9 min read

Guest #12: History resolution lacks history

At the 6th Plenum, the Party Central Committee adopted a resolution on history. The Party made this document public on November 16.

We are pleased to present below insights from three thinkers – Kerry Brown, Manoj Kewalramani and Jude Blanchette – on the resolution. A common thread that runs through their pieces below is that this resolution on history, in fact, lacks history. Put it another way, this document, at its core, is not about the past; it’s about the political power and vision to shape China’s future.

Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London:

The 2021 Communist Party Resolution on History: More About the Future than the Past

Early in 2021, the Central Institute of Party History and Literature (中央党史和文献研究院) produced a ‘Brief History of the Communist Party’ (共产党简史).  At around 200 pages, this new text was presumably meant to be more accessible than the two-volume work produced by the Party School Archives a decade ago.

An update of the official history of the Party is overdue. The resolution of 1945 authorised by Mao gave the official account of the first 24 years as the Communist Party struggled to survive against Nationalist and Japanese onslaughts. It also cemented Mao’s status as the key leader – something that he held onto till his death in 1976.

36 years after that, in 1981, the Deng era received benediction by having its own Resolution. This Resolution managed to create consensus over the thorny issue of Mao’s status.  Additionally, it serves as the best way to understand how the core ideological commitments of the previous decades could be jettisoned so easily. The Resolution consigned class struggle and pure state control of the economy to the dustbin of history.

The 1981 Resolution also tried to show that the narrative from the founding of the Party onwards was consistent and unified. Despite this, it is hard to not wonder whether the stories before and after the Deng reforms of 1978 were radically different.

Xi Jinping’s comments on Party development since coming to power in 2012 have been that while the pathway for the party state is one of learning, adapting, changing, it has always been proceeding in one direction. The Plenum, which ended in Beijing on November 11, declared that a third assessment has now been approved.

Resolution Three, if we can call it that, has been interpreted in some quarters as the next instalment of the ‘Xi the Autocrat’ story. It is seen as the latest of a series of moves, the most infamous being the removal of term limits in 2018, that show Xi’s intention to stay in place perpetually.

They point out that in the text of this recent Resolution, Xi’s name occurs more often than any other leader’s since 1949, including Mao. In this framework, the Resolution Three is simply a restructuring of Party history to fit the pattern of culminating in the perfect leadership of the current national leader.

In fact, the Resolution Three shows the ambitions of the current administration beyond Xi’s time in power. While Xi gets name checked about 28 times in the text, this pales into insignificance next to the more important term — ‘the Party’. That occurs well over 450 times. On every line of every page, the Party makes an appearance.

The absolute centrality of the Party in economic, social, cultural and political life is never questioned. The historic mission mentioned in the Resolution Three may well be to rejuvenate the nation — but make no mistake, the Party is the only means by which this can be done and the only game in town – now, and into the future.

Not justifying, but perfecting the Party is the main theme from a third of the way through Resolution Three to its end. Instead of offering a detailed narrative of the last 40 years as one might expect from the title, a series of central issues are dealt with, starting from the party itself and the need for self discipline and unity, along with loyalty from its members, then economic, ecological, administrative, legal, social and cultural development. The tone is more of a manifesto.

Surprisingly, it is also a critique. In many of the areas covered, admission is made of mistakes in the past. In the section on self-governance, the text berates lack of political conviction’ in the recent past. ‘Deep seated institutional problems’ are alluded to in the section on deepening reform. Misguided policies and ideas are criticised later.

These self-criticisms occur before the new purposefulness, focus and drive of the current ‘new’ era is lauded. To sugar the bullet, no specifics are given for when these mistakes happened. They figure vaguely, except when leaders who fell in Xi’s era like Zhou Yongkang or Ling Jihua were mentioned.

This is a special era, the last section of the Resolution Three states: ‘In the first stage, from 2020 to 2035, we will see that socialist modernization is basically realized. In the second stage, from 2035 to the middle of this century, we will develop China into a great modern socialist country.’ These are the predetermined track lines of the story that the Party needs to run to. The Resolution occurs at a time when the country’s economy and military power have grown to an extent it would never have been possible to envisage in 1981 (the time of the last resolution).

