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China’s Xi Jinping Remakes the Communist Party’s History in His Image

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The Communist Party of China is in the midst of a massive rewrite of history to promote Xi Jinping’s leadership. A new book, “Xi Jinping: The Dramatic Life and Times,” has inflated his role with half-truths and omission. This rewrites Chinese history by creating an alternative narrative that glorifies the leader’s accomplishments while casting others as failures or villains, according to experts who have studied it.

China’s Xi Jinping Remakes the Communist Party’s History in His Image. The new version of history will be called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

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Xi Jinping, left, is poised to be named one of China’s era-defining leaders this week, according to Communist Party authorities. Credit… Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Xi Jinping, left, is poised to be named one of China’s era-defining leaders this week, according to Communist Party authorities. Credit… Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

On Thursday, China’s Communist Party gave Xi Jinping a victory that would help him ensure his political future by rewriting history.

In a closed-door meeting in Beijing, senior party officials approved a resolution reevaluating the party’s 100-year history and inducting Mr. Xi into the party’s official pantheon of era-defining leaders. Mr. Xi was promoted to a status equal to Mao Zedong, the country’s Communist founder, and Deng Xiaoping, the country’s key architect of its economic takeoff, according to an official description of the meeting.

China has “achieved historic accomplishments and experienced a historic transition” under Mr. Xi’s leadership, according to an official summary, or communiqué, following the conference, citing gains in the economy, foreign affairs, environmental control, and controlling Covid. China has “achieved the momentous shift from rising up and becoming rich to becoming powerful” under Mao, Deng, and now Mr. Xi, according to the communiqué.

The conference this week marked the start of a pivotal year in Chinese politics. Its pronouncements will have a significant impact on the leadership shake-up at the Communist Party congress in 2022, when Mr. Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, is expected to win a third five-year term as general secretary. There seems to be no competing leader or successor in sight.

Mr. Xi’s claim that he is the only leader capable of directing China toward superpower status in uncertain times will be bolstered by the decision to include him among the country’s historical giants. China fared rather well during the Covid-19 epidemic, but it confronts economic threats from debt-ridden enterprises and local governments, societal challenges as its population ages, and rising mistrust from the US and other Western nations.

Mr. Xi encouraged Asian states to avoid establishing “small circles on geopolitical grounds” in a taped video to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on Thursday, a clear reference to attempts by President Biden to build up alliances of democratically oriented countries to confront China.

“The Asia-Pacific area cannot and should not revert to the Cold War era’s enmity and division,” he stated.

Mr. Xi has faced a slew of crises, but he has always been able to transform them into justifications for his tough stance. He imposed a tough security measure in response to months of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. To stop Covid-19 from spreading in China, he imposed severe restrictions. And Beijing declared triumph when Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecoms executive, was freed by Canadian authorities at the same time as China secretly released two Canadians it had detained.

Mr. Xi would break the tradition of remaining in power for just two terms if he ran for a third term as party head next year, as he is expected to do. Mr. Xi launched a dramatic power move in 2018 when he abolished the presidential term limit, allowing him to rule China forever. This action defied prevailing assumptions that the party was settling into a 10-year limit on the term in office of its leaders.

Mr. Xi’s accomplishments might be lauded, which could help him withstand any challenges to his record. The decision will very certainly be the subject of a massive propaganda campaign and indoctrination workshops for party leaders.

Chris Buckley, Steven Lee Myers, Liu Yi, and Claire Fu contributed reporting and research.

Earlier last month, President Xi Jinping of China appeared on television screens in Shanghai. Credit… Reuters/Andrew Galbraith

The ostensible goal of the Chinese leaders’ meeting in Beijing was to summarize the lessons of the Communist Party’s 100-year history. However, the meeting’s conclusion, as encapsulated in an official communiqué, revealed that they were focused on the future, particularly on increasing Xi Jinping’s influence, China’s most powerful leader in decades.

Mr. Xi’s initiatives have been lauded since he seized office in 2012, with the communiqué praising his efforts to retool the economy, decrease pollution and poverty, and fight corruption. The Chinese leadership has showed “enormous political daring” under Mr. Xi, according to the report.

