China’s Communist Party is poised to deliver Xi Jinping a momentous breakthrough this week that will help secure his political future — by rewriting history.
Senior party officials have gathered at a closed-door meeting in Beijing to cement Mr. Xi’s dominance as he moves to claim a likely third term next year as China’s leader.
The meeting, known as the plenum, is expected to approve a decision on Thursday that will reassess the party’s 100-year history and enshrine Mr. Xi in the party’s official firmament of era-defining leaders. The move would elevate Mr. Xi to a stature alongside Mao Zedong, the founder of the country’s Communist rule, and Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of its economic takeoff.
This week’s meeting was the start of a momentous year in Chinese politics. Its announcements will play a big part in the leadership shake-up at a Communist Party congress that is likely to be held in 2022, when Mr. Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, appears on track to secure a third five-year term as the party’s general secretary. There is no rival leader or heir apparent in view.
The decision to place Mr. Xi among the country’s historical giants would bolster his argument that he is the only leader capable of steering China toward superpower status through uncertain times. China navigated the Covid-19 pandemic relatively well, but it faces growing distrust from the United States and other Western countries, economic risks from debt-laden companies and local governments, and social pressures as its population gets older.
Mr. Xi has faced a succession of crises, but he has often been able to turn them into vindication for his hard-line ways. He responded to months of pro-democracy unrest in Hong Kong by imposing a harsh security law. He applied sweeping restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19 in China. And Beijing claimed victory after Canadian authorities released Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecommunications executive, at the same time that China quietly released two Canadians it had arrested.
By claiming a third term as party leader, as he is expected to do next year, Mr. Xi would break the pattern of staying in power for only two terms. In 2018, Mr. Xi made a bold power play by eliminating a term limit on the presidency, opening the way for him to lead China indefinitely. That move overturned widespread expectations that the party had been settling into a 10-year cap on leaders’ time in power.
Glorifying Mr. Xi’s achievements, and making him a peer of Mao and Deng, would help fireproof Mr. Xi against any challenges to his record. The decision is sure to become the focus of an intense propaganda campaign, as well as indoctrination sessions for party officials.
Reporting and research by Chris Buckley, Steven Lee Myers, Liu Yi and Claire Fu.
The meeting of the Communist Party’s Central Committee is a big deal in Chinese politics. The Central Committee brings together the party’s elite — about 200 central and provincial officials who have voting rights on its decisions, and 170 or so “alternate” members with no vote. The committee usually meets once a year to set the direction for politics and policy.
Past plenums have inaugurated major changes. A Central Committee meeting in 1978 set China on a path toward market reforms. One in 2013 approved a blueprint for Xi Jinping’s economic and social reforms. And another, in 2019, set in motion preparations for Hong Kong’s drastic national security law. Unusually, this latest meeting is expected to pass a resolution on Communist Party history.
The four-day meeting, or “plenum,” of the Central Committee lays the ground for a once-every-five-years party congress later in 2022 that will approve a new leadership lineup for China. Xi Jinping seems very likely to claim a third five-year term at that congress, bucking the two-term limit observed by his predecessor.
Even with his formidable power, Mr. Xi needs to carefully handle the party elite, heading off potential discontent and enforcing loyalty, and the meeting was a chance to do that. These plenums, though, take place behind closed doors, and we are unlikely to find out details about what Mr. Xi and other officials said about any plans for the coming leadership shake-up.
A decision on history sounds like an unusual move: Imagine if President Biden summoned lawmakers and governors to agree on an assessment of American history. But managing how the past is remembered has long been important to Chinese leaders’ claims to authority. And the new resolution on history that the meeting will issue has far-reaching implications by emphasizing that Mr. Xi’s plans, and his potential influence, extend for decades ahead.
The Chinese Communist Party’s drive to revive public faith in its history and values goes well beyond textbooks to include film, television, museum exhibitions — and even ice cream wrappers.
As part of Xi Jinping’s intensified efforts to control how Chinese people remember their past, the authorities have become much more energetic and a bit more skilled at packaging the party’s message for a wider audience.
“The Battle at Lake Changjin,” a two-hour, 56-minute film about an epic battle between Chinese and U.S. forces during the Korean War, became China’s second highest grossing film ever, helped by promotion from party authorities. This year’s celebrations marking the 100 years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party also brought many celebratory television dramas and documentaries.
“In recent years you can see progress in propaganda using methods that are more acceptable to youth,” Kecheng Fang, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in an interview.
At the same time, he added, censorship has tightened. “Skeptical voices have been steadily wiped out.”
The party’s commemoration of its past often dwells on heroic accounts from the revolution and China’s war against the Japanese invasions and occupation in the 1930s and 1940s.
The party has encouraged so called “red tourism” — monuments and museums where visitors are immersed in heroic stories from the party’s history. The famous ones include Mao Zedong’s hometown, and the mountainous Jinggangshan area where the Communist Party honed its rural revolution. The number of visits to “red” tourist sites has increased from 140 million in 2004 to 1.4 billion in 2019, officials say.
The party has recruited virtually every aspect of culture to promote its history. “Era of Awakening”-brand ice cream features lines from a patriotic television drama on its wrappers.
“I am a brick of the revolution, and I’ll be put wherever I’m needed,” reads one of them, for a chocolate-flavored ice cream.
Reporting and research by Chris Buckley and Liu Yi.
History in China is not just about political legitimacy. It is an instrument of political control.
Recent changes to the country’s criminal code made slander of the country’s heroes and martyrs, as defined by the Communist Party, punishable by up to three years in prison.
Since March, the code has been used repeatedly to stifle questions about historical events that were once open to debate and research. Those include the revolution that gave birth to the People’s Republic of China and, more recently, a clash with Indian troops in 2020 along the disputed border in the Himalayas, where at least four Chinese soldiers died.
It has been used to jail prominent bloggers and journalists but also ordinary citizens. The intent is clearly to send a very public warning against deviating from party orthodoxy. A Chinese government directive issued this week ordered officials to ensure that memorial parks and other sites commemorating party martyrs are well maintained.
The weaponization of history comes out of an authoritarian playbook that other countries have also used to police dissent. Only weeks after the law in China was toughened, Russia made it a crime to slander veterans of World War II, a historical event that President Vladimir V. Putin has placed at the core of his political legitimacy.
“While it is absolutely not a uniquely authoritarian impulse to draw from a highly selective version of history and wage history wars to advance your own interests, in Russia and China it is becoming much harder and more dangerous to push back,” said Katie Stallard, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. She is the author of a forthcoming book, “Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia and North Korea.”
“The space for challenging the official version — which did exist previously — is shrinking,” she said. “Both frame their approach in terms of patriotism, but really it’s about securing the status quo and entrenching existing systems of power.”