China's President Xi Jinping is seen in a big screen during an evening news program at a mall in Beijing on November 11, 2021.

China's President Xi Jinping is seen in a big screen during an evening news program at a mall in Beijing on November 11, 2021. Noel Celis / AFP via Getty Images

China Locks Down Its History, to Its Peril and the World’s

Xi Jinping’s effort to cement lifelong power brings rigidity and fragility.

By revising official history to glorify himself, Xi Jinping is taking a page from China’s earlier rulers, not to mention Russia’s Stalin and Putin. But what may have worked in the past is far more dangerous and destabilizing in our hyperconnected present and near future.

The worshipful tones in official Chinese media coverage of this week’s plenum, or meeting, of the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress recall earlier centuries’ attempts to make the past serve the present. The ruthless emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE) killed hundreds of scholarly critics and torched thousands of books to glorify himself and erase the achievements of predecessors and rivals. Not to be outdone, CCP founder Mao Zedong (1893-1976) quipped that although the emperor Qin “buried 460 scholars alive—we have buried 46,000…we have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold.” 

After Mao’s passing in 1976, Deng Xiaoping ascended to become paramount leader of the CCP, and therefore of China. He banned “all forms of personality cult” and installed a collective leadership in the place of the previous de facto emperor, Mao. But that was an illusion: in 1989, CCP Secretary Zhao Ziyang publicly revealed that he—on paper, the country’s the top leader—was not really in charge. Final decisions were made by Deng Xiaoping, under a secret order issued two years earlier at the 13th Party Congress. Deng was retired only in form, not in reality. 

After Deng passed away in early 1997, Jiang Zemin rose to lead the CCP. But neither Jiang nor his successor, Hu Jintao, had the political heft of Mao and Deng, whose prominent roles in the Chinese Communist Revolution underpinned their power to rewrite CCP history, settle questions, and end debates. In 1945, Mao rammed through a party resolution on history that defined himself as the unchallenged leader of the revolution and denounced earlier rivals. In 1981, Deng’s own resolution recognized Mao’s achievements but blamed him for the “left errors of the Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976). This new official version of history broke the grip of Mao’s “thought,” with its continuous revolution and endless class struggle, and freed the Chinese economy to follow a capitalistic path to explosive growth. 

Now the CCP has released a third resolution on history. According to the CCP’s official communique in Chinese and English (courtesy of China Neican), the resolution credits the Party “with Xi Jinping at the core” for the “tremendous transformation from standing up and growing prosperous to becoming strong…China’s national rejuvenation has become an historical inevitability.” The communique also seems to elevate Xi over other post-Mao leaders, in part by stating that he has “solved many tough problems that were long on the agenda but never resolved and accomplished many things that were wanted but never got done. With this, it has prompted historic achievements and historic shifts in the cause of the Party and the country.” This lofty rhetoric likely prepares the party and country for Xi’s continued dominance of the leadership into the 2020s, to be confirmed at next year’s 20th Party Congress. That would mean Xi Jinping would stay in power indefinitely, regardless of formal title, without any clear successor or the constraints of the earlier, post-Deng collective leadership. 

Xi Jinping’s rise to absolute power and rejection of the collective leadership model under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao is, in historical terms, a return to normal. China only emerged a century ago from 3,000 years of emperor rule. What followed—the warlord era, foreign invasion, and civil war—was chaotic and brutal. The victory of the CCP returned a measure of stability to China under the proto-emperor figures of Mao and Deng. If any recent period was abnormal in Chinese history, it was the collective leadership model in-between Deng and Xi. 

China faces an immediate future with a leader who is likely surrounded by the political equivalent of yes-men. (There is only one woman in the Politburo, and none on its all-powerful Standing Committee.) If they wish to survive, China’s elite leaders have little choice but to heap praise upon Xi or risk accusations of secretly plotting his downfall. This atmosphere is not conducive to managing increasingly complex challenges.

And in a system as controlling as modern China’s, this suffocating dynamic shapes far more than internal party politics. It affects everything from political discourse to media and social media. Praise for the Party and its leader is the only kind of utterance tolerated in the public square of China’s internet. The CCP, which has for decades sought to erase undesirable online content, has worked under Xi to fabricate positive social media posts as well—in toto, what the Stanford researcher Jen Pan calls “the largest selective suppression of human expression in history.” 

Though the situation appears stable on the outside, this dual dynamic creates strategic risks. Such an absolutist atmosphere relies on suppressing not just history, but any truthful information that doesn’t shine a positive light on Xi. It could foster risky delusions in Beijing about China’s power and influence, make it harder to tackle its very real domestic challenges, and misunderstand or deliberately misreport the intentions and activities of the U.S. and its allies. In turn, if China’s 68-year-old leader should suddenly become ill or pass from the scene, a succession crisis could easily follow. More directly, any miscalculations made by Xi from this point forward are on him: when it comes to major decisions, there is no one else who can take credit...or blame. 

Matt Brazil is a senior analyst with BluePath Labs, a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, and a former U.S. Army officer and diplomat. 

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