The Declaration of Independence is rooted in the liberal belief that all individuals “are created equal” and that they possess “unalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” By contrast, in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s bombastic oration on Thursday, there was no mention of individual rights. It was all about collective entities — the Chinese nation, the Chinese people, the Chinese Communist Party. Xi told his subjects to “uphold the firm leadership of the Party” because “China’s success hinges on the Party.”
And what gives the Communist Party the right to rule? Not the will of the people as expressed in free and fair elections. Nor does it govern based on Marxist ideology anymore; its economic system is now described as “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” whatever that means. Chinese emperors used to assert the Mandate of Heaven. Xi cites the mandate of history. “Over the past hundred years,” he said, “the Party has united and led the Chinese people in writing the most magnificent chapter in the millennia-long history of the Chinese nation.”
“For the Chinese Communist Party, history is legitimacy,” journalist Ian Johnson writes in the New York Review of Books. “Just to make sure that history really appears to be on its side, the party spends an inordinate amount of time writing and rewriting it and preventing others from wielding their pens.” Indeed, the Communist Party is constantly on guard against examples of “historical nihilism” such as “distorting the history of the party or attacking its leadership.”
What the party seeks to stop, of course, is not the distortion of history but an accurate rendering of it. Xi’s speech made no mention of the terrible crimes committed during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square massacre, much less of the ongoing human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In the official account — the only kind that is allowed — the party’s history is one glorious triumph after another. The party, Xi repeatedly boasted, has achieved “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Woe to any person in China who challenges the official version of the past; that is a crime for which you can be sent to prison. The United States is different. We are a free country where nothing is off-limits. We can talk about the good, the bad and the ugly. Can’t we? Yes, we can — but Republicans are doing their level best to change that. How ironic that the GOP, which claims to be the “tough on China” party, wants to make America more like China. As the party of White America, Republicans seek their own political legitimacy from history by trying to minimize the impact of racism.
In the guise of fighting “critical race theory,” Republican legislators in 22 states want to outlaw the teaching of certain interpretations of U.S. history. Such laws have already passed in five states — Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee — while the Florida Board of Education has enacted its own ban. Taken together, this is the most far-reaching assault on academic freedom since the McCarthy era in the 1950s.
The Texas law prohibits teaching that “the advent of slavery … constituted the true founding of the United States,” as originally argued in the New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project.” The Florida guidelines prohibit teaching “that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” The Tennessee law prohibits teaching that “the rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.”
These bills are probably unconstitutional. They’re definitely un-American.
You can agree or disagree with the ideas that arouse the ire of the right. (For what it’s worth, I agree that “racism is embedded in American society,” but I disagree that the arrival of the first African slaves marked the country’s “true founding” — a claim that was eventually stripped from the 1619 Project.) But you should not have the government telling schools that certain ideas are so dangerous they cannot be mentioned in a classroom. That’s what happens in China and other authoritarian countries.
The essence of America is that we have free speech — and therefore the right to critically examine our own society. This is, in fact, one of our greatest advantages over China. Because the Chinese Communist Party won’t acknowledge its past evils, it is doomed to repeat them. By contrast, we can admit our misdeeds, learn from them and do better in the future. We should celebrate that freedom rather than undermine it in the name of “patriotism.”