Raiders of the Propaganda Arc: The CCP Touts Archaeology to Boost China’s “Cultural Self-Confidence”
Image: On May 11, 2020, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping visited the Yungang Grottoes [云冈石窟] near Datong City (Shanxi Province) to "inspect the historical and cultural heritage preservation situation."
The CCP’s New Propaganda Campaign to Promote “Cultural Self-Confidence”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which once encouraged mass campaigns of vandalism directed against antiquities and other symbols of China’s imperial history during the Cultural Revolution, has embarked on an effort to promote the value of archaeology and historical studies. Archaeology has been widely disdained in recent years among Chinese youth as a “cold door” university major [冷门专业] and a field that offers poor pay and limited career prospects. However, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has lent his direct personal involvement to a multifaceted effort to extol the value of archaeology and the study of China’s ancient history. This effort is bound up with a new propaganda campaign to promote “cultural self-confidence” [文化自信] among citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and especially among China’s youth. The new messaging campaign reveals the continuing anxiety of Xi and other CCP leaders for the potentially corrosive effects of a widespread loss of public faith in the communist system, as well as the continuing imperative to harness patriotism as a source of support for the regime.
The September Politburo Collective Study Session
Major CCP propaganda campaigns rarely spring into existence unheralded, and the current campaign related to archaeology was signaled at least as early as August 2019, when Xi chaired a forum on historical preservation at Dunhuang, the site of a famous series of Buddhist cave temple complexes in Gansu Province. The current propaganda campaign opened in earnest on 28 September, with a Politburo meeting and “collective study” session [集体学习] session dedicated to the topics of archaeology and cultivating a greater appreciation for Chinese civilization. The 28 September meeting reportedly included a presentation by Chen Xingcan [陈星灿], the director of the Archaeology Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who spoke about “Chinese civilization investigation engineering projects,” and offered “opinions and recommendations” for the Politburo to consider. The role of Xi Jinping was made paramount, as is now de rigueur for any description of a CCP leadership meeting, and official summaries noted that Xi “chaired the study and gave a speech” on the primary topic of the day.
Qiushi Takes Up the Cause of Archaeology
The theme of the 30 November issue of Qiushi, the official theoretical journal of the CCP Central Committee, reinforced the importance of archaeology. Under Xi’s tenure Qiushi has become ever-more a vehicle for promoting Xi’s cult of personality—with the standard format now consisting of a lead article published under Xi’s name, followed by 4-6 articles by other authors or party organizations that parrot back and praise Xi’s ideas. The banner article for 30 November was Xi’s “Building Archaeology with Chinese Characteristics and Chinese Style, Better Understand the Ancient and Profound Chinese Civilization,” which consisted of the full text of the speech Xi presented at the September Politburo study session. This was followed by three supplementary articles that repeated and reemphasized Xi’s statements.
Asserting the Unity of the Chinese Minzu:
The text of Xi’s speech described archaeology as “work with important social and political significance,” and asserted that spreading knowledge of China's historical achievements will “educate and lead the vast [numbers] of cadres and the masses—especially young people—to recognize… the major contributions of Chinese civilization, unceasingly strengthening the [Chinese] nation's cohesion [and] sense of pride.” A noteworthy theme of the text was the repeated use of the word minzu [民族]一which could be variously translated as “people,” “nation,” or “ethnic group”一in a unified sense to describe all of China as a whole: “Archaeological achievements illustrate the multi-sourced unity of the Chinese minzu and Chinese civilization, [and] the unified formation and development course of the country.”
Keeping Historical Analysis Within a Marxist Framework:
Somewhat paradoxically, Xi’s text both repeatedly asserted the unique nature of Chinese civilization (“Chinese civilization possesses its own cultural genes and its own development course”), while also asserting the need to understand China’s development within a universal Marxist theoretical framework: “Persist in dialectical materialism and historical materialism, deeply conduct theory explorations, including inquiries conforming with the real history of human civilization... [and] make great effort to build archaeological studies with Chinese characteristics [and] Chinese style.” Also in line with traditional CCP Marxist discourse, the text asserted the importance of understanding the guilu [规律], or “laws” of social phenomena, in studying Chinese civilization: “Our practices of [modern] innovation must be established upon the guilu of historical development, [and] must proceed upon the correct historical orientation” as determined by the party.
