China’s Xi Jinping rewrites history to secure his political future

The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party gather this week to ratify a resolution on the ruling party’s “great achievements”, a move that will likely allow President Xi Jinping to secure an unprecedented third term and overturn the party’s last historical resolution, passed during the Deng Xiaoping era.

Xi Jinping is looking to rewrite history. At a four-day conference of the Communist Party’s powerful Central Committee that began on Monday, delegates are set to cement Xi’s status as one of China’s greats.

Around 400 top members of the regime are meeting behind closed doors to discuss the text of a resolution that has not been released to the public. The document is likely to be a “reinterpretation of some recent events in Chinese history”, explained Marc Lanteigne, a China specialist at the Arctic University of Norway, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

A political gathering to discuss the historical record might sound esoteric, but China scholars say the real-world stakes of the November 8-11 conference cannot be overstated.

“It’s an extremely important document because it will be only the third time in the party’s 100-year history that a Chinese leader has allowed himself to publish such a resolution,” said Olivia Cheung, from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in an interview with FRANCE 24.

In the footsteps of Mao and Deng

Before Xi, only two Chinese leaders – Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping – dared venture into rewriting the historical record.

Mao, the founder of Communist China, used resolutions as a political weapon in 1945 to criticise the past actions of his opponents – who were already under arrest.

The resolution solidified Mao’s absolute authority over the party.

Almost four decades later, in 1981, Deng Xiaoping dared to criticise the Cultural Revolution Mao unleashed between 1966 and 1976. In coming to terms with a ruinous chapter – which crippled the economy, led to millions of deaths and destroyed thousands more lives – Deng laid the foundations for his political and economic reforms.

The revisions of the party’s traditional orthodoxy profoundly marked the Chinese political and social landscape over the next few decades. Analysts say this week’s resolution is likely to have similar significance.

Xi’s latest move comes as no surprise to China scholars.  His political – and historical – ambitions were already made clear at a 2017 party congress, when Xi had his “ideas” inscribed in the party statutes alongside those of Mao and Deng, and again at the Communist Party’s centennial celebrations in July.

Elevating himself to the same stature as icons of the past has become something of an obsession for China’s current president. Xi wants to create a Holy Trinity of Chinese leaders, allowing him to establish an ideological filiation between himself and the two other great political figures in the history of Communist China. “Thus, there will now be a first political era – that of Mao Zedong’s revolution – followed by Deng Xiaoping’s second era of reforms. Xi Jinping would embody the third era, that of the consolidation of the regime,” explained Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a renowned China specialist at Hong Kong Baptist University, in a 2017 interview with FRANCE 24.

A history course for personal ambitions

But the resolution is not solely aimed at cementing Xi’s place in the political history of the country. It would also serve the Chinese president’s future plans “by giving legitimacy to his ambition to have a third mandate”, explained Lanteigne.

This is a politically sensitive issue in China. Xi is expected to ask the next Party Congress, in 2022, to let him continue to lead the country beyond the two five-year terms that have been the norm since Deng’s historical course correction.

One of the key points of the 1981 resolution, dubbed the “de-Maofication” resolution, was to limit presidential terms to prevent the development of a personality cult similar to the one established by Mao.

This has become an ideological headache for Xi, who can hardly praise the merits of his illustrious predecessor while going against Deng’s reforms by running for a third term.

“It is thus likely that Xi Jinping’s historical resolution will revisit the history of Deng Xiaoping’s reign by minimising the importance of elements that could undermine his ambition to continue to rule,” said Cheung.

It’s also likely that Xi’s history lesson will present certain recent events – such as the confrontation with the US or the Covid-19 crisis – in a threatening light to sell the idea “that it would not be the right time to change direction at the risk of letting power struggles weaken the party”, said Lanteigne.

Against ‘historical nihilism’

The new resolution should also be an opportunity for Xi to anchor his new political mantra – “common prosperity” – in the historical record, according to Lanteigne.

China’s recent economic history revolves around growth at all costs, even if it means increasing inequality. In some ways it is the opposite of the concept of “common prosperity”, which is based on more controlled growth accompanied by a more equitable sharing of wealth.

The party’s third historical resolution “will try to show that the party has always had common prosperity as a priority, to give the impression that Xi Jinping is part of the continuity of Chinese political history and not a break with it”, said Lanteigne.

Finally, the new resolution must also become a shield against what Xi perceives as “one of the main threats to the party: ‘historical nihilism'”, explained Lanteigne.

Early in his first term, Xi declared war on “historical nihilism”, which he defined as any attempt to challenge the official narrative of significant past events. Since its inception, the Communist Party has censored “incorrect” versions of history, but neither Mao nor Deng used the term as frequently or ardently as China’s current leader.

The third historical resolution to emerge after this week’s meeting will define the way history is taught in China, analysts say.

“It must serve as a standard for the years to come, a standard from which one cannot deviate,” explained Cheung.

Lanteigne noted that Xi views such ideological uniformity as being key to stability.

“Xi Jinping believes that ‘historical nihilism’ – that is, questioning the official narrative – is what accelerated the fall of the Soviet regime.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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