiu’s Shanghai group calling itself the Communist Party of China was born a full eight months before the First (CCP)National Congress.
Chinese Marxists initially drew intellectual sustenance from their Japanese counterparts until Japan clamped down on leftist activities. The Chinese then turned to American and British sources. Yoshihiro Ishikawa traces these networks through an exhaustive survey of journals, newspapers, and other intellectual and popular publications. He reports on numerous early meetings involving a range of groups, only some of which were later funneled into CCP membership. He follows the developments at Soviet Russian gatherings attended by several Chinese representatives who claimed to speak for a nascent CCP.
But not only were there all manner of organizations and people calling themselves communist in China in 1920-21 but there was also a right-left wing overlap. For example, around October or November 1920, Chen Duxiu arranged an audience for Grigory Voitinsky (who led the first official Soviet mission to China with (nationalist) Sun Yat-sen in the library of Sun’s house on rue Molière, a comfortable villa in the French Concession built by donations from Chinese who had made their money abroad.
On 25 November, Sun left Shanghai and returned to the south, and it was here that he received his first letter from Lenin and responded via the Soviet trade mission in London.
The Soviet Union launched one approach to China by open, legal means and another through the illegal underground. With the Beiyang government t(officially the Republic of China (Chinese: 中華民國; pinyin: Zhōnghuá mínguó), formal diplomacy aimed to secure and fortify Russia’s geopolitical interests. The covert overtures were in the hands of the Comintern and directed at furthering the Asian revolution. They came to focus increasingly on Sun Yat-sen and the south. This pas de deux was often out of step. The first contact with Sun Yat-sen had been made in 1918 when he telegraphed Lenin from his exile in Shanghai to express the hope for a common struggle against the European empires that encircled them both. Lenin had no illusions about what he termed the ‘virginal naiveté’ of Sun Yat-sen’s expressed commitment to socialism, but he needed allies.
Sun Yat-sen’s own crew of foreign advisors was an eclectic and internationalized one. Partly it was used to mediate between the revolutionary and foreign officials.
The collapse of the Shanghai peace talks in 1919 had left the southern coalition, in which the Guomindang played a key role, even further isolated from the formal institutions of the republic; although in a bizarre twist, from July 1919 until March 1920, the coalition received, with the agreement of the central government, a share of the Customs revenue surplus, Establishing an alternative, in their eyes legitimate, the national government in Guangzhou had failed. The wheel of fortune turned: Guangdong province was dominated after October 1920 by a veteran revolutionary, General Chen Jiongming, who nominally served as governor, A progressive, if idiosyncratic, reformer, much taken with anarchist philosophy, Chen’s slogan ‘Canton for the Cantonese’ reflected the hostility of local interests to the depredations of extra-provincial troops, as well as his own federalist leanings. Whereas Sun Yat-sen aimed to reunite the nation, Chen and an increasing number of others wished to explore a federal solution to China’s problems. From his base in the east of the province, Chen had moved to expel the forces from neighboring Guangxi province who had occupied Guangzhou and expelled Sun’s regime. Chen allowed Sun to return to Guangzhou in November 1920, and to re-establish what the Guomindang presented as the legitimate national government of the republic, wheeling out a few hundred members of the old parliament elected back in December 1912 who voted to make Sun president in May 1921.
An estimated 120,000 people processed through the city on Sun’s inauguration. Chen’s troops, schoolchildren, even martial arts practitioners and actresses had their place in the great demonstration. Naval gunboats fired salutes from the river, and great triumphal arches had been erected, decorated with electric lights. But after such a heady Guangzhou spring, tensions between Chen Jiongming’s provincial ambitions and Sun’s aim to use the province as his base from which to launch a war of national reunification mounted. The end came in June 1922 when Sun and his government were expelled after he had stripped his host and protector of his offices. Outgunned and outnumbered, Sun fled, and not for the first time with foreign assistance, shipping out of Guangzhou on a British gunboat, but not before his own gunboats had bombarded Chen's troops, killing civilians as they did so. Sun returned, yet again, in February 1923, having bought the services of mercenary units from Yunnan province, who drove Chen out. So it seemed to go, so it threatened to go on and on, revolutionizing the French farce with rapid exits and plot changes. But it was a dark and sanguine comedy, for lives were lost in each act, and rarely were they those of the principals.
During his 1922-3 exile in his house in Shanghai, safely located in the French concession, Sun was visited by Soviet emissaries, including Adolf Joffe, the USSR's ambassador to Beijing, building on earlier contacts. The framework for collaboration had started to emerge. There was nothing covert about this, although the International Settlement police had diligently watched and recorded all they could.