Image: A close-up photo of a Shang Dynasty-era vessel unearthed at Yinxu [殷墟] (near Anyang City, Henan Province), one of China’s oldest and largest archaeological excavation sites. This photo accompanied an article by the Qiushi editorial staff that echoed Xi Jinping’s calls to use archaeological discoveries to boost “cultural self-confidence” among China’s citizens.
The Role of Archaeology and History in Foreign Propaganda:
Xi’s speech asserted that Chinese archaeology and historical research also have an important role to play in building China’s image around the world. Xi stated that archaeology should be used for “foreign propaganda [and] exchange... displaying China's profound civilization to the international community, clearly explaining Chinese civilization's magnificent achievements and major contributions to human civilization, letting the world understand Chinese history and the spirit of the Chinese minzu, [and] thereby... creating a positive international opinion environment.” This is all the more important because “the struggle in the realm of history and culture has long existed... [and we must] use facts to counterattack against various distortions and slanders against the history of the Chinese nation, [and] carry forward China's outstanding traditional culture, offering strong support for strengthening cultural self-confidence.”
Part of this effort to “strengthen the influence and discourse power [话语权] of Chinese archaeology in the realm of international archaeological studies" is to stress how archaeology demonstrates China's contributions to the world through “mutual exchange with other world civilizations.” Although not explicitly linked together in the text, this narrative carries clear implications for Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative; as well as for the ongoing effort to promote Xi’s favored foreign policy formulation of the “Community of a Common Destiny for Mankind” [人类命运共同体], the vague official slogan for a more cooperative and beneficent international order led by China.
In connection with this, Xi’s speech stressed the peaceful nature of China throughout its history, as archaeology and historical studies “demonstrate the peaceful nature of the Chinese people who treasure peace... [and show] the magnanimity of a great nation [that sees] all the world as one family.” This continues a longstanding (if dubious) CCP narrative that China, as both a developing country and a socialist country, is inherently peaceful and could never pose a threat to its neighbors. In contemporary form, this narrative dates back to the “China’s Peaceful Rise” [中国和平崛起] or “China’s Peaceful Development” [中国和平发展] slogans of the early 2000s, as well as efforts to revive elements of Confucian culture that date back to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“Become Steadfast in Cultural Self-Confidence”:
Although the spread of positive historical narratives is envisioned to benefit China’s foreign relations, the text of Xi’s speech affirmed that the primary purpose of this initiative falls in the realm of domestic propaganda. The renewed focus on China’s historical legacies will encourage members of both the party and public to “[become] steadfast in cultural self-confidence” [坚定文化自信]. This focus on “cultural self-confidence” represents a further elaboration on one of the elements of the “four self-confidences” (四个自信)一part of a package of ideological slogans that were adopted into “Xi Jinping Thought” and “core socialist values” at the 19th Party Congress in 2017.
Xi personally emphasized that “cultural self-confidence is [a] more foundational, more widespread, [and] deeper confidence, [and it is a] more fundamental, more profound, [and] more enduring strength… China has a steadfast path of confidence, confidence in theory, confidence in the system [and] its essential nature, [and this] is built on the foundation of cultural self-confidence [from] 5000 years of inherited civilization.” In this sense, Xi’s text directly ties a sense of pride in China’s historical achievements to building loyalty to the CCP party-state.
These themes were reinforced in an amplifying commentary by the Qiushi editorial staff, titled “Offer Solid Support for Cultural Self-Confidence” [为文化自信提供坚实支撑]. In sycophantic language, the commentary stated:
Since the 18th Party Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping has stood on the strategic heights of achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation [and] the Chinese Dream, repeatedly emphasizing the inheritance of Chinese civilization, strengthening cultural self-confidence [and] solidifying minzu spirit, pointing out that: “one minzu, one country, must know who it is, where it comes from, where it's going...”
