China’s History Is Revised, to the Glory of Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping’s drive to extend his formidable power for years ahead reached a new pitch on Tuesday, when the Chinese Communist Party issued a resolution on history that anoints him one of its revered leaders, hours after Mr. Xi held video talks with President Biden.

Senior party officials approved the resolution last week, when some of its main points were released in an official summary of their meeting. But the government has only belatedly issued the full document, the third such summation of history in the 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party. Scholars, investors and government analysts will parse the resolution for what it reveals about Mr. Xi’s worldview and intentions. Here are some initial takeaways.

Elevating Xi Jinping

Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing this month. The government has only belatedly issued the full resolution, the third such summation of history in the 100 years of the party.Credit…Zhai Jianlan/Xinhua, via Associated Press

The implications of the Chinese Communist Party’s jargon-riddled speeches and documents can sometimes be elusive. Not this time.

A chorus of official speeches and editorials has emphasized that the resolution had one main goal: to cement Mr. Xi’s status as a transformational leader essential to ensuring China’s rise.

Roughly two-thirds of the document is devoted to Mr. Xi’s nine years in power and the changes he has brought in politics, economics, foreign policy and other areas. Mr. Xi’s name appears 22 times in the resolution; Mao Zedong gets 18 mentions, and Deng Xiaoping six. Mr. Xi’s immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao — in power for a decade — receives one mention.

As is the way in Chinese politics, the elevation of Mr. Xi already has its own slogan embedded in the resolution: “The two establishments” (“Liang ge queli”) — that is, establishing Mr. Xi as China’s “core” leader and establishing his ideas as China’s bedrock official doctrine. Party cadres have repeated that slogan in speech after speech since the Central Committee approved the move last week.

Officials must show “absolute loyalty to the core, resolutely defend the core, closely and constantly follow the core,” said the official account of a meeting about the resolution in Shandong Province, eastern China.

Mr. Xi was already powerful before the history resolution, but the document appears intended to propel him into a new phase of influence before a Communist Party congress next year. That congress is likely to give Mr. Xi a third five-year term as party leader, breaking with the two-term pattern that emerged under his predecessors. It will also add political urgency to his policy priorities, including a “common prosperity” program intended to rein in economic inequality, as well as efforts to strengthen China’s homegrown technological capabilities.

Handling history carefully

Souvenir plates in Beijing with portraits of former Chinese leaders and the current one. From left: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Mr. Xi.Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

The history resolution sets him in the party’s firmament of epoch-defining leaders, alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Mao led China to stand up against oppression; Deng led it to prosperity; and now Mr. Xi is leading it to strength — so goes the three-stage description of China’s rise repeated in the resolution.

Assessing Deng’s legacy presented Mr. Xi with a tricky issue: If Deng and his handpicked successors — Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — were so successful, what justified the sharp shift to more centralized, authoritarian control that Mr. Xi has overseen? On the other hand, Mr. Xi’s claims to be an economic reformer could suffer if he denigrated Deng, who is still widely revered in China.

The resolution praises the Deng era for unleashing China’s economic growth, and also defends Deng’s decision to use armed force to crush pro-democracy protests that spread across China in 1989. “Reform and opening up was a crucial step in determining the fate of contemporary China,” it says.

Yet the resolution also bluntly argues that problems had piled up before 2012, when Mr. Xi came to power: corruption, political ill-discipline and lack of faith in the party, as well as wider problems such as industrial pollution and inefficient growth. His immediate predecessors, it suggests, had let things drift.

“The external environment was bringing many new dangers and challenges,” the resolution says of the time before Mr. Xi took office. Inside the Communist Party, it adds, corruption was spreading. “Some party members and officials experienced grave crises in their political faith.”

Defending Mao

Souvenir portraits of Mao, left, and Mr. Xi in a Beijing shop in 2016. Mr. Xi has faced criticism that his hard-line campaigns against political disloyalty risk reviving parts of China’s Maoist past.Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

Confronting Mao’s legacy also presented potential pitfalls. Under Mr. Xi, the party has stepped up censorship to defend Mao from criticism. The authorities have curtailed research and teaching on the disastrous decades of Mao’s rule. But going too far in defending Mao could be risky, too.

Understand China’s Historical Resolution

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Enshrining a leader. China’s Communist Party delivered Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, a breakthrough on Nov. 11 that will help secure his political future — by enshrining him in its firmament of era-defining leaders in a resolution reassessing the party’s history.

A momentous decision. Senior party leaders adopted the resolution at a gathering focused on reviewing the party’s 100-year history. A communiqué from the meeting said that under Mr. Xi’s leadership, China had “made historic achievements and undergone a historic transformation.”

Rewriting history. The resolution is expected to become the focus of an indoctrination campaign. It will dictate how the authorities teach China’s modern history and how they censor discussion of the past, including through a law meant to punish people who criticize the party’s heroes.

Third of its kind. With the resolution, Mr. Xi can cement his status as an epoch-making leader alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw the only two other resolutions of this kind, in 1945 and in 1981.

Mr. Xi has faced criticism that his hard-line campaigns against political disloyalty risk reviving parts of China’s Maoist past. Mr. Xi has not shown interest in unleashing turbulent Mao-like mass campaigns, so he has tried to acknowledge Mao’s excesses while strongly defending Mao’s overall record.

The resolution praises Mao as the founder of the People’s Republic and credits him with creating a new China, free of foreign imperialism. It devotes just one broadly phrased paragraph to summing up the worst calamities of Mao’s era, including the Great Leap Forward, the attempt to drive China toward Communism that ended in mass famine, and the Cultural Revolution, when fighting and purges convulsed the country.

“Although there were severe setbacks during the course of exploration” under Mao, the resolution says, China scored “massive achievements.”

No regrets

Mr. Xi at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Osaka, Japan, in 2019. The resolution describes his successes in stamping out corruption, reducing poverty and eliminating political opposition in China.Credit…Pool photo by Ludovic Marin

The resolution shows no hints of Mr. Xi’s acknowledging any missteps in his own nine years in power. On the contrary, much of the resolution describes his successes in stamping out corruption, reducing poverty and eliminating political opposition to Communist Party rule in mainland China, as well as in Hong Kong.

Before Mr. Xi took office, the resolution says, China’s “capacity to safeguard its national security was lacking.”

Nor does the resolution nod to any of the criticisms made by foreign politicians that China’s hectoring, heavy-handed diplomacy has needlessly riled other countries. The resolution says that Mr. Xi has expanded China’s international circle of friends and influence. But it warns that the party needs to remain tough to cope with dangers ahead.

“Constant retreat will only bring bullying from those who grab a yard if you give an inch,” says the resolution. “Making concessions to get our way will only draw us into more humiliating straits.”

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