History and Heritage: As COVID Misery Mounts, Xi Looks to the Past for Lessons and Legitimacy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 23

General Secretary Xi waves to people in a park dedicated to Zhu Xi, a renowned 12th century Chinese philosopher, in Nanping City, Fujian (source: Xinhua)

Long lines of cars have recently been reported at Beijing’s funeral homes and crematoriums (VOA Chinese, December 17). This body backlog belies official assurances that COVID-19  deaths in China’s capital remain in the single digits. At times, the dichotomy between the reality of the COVID-19 wave sweeping the city and official rhetoric has verged on the absurd. For example, in a December 13 briefing, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees epidemic prevention efforts, claimed that in Beijing, only “fifty critically ill COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized, most of whom have preexisting conditions” (People’s Republic of China [PRC] State Council, December 13). Such statements are undoubtedly damaging with public trust in the government currently so low. The unprecedented mass protests in late November against stringent epidemic prevention measures, which likely prompted the rapid zero-COVID phase-out, demonstrated the extent of popular dissatisfaction with excessive COVID controls and economic stagnation (China Brief, November 28).

As the latest COVID-19 wave hit China, state media heavily covered the 85th anniversary of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, the horrific mass slaughter of Chinese civilians by Imperial Japanese forces in the Republic  of China’s wartime capital. Xinhuanet, the National Memorial Network and other media platforms launched a large-scale online campaign: “Never Forget National Humiliation, Fulfill the China Dream” (勿忘国耻、圆梦中华, wu wang guochi, yuanmeng zhonghua) (XHBY.net, December 9). The official national memorial service in Nanjing on December 13  featured  a speech by Politburo Standing Committee Member Cai Qi (Xinhua Daily Telegraph, December 13). Cai venerated the victims of the massacre, but also noted it is a “comfort to these martyrs and compatriots, that after generations of striving, the nation has undergone momentous transformations to build a modern socialist country”—a China that “stands tall among the world’s nations.” This focus on the interim between 1937 and the present is unsurprising, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), at least militarily, played a tertiary role in determining the course of the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). When Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937, the invading forces met fierce resistance from the crack, KMT National Republican Army (NRA) forces at the Battle of Shanghai, which preceded the Nanjing massacre [1] However, China’s resurrection from victim to victor is a central element of the CCP’s historical narrative, which emphasizes the leading role of the Party in restoring China to its rightful civilizational greatness following a “century of humiliation” in which the Japanese invasion was a nadir (China Brief, October 8, 2021).

In recalling the historical sacrifices of the Sino-Japanese War and the successes that followed, the party seeks to instill in the Chinese people the mindset that great achievements require immense sacrifices. This language of “People’s War” (人民战争, renmin zhanzheng) is now used to characterize the PRC’s ongoing, three-year struggle with COVID-19. For example, a recent People’s Daily editorial, under the penname Ren Zhongping (任仲平) denoting the official party perspective, stated that under the leadership of Xi and the CCP, the trials of the past three years have strengthened the unity and fighting spirit of the masses (People’s Daily, December 15).

No Victory Lap

Since attaining a third term at the 20th Party Congress in late October, General Secretary Xi Jinping has achieved some modest foreign policy successes. In November, he met with a bevy of world leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who visited Beijing in early November and U.S. President Joseph R. Biden on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia (Xinhuanet, November 4; November 16). In addition to orchestrating a slight lowering of the temperature in U.S.-China relations and a more significant thaw in ties with leading European powers such as Germany and France, Xi has sought to invigorate emerging strategic partnerships (Xinhuanet, November 15). Earlier this month, he made a state visit to Saudi Arabia, where he presided over the launch of two new Sino-centric multilateral fora designed to intensify Beijing’s engagement with the Middle East and North Africa, the China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council summit (China Daily, December 10).

For Xi, glittering summits with foreign counterparts, which invariably receive widespread state media coverage, cannot compensate for the recent string of setbacks Xi has suffered at home since the 20th Party Congress as the PRC’s exit from the “dynamic clearance” (动态清零, dongtai qingling) zero-COVID has veered badly off script. The initial spur for the mass protests that broke out in major cities across China at the end of November was national outrage over the unnecessary deaths of as many as forty people in an Urumqi, Xinjiang apartment fire on November 24 due to strict COVID-controls, which spurred public pushback against the zero-COVID policy. However, this popular outrage quickly expanded to include broader critiques of CCP rule (Global Taiwan Brief, December 14). Although the CCP blamed “hostile foreign forces” for the short-lived, but impactful “white paper revolution” protests, epidemic prevention restrictions were rapidly loosened in early December.