The Qiushi commentary further asserted that Xi’s guidance on archaeology and historical studies would “strengthen cultural self-confidence to a strategic height,” and “advance the strengthening of cultural self-confidence for the whole party, whole country, [and] people of all nationalities, [and] according to the strategic plan produced by the 19th Party Congress 5th Plenum, promote the building of a socialist culture strong country.”
Although a focus on archaeology might seem an odd topic for a state propaganda campaign, it accords with multiple streams in current CCP ideology. The first is the CCP’s continuing imperative to nurture and leverage Chinese patriotism as a source of support for the regime. This imperative has been seen most prominently over the past year in the unveiling of intensified programs for “patriotic education”一with Chinese youth identified as the key demographic for indoctrination efforts that tie together the country’s historical legacies with a glorious future under perennial CCP rule. Seen through this lens, it is a natural step to exhort the public to place Shang Dynasty bronzeware in a line of historical development that leads directly to the current PRC leadership.
The second, and perhaps even more important factor, is the effort of the state propaganda apparatus to build Xi Jinping’s ever-expanding cult of personality. The slogan of “cultural self-confidence” has been presented as one of Xi’s significant theoretical innovations. It also further plays into the regular invocations of “Since the 18th Party Congress…” presented in state media一an emphasis that more and more disregards the initiatives of previous leaders, and emphasizes the new wisdom and innovation brought to state affairs since Xi’s accession to the leadership in 2012. Therefore, the call for greater “cultural self-confidence” is not merely associated with a greater appreciation of Chinese history一it is an indirect and thinly veiled call for firmer loyalty to Xi himself. The party media apparatus has responded accordingly, linking the legacies of China’s past dynasties to its increasingly emperor-like CCP General Secretary.
 The three other articles on the theme of history and “cultural self-confidence” in the 30 November issue are: “Offer Solid Support for cultural self-confidence” [为文化自信提供坚实支撑], by the Qiushi Editorial Department; "Strengthening Archaeology and Historical Cultural Heritage Preservation" [加强考古和历史文化遗产保护] by Liu Yuzhu [刘玉珠], Party Committee Chair and Director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration [国家文物局党组书记、局长]; and "One Life, One Thing, One Dunhuang" [一生一事一敦煌], by the CCP Gansu Provincial Committee.
 The “four self-confidences” (四个自信) consist of maintaining “steadfast confidence in the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, confidence in theory, confidence in the system, [and] confidence in [our] culture” [坚定中国特色社会主义道路自信、理论自信、制度自信、文化自信]. (See: “The CCP Politburo Reviews Revised Regulations for Party Affairs” (footnote #1), CACR Blog, December 8, 2020, https://www.ccpwatch.org/single-post/the-ccp-politburo-reviews-revised-regulations-for-party-affairs; and “Keeping Steadfast to the Fundamental Basis of the ‘Four Confidences'” [坚定“四个自信”的基本依据], People’s Daily, November 11, 2017, http://theory.people.com.cn/n1/2016/0707/c49150-28532466.html.) For discussion of “cultural self-confidence” as an element of “Xi Jinping Thought” at the 19th Party Congress, see: Mike Gow, "Xi Jinping’s Civil Sobriety: Cultural Power in the New Era," CACR 2019 Annual Report, https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/183fcc_5cbdc927c3a443b89ac20129f7e61575.pdf.
John Dotson joined the CACR staff as a Senior Analyst in November 2020. Prior to his current role, John served as an analyst with the research firm Pointe Bello, and as the editor of China Brief with the Jamestown Foundation. He also served for six years on the staff of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, where he coordinated staff research on a range of trade and national-security issues on behalf of the US Congress. He performed twenty years of combined active and reserve service as an officer in the U.S. Navy, to include positions at sea, in Japan, in Africa, and the Pentagon. His service in the Navy included four years as an instructor on the faculty of the National Intelligence University, where he taught coursework on military strategy, intelligence analysis, and national security policy. Throughout his multiple roles, John has performed extensive writing and research on a host of China-related topics, to include propaganda and political influence efforts, and elite-level politics within the Chinese Communist Party. He holds an M.A. in National Security Studies from the US Naval War College, and a Master of International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins-SAIS.