Only his ejection from Canton by forces loyal to Chen Jiongming had persuaded him to endorse the alliance with the Communists. In February 1923, with outside troops' support, so-called ‘guest armies,’ Chen Jiongming was ousted from the city and withdrew into the northeast Guangdong province. Sun Yat-sen was able to return to establish a new government. Before he left Shanghai, after a series of meetings at the Palace Hotel and at Sun’s mansion, on 26 January 1923, Sun signed cooperation with Adolph Joffe, the man who had led the Soviet delegation at Brest-Litovsk.
Shanghai’s local press documented the meetings with Joffe and the two men's policy agreement on 26 January, just as the ground was being laid for Sun’s return to Guangzhou. What made this encounter distinctive was that it was a record of an understanding between a foreign ambassador to a sovereign state and one of that state’s rebel opponents.
During this first congress, the Kuomintang's reorganization process to become the Kuomintang of China in 1919 from the previous Chinese Revolutionary Party was formally completed. A policy declaration was also drafted to fight against imperialism and feudalism, determining three policies of alliance with the Soviet Union and alliance with the Communist Party of China. This first congress eventually led to the reunification of China four years later after the Northern Expedition.
In part one we highlighted the process by which the state incorporated the empire's fluid borderlands into the fixed borders that came to precisely delineate the sovereignty of the Republic of China.
Arguably the three most important imperial contributions to modern Chinese identity were (1) the formation of an ethnocentric or Sinic political and cultural community around which the new Chinese nation-state would be imagined; (2) the massive expansion of state territory during the Manchu Qing dynasty that established the geopolitical framework and international boundaries of the modern Chinese nation-state; and (3) the Qing construction (building on the Mongol Yuan dynasty) of a multiethnic empire of the Han, Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, and Sino-Muslim peoples that provided the foundation for reconstituting the new Chinese nation as a unitary yet multiethnic state. The first of these provided the basis for the invention of the Han race or nationality (Hanzu), the ethnic majority around which the nation was to be built and imagined. The second engendered the modern concept of the frontier and what the Chinese nationalists would term the “frontier question", namely, the challenge of exerting full state sovereignty and control over a remote zone of untamed wilderness while protecting it from foreign encroachment. And the third spawned a new category of citizens, the minority nationals or the marginalized and backward peoples living along the frontiers of the nation, thereby creating for the state the problem of classifying and assimilating these marginalized citizens into the geo-body of the nation, what the CCP/PRC called the “national question."
The Chinese Ministry of Education agency charged with promoting the Chinese language and culture worldwide also called The Office of Chinese Language Council International. Generously backed by government resources, it directs more than 500 ‘Confucius Institutes’ in over 140 countries worldwide.2 The only book on history that they recommend to its students is entitled Common Knowledge About Chinese History. Together with its companion volumes about geography, the series is available in at least twelve languages: from English to Norwegian to Mongolian. This is the official ‘national history’. The theme of the first half of the book is China's primordial existence and a people called the Chinese who have existed across millennia. Even when it wasn’t called ‘China’ or was divided between rival states, it was still somehow ‘China.’ The underlying premise is continuity.
Similarly, from the mid-1920's onward, right-wing activists within the Nationalist Government had insisted that the true subject of revolution was a harmoniously cooperative national body, bound together by culture, acting in concert against a range of internal and external threats. These struggles emerged not from a state of relative social stability but the charged conjuncture of an ongoing post-dynastic reordering of Chinese society and a volatile world poised between two cataclysmic wars. Arno Mayer lias suggested that “students of crisis politics need multi-angled and adjustable lenses with which to examine such unsettled situations. These lenses must be able to focus on the narrow synchronic and the broad diachronic aspects of explosive conjunctures as well as on the intersections between them. In this light, the Nationalist Government right wings narrowing in on Confucianism as the cultural glue that lent the national subject its coherence can be seen in diachronic context as a reaction against 1910s New Culture and May Fourth Movement critiques of China’s dynastic past, in addition to a more general rethinking of that past in the wake of imperialism.
When Chinese delegates rejected the recommendation of the two Comintern advisers that they forge a "united front" with capitalists and even consider joining the emerging nationalist movement led by Sun Yat-sen to the south. Instead, the delegates insisted on a pure "proletarian" platform that called for a surrender of land and machines to the working masses.
The new 100 years of humiliation
Although the “century of humiliation” is still used in CCP-initiated communications, arguably an even more important periodization formulated by the CCP in recent years has been the use of the slogan, “China is not the country it was 100 years ago.”