“It has handled many difficult issues that had been on the agenda for a long time but had never been resolved, and it has achieved many things that had been desired but never completed,” it stated. “This has resulted in historic successes and momentous transformations in the party’s and country’s causes.”

The charge that China’s territorial ambitions and strong nationalist language have alienated other nations, particularly the United States and its allies, has been a sensitive point for the country’s leaders. However, there was no indication that Mr. Xi was sorry during the party meeting.

“Amid deep global developments, China has broken new ground in its diplomatic undertakings and transformed crises into opportunities,” the communiqué said. “As a consequence of these efforts, China’s worldwide influence, attractiveness, and capacity to mold have significantly increased.”

Mr. Xi’s initiatives in cultural and political thought were also lauded by the party officials. Mr. Xi has been cracking down on liberal principles and celebrity culture since 2012, while urging a return to patriotic piety. The communiqué said, “We have observed a wide and profound movement in the ideological realm.”

Mr. Xi’s strong support for his initiatives might become valuable political currency as he prepares for a party convention next year, when he is expected to win a second five-year term as Communist Party leader. The Central Committee said that the congress will be held in the second half of 2022, but provided no other information.

On Thursday, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, was projected on a large screen during an evening news broadcast in a Beijing mall. Credit… Getty Images/AFP/Noel Celis

The Chinese leaders’ meeting this week was held behind closed doors, shrouded in the secrecy that usually surrounds Communist Party debates, but after it finished on Thursday evening, the public, state-sanctioned adoration started.

CCTV, China’s national television network, has increased the length of its nightly broadcast from 30 minutes to an hour. It showed the 348 members and alternative members of the party’s Central Committee voting, ostensibly in unity, to pass a resolution on history that paves the way for Xi Jinping to run for a third term as president, and maybe beyond.

Despite — or possibly because of — the country’s exceptional attempts to control the coronavirus, none of the officials in a chamber of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People seemed to be wearing masks.

An anchor delivered the final sentence word for word on the evening broadcast. The performance of “The Internationale,” the musical standard of the Socialist movement since the nineteenth century, followed. Hundreds of responses on social media all said the same thing: “To seek happiness for the Chinese people, to seek rejuvenation of the Chinese country.” Others, presumably less ecstatic, seemed to be blocked.

“They haven’t said the three words ‘leader for life,’” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has long studied Chinese politics, “but it has been established beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is only one leader capable of doing these marvelous things, moving China one step forward from a developing country to a superpower.”

The ceremony emphasized the significance of the conference, but the leaders’ historic decision — just the third in the People’s Republic of China’s history — was not immediately made public. This is scheduled to be released in the next days.

Despite this, the primacy of the party’s control and Mr. Xi’s prominent position in it were the major themes of official coverage and response.

According to Wu Qiang, a Beijing-based independent political analyst, the proceedings foreshadowed “a strongly ideological regime” in the future, centered on a cult of personal adulation surrounding the leader.

“A significant turning point in the establishment of a new totalitarian government in the globe in the twenty-first century,” he stated.

Steven Lee Myers, Claire Fu, Liu Yi, and Chris Buckley provided reporting and research.

No obvious successor to Xi Jinping has arisen, implying that he will be re-elected to a second five-year term. Credit… Getty Images/Agence France-Presse

The fact that no plausible successor to Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader, emerged from Thursday’s meeting of the Chinese Communist Party elite was a significant signal, boosting the possibility that he will gain another five-year term in power.

The Central Committee conclave this week provided a logical opportunity for Mr. Xi to present a prospective successor, or potential successors, since China is roughly a year away from a leadership shake-up at a party congress. When he was appointed vice chairman of the Central Military Commission at a Central Committee Meeting in 2010, Mr. Xi became China’s unmistakable leader-in-waiting. He replaced Hu Jintao as party general secretary two years later.

Because no such promotions were announced at the most recent party conference, it’s more probable that Mr. Xi would go to the congress in late 2022 without selecting a preferred successor, paving the path for a third term.

Mr. Xi’s new official history resolution, which portrays him as an era-defining leader alongside the two official giants of Chinese Communist history, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, is another another hint that he intends to remain in power for a long time. Mr. Xi has set forth ambitions for China’s emergence as an advanced powerhouse in the next decades under one-party leadership.

