As China races into the future, the Communist Party — which marks its 90th birthday in July — still takes the past, especially its own, very seriously. “Writing history is not easy,” said Shi, a veteran party historian.
It gets particularly hard when it includes not only two of the past century’s most lethal man-made catastrophes — the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — but also a modest yet now ticklish upset back in 1962 — the disgrace of Xi Zhongxun, the father of Xi Jinping, China’s current vice president and leader-in-waiting.
“It’s an old communist joke that Marxists can predict the future, but the past is more difficult,” said Roderick Macfarquhar, a Harvard University scholar and leading authority on Chinese politics under Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. The past, added Macfarquhar, “is important because it legitimates the present” and “what went wrong then has to be justified now.”
The party published its first official history 20 years ago but ended the story with Mao’s conquest of China in 1949. It has now ventured into far more treacherous territory with the January publication of “History of the Chinese Communist Party, Volume 2 (1949-1978),” which continues the saga until the year Deng Xiaoping started undoing much of Mao’s legacy.
As China gears up to mark the July anniversary of the party’s founding in 1921, history has become a boom industry. Nobody outside a tiny group of die-hard Maoists wants to revive communes, class struggle and brutal purges. But the party is hammering a message it views as crucial to its grip on power: China’s surging economy and growing international clout are entirely the fruit of uninterrupted one-party rule.
The state poured nearly $400 million into a new National Museum stuffed with revolutionary memorabilia, and millions more into “The Founding of a Party,” a star-studded epic movie due to be released soon. Chinese TV stations, meanwhile, have been told to yank cop shows and focus on airing dramas about party history instead.
Shaping history is particularly important to China’s so-called princelings, the offspring of Mao’s comrades. Having secured influence and often wealth on the basis of their family connections, members of this small but powerful group celebrate a wart-free version of the past that boosts their status — and sidesteps their parents’ role as enforcers and then victims of party brutality.
‘Distort and smear’
Xi, the Politburo member who is due to take over as leader of the party next year and whose father was purged by Mao in 1962, has been particularly active in stressing the need to get history right. In a keynote address at a “history work conference” last summer, he called on all party members — numbering nearly 80 million — to “resolutely combat the wrong tendency to distort and smear the party’s history.” (He didn’t comment on his father.)