This is a clear reworking of the century of humiliation trope and has been used, most notably by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, to push back on external criticism and to remind foreign audiences that China may have given in to foreign demands in the past, but that is not the case now. The evoking of the much infringed-upon pre-1949 China serves to contrast with China’s contemporary major power status to further demonstrate the crucial role of the CCP in China’s revival.
Curiously, however, since December 2020, the slogan has been altered to “China is not the China of 120 years ago.” The most notable use of this new version came the week after tense high-level diplomatic talks between the United States and China occurred in Alaska. In response to the initiation of sanctions over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying reiterated the 120 years version of the slogan in her press briefing to draw attention to Western powers repeating history to gang up on China.
The change from 100 to 120 years is not trivial.
As memes on Chinese social media had been quick to point out, there is an interesting comparison (and contrast) between the 2021 Anchorage talks (and subsequent fallout over Xinjiang) and the 1901 Boxer Protocol meetings from 120 years earlier, when a beleaguered Qing Dynasty was forced to sign off on huge indemnities in reparation for the Boxer uprising against the international legations.
As the party begins its second century, that old debate still reverberates.
Ignoring many of these aspects of modern Chinese history the Communist Party of China, has a history of manipulating the historical record.
Photographs were changed to emphasize Mao’s presence or excise purge officials, and history texts and museums were remodeled to promote the new priorities.
Reformist leader Deng Xiaoping also tried to reinterpret history, in his case criticizing Mao’s mistakes in starting the disastrous 1966–76 Cultural Revolution. Deng ushered China out of the shadow of Mao’s dictatorial regime into an era of collective leadership, under which party dominance slipped.
Yet the hubristic rhetoric of the Party about its place in history is laughable if not for the serious consequences this has for China’s future.
Xi is trying to change this by updating historical narratives to increase support for the communist rule, by concentrating power in his own hands and consolidating the party’s control over society.
The newest edition of official party history no longer criticizes Mao Zedong for chaos and killings in the 1960s and ‘70s, but praises his Cultural Revolution as an anti-corruption measure and blames the upheavals on “insufficient implementation of his correct ideology.”
More than a quarter of the book, which was published in February, is devoted to China’s “new era” under Xi, in which the “China dream” of great national rejuvenation is fulfilled. Five pages describe the COVID-19 outbreak, praising Xi’s leadership of the response as a demonstration of how the party always puts “the people” first.
Meanwhile, those who deviate from Beijing’s narrative of harmony and prosperity are punished.
Many were reports by Chinese journalists who risked their lives covering the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, only to have their articles censored as Xi pushed for “positive energy” propaganda focused on praising heroes, not marking human suffering.
Cai and Chen were detained in April 2020 and had been held for more than a year before they went to trial. Their families were not allowed to see them, hire personal defense lawyers for them or examine the documents explaining charges against them, according to Chen’s older brother Chen Kun, who now lives in France.
Chen Kun makes a case for his brother’s release outside United Nations headquarters in Geneva in 2020:
The pressure is not only coming from officials but also from ordinary people, friends, family, neighbors, and netizens who are increasingly reporting one another’s speech, especially online.
Official statistics show that mutual tattling has increased. In 2020, China’s Central Cyberspace Administration handled 163 million reports of improper online speech, an increase of 17.4% from 2019. The majority came from Chinese social media platforms including Weibo, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.
In April, China’s Central Cyberspace Administration issued a new request for reports of “hazardous information involving historical nihilism.” It offered phone, app and website options for tattling on anyone caught “twisting” party history, criticizing party leaders, ideology or policy, “smearing” heroes and martyrs, or speaking negatively of China’s traditional, revolutionary or modern culture.
Mutual reporting continued to grow, with nearly 15 million reports that month, an increase of 38.4% from March and a 2.6% increase from April 2020.
Wall Street Journal reports on the proliferation of Communist Party and pro-Xi propaganda that education ministry is inserting questions on party’s history in college-entrance exams, “to guide students to inherit red genes,” history classes for employees on the party’s achievements are being organized by “private businesses, law firms and even a Shanghai temple dedicated to the Chinese god of wealth… Airlines (are staging) in-flight singalongs and poetry recitals to teach passengers about the party’s past.”
Alongside, Xi is publicly administering loyalty pledges to senior party leaders while cadres of the 90 million strong party are simultaneously being put through an ideological training regimen that includes undertaking tours of ‘red sites’ (party’s most important historical locations) to foster fidelity.
As Jamestown Foundation senior fellow and veteran journalist from Hong Kong Willy Wo-Lap Lam writes, “Xi has redoubled efforts to clamp down on dissent among intellectuals and even former top cadres while also reining in leading private entrepreneurs whose wealth and influence may detract from the all-embracing powers of the party. Finally, Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) that oversees the People’s Liberation Army, has masterminded a housecleaning of the nation’s military and police forces.”
