The 2021 Party History Study Campaign Stresses Revolution and Sacrifice

Image: According to media reporting, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping “teaches the first lesson” at the Party History Study and Education Mobilization Conference held in Beijing on February 20. (Source: Xinhua).

On June 15, Qiushi, the leading theoretical journal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) published an article by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (习近平) titled, “Taking history as a mirror, use history to demonstrate convictions, know history and love the party, know history and love the country” (以史为镜, 以史明志, 知史爱党, 知史爱国, yi shi wei jing, yi shi mingzhi, zhishi ai dang, zhishi aiguo) (Qiushi, June 15). Comprised of a collection of relevant quotes from Xi that date back to 2013, the article is the latest in a massive party history propaganda and education campaign on a scale unseen since the Mao era. The purpose of this campaign is clear—in Xi’s own words from 2015: “As long as we have a thorough understanding…[of history]…it is not difficult to realize that without the leadership of the Communist Party of China, our country and our people could not have achieved today’s accomplishments, nor risen to the position we currently occupy in the world” (Qiushi, June 15).

To summarize, the party history study campaign is aimed at indoctrinating a “correct” and progressive view of history that presents the CCP as the successful and legitimate leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Xi Jinping Thought as the scientific guiding force for the Sinicization of Marxism, shoring up domestic support for the party and bolstering its ideological competitiveness during a new era of enhanced great power competition.

The 2021 Party History Study Campaign

This year’s party history study campaign kicked off on February 20, when Xi delivered a speech at the Party History Study and Education Mobilization Conference (CCTV, February 20). Several days later, the Party History Study Education Leading Small Group issued the “Notice on Seriously Studying and Implementing General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Important Speech at the Party History Study and Education Mobilization Conference” ([关于认真学习贯彻习近平总书记在党史学习教育动员大会上的重要讲话的通知], guanyu renzhen xuexi guanche Xi Jinping zong shuji zai dang shi xuexi jiaoyu dongyuan dahui shang de zhongyao jianghua he tongzhi), calling on party groups at all levels to study and implement the spirit of Xi’s speech (Xinhua, February 24).

During his speech, Xi noted that he has consistently prioritized the study of party history since being elected to the Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress in 2012 (Qiushi, March 31). Long-time China watcher Bill Bishop observed that Xi also oversaw party history work in the 17th Party Congress, and that “there may be few officials in China more steeped in Party History than Xi” (Sinocism, March 31).   

In April, the official state paper People’s Daily reported on a notice issued by the Central Office of the CCP that provided guidance on propaganda and education activities for the CCP centenary celebration on the mass theme of “Forever Follow the Party” (永远跟党走, yongyuan gen dang zou). It said that the centennial publicizing campaign would be split into two stages: before May 2021, propaganda organs were directed to focus on recent developmental and economic policies—highlighting the state’s successful achievements in poverty alleviation and the 13th Five-Year Plan (FYP, 2016-2020), as well as spreading awareness about the priorities articulated in the 14th FYP (2021-2025). From May until the end of 2021, the second stage of the CCP’s propaganda campaign would focus on “studying, propagating, and implementing” Xi’s forthcoming CCP centennial speech in July (People’s Daily, April 12). The China Media Project noted a simultaneous release of 80 national propaganda slogans, “unprecedented in the reform era before 2019, when a list of 70 propaganda slogans was issued for the 70th anniversary of the PRC” (China Media Project, April 14; Shwm.gov.cn, April 1).

The party has pursued innovative ways to spread its message. Political organs in the government, military, and judiciary have carried out party history study sessions “at all levels” (People’s Daily, April 13). A new museum dedicated to the CCP has opened in Beijing (Xinhua, May 19), and culture and tourism authorities nationwide have also heavily promoted “red tourism” (红色旅游, hongse lüyou) and leveraging “red [cultural] resources” (红色资源, hongse ziyuan) to engage the younger generations in particular (Xinhua, May 10; gz.xinhuanet.com, May 7).  The CCP has developed a variety of interactive educational materials including dedicated web portals, televised knowledge competitions, animated shorts, documentaries, feature films, and a 365-episode radio series on “The Hundred Years of the Communist Party of China” (1921.org.cn, accessed June 16; dswxyjy.org.cn, accessed June 16; Qiushi, June 16). It has also published a new “Short History of the Chinese Communist Party” ([中国共产党简史], zhongguo gongchandang jian shi) that appears to obscure previous official criticisms of catastrophes in the party’s history, such as the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward (China Brief, May 17; RFA, April 14). Around the same time, China’s internet regulators announced a new platform to fight “historical nihilism”—cracking down on historical narratives (including the defamation of martyrs and other sensitive criticisms) that do not align with what the party deems correct (ChinaFile, May 14).

