China’s Xi Jinping, preparing for a third term, shuts the door on the past

As world leaders in Glasgow, Scotland, attempted to hash out an agreement to confront the global climate crisis in recent days, Chinese President Xi Jinping was not among them. Instead, his attention was on priorities closer to home, where he intends to make history of a different kind at a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party’s top leaders in Beijing in the coming days.

In an unusual flair of ceremony, a meeting of the Central Committee, a decision-making body of 204 top officials, will review — and almost certainly pass — a resolution on the “major achievements and historical experiences” of the party’s first 100 years.

Only two previous leaders of China have similarly adjudicated on party history: Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, and Deng Xiaoping, the strongman leader who unleashed market reforms in 1978. Both used the process to solidify power, settle thorny internal debates about the past and forge ahead with a new agenda.

For Xi, who has amassed personal control of the party to a far greater degree than his immediate predecessors, the passage of a history resolution paves the way for him to break with precedent and take on a third term in power in late 2022. After scrapping presidential term limits in 2018, Xi hopes to fortify expectations of his continued rule by laying out a vision for China comparable in ambition to Mao’s and Deng’s.

“It says a lot about his ambition and how he views himself as leader,” said Jude Blanchette, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The history resolution will mark a new epoch — one that Xi is leading.”

The last history resolution, passed in 1981, came at a difficult moment for the party. After Mao died in 1976, his successors had to confront the legacy of the “great helmsman” at a time when popular works of “scar literature” were exploring the guilt and trauma of the Cultural Revolution, during which Mao directed young zealots to wage a violent class war, resulting in millions of deaths.

The resolution served to set guardrails for criticism of the nation’s founder. It acknowledged Mao’s role in the “the most severe setback” in the party’s history but ruled that his achievements “far outweigh” his shortcomings.

There are few signs that Xi faces comparable internal fissures or the need to explore dark periods of China’s recent past, such as the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

In recent years, Xi has railed against attempts to challenge the party’s official history — efforts he calls “historical nihilism” — and has passed laws that make slandering heroes of the past a criminal offense.

That makes this resolution distinct from those before it, which aimed to resolve concerns over problematic periods of the party’s history and dispel disagreements over a future path, said Deng Yuwen, a former editor at the Study Times, an official Communist Party publication, and now an independent commentator and government critic.

“There is no doubt that Xi’s ‘new era’ will be the focus and the highest priority of the new historical resolution,” Deng said in a video. “There won’t be new content or new breakthroughs in evaluating history.”

Ahead of the plenum, there has been a fresh wave of propaganda stressing Xi’s direct responsibility for recent national achievements. The People’s Daily, the party’s newspaper of record, has been running a series of front-page columns this past week on “crucial choices” Xi made as he “personally planned, implemented and advanced” major policies.

Tuesday’s installment related how Xi’s personal devotion to the coronavirus response at times left him unable to sleep. “Every scientific judgment, every assessment of the situation, every decision to reverse the situation — all needed great political courage and wisdom,” the newspaper declared. “At the helm of this weighty ship was one man.”

“The language is far bolder,” said Manoj Kewalramani, a fellow for China studies at the Takshashila Institution think tank in India who writes a newsletter deciphering the newspaper’s messaging. “It’s no longer subtly telling you that Xi is in command. It is closer to demanding fealty.”

Xi may not face a crisis like the one triggered by Mao’s death, but he regularly speaks about profound changes to the global order unseen in a century that create both threats and a “window of strategic opportunity” for China’s rise.

China has “ushered in great leaps from standing up to getting rich and becoming strong,” Qiushi, the official journal of party theory, wrote on Monday to explain the necessity of another history resolution. Today, it said, the nation faces a challenging journey full of unresolved issues that require the party to “figure out how we can continue to succeed and better answer the problems of our age.”

Xi has set himself firmly at the helm of efforts to bring about the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” it declared.

The focus on Xi’s individual role has drawn comparisons to the personality cult of Mao. But observers of Chinese politics often argue that Xi’s approach is different, shunning the chaotic mass social movements of China’s early years in favor of building party institutions around himself.

“As paradoxical as it may seem, Xi’s ideology is centered around the idea of ruling according to the law,” said Ling Li, a scholar of Chinese politics at the University of Vienna, who has argued that Xi may resurrect a Mao-era “party chairman” title next year as he enters his third term.

But that vision of using law to rule is built not on judicial independence, but rather on melding party control with China’s legal system. He has “championed an effort to build a new party-state legal system where party rules and state laws coexist as an organic whole,” Li said.

Xi’s robust control of Chinese institutions is likely to be at the heart of an ambitious break from China’s economic model of recent decades. In 2017, Xi declared that China had entered a “new era,” and this year he ruled that his predecessor’s goal of building a “moderately prosperous society” had been achieved.

As his expected third term approaches, Xi has begun to disrupt huge portions of the Chinese economy with highly politicized regulatory crackdowns that appear to be a significant rupture from the Deng-era mantra of development being the “only hard truth.”

Instead, Xi has called for “common prosperity,” signaling a new set of priorities for the country. On the emerging agenda are issues such as environmental degradation, a demographic crisis and rampant inequality, but at its core remains a desire to strengthen China by doing away with what Xi sees as sources of division and instability, said Andrew Polk, co-founder of the Trivium China consultancy.

Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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