In the run-up to CCP’s centenary celebrations, Xi’s most urgent project has been engineering history and whitewashing the crimes of Mao, whose social engineering project Great Leap Forward in 1957 caused tens of millions of deaths through famine and poverty. Mao is also responsible for the killing of another two to three million people through his 10-year purge (from 1966-76) of “counterrevolutionaries”, a pogrom against imagined political adversaries including elites whom Mao considered to be a threat to his position.
As Ian Johnson writes in Chinafile, “Mao was responsible for about 1.5 million deaths during the Cultural Revolution, another million for the other campaigns, and between 35 million and 45 million for the Great Leap Famine. Taking a middle number for the famine, 40 million, that’s about 42.5 million deaths.”
Mao’s atrocities during his tyrannical rule and the excesses of Cultural Revolution have been documented in chronicle of party events. Not anymore. In February, Xi issued an updated version of An Abbreviated History of the Chinese Communist Party (Zhongguo Gongchangdang jianshi) that airbrushed all atrocities committed by Mao. He was instead credited for “setting the foundation of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and providing ideological enrichment of the nation with “valuable experience, theoretical preparation and material foundation” during the 1949-1976 period,” points out Willy Wo-Lap Lam.
As expected, the new ‘history’, part of a series of books, documents and articles that sanitizes Mao and glorifies his role, also lionizes Xi and confirms his status as the party’s “core”. This is essential to address issues of corruption, factionalism and disloyalty within the party because insubordination against the “core leader” is to go against the party. This is also a natural progression of Xi’s hyper-centralisation of power which he has done by rendering the office of prime minister almost powerless.
As Jude Blanchette and Evan S. Medeiros write in their paper for The Washington Quarterly, former presidents “Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had strong partnerships with their respective premiers (Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao), thus giving the State Council significant authority over setting economic policy. Xi, on the other hand, has sidelined premier Li Keqiang and positioned himself at the center of nearly all key policy discussions. Relatedly, he pushed through one of the biggest political restructurings in China’s modern history at the 2018 National People’s Congress, with the CCP subsuming many of the governing and administrative functions that had previously been the domain of the State Council.”
As mentioned at the start of this overview Xi has initiated a program with the help of technology to address “historical nihilism”. If any statements are made or any posts are put up criticizing Communist Party leaders or their policies, cyberspace regulators will ensure these are “cleaned”. There is also a hotline and an online platform “for the public to denounce instances of historical nihilism,” backed by a 2018 law protecting the reputations of heroes and martyrs.
Coming to the present time
The core of current era US-China competition since the Cold War has been over regional and now global order. It focuses on the strategies that rising powers like China use to displace an established hegemon like the United States short of war. A hegemon’s position in regional and global order emerges from three broad “forms of control” that are used to regulate the behavior of other states: coercive capability (to force compliance), consensual inducements (to incentivize), and legitimacy (to rightfully command it).
For rising states, the act of peacefully displacing the hegemon consists of two broad strategies generally pursued in sequence. The first strategy is to blunt the hegemon’s exercise of those forms of control, particularly those extended over the rising state; after all. no rising state can displace the hegemon if it remains at the hegemon’s mercy. The second is to build forms of control over others; indeed, no rising state can become a hegemon if it cannot secure the deference of other states through coercive threats, consensual inducements, or rightful legitimacy. Unless a rising power has first blunted the hegemon, efforts to build order are likely to be futile and easily opposed. And until a rising power has successfully conducted a good degree of blunting and building in its home region, it remains too vulnerable to the hegemon’s influence to confidently turn to a third strategy, global expansion, which pursues both blunting and building at the global level to displace the hegemon from international leadership. Together, these strategies at the regional and then global levels provide a rough means of ascent for the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalist elites, who seek to restore China to its due place and roll back the historical aberration of the West’s overwhelming global influence.
The Global Financial Crises
As a nationalist institution that emerged from the patriotic ferment of the late Qing period, the Party now seeks to restore China to its rightful place in the global hierarchy by 2049.
The Global Financial Crisis accelerated a shift in Chinese military strategy away from a singular focus on blunting American power through sea denial to a new focus on building order through sea control. China now sought the capability to hold distant islands, safeguard sea lines, intervene in neighboring countries, and provide public security goods. For these objectives, China needed a different force structure, one that it had previously postponed for fear that it would be vulnerable to the United States and unsettle China's neighbors. These were risks a more confident Beijing was now willing to accept. China promptly stepped up investments in aircraft carriers, capable surface vessels, amphibious warfare, marines, and overseas bases.
