Ahead of Its Centennial, the Chinese Communist Party Frets Over Unsanctioned Takes on Its History

On July 1, the Chinese Communist Party will commemorate its founding in Shanghai one hundred years ago. Unsurprisingly, Beijing is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that nothing untoward takes place in the run-up to the great day. On April 9, the Reporting Center for Illegal and Unhealthy Information, a division of the Cyberspace Administration, which oversees and regulates China’s Internet, announced that it had launched a new facility on its portal to fight “historical nihilism.” Chinese citizens concerned about online posts that “distort the history of the Party [or] of New China,” “attack the Party’s leadership or ideology,” or “slander heroic martyrs”—as China’s current leaders deploy the term—would now enjoy a convenient way to “enthusiastically report harmful information [and] work together to maintain a healthy network ecology.” The Center would also provide a phone hotline and a web address for the reporting of such historical nihilism.

That such a history-policing mechanism exists is not news. For years, the Reporting Center has run a platform to report “harmful information,” handily grouped in nine categories including terrorism, gambling, fraud, pornography, the spreading of rumors, low morals, and attacks on the Party and the state. But it has only been since the April 9 announcement that a special zone on its website has existed for the reporting of historical nihilism specifically directed against the official history of the Chinese Communist Party. The COVID-19 pandemic is the only other issue receiving that level of attention. People’s Republic of China (PRC) authorities, apparently, are as worried about what they regard as distortions of Party history as they are about Covid.

A new version of A Brief History of the Chinese Communist Party, published on February 26 and for sale at popular bookstores for only around 42 renminbi (U.S.$6.50), provides up-to-date guidance on what Beijing regards as the proper understanding of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) history. It replaces the 2010 edition, published when Hu Jintao was Secretary General of the CCP and President of the People’s Republic of China. Whereas in earlier editions Mao Zedong was lauded as the architect of the revolution but also held responsible for the Cultural Revolution, in the new version Mao is a warrior against corruption and bureaucratic malfeasance—as Xi Jinping likes to portray himself. In the new version, rather less is said about the late Chairman’s responsibility for the Great Leap Famine and the Cultural Revolution, which is no longer termed the “10 years of catastrophe” as it had been in previous editions.

For those who do not want to buy the book, an education campaign currently in full swing is another good source for an authoritative understanding of CCP history. China’s media are full of reports about great events in the CCP’s history. They not only profile its founding, but also the martyrs who died for the cause as well as major events in the Party’s history: the fight against the Kuomintang’s encirclement of the Jiangxi Soviet in the 1930s; the battles fought by CCP armed forces during the War of Resistance against Japan; the Korean War; and Mao’s meeting with Nixon and Kissinger. Party branches, work units, and schools across the country read and analyze the CCP’s history in their regular meetings. CCTV has published a slick video clip that in two and a half minutes covers the Communist Revolution and calls on China’s youth to follow in the footsteps of earlier generations of Party members. And nursery schools participate in storytelling competitions for Communist heroes. There can be no excuse for ignorance.

The aim seems to be to turn the history of the Party into a source of pride, inspiration, and spiritual strength. “Do not forget our first aspiration; never forget our mission,” as the current slogan has it. After the Cultural Revolution, China’s fight against foreign domination in the aftermath of the Opium Wars and especially China’s victory over Japan in World War II, rather than the communist revolution, stood central in the master narrative of the founding of what the Party calls “New China.” Since the 1980s, that narrative has nurtured the Party’s strengthening of nationalism, telling a story convenient for hoped-for PRC-Taiwan reunification. But it also contained a danger: The CCP’s armed forces did little serious fighting during the second World War. The version of China’s victory against Japan in which Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists waged war on the frontlines while the Communists did so in the Japanese rear, with both necessary to defeating the invader, never quite held water. Famously, Mao Zedong himself admitted in the 1950s and stated in a 1972 meeting with Japanese premier Kakuei Tanaka that were it not for the Japanese, the Communists would still be in the hills. With the likelihood of rapprochement with Taiwan fading in the face of the harsh political crackdown in Hong Kong, a return to the Party as the cause of all successes and as the only guarantee for future prosperity has become the clarion call of Party propaganda.

The defamation of martyrs is the most eye-catching of the acts that the Party holds up as examples of historical nihilism. That term, defined in the infamous internal Party document on ideological work “Document 9” as interpretations of history that “fundamentally undermine the CCP’s historical purpose,” has been deployed in recent years against a whole host of politically heterodox approaches, not only to PRC history but also to the history of the Qing dynasty, the 1911 Revolution, and the Second World War. Remembering, celebrating, and visiting Party members seen as having made great sacrifices for the CCP or their descendants and relatives is a key theme in the commemorations of the CCP’s founding. Soldiers have pride of place. Proper commemoration of veterans has been an issue for some time. Xi Jinping instituted Martyrs’ Day in 2014. Ever since, on September 30, the day in 1949 when the foundation stone was laid of the Monument to the People’s Heroes on Tiananmen Square, Xi has led his leadership colleagues in laying wreaths at the monument, the Ministry of Veterans Affairs and charitable organizations arrange visits to descendants and relatives of fallen heroes, and commemorative events take place across China. Manya Koetse of the website What’s on Weibo reported in April 2019 that the Weibo account of Chinese-Danish actor Zhao Lixin was blocked after he noted that the Japanese occupation of Beijing beginning in 1937 had been remarkably less violent than that of Nanjing later the same year. The reporting of the deaths of the four People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers killed in the recent border clash with India stressed not that they died in a violent brawl with stones and pipes, but their patriotism, unselfish heroism, and willingness to give their lives for their country.

It is unsurprising that the PRC is deeply concerned with promoting a positive image of the PLA now that it has become a superpower with a military to match. If China’s claim to greatness now partly rests on its military might, the PLA needs to be something of which the country can be proud. The huge military parades of 2015 to commemorate China’s victory over Japan and in 2019 to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic indicate the extent of the effort the CCP is putting into raising the reputation of its military forces.

Much less attention has so far been paid outside China to the centenary of the CCP. In the Netherlands, some newspapers, including Trouw (Loyal), have reported on Henricus Sneevliet (alias Maring), the Dutch revolutionary the Communist International in Moscow sent to China in 1921. He attended the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party and was instrumental in forming the first CCP-KMT united front, which saw the CCP grow into a sizable mass party. He is unlikely to feature in the PRC’s commemorations of the event. In Germany, Heidelberg University’s Barbara Mittler, Director of the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context,” runs a year-long virtual seminar series titled “Living the Socialist Modern.” She sees it as offering “unofficial” or “private” histories of the CCP. Harvard University Press has published Tony Saich’s From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party, which stresses the CCP’s adaptability to new conditions. Cambridge University Press’ offer is The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives, which I edited along with Timothy Cheek and Klaus Muehlhahn. Offering 10 profiles, one for each decade of the CCP’s history, it provides a mosaic illustrating what it has been like to live with, in, and under the CCP. It’s a safe bet much of the book will qualify as “harmful information.” So if readers object, they can file a report on www.12377.cn or, if they are in China, just dial 12377.