“I don’t believe Xi Jinping will adopt a history resolution because he wants to hand over and trust his successor to carry it through,” said Neil Thomas, a Eurasia Group expert of Chinese politics. “All indications point to Xi Jinping seeking a third term, and maybe more.”

Mr. Xi pushed through a revision to China’s constitution in 2018 that abolished the state presidency’s two-term restriction, which was the only job he has held that had a time limit. As a result of the move, he was able to retain his positions as party leader, president, and senior military commander forever. Officials said in 2018 that the shift did not imply that Mr. Xi would rule for the rest of his life, as Mao did. Mr. Xi, on the other hand, has never said publicly when he plans to step down.

Last year, the Communist Party’s Central Committee held its sixth plenary session in Beijing. The four-day gathering determines the course of politics and policy. Credit… Associated Press/Liu Bin/Xinhua

In Chinese politics, the meeting of the Communist Party’s Central Committee is a huge affair. About 200 central and provincial officials with voting rights on the Central Committee’s decisions, as well as 170 or more “alternate” members with no vote, make up the party’s elite. Once a year, the committee meets to decide the course for politics and policy.

Plenums in the past have ushered in significant reforms. In 1978, a meeting of China’s Central Committee placed the country on a course toward market reforms. One approved a plan for Xi Jinping’s economic and social reforms in 2013. Another put in motion plans for Hong Kong’s draconian national security legislation in 2019. Unlike previous meetings, this one is likely to approve a resolution on the Communist Party’s history.

The Central Committee’s four-day conference, or “plenum,” sets the groundwork for a once-every-five-years party congress in 2022, which will ratify a new leadership lineup for China. At that congress, Xi Jinping seems to be quite likely to seek a third five-year term, defying his predecessor’s two-term restriction.

Mr. Xi, despite his immense influence, must carefully manage the party elite, avoiding possible dissent and imposing allegiance, and the conference provided an opportunity to do so. However, since these plenums are held behind closed doors, we are unlikely to get specifics about what Mr. Xi and other officials discussed about any preparations for the next leadership transition.

Imagine President Biden summoning legislators and governors to agree on a historical evaluation of the United States. However, controlling how the past is remembered has historically been a crucial aspect of Chinese governments’ claims to power. And the meeting’s new history resolution has far-reaching ramifications, underscoring that Mr. Xi’s intentions and potential impact span decades into the future.

Xi Jinping and his predecessors, including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, are shown on a mural in Lhasa. Credit… Reuters/Martin Pollard

Xi Jinping’s choice to dedicate a leadership conclave to rewriting the Communist Party’s history demonstrated how important it is to control the past in Chinese politics.

Mr. Xi’s decision to inscribe his name on the party’s history is a method of solidifying his power — and influencing China’s political destiny.

Mr. Xi joined a limited group of party officials in forcing through an authoritative “resolution” on the party’s history. Only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were in charge of such resolutions, which were meant to mark key political turning points.

After years of internal turmoil, Mao and his followers published the party’s first resolution on history in 1945 to strengthen his rule and denounce previous adversaries. That decision was a key step in the establishment of “Mao Zedong Thought,” the party’s guiding set of ideas, which it took to power throughout China in 1949.

After returning to power during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a decade of violent upheaval, Deng and other seasoned leaders handled the party’s second resolution in 1981.

They were confronted with a wave of profound disenchantment with Mao, which included authorities. Deng, on the other hand, was concerned that going too far in criticizing Mao might result in the loss of a pillar of party power. Mao was, after all, the People’s Republic’s founder. Deng and his advisers prepared a declaration condemning Mao’s destructive excesses in his last decades but affirming his overall contribution.

Mr. Xi has showed little interest in going into the party’s mistakes in the past. Instead, Mr. Xi’s status as supreme leader is expected to be bolstered by the current decision. Mr. Xi was hailed as a transformative leader who had guided China into a new period in the run-up to the plenum by a barrage of propaganda and a new official party history.

A poster for “The Combat at Lake Changjin,” a film portraying a Korean War battle involving Chinese and American soldiers. It went on to become China’s second highest-grossing film of all time. Credit… Reuters/Aly Song

Film, television, museum exhibits, and even ice cream wrappers are all part of the Chinese Communist Party’s effort to rekindle popular interest in its history and principles.