The Global Financial Crisis furthermore caused China to depart from blunting strategy focused on joining and stalling regional organizations to a building strategy that involved launching its own institutions. China spearheaded the launch of the Asia Intrastiaicture Investment Bank (AIIB) and the elevation and institutionalization of the previously obscure Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). It then used these institutions^ with mixed success3 as instruments to shape regional order in the economic and security domains in directions it preferred.
The Global Financial Crisis also helped Beijing depart from a defensive blunting strategy that targeted American economic leverage to an offensive building strategy designed to build China’s own coercive and consensual economic capacities. At the core of this effort were China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its robust use of economic statecraft against its neighbors, and its attempts to gain greater financial influence.
Beijing used these blunting and building strategies to constrain US influence within Asia and to build the foundations for regional hegemony. The relative success of that strategy was remarkable, but Beijing's ambitions were not limited only to the Indo-Pacific. When Washington was again seen as stumbling, China's grand strategy evolved, this time in a more global direction.
Pragmatism, particularly on economic policy, ushered in a wave of investment that helped the gross domestic product grow nearly 50 times since Mao’s death in 1976. China’s economy is now poised to overtake that of the U.S. within the decade, eradicating extreme poverty and creating a new ultra-rich class: At the end of 2019, China had 5.8 million millionaires and 21,100 residents with wealth above $50 million, more than any country except the U.S.
During the time consisting of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the West's poor initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In this period, the Chinese Communist Party reached a paradoxical consensus: it concluded that the United States was in retreat globally but at the same time was waking up to the China challenge bilaterally. In Beijing's mind? great changes unseen in a century” were underway, and they provided an opportunity to displace the United States as the leading global state by 2049? with the next decade deemed the most critical to this objective.
Politically, Beijing would seek to project leadership over global governance and international institutions and to advance autocratic norms. Economically, it would weaken the financial advantages that undeniable US hegemony and seize the commanding heights of the "fourth industrial revolution." And militarily, the PLA would field a truly global Chinese military with overseas bases around the world.
Some of the strategies to achieve this global order is already discernable in Xi's speeches. Politically, Beijing would project leadership over global governance and international institutions, split Western alliances, and advance autocratic norms at the expense of liberal ones. Economically, it would weaken the financial advantages that underwrite US hegemony and seize the commanding heights of the "fourth industrial revolution” from artificial intelligence to quantum computing, with the United States declining into a "deindustrialized. English-speaking version of a Latin American republic, specializing in commodities, real estate, tourism, and perhaps transnational tax evasion.”8 Militarily, the force with bases around the world could defend China’s interests in most regions and even in new domains like space, the poles, and the deep sea. The fact that aspects of this vision are visible in high-level speeches is strong evidence that China’s ambitions are not limited to Taiwan or too dominating the Indo-Pacific. The “struggle for mastery,” once confined to Asia, is now over the global order and its future. If there are two paths to hegemony, a regional one and a global one, China is now pursuing both.
This is a template China has followed.
With Japan, the U.S., and Europe continuing to struggle to pull out of the COVID-19 crisis, China appears to stand out as the sole winner.
Understood by the Biden administration, It shows that Beijing would seek to project leadership over global governance and international institutions and advance autocratic norms. Economically, it would weaken the financial advantages that underwrite US hegemony and seize the commanding heights of the 'fourth industrial revolution. And militarily, the PLA would field a truly global Chinese military with overseas bases around the world. And so that is what also as we have seen, the discussion about Taiwan become about.
As for the so-called Quad, the FT reported that the Quad is a delusion as the new grouping won’t give the United States any more leverage over China than it already has.
For a long time, China was mostly on the defensive instead of taking the offensive on the human rights issue. Oftentimes, it does not have the upper hand when its opponents attack because of its weak national strength and large population of poor people. But today, China has achieved great success in poverty alleviation. Its economy rebounded quickly after containing the Covid-19 pandemic, and the people’s morale has been greatly boosted as well. This gives the government the confidence to fight back against the West.
The country will surpass the U.S. in terms of nominal GDP in 2028, according to a December forecast by the Japan Center for Economic Research. Before the pandemic, China had been expected to become the world's biggest economy in 2036 at the earliest. The change suggests that ironically, the pandemic, which started in China, is actually reinforcing the country's strength.
1. C. F. Yong and R. B. McKenna, Kuomintang Movement in British Malaya, 1912–1949, Singapore, National University of Singapore Press, 1990.
2. Xinhua, ‘Over 500 Confucius Institutes Founded in 142 Countries, Regions’, China Daily, 7 October 2017, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2017-10/07/content_32950016.htm