The forthcoming party plenum, set to focus on China’s history and revise it, is no small or weird matter. Within the Party’s and China’s own logic, it is an important stepping stone for President Xi Jinping on his path to seal his third term and go beyond it.
Europe has nobility spanning many centuries, stretching beyond ruling dynasties and often beyond countries. There were the grand names of Bourbon, Habsburg, and Hohenzollern casting their shadows for centuries. There are families in Rome hailing their descendance from Julius Caesar. Even though they haven’t held power for many years, they still own large estates, command immense respect, and wield influence.
The same is not true in China. Once the dynasty is gone, all power and influence are also gone. Direct descendants of the Ming or Qing dynasties have no clout, zero authority, and are often dirt poor—and nobody expects otherwise. In China, aristocratic power comes from the direct connection to a ruling dynasty and more concretely to the ruling emperor, unlike in Europe, where the ephemeral yet concrete prestige comes with a title such as count, duke, or prince spanning different reigning lines.
With the communist rule, all Qing aristocrats lost their pull or were persecuted, like the former KMT officials, defeated in the civil war. The new nobility were people connected with the party and, particularly for the first three decades, with Mao, the “emperor.”
He was chairman of the party and, besides any official title, he was in control of the country. After his fall, Deng took the reins of the People’s Republic of China. His key title was chairman of the military commission, and he ruled from there. Yet, even when he officially relinquished the title to Jiang Zemin in 1989, he still held power until his stroke in 1995 and death in 1997. That is, both ruled for life and had immense supervisory weight.
Both Mao and Deng took care of the general “red nobility”, but in particular, they looked after their pals, who had a special status and muscle over other “red princes”.
If Mr. Xi gets to have the historical status of Mao and Deng, then he gains many perks. He acquires immense powers for life, and his people will rise in “aristocratic rank” over those of past rulers. That is, Xi’s people will be above those chosen by past rulers and past senior cadres may be marginalized. Past senior cadres have been the main hindrance to Xi’s reforms.
As Charles Parton astutely observes, these plenums on history occurred twice in the past, in 1945 and in 1981, to mark Mao’s and Deng’s special roles:
Just as Mao in 1945 stood at the dawn of a new era, and Deng in 1981 had embarked on the reform era, so Xi has declared a new era, the third age of “Chinese Marxism.” Just as the 1945 and 1981 resolutions underlined the pre-eminent power of Mao and Deng, so the 2021 plenum is intended to underline Xi’s undisputed position. The continuum of the CCP’s glorious history has been emphasised in this year’s political campaign to study history. The necessary pre-eminence of one strong leader is a theme of a commentary in the People’s Daily from 19th October 2021.
Interestingly, past plenums on history were also convened on the backdrop of heated yet failed discussion on the democratization of China. In 1945 the ruling nationalist party, the KMT, and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) had agreed on a truce, brokered by the US, to stage a democratic election. In 1981, at the Democracy Wall in Beijing, the CCP had just quelled intellectual protests demanding the “fourth modernization”: democracy. Then also the CCP had improved connections with the Americans. It is possible that the issue of democracy and positive ties with the Americans, themes both dear to the heart of Chinese intellectuals and historically a driving force in China, helped Mao and Deng in their political affirmations.
This time, unlike in the past, ties are not good with the US and discussions on democracy are out of the picture. Then the questions: will Mr. Xi at a later stage broach the issue of democracy and strive to improve ties with the US to gain further support for his rule? Or will he ignore these issues, that now have become extremely sensitive, and claim that his CCP is strong enough to push through this change of history on its own?
There are elements for and against this historic change. Mr. Xi broke the mold of Deng’s simplistic “getting rich is glorious” that led to the vast corruption, stalling any economic dynamics. Although he stopped that, the country is still fumbling around and unsure of which market rules to follow.
On the other hand, the new periodization leaves a massive hole, from 1997 (Deng’s death) to 2012 (Xi’s arrival to power). In theory, this was Deng’s time without Deng, but there was no Mao’s time without Mao. Political historians may have some trouble explaining that.
Still, the most crucial element is that this type of massive theoretical effort within the Party is justified to achieve something. Mr. Xi can’t get all this power just for power’s sake, but he needs it to turn China around, like his predecessors Mao and Deng did. Mao made China “stand up,” and Deng made it rich. What will Mr. Xi want to deliver? Could he make the Chinese free?
He will surely claim he wants to make China powerful, but that is a tricky path as it could lead to further friction abroad and in particular with its neighbors and the United States. Or what is his Chinese dream?
Here the doctoring of Party history begins regarding some elements of actual history. At the turn of the past century, Liang Qichao, one of the young intellectuals who had vainly tried to reform the empire, fell in love with the Soviet revolution. He was not alone. A whole generation of Chinese fell in love with communism, considering it the latest and most modern development coming from the West and against old imperial Confucianism, which was blamed for all of China’s disgrace.
This pattern went on for decades. In 1942 Mao took total power at the Yan’an conference, claiming to be the champion of Westernization. His communism with Chinese characteristics was different from Moscow’s communism and open to the United States. In fact, in those years, US military advisors came to Yan’an, feeding American delusions about the future of Communist China.
The promise of Westernization, i.e., Americanization, came back again when Deng donned a cowboy hat in the US. In that way, he told the world he wanted China to be like the US. Liang, Mao, and Deng all stopped well short of “Americanization,” adopting liberal principles to rule the country, thinking that communism (in its Russian or Chinese form) had superseded capitalism.
Then the promises of Westernization failed to pan out. Still, America was the ideal to achieve for a century, as John Pomfret has eloquently detailed in his The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom. In fact, despite its promises, communism is no more, and capitalism is all over, in its different incarnations, including partly in Russia and China.
Now the US is no longer the ideal in China. This is because of many American mistakes since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it is supported by a fascination with Western theories by authors like Paul Kennedy. In his The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he provides a general framework that de facto told Chinese to read US failures in the Middle East and with the 2008 financial crisis as signs of American decadence, while China’s growing wealth is evidence of its political rise.
Here, party historians may want to consider that the theory may be wrong and also the evidence. In the past hundred years, Liang, Mao, and all their followers bet capitalism was dead, and so was America. They were wrong. If Mr. Xi places the same bet as his predecessors, will he be right this time?
The history of the Roman empire might provide a better, different lens of interpretation. It was permanently unstable, reputedly always on the verge of collapse, torn by vicious infighting that often brought generals to fight one another on the battlefield. Yet, it lasted almost two millennia. No other empire in history lasted that long. Rome was the paragon of an empire that lasted not despite being “Rome against Rome” but possibly because it was “Rome against Rome.”
America, in many ways, is its continuation; will it perish after less than three centuries? It’s possible, but looking at history, unlikely. After a bloody civil war, the US survived and thrived and won two world wars and one massive cold war. Will it fall now? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Will the party be right this time about the future history, or will it be wrong as it was in the past?
This is a true point of history that the party will not openly address at the plenum, but it might hover in some discussions. After all, it has remained the China’s fundamental problem for over a century.
 Charles Parton, “The Chinese Communist Party Sixth Plenum,” Council on Geostrategy, November 2021.