In February, the ruling Communist Party of China, which turns 100 on July 1, came out with a new edition of A Short History of the Communist Party of China , a text that provides the authoritative version of party history.
This text matters. It offers the template for how party history is taught everywhere in China, whether in schools and colleges, study sessions for party officials or the military, or even in the increasingly active party units of private enterprises.
The 2021 edition, coinciding with the party’s centenary, comes with noteworthy changes. Past versions of the text noted Mao Zedong’s great successes — chiefly, his leading a ragtag group of ill-equipped revolutionaries to an unlikely victory, against tall odds, in a brutal civil war with the Kuomintang and amid Japanese occupation, and laying the foundations for the country’s progress, for which Mao remains venerated in China.
They did, also, acknowledge his failures, in keeping with the formula set by the party’s second-generation leader, Deng Xiaoping, whose pronouncement that Mao was “70% correct and 30% wrong” allowed for some discussion of his mistakes after decades of blind deification. The texts, for instance, mentioned the calamitous Great Leap Forward, which devastated agriculture, led to famine, and caused more than 30 million deaths, and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that led to the persecution of millions, warning of the historical lessons.
The latest edition, however, has seemed to ignore the Deng formula. Gone is any discussion of Mao’s wrongs, the Wall Street Journal reported, with the Maoist years only remembered for industrial and technological progress. Also gone is another important Deng formula, which stressed the need for what the party calls collective leadership. His statement that “building a nation’s fate on the reputation of one or two people is very unhealthy and very dangerous” no longer finds mention. Instead, the text says, referring to China’s fifth-generation — and current — leader, Xi Jinping, “Amid ten thousand majestic mountains, there must be a main peak.”
Rebels to rulers
History, anywhere in the world, is written and rewritten by the victors. Historical narrative is, for rulers, a key source of legitimacy. In China, how the Communist Party tells its history — what it chooses to emphasise, and what it chooses to downplay or entirely leave out — has seen as many twists and turns as the changes it has presided over since coming to power, as it evolved from a revolutionary party to a ruling one.
The CPC was founded in 1921 by two Chinese intellectuals, Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu. The party, in its early years, offered an attractive alternative to young Chinese, especially during the corruption of the Kuomintang period, as it drew inspiration not only from Marx and Lenin, but from the idealism of the May 4, 1919 movement. The Peking University scholar Jiang Shigong, who has grown into one of the more influential intellectuals of the Xi era, described in a 2018 essay the party’s first stage, from 1921 until 1949, as one of revolution and nation-building. The second stage from 1949 to 1978, he wrote rather charitably, was of “standing up”, thanks to the achievements of the Mao years — including land reform and vastly improved health and education — although, in keeping with the recent trend, he ignored the calamities.
Reform and revival
Regardless of the current tendency to recast the Mao years, it is what Mr. Jiang describes as the third stage (1978-2012) of “getting rich” that turned around the fortunes of a party in crisis. In one sense, 1978 was a far more significant liberation than 1949, as Deng pushed China into the reform era and sought to free it from the two vice-like grips of ideology and one-man totalitarianism.
On one of his “spark lighting trips” to push reform in Sichuan in 1978, Deng would, as Ezra Vogel writes in his biography of Deng, mock those who said “if a farmer has three ducks he is socialist, but if he has five ducks he is a capitalist”. “Socialism is not poverty,” he argued, as he made the case for “reform and opening up”. Deng, Vogel argues, was a pragmatist with a knack for changing things without saying he was changing them. He criticised “collective responsibility” as being a system where “no one was responsible” but sang praises to communism. He said “it does not matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse” but officially extolled “Mao Zedong Thought” as the party’s abiding ideology. He said “some will get rich first” without saying that economic growth would, inevitably, bring inequality.
Deng’s view was simple. “If we can't grow faster than the capitalist countries,” he said, “then we can’t show the superiority of our system”. And grow faster China did. In 1978, China’s GDP was $149 billion, 1.75% of global GDP and only slightly higher than India’s $140 billion. China’s $156 per capita GDP was less than India’s $203. Forty years later, its $12.2 trillion economy would account for 15% of global GDP, grow to five times India’s, and become the world’s second-largest, establishing a once isolated state as a powerhouse of trade and lynchpin of global supply chains.
The transition was not without hiccups, and Deng’s liberalisation was firmly limited to matters economic, as the brutal crushing of the 1989 protests would show. Neither was Deng as powerful as Mao, with the continued conservative resistance stalling his reforms process, which were given a second wind after his famous “southern tour” of 1992 that would usher in years of double-digit growth. The Deng legacy of China focusing on growth, while “biding time, hiding brightness” in foreign affairs, was broadly carried forward by his successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. That famous maxim, too, was among those that no longer merited mention in the party’s latest official history.
Mr. Jiang, the Peking University scholar, says the current — and fourth — stage of the party’s evolution, starting in 2012 (neatly coinciding with the ascension of Mr. Xi) is about “growing strong”. There is no longer a need to bide or hide. It is a time for resolving the contradictions that emerged from the third phase, from income inequality and calls for political reform to corruption and the absence of ideological tethers for the party, and ending a growing debate within that looked to “pit the Deng Xiaoping era against the Mao Zedong era”.
Mr. Jiang justifies the Mao-inspired strongman solution favoured by the current leader, Mr. Xi, who ended two of Deng’s most significant legacies. Collective leadership — as well as the term limits instituted by Deng — has been disbanded, while ideology is back with a bang, with stricter enforcing of what Mr. Xi calls political discipline. Some of the modest freedoms of the Deng, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras are being narrowed. As China opened up to the world, so did its media and universities. Scholars embraced exchanges, while journalists pushed the bar where they could, exposing local-level corruption and power abuses even if the central leadership remained off limits. Today, classrooms and newsrooms are the most controlled they have been since the 1970s.
Others, such as Xu Zhangrun at Tsinghua University, disagree, viewing the dismantling of collective leadership and term limits as “a negation of the last 30 years” and ending a system “that afforded the people of China a measure of political certainty and bolstered international confidence that our country seemed on the way to becoming a modern polity”. As the party turns 100, it stares at yet another inflection point in its history, but what the next chapter will say remains anyone’s guess.