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Party Watch Annual Report 2021

Past as Prologue: Studying Party History for Xi's New Era


On 29 December 2021, as the sun set on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) first centennial year and its associated Party History Study and Education Campaign (hereafter Party History Campaign), People’s Daily boasted front-page coverage of a speech by Xi Jinping to the Politburo calling for “historical confidence”—a call echoed in early January by a full-page Ren Ping (任平) commentary on the topic. Such full-throated support of the phrase in authoritative commentaries likely reflects a top-level push to cement the concept as a “fifth confidence,” the latest in a growing list of “confidences” to be placed in party leadership. Significantly, it also attests to the purpose of the year’s focus on party history: reinforcing national confidence in party leadership rooted in its claims to historical inevitability, historical indispensability, and historical legitimacy. This will have come as little surprise to the authors of this year’s Party Watch Annual Report, who have examined the many respects in which the Party History Campaign and the “CCP Central Committee’s Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party’s 100-Year Struggle” (hereafter 2021 Resolution) passed by the Sixth Plenum were about much more than history.


As the Party rolled out the campaign in early 2021, it raised the question: why would Xi Jinping and party leadership call attention to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) notably checkered past when its present and future appeared so bright? While its role in the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic remained an area of contention to many in the international community, the PRC seemed largely to have shaken off any long-term reputational costs thanks to a narrative that it had successfully contained the virus and maintained economic growth; this coupled with the not insignificant gains in military capabilities and poverty alleviation seemed to present an opportunity for the Party to toot its own horn just as it prepared to celebrate its centenary.


At the same time, many China watchers were not surprised that Xi Jinping would launch such a campaign that almost certainly portended a resolution on history at the Sixth Plenum: paramount leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping used historical resolutions to repudiate past errors and establish a new party line. While early indications were that Xi would not focus on past errors, some speculated that with his emphasis on “common prosperity,” he might use the 2021 Resolution to repudiate aspects of Deng’s economic reforms.


Indeed, Xi used the 2021 Resolution to bolster his “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” party line, but he did so in ways that diverged markedly from his predecessors, touting his achievements rather than repudiating past errors and devoting extremely limited space to the particulars of PRC and CCP history. While Xi’s interest in history is well known, his intended uses of history have been less clear. As this report will explore, the Party History Campaign that has occupied such a central place in CCP centenary propaganda offers a view into Xi Jinping’s understanding of party history and its uses. Through the Campaign and Resolution, he has recast CCP history by sanitizing, smoothing over, and condensing it in the national consciousness, while directing attention to the Party’s achievements and himself as their source and guarantor. The intended effect is a renewed “historical confidence” in party leadership as the Party looks to its next 100 years (second centenary) and China’s increasingly prominent role on the global stage.


The Party Watch Annual Report 2021 will discuss the implications of the Party History Campaign—from elite politics to “red tourism”—in order to understand how Xi is deploying history to secure party leadership by bolstering legitimacy and inculcating belief in his and the Party’s indispensability.


Willy Lam’s section begins by asking the fundamental question of why CCP leaders attach such outsized importance to history, asserting that the Party’s self-appointed role as arbiter of the “correct” view of history serves to both legitimize its ongoing rule and canonize its core leaders. Such a reliance on history has taken on special importance in the face of unprecedented challenges to the Party’s pillars of legitimacy. In their place, Xi has offered—through the Party History Campaign—a view of history that establishes the CCP as not merely legitimate but essential, with Xi’s many successes securing his place as the Party’s indispensable core.


In his historical overview, Timothy Cheek also identifies Xi’s successes as the primary focus of the Party History Campaign and 2021 Resolution—in contrast with the Party’s seminal 1945 and 1981 historical resolutions that set out to rectify past errors. Yet Cheek does not see the 2021 Resolution as a divergence, as many have suggested, but in continuity with the Leninist imperative to maintain control of historical narratives. In this construct, the study of history is used to provide “data” from which leaders formulate a new party line—in this case, Xi’s “great rejuvenation” line, distinguished by an abiding belief in the power and necessity of ideology.


In his section, Joseph Fewsmith provides a politically astute reading of the content of the Party History Campaign and 2021 Resolution. He finds that the 2021 Resolution is less concerned with propagating a particular interpretation of history than it is with smoothing over historical difficulties that present obstacles to unalloyed patriotism. He devotes special attention to the Resolution’s treatment of governance but concludes that neither the campaign’s nor the Resolution’s attempts to inculcate party discipline among cadres is sufficient to address glaring institutional challenges. Without structural reform, personalization of power will persist and orderly succession will remain elusive.


In a provocative contribution, David Ownby looks beyond official media, publications, and pronouncements on party history to the voluminous work being produced by Chinese scholars who have surprisingly continued to offer alternative visions of China’s history and its significance—albeit in ways that avoid confronting the regime head-on. Instead, they “talk past” authorities and official discourses. Notably absent from these alternative visions: China’s core leader and his ideological agenda. According to Ownby, the persistence of mainstream and readily accessible scholarly discourse that departs from the party line—especially amid such a carefully-scripted and momentous year for the CCP—should complicate our understanding of the contemporary Chinese political landscape.


