China has a longstanding tradition of rewriting and even recreating its own past. The current regime is not different, writes journalist Ian Johnson in the Guardian and he meticulously analyses the complicated relationship between the Communist Party and its history.
It is hard to overstate history’s role in a Chinese society run by a communist party. Communism itself is based on historical determinism: one of Marx’s points was that the world was moving inexorably towards communism, an argument that regime-builders such as Lenin and Mao used to justify their violent rises to power. In China, Marxism is layered on top of much older ideas about the role of history. Each succeeding dynasty wrote its predecessor’s history, and the dominant political ideology – what is now generically called Confucianism – was based on the concept that ideals for ruling were to be found in the past, with the virtuous ruler emulating them. Performance mattered, but mainly as proof of history’s judgment.
That means history is best kept on a tight leash. Shortly after taking power in 2012 as chairman of the Communist party, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping re-emphasised this point in a major speech on history published in People’s Daily, the official party newspaper. Xi is the son of a top party official who helped found the regime, but who fell out with Mao, and suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Some thought that Xi might take a more critical view towards the Mao era, but in his speech, he said that the 30 years of reform that began under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, should not be used to “negate” the first 30 years of communist rule under Mao.
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