The authorities have gotten considerably more enthusiastic and a little more skillful in packaging the party’s message for a larger audience as part of Xi Jinping’s heightened attempts to control how Chinese people remember their history.

“The Conflict at Lake Changjin,” a two-hour, 56-minute film describing an epic battle between Chinese and American soldiers during the Korean War, became China’s second highest-grossing film ever, thanks to government marketing. Many commemorative television plays and documentaries were shown during this year’s festivities celebrating the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party.

“You can observe development in propaganda utilizing tactics that are more acceptable to young in recent years,” Kecheng Fang, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication, said in an interview.

At the same time, censorship has strengthened, he noted. “Skeptical voices have gradually faded away.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, the party’s commemorations of its history often focus on heroic narratives from the revolution and China’s battle against Japanese invasions and occupation.

The party has promoted “red tourism,” which includes monuments and museums where tourists may immerse themselves in heroic tales from the party’s past. Mao Zedong’s birthplace and the hilly Jinggangshan region, where the Communist Party developed its rural revolution, are two of the most well-known. According to authorities, the number of visitors to “red” tourist attractions has climbed from 140 million in 2004 to 1.4 billion in 2019.

To promote its heritage, the party has enlisted the help of nearly every sector of culture. On the packaging of “Era of Awakening” ice cream are phrases from a patriotic television show.

One of them says, “I am a brick of the revolution, and I’ll be placed wherever I’m required,” for a chocolate-flavored ice cream.

Chris Buckley and Liu Yi contributed reporting and research.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Hu Jintao is shown in the middle. He and Jiang Zemin guided China through an era of extraordinary economic progress, but their achievements have been eclipsed by Xi Jinping’s aura. Credit… Agence France-Presse/Getty Images/Getty Images/Getty Images/Getty Images/Getty Images/Getty Images/Getty Images/Getty

One issue emerges when the Communist Party rewrites its official history: what happened to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao?

The two presidents ruled China for more than two decades, during which time the country saw tremendous economic progress and increased worldwide respect. They presided over the country’s admission to the World Trade Organization, the reunification of Hong Kong and Macau, the launch of the first astronauts into space, and the 2008 Olympic Games.

Nonetheless, in the pantheon of Chinese presidents, they have increasingly been seen as filler figures, lesser figures that acted as a bridge between Deng Xiaoping and today’s ruler, Xi Jinping.

They have not been forgotten, as have others who have fallen foul of internecine power struggles, but they have been eclipsed by the hagiography surrounding Mr. Xi, generally regarded as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

The almost two decades when Mr. Jiang and subsequently Mr. Hu served before 2012 are documented in around 100 pages in a newly published official Communist Party history. Mr. Xi, on the other hand, gets 150 pages for his nine years as leader – and counting. Each was named just once in the statement issued on Thursday, but Mr. Xi’s leadership was praised frequently, as it has done for months.

Mr. Xi inherited “many long-term issues that needed for remedies but had not been remedied,” including corruption and pollution, according to the official history, an implied assessment of their administrations.

In the days leading up to this week’s meeting, Xinhua’s fawning biographical portrait of Mr. Xi made no mention of any such issues.

“Since his election as general secretary of the C.P.C. Central Committee in November 2012, Xi has been viewed as a man of determination and action, a man of profound thoughts and feelings, a man who inherited a legacy but dares to innovate, and a man who has a forward-looking vision and is committed to working tirelessly,” the state news agency gushed.

In an interview, Susan L. Shirk, chairperson of the University of California, San Diego’s 21st Century China Center, said that the relative lack of attention and regard for prior presidents signaled policy developments under Mr. Xi.

Soon after Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, Mr. Jiang became the Party’s General Secretary. He finally stepped out from under Deng’s shadow and promoted reforms that strengthened private enterprise and led to China’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

Mr. Hu, who followed him as party secretary and president in 2002 and 2003, was a conservative leader who ruled via consensus and established the pattern of two five-year mandates as leader, which Mr. Xi looks prepared to disrupt next year.

Mr. Xi has pushed to strengthen the government’s grip on the economy and reinstate a highly centralized political system in which he is at the helm.