In the sections that follow, the report turns from broad evaluations to targeted analysis as authors examine the effect of the campaign on a range of critical sectors, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s foreign policy and its policies toward Taiwan and Hong Kong, popular culture through the lenses of tourism and television programming, and the CCP’s widely-touted poverty alleviation efforts.


In her section, Kim Fassler focuses on the PLA’s commemoration of four historical events—the anniversaries of the Gutian Conference, the Long March, the PLA’s founding, and the Korean War—to explore the Party’s use and leveraging of history to achieve its military goals. Fassler argues that, in each case, the commemorations are being used to legitimate Xi’s and the CCP’s agenda while constructing and bolstering narrative themes of political control, which demarcate the future direction of the PLA under party leadership. In sum, for the PLA, the Party History Campaign was designed to underscore and institutionalize the dictum that the Army is a “party Army,” an ideological aim now increasingly afforded the same status as operational readiness and military hardware capabilities.


In her section on China’s foreign policy, Yun Sun deftly outlines four key narratives about China’s foreign relations that both reflect and lend support to the party line being advanced by the Party History Campaign. In these narratives, the nation is portrayed as the victim of external forces, deriving legitimacy and resilience from its “fighting spirit” in the face of persistent threats; uncompromising in its pursuit of regime security; and benevolent in its international posture. In Sun’s analysis, the close narrative link drawn between the fighting spirit and regime success will likely continue to fuel China’s belligerent tone in its international relations.


Wen-hsuan Tsai also anticipates growing belligerence and a hardening in the PRC’s approach to Taiwan and Hong Kong, especially as events in Hong Kong have almost certainly sounded the death knell for promises of “One Country, Two Systems.” Tsai observes that Taiwan’s population has remained relatively impervious to historical narratives being promoted by the PRC as a part of its centenary propaganda, in contrast with previous cross-Strait overtures that have found greater purchase. He writes that Taiwan is increasingly forming its own subjective consciousness and historical outlook—a development that can be witnessed across Taiwan’s famously divided political spectrum.


Domestically, the Party History Campaign has permeated society at all levels, in large part because of its ubiquity in popular culture. In his section on “propatainment,” Wenfang Tang provides readers with an illuminating survey of the Party’s extensive slate of history-centric programming. He compellingly argues that offering such an accessible and surprisingly high-quality introduction to its “correct” historical narrative allows the transmission and reception of the Party History Campaign beyond the realms of elite politics and other captive audiences. As a result, the party line on its history—and its present—has spread among China’s masses of “ordinary people” who would otherwise not be inclined to pay attention to political discourse.


Similarly, in his section Mike Gow offers a detailed look into the “red tourism” industry that was greatly expanded alongside the Party History Campaign. Gow outlines a conceptual framework for understanding the role, function, and aims of the industry, arguing that its immersive, experiential character represents increasing sophistication in CCP political communication by engaging consumers in the Party-state’s efforts to define and cultivate good citizenship as they accumulate symbolic capital. Red tourism thus serves as a kind of sacrament of citizenship in which participants are consecrated for Xi Jinping’s New Era.


Finally, Holly Snape asserts that the conflation of “victory” in the Escape Poverty Battle with achieving the widely publicized centenary goal of a xiaokang shehui (“moderately prosperous society”) has been a critical piece of Xi Jinping’s historical narrative. She shows how, once these two were conflated, the centrality of the poverty elimination discourse and its associated deadlines came to significantly influence policy in order to claim success as the CCP celebrated its first centennial. Furthermore, the idea that the Party has “solved the problem of absolute poverty” played an important role in legitimating the Party’s xiaokang goal by eliciting the “people’s approval.” According to this narrative, victory in the Escape Poverty Battle has effectively demonstrated the CCP’s “Marxist character”—a key stated aim of the Party History Campaign.


Download the full report here:

Annual Report 2021_Full
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Introduction: Studying Party History for Xi's New Era

By Anna Scott Bell

Annual Report 2020_Intro
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An Assessment of the Impact of the Chinese Communist Party’s Manipulation of History in the Past Century

By Willy Lam

Annual Report 2021_Lam
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History as Patriotism: But Can Discipline Solve Structural Issues?

By Joseph Fewsmith

Annual Report 2021_Fewsmith
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The Party History Study and Education Campaign

By Timothy Cheek

Annual Report 2021_Cheek
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Yada, Yada, Yada: Who’s Listening to Xi Jinping?

By David Ownby

Annual Report 2021_Ownby
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The International Affairs Narrative in the Party History Study and Education Campaign

By Yun Sun

Annual Report 2021_Sun
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“Millet and Rifles” to “World-Class”: Using History to Define the PLA’s Future

By Kim Fassler

Annual Report 2021_Fassler
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The Chinese Communist Party Celebrates Its Centennial: Xi Jinping Asserts His Authority over Cadres and the Masses

By Wen-Hsuan Tsai

Annual Report 2021_Tsai
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Propatainment: Party History Education in China

By Wenfang Tang

Annual Report 2021_Tang
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Consuming The History of the Party: The Consecration of Citizens for Xi Jinping’s New Era

By Mike Gow

Annual Report 2021_Gow
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The Xiaokang Completion Proclamation, the Escape Poverty Battle, and the Interface between Discourse and Practice

By Holly Snape

Annual Report 2021_Snape
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