IN PREPARATION FOR a third five-year term as the head of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping has changed the rules of politics, business and society. He is also pursuing another project that he considers essential to his maintenance in power: to rewrite the history of the party itself. Mr. Xi wants to show his country that he is indispensable, a political giant like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping who make China a world power by building on their heritage.
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On November 8, around 370 members of the political and military elite will gather in Beijing for an annual four-day meeting of the party’s Central Committee. The only item on their agenda is a resolution on the history of the party. It will be the third in 100 years of the party’s existence. The first, in 1945, and the second, in 1981, were triumphs for Mao and Deng respectively, consolidating their hold on power at crucial times. Xi’s ability to secure one of his own suggests that he cracked down on any significant opposition to extending his rule at a party convention due in late 2022. The resolution will be “a display of extraordinary power, ”said Jude Blanchette. from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
The plenum is the penultimate conclave of the Central Committee before the quinquennial congress, and crucial in setting the tone. Next year’s event will mark a decade of Mr. Xi’s leadership. By vaguely established convention, this would be his political farewell. But he is almost certain to get another warrant. Over the past year, once again, he has worked to silence critics and crush potential rivals, purge the security apparatus, promote political allies and show the strength of the party by freeing the regulators of large private companies. Before the congress, he will probably make his choice (in secret) of the replacements for senior officials who are due to retire at a meeting of the national legislature in March 2023. Among them, a new prime minister and a head of internal security .
The resolution on the story has circulated among senior officials, but its contents will not be made public until after the plenum ends on November 11. Xi’s speeches and the writings of official commentators offer clues. He should celebrate the party’s achievements, downplay the horrors unleashed by Mao, and suggest that Mao, Deng, and Mr. Xi share the same vision. Mao and Deng’s reigns will be presented as essential preliminary phases before the start of Mr. Xi’s “new era”. Mao helped the Chinese people “get up” after a century of humiliation by foreign powers. Deng put China on the path to “getting rich” after centuries of poverty. Today, Xi is helping China “get strong.” The resolution will applaud Xi’s judicious leadership in dealing with social, economic and national security challenges, and suggest a continued need for his wisdom.
Xi’s predecessors used history differently in their resolutions. In 1945, Mao justified a purge of his enemies, accusing them of past mistakes so that he could position himself as the clear leader. In 1981, Deng’s resolution said that Mao had made serious mistakes and that the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 had been a “serious blunder”, causing chaos. Criticizing Mao, albeit cautiously, Deng restored public support for the party and released his hand to pursue free market reforms.
But the story presents a different challenge to Xi. On the left wing of the party are neo-Maoists who have long campaigned for a restoration of their hero and criticized Deng, whom they blame for issues such as corruption and inequality. On the right, those who worry (privately) that China is falling back to a Mao-style dictatorship and losing its commitment to Deng’s reforms.
Mr. Xi said that neither Mao nor Deng should be used to “deny” the other. He doesn’t want a story full of mistakes and contradictions, or a story that raises questions about the reign of one man. He believes the collapse of the Soviet Union was hastened by a failure to protect the legacy of Lenin and Stalin. He campaigned vigorously against “historical nihilism” – essentially anything that cast a negative light on the party’s past. Books that uncover Mao’s worst mistakes, once tolerated, are now strongly discouraged.
A new official party story, released in February, provides insight into Xi’s preferred approach. It only briefly addresses the Cultural Revolution. He does not mention the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward that killed tens of millions of people, nor any casualties in the crash of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The section on Mr. Xi occupies more than a quarter of the pound. Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, have much less room.
The new resolution will suggest that China needs Mr. Xi to achieve long-term goals such as making the country a “modern socialist nation” by 2035 and a “prosperous” and “strong” nation by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic. He will likely mention his “common prosperity” campaign to reduce inequalities and his “dual circulation” strategy to make the economy more resilient to external shocks like the pandemic and trade disputes with America. He is expected to describe a grim international environment, although America and its allies are not named. And he will likely repeat the party’s ritualistic language about Taiwan, saying it must be reunited with the mainland. China’s failure to retake Taiwan has been a sore point for all leaders since Mao. The resolution will certainly mention Xi’s call for a “great rebirth of the Chinese nation” by 2049, which suggests that he aims to achieve reunification before then. A specific promise is unlikely.
In anticipation of the plenum, the propaganda apparatus has started producing obscene articles about Mr. Xi’s wisdom, apparently hoping to generate enthusiasm for the idea that he will continue to rule. November 1 People’s Daily, a spokesperson for the party, has started publishing a series of editorials under the title “Crucial decisions in the new era”. They salute the achievements of the party since its inception in 1921 and praise Mr. Xi’s contributions. From Xi’s perspective, the resolution “must not only look back, but it must also look to the future,” said Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University. And according to Mr. Fewsmith, Mr. Xi thinks, “The future, It’s me. “■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Control the Present, Control the Past”