Despite the issuance of a series of extensive official guidelines, the latest of which is the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council’s “ten guidelines” (十条, shitiao), the rapid rollback of the zero-COVID policy appears to have proceeded in a largely ad hoc manner  (National Health Commission [NHC], December 9). In a clear sign of early stress on the medical infrastructure, on December 9, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) issued strict pricing guidelines for the medical supply market that require sellers to charge market prices, ensuring price transparency, forbidding price gouging, fixing, collusion or discrimination (SAMR, December 9). Similar guidelines were issued for online sales of daily necessities, including grain, vegetables, eggs and meat (SAMR, December 10).

Instead of bringing relief, the rapid lifting of epidemic prevention measures has plunged many Chinese people into another round of misery as COVID-19 spreads rapidly, overwhelming the healthcare system and threatening death on a mass scale. Consequently, the juxtaposition between the realities of life for ordinary Chinese and the triumphalist image projected by CCP propaganda organs has grown starker. In the early 1990s, when public disillusionment with CCP leadership was high following the Tiananmen massacre and the fall of the Soviet Union, the party leveraged “patriotic” education and propaganda to craft an image as the guardian of China’s ancient civilizational greatness.

Custodian of Chinese Civilization

Xi has consistently stressed the need for China to build up its  “cultural self-confidence.” His Party Congress work report includes a whole section on “Building Cultural Confidence and Strength and Securing New Successes in Developing Socialist Culture” (Xinhua, October 25). A key element of these efforts is “extending the appeal and reach of Chinese civilization.” Xi stressed  “we will stay firmly rooted in Chinese culture; collect and refine the defining symbols and best elements of Chinese culture and showcase them to the world; will accelerate the development of China’s discourse systems; better tell China’s stories; make China’s voice heard, and present a China that is credible, appealing, and respectable.” This echoes Xi’s remarks at a Politburo study session in May on the importance of researching the origins of early Chinese civilization that: “Chinese Communists are not historical or cultural nihilists. We must never forget our heritage or belittle ourselves” (QStheroy.cn, July 16). The study session’s purpose was to further the Chinese Civilization Origins Project, an effort launched in 2002 that enlisted a cross-disciplinary array of scholars to unearth new information on the history of early Chinese civilization from 3500 to 1500 BC (China Daily, May 29). At the session, Xi lauded the project for “generating evidence of one million years of humanity, ten thousand years of culture, and more than five thousand years of civilization in China.”

The official effort to showcase the glory of Chinese civilization for both domestic and international audiences appears set to accelerate during Xi’s third term. The Image Possibilities Coproduction Plan, a multinational collaboration between state media conglomerates, including China International Communications Group and the Fujian Provincial Administration of Radio and Television, and private media companies, including Bilbili and the U.S.-based Discovery Channel, recently selected 62 documentary proposals for production (State Council Information Office, December 14; China.cn, August 8). The documentaries selected by the Image Possibilities Coproduction Plan, which operates under the guidance of the State Council Information Office, the Cyberspace Administration of China, and the National Radio and Television Administration, will showcase topics including “fine traditional Chinese culture” and building a “community of common destiny.”


For the CCP, espousing the unique contributions of Chinese civilization to humanity goes beyond national pride to encompass a broader corrective to perceived foreign misconceptions about China. A key theme in Xi’s remarks to the May Politburo study session is that while Chinese civilization has greatly benefited from exchanges with other civilizations, China has always followed its own unique development path. Moreover, Xi stressed that “many in the West view China as a modern nation state through the prism of Western modernization theory instead of approaching China from the perspective of its over 5,000-year history of civilization” and, as a result, “fail to truly understand our past, present, and future” (QStheroy.cn, July 16).

The combination of tremendous confidence in China’s deep civilizational legacy and belief in the CCP’s entitlement to carry this tradition forward has fostered a strong sense among the top leadership that they are engaged in a sacred mission. In their view, the best means to realize the “China Dream” is by following the CCP’s dominant contemporary ideology of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (Xinhua, July 28). Consequently, CCP leadership is liable to view any domestic or international doubt regarding this narrative as a challenge to its self-assigned historic mission. Nevertheless, the CCP cannot claim a monopoly on Chinese identity. This dynamic was poignantly illustrated during a demonstration in Beijing, where students pushed back against a school official who said their actions were motivated by anti-China foreign forces, retorting: “Was it the foreign forces that set the fire in Xinjiang?,” and, “When you say foreign forces, are you talking about Marx and Engels?” (YouTube, November 28). Such sentiments strike the CCP at its most sensitive point, which is that Marxist-Leninism is ultimately a foreign import, hence the need to always modify it to include “with Chinese characteristics.” Hence, a significant portion of educated Chinese, particularly young people, may believe that Xi and perhaps even the CCP itself are unfaithful stewards of China’s great civilizational heritage.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: cbeditor@jamestown.org.


[1] The heroism of the NRA forces at Shanghai is lionized even in PRC media, see the 2020 blockbuster “The Eight Hundred” [八佰], YouTube. September 2020).