Self-Revolution and Sacrifice for a New Era of Increased Competition

One interesting theme in the recent party history education campaign is the emphasis on revolutionary zeal and conflict. Although state propagandists have diligently crafted a triumphant and positivist narrative of the party’s history, they have also focused on the need to prepare for continuing struggle and sacrifice. This is most evident in the prescriptions to maintain “self-revolution” (自我革命, ziwo geming). According to Xi, “Self-revolution is the most unique character of our party, and it is also our party’s greatest advantage.” Shi Zhongquan (石仲泉), a former deputy director of the CCP Central Committee Party History Research Office, highlighted six specific major instances of self-revolution in the CCP’s history, drawing a line from Xi Jinping’s famous “fighting tigers,” “swatting flies” and “hunting foxes” anti-corruption campaigns back to formative revolutionary moments such as the Zunyi Conference and the Yan’an Rectification Movement. Shi observed that “the hundred years of history of the Chinese Communist Party, from the perspective of party building, is a history of self-revolution with the courage to turn the sword inward…forever maintaining the vitality of the party” (Xinhua, April 6). Building on this notion of self-revolution being integral to the party’s future, another article in the People’s Daily said that continuing self-revolution was necessary to maintain the CCP’s purity and vitality in order to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (People’s Daily, June 18)—tying it to Xi’s nationalistic legacy-building project.

A recent manifesto (宣言, xuanyan) published by state media on June 7, titled “China has not failed socialism” (中国没有辜负社会主义, Zhongguo meiyou gufu shehui zhuyi), declared that “Crisis is the touchstone of the [Chinese] system,” and cited recent victories in China’s wars against the coronavirus pandemic and absolute poverty as examples of the superiority of the Chinese system—both at home and abroad (Xinhua, June 7). Such war-fighting rhetoric comes against the backdrop of broader trends toward emphasizing military sacrifice and martyrdom—notably demonstrated by Xi’s strong remarks last year on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War (which China refers to as the ‘war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea’) as well as a recent propaganda push to recognize Chinese martyrs who died fighting Indian forces during an outbreak  of border violence at Galwan valley in June 2020 (Xinhua, October 23, 2020; Global Times, June 16).

Conclusion

Writing in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Daily, a military scholar quoted Xi as saying that “History is the best textbook. For us Communists, the history of the Chinese revolution is the best nourishment,” and argued that as the CCP prepares for its centennial celebrations, the Chinese people must prepare to take lessons learned from the Long March into the new era “to win new victories in the comprehensive construction of a modern socialist country” (PLA Daily, April 7). The manifesto published in early June concluded more explicitly amid exhortations to remember the CCP’s history of “struggle and sacrifice” as China faces a new crisis between two ideas, capitalism and socialism, in an era of increasing global competition (Xinhua, June 7).

Apart from external competition, there are other reasons why the CCP might choose to stress overcoming conflict and sacrifice in the lead up to its centennial celebrations. Although China responded better to last year’s historic pandemic than most other countries, coronavirus-related shocks exposed deep vulnerabilities in the state’s social safety net even as the economy recovers gradually (Caixin, March 8). The party-state has also responded awkwardly to growing demographic pressures by implementing unpopular policies to increase the birth rate and raise the retirement age (China Digital Times, June 1; VOA, March 17). And despite passing multiple measures to further tighten censorship regulations (China Brief, April 23), the CCP has found it difficult to entirely quash continuing pockets of discontent. Amid these challenges, the 2021 party history study campaign has strongly stressed party loyalty above all as well as the recent and highly memorable biological metaphor that younger generations must “inherit red genes” (传承好红色基因, chuancheng hao hongse jiyin) (Chinanews.com, April 13). But it seems unlikely that revolutionary callbacks and top-down mass propaganda campaigns alone will be enough to secure such loyalty. To do that, the CCP will need to prove itself responsive to the needs of 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, as well as being flexible enough to adapt to unseen challenges (both domestic and foreign) in the future.