A new museum commemorating the history of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) opened in June in Beijing as part of the runup to the party’s 100th anniversary. Online images of its collections show reverential black-and-white photos of the dozen or so young men who gathered at the party’s founding meeting in Shanghai in 1921. Those activists, one of whom was a young library assistant called Mao Zedong, would have found the China of 2021 impossible to recognise: an economic behemoth run by the most powerful and longest-lasting Communist party in the world.
Yet although much of the CCP’s propaganda is firmly focused on the future, the party is still obsessed with controlling the telling of its own past. The museum’s narrative is of a China brought to peace and prosperity by the inevitability of the CCP’s rise to power. The bumpy realities of history, from the failed policies and leaders of the party’s early years to the purges and brutalities that have marked its time in power, are played down or absent. The CCP has always been opaque about its own internal workings. Control of its narrative is another way of maintaining that mystery.
Over the past century and a half, China has endured numerous wars and the party has used each one to hammer home a different message. While the opium wars of the mid-19th century, when Britain’s navy forced open China’s doors, are invoked as a terrible warning as to what happens when China is weak, China’s sufferings in the second world war give a rather different message. Although some 14 million people died in the conflict against Japan, Xi Jinping has declared that it was “the first complete victory in a recent war where China resisted the invasion of a foreign enemy”. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi reminded westerners at the 2020 Munich security conference that the country was the first signatory to the UN charter in 1945. The implication was clear: China was a co-founder of the contemporary world order, and should have special rights within it.
The boundaries of permitted history are also sharply drawn. The CCP has recently defined “historical nihilism” as a grave offence. “Nihilism” is code for critical interpretations of the CCP’s own history. It’s fine to talk about the path to reform since 1978, but the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and subsequent killings of 1989 are off limits, the Cultural Revolution has been reduced to a limited mention in textbooks, and the famine caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward is completely absent.
Still, the new museum isn’t just about events. It is also an affirmation that in the CCP’s world, Marxism and Leninism are both alive and well. In the west, discussions of Marxism gained a slightly musty cold war feel after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though China has kept its own devotion to Marxism rather muted in recent decades, there is nothing secret about the CCP’s continued reverence for the author of Das Kapital. In 2018, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, China delivered a 4.5 metre-high statue of Marx to his birthplace in Trier in Germany. Nor is this devotion purely about the past. Last year, Xi vowed to a politburo study session that he would “open up new frontiers for Marxist political economy in China”. To those who point out that China’s go-go economy looks pretty capitalist, he might cite Deng Xiaoping’s belief that the first stage of socialism could turn out to be rather long.
This type of Marxism doesn’t feature much explicit discussion of the topic that excited Karl Marx and Mao Zedong alike: class. Mao’s political project was fixated on definitions of the term, with “bad” class backgrounds dooming successive generations like an inherited criminal record. But the CCP wished class away in 2002 when Jiang Zemin put forward his theory that it was fine to be a business entrepreneur and still rise high in the party. Nonetheless, the CCP’s insistence on defining itself as Marxist defies conventional wisdom that China’s remarkable economic growth is a purely technocratic phenomenon. Politics, and political economy, has always mattered to the CCP’s leaders. Xi has only broken with his immediate predecessors by being so upfront about this.
Xi’s China also pays tribute to the Leninist lessons of the past. The Rectification campaigns of the 1940s compelled aspiring party members to read texts by Mao to harden them against ideological deviance. Today, the term “rectify” has reappeared again as part of the CCP’s plans, although now it is carried out via an app (designed by Alibaba and available on the Apple Store) that tests entrants’ knowledge of Xi Jinping Thought. There is a continuity between the campaigns of the 1940s and those of the 2020s: the CCP understands that the training and loyalty of the elite is crucial. If the party members remain loyal, the masses can be brought along later. This Leninist legacy is also visible in the ruthless treatment of dissent. On 1 July, the CCP’s birthday will be marked in Hong Kong with newsstands untroubled by provocative headlines in Apple Daily, the last pro-democracy Chinese-language paper left in the territory. Under the national security law passed in July 2020, its owner, editor and senior writers have been arrested or convicted on charges of subversion. The paper’s pro-democracy narrative has been erased, along with its quarter-century electronic archive.
Yet the chilling power politics of Leninism sits in contrast with another tradition that the CCP used to despise, but now embraces. Xi is keen to project the image of a benevolent leader who is fully in tune with the long tradition of Confucian ethics, at clear odds with his predecessor, Mao Zedong. Mao’s life was dedicated to destroying the values of the old China. During Mao’s rule, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Confucius’s birthplace of Qufu was smashed to pieces by Red Guards. Yet the party’s hatred of Confucius began to fade just a few years after Mao’s death. In 1983, Hu Qiaomu, Mao’s personal secretary and the hardest of hardline conservatives, even mused in the People’s Daily about the need for a Confucius museum in Beijing.
In the past 20 years, the Communist party’s praise for Confucian values has become entirely mainstream. Beijing’s walls are plastered with “socialist values”, but the terminology is distinctly traditional, stressing ideas such as “harmony” and “integrity”. The party has not developed an abstract interest in Confucianism. Rather, it sees the utility of thinking that stresses hierarchy, order and devotion to family at a time when China is prosperous but increasingly unequal. Attacking Confucius helped Mao achieve his revolution. Supporting Confucius helps Xi to prevent one.
The party’s achievements over the past century are real: building the world’s second-biggest economy, innovating in technology and artificial intelligence, and taking a major role in tackling climate change are neither hollow nor trivial feats. But an honest reckoning cannot ignore the parts of history that the party chooses to forget. The economic reforms of the 1980s would not have happened without the influence of Zhao Ziyang, the party leader who has been scrubbed from the record after his support for the students in Tiananmen Square. The Great Leap Forward famine of 1958-62 that killed 20 million or more ended in part because of a brave party leader, Peng Dehuai, who spoke out against Mao’s policy and was purged. For now, the party’s control over history is a powerful propaganda tool. Yet one day, archives will open, and a new, more complex history will be written that reinserts the missing characters, and shows the flaws and contradictions, as well as the successes, that make the CCP infinitely more interesting than its own sanitised narrative cares to admit.
Rana Mitter is author of China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism (2020). He teaches at Oxford University