Xi Jinping‘s new history of Chinese communism has little room for criticism of
In February Mr. Xi issued a revised version of “A Brief History of the Communist Party of China,” the official party history, in preparation for next month’s commemoration of the party’s 100th anniversary. This edition plays down Mao’s atrocities, in particular softening the party’s historic 1981 condemnation of the Cultural Revolution. That places Mr. Xi in the dubious company of dictators for whom “yesterday’s weather can be changed by decree”—a power
attributed in 1942 to Franco, Stalin and Hitler.
Many of the victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a 1966-76 purge of “counterrevolutionary elements,” were respected party leaders who Mao feared might threaten his personal power. Mr. Xi’s father, who had previously been demoted from vice premier to deputy manager of a tractor factory, was jailed and beaten. The teenage Mr. Xi suffered as well, and his half-sister, Xi Heping, died after persecution by the revolution’s Red Guards.
It is striking that Mr. Xi would play down this crime that brutalized his family and him. Perhaps because he is now emulating Mao in seeking to become general secretary for life, he wants the Chinese people to know as little as possible about the chaotic final decade of Mao’s prolonged reign. The analysis of Mao’s mistakes in launching the Cultural Revolution, which likely left a death toll of more than one million, is largely replaced by a lengthy discussion of Chinese achievements in that period.
This sanitizing of history, reported by the party-affiliated Sing Tao Daily in Hong Kong as a straightforward news item, might not be obvious to the average noncommunist reader. Communist ideological debates are often deliberately obscure. But party members must pay punctilious attention even to small changes in convoluted language. Failure to do so can have serious consequences.
In April the party launched a telephone hot line and online platform for reporting “historical nihilists,” who fail to comply with the official party line. Since becoming president in 2013, Mr. Xi has condemned historical nihilists in the Soviet Union for repudiating Stalin and causing “chaos in Soviet ideology.” That history, and the Soviet Union’s eventual fall, informs his reasoning in revising Chinese communist history. The change is a warning to party members to avoid harsh criticism of Mao or the Cultural Revolution. Under Mr. Xi’s anticipated lifelong reign, there will be no Chinese equivalent of Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” exposing the crimes of the Stalin era.
Americans should take heed: Censorship that starts in China doesn’t stay in China. The power of the Chinese state distorts U.S. discussion of China, from
ban on discussion of the possibility that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan lab—lifted only in late May—to the harassment and demonetizing of YouTube personalities who criticize Mr. Xi. Similar pressures silence the U.S. movie industry. Hollywood hasn’t had a major production critical of China since 1998, when Disney CEO
asked forgiveness for depicting China’s brutalization of Tibet in “Kundun.”
Chinese youth receive years of official indoctrination about their country’s “century of humiliation” by foreign powers beginning in the 19th century. But knowledge of the far greater damage Mao inflicted on his own subjects in the 20th century is buried. This version of history is also silent about the sacrifices made by the “American imperialists” who defeated Imperial Japan and liberated China in World War II.
That assault on historical truth also reinforces dangerous feelings of grievance in a generation of young Chinese. One day their belligerence could lead China to war. Already, the nationalist enthusiasm for boycotts of companies that protest China’s mistreatment of its Muslim minorities is a bad sign for China’s peaceful relations with the rest of the world.
In our experiences as a teacher and a student, we have observed that too many young Americans don’t know enough history to argue effectively with their Chinese counterparts, even in the freedom of an American university. Many now consider it politically incorrect even to try.
But pushing back against Chinese communist falsehoods is essential. U.S. information efforts in Western Europe during the early Cold War and in Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1980s had an advantage: People could readily discern the clumsiness of crude Soviet propaganda. They turned instead to Radio Free Europe, along with the BBC, for real news.
Those Western information efforts were successful because they became a recognized source of truth. Against the technologically sophisticated and more dangerous miseducation of Chinese youth, America needs to launch an even stronger effort to argue for the truth. More important, it needs Americans who know the history and why it matters.
Mr. Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia (1982-86), U.S. ambassador to Indonesia (1986-89) and deputy defense secretary (2001-05). Mr. Drexel, a research assistant at AEI, studied Chinese state surveillance and censorship at Tsinghua University.
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