“There are policy ramifications that people should consider carefully by downplaying the other leaders,” Ms. Shirk said of the historical resolutions.

Xi Jinping has championed a patriotic image of a revived China bursting with new confidence as China’s leader. Mr. Xi, on the other hand, has a number of difficulties. The country’s formerly rapid economic development has stalled. The coronavirus epidemic, which began in China, has resulted in stringent lockdowns as the nation pursues a “zero Covid” policy, in which no new infections are tolerated. Western governments have condemned China’s leadership for its brutal treatment of Xinjiang’s mostly Muslim minority communities. A trade disagreement with the US has erupted into larger concerns over technology competitiveness and military maneuvering. Massive demonstrations in Hong Kong also put China’s leadership to the test, prompting Beijing to respond with a crackdown.

The National Art Museum in Beijing has a painting of Mao in Yan’an. It is now illegal to ask questions regarding historical occurrences. Credit… The New York Times’ Gilles Sabrié

In China, history is much more than simply political legitimacy. It’s a tool for political repression.

Slander of the country’s heroes and martyrs, as defined by the Communist Party, is now punishable by up to three years in jail under recent modifications to the country’s penal law.

Since March, the law has been utilized to discourage discussion and inquiry on historical events that were previously free to debate. These include the founding of the People’s Republic of China and, more recently, a battle with Indian forces along the disputed Himalayan border in 2020, in which at least four Chinese soldiers were killed.

It has been used to imprison not just well-known bloggers and journalists, but also regular people. The message is clear: straying from party orthodoxy will result in expulsion from the party. A Chinese government edict announced this week directed authorities to preserve memorial parks and other locations honouring party victims.

The weaponization of history is based on an authoritarian playbook that has been utilized to suppress opposition in other nations. Slandering soldiers of World War II, a historical event that President Vladimir V. Putin has put at the foundation of his political legitimacy, became illegal in Russia only weeks after the ban in China was reinforced.

“While drawing from a highly selective version of history and wage history wars to advance your own interests is not a uniquely authoritarian impulse, it is becoming much harder and more dangerous to push back in Russia and China,” said Katie Stallard, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea,” her next book, is due out soon.

“The window of opportunity for contesting the official story — which did exist earlier — is closing,” she added. “Both present their approach as patriotism, but it’s actually about maintaining the status quo and entrenching existing power structures.”

In Beijing in 1987, Xi Zhongxun, father of Xi Jinping, met Gyalo Thondup, Dalai Lama’s brother. Despite his father becoming a target of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, the younger Mr. Xi remained faithful to the party. Credit…Reuters

Xi Jinping has taken an unusually personal approach to defending the Chinese Communist Party’s history. Mr. Xi recounted growing up during Mao Zedong’s period and “growing up under the red flag” when visiting a former Communist revolutionaries’ stronghold in 2013.

His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a revolutionary leader who helped to establish a Communist enclave that sheltered Mao and his soldiers from Nationalist forces. Mr. Xi’s childhood was impacted by his father’s ascension after the Communists won control in 1949, followed by his father’s rapid fall and punishment when Mao turned against him in 1962.

Despite the lack of proof, Mao grew to suspect that Xi Zhongxun had backed the creation of a historical book to subtly criticize Mao’s actions. Mr. Xi’s father became a target when Mao started the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when he stirred up student militants known as “Red Guards” to strike officials suspected of betraying or defying him.

The older Mr. Xi was displayed on a truck by Red Guards who severely questioned him, accusing him of having covert foreign links. He was imprisoned for years, while the younger Mr. Xi, like millions of other young people, was put to labor in the destitute countryside.

Some Chinese politicians’ children were disillusioned as a result of Mao’s regime. The younger Mr. Xi, on the other hand, seems to have remained loyal to the party. While advancing through the ranks of rural government, he repeatedly sought to join the party, ultimately being accepted on the tenth try. In the decades that followed, he progressed through the ranks of county and provincial government, sometimes mentioning his experiences.

According to Xi Zhongxun’s official biography, the younger Mr. Xi wrote to his dying father in 2001, “Back in those days when people cried that we were sons of bitches, I remained confident that my father was a wonderful hero.” “You are a peasant’s son, a comrade-in-arms who loves the Chinese people and loves the revolution,” he informed his father.

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