That is why this particular document is more about shaping the future than it is about the past. And while Xi Jinping’s style of leadership is apportioned a huge role, it is the Party that has no time limits to its period in power, rather than the mere mortal, Xi Jinping!

Manoj Kewalramani, Fellow-China Studies, The Takshashila Institution:

The 2021 history resolution is about the future

There are three important takeaways from the resolution on history. First, contrary to past resolutions on history, this one is not about addressing moments of turbulence and fiction of the past or engaging in reflection on them. Instead, it is about establishing a narrative of glory around the Party’s 100-year journey to the present.

For instance, the resolution argues that over the past 100 years, the Party has “fundamentally transformed the future of the Chinese people.” It argues that the people have been “freed from bullying, oppression, and subjugation.” and that the Party has led them in “opening up the right path to national rejuvenation.” It says that in the past 100 years, “China has moved from a state of disunity and division to a high level of unity and solidarity, from weakness and poverty to strength and moderate prosperity in all respects, and from suffering invasion and bullying to becoming independent, self-reliant, and confident.”

In setting this narrative,the Party is being placed at the center of political, economic and social life in China. For instance, the resolution says that “both the facts of history and the reality of today prove that without the Communist Party of China, there would be no new China and no national rejuvenation.” In this sense, the Party, led by its chief representatives – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping – is the key actor shaping the history of the People’s Republic.

At the same time, the role of these chief representatives is critical. These men have thought, acted, innovated and steered the Party, State, economy and society towards fulfilling the Party’s “original aspiration”. In this version of history, it is the Party’s leadership rather than the people’s effort or entrepreneurship that has been primarily responsible for the “great glories and victories of the past hundred years.”

The narrative not only legitimises a greater role for the Party in the future, but it also implies that to achieve national rejuvenation this greater role is necessary.

Second, the discussion about different historical periods in the resolution does not appear to be driven by the objective of rehabilitating or undermining the legacies of Mao, Deng, Jiang or Hu. There is a linear, albeit occasionally bumpy, progression of history through the different periods, identified as the eras of New-Democratic Revolution, Socialist Revolution and Construction, and Reform, Opening Up, and Socialist Modernization, leading up to the New Era. The purpose appears to be to project Xi Jinping as not just an inheritor but also an innovator, cementing his legacy and legitimising his continued authority.

The resolution positions Xi as a man of unique intellect, acumen and leadership skills. For instance, it says that the Central Committee with Xi at its core “demonstrated great historical initiative, tremendous political courage, and a powerful sense of mission.” Xi’s leadership is praised for the Party having launched “major initiatives, pushed ahead with many major tasks, and overcome a number of major risks and challenges,” while also having “solved many tough problems that were long on the agenda but never resolved and accomplished many things that were wanted but never got done.”

Xi is also portrayed as a thinker and the “principal founder of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” This thought is described as “Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century.” The resolution also establishes this thought’s “guiding role” for the Party’s future endeavours and Xi’s position as the core of the Central Committee and the whole Party. From this, flows the argument of the importance of persisting with Xi at the helm, particularly given the profound changes that the world and China are currently undergoing.

Third, the resolution offers a whole-hearted endorsement of Xi’s policies across the board since the 18th Party Congress. Therefore, it suggests more continuity than any dramatic change. But there is no particular insight into any specific policy measures that one can expect.

Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies:

There is still a great deal to digest and understand in the History Resolution. Here I offer a few initial observations.

There is a surprising lack of history in the document. Even for those of us who didn’t expect the Resolution to dwell too long on the Mao period, the conclusion of the 1945 and 1981 Resolutions were affirmed here, as if to say “we’ve already covered that. Time to move on.”

This helps clarify that Xi is no Maoist — he did not drift from the 1981 Resolution’s condemnation of the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. So too did Xi breeze through the Reform and Opening period, de-emphasizing Deng Xiaoping’s personal role in transforming China after the death of Mao. I read this less as a repudiation of Reform and Opening, which was affirmed as important for China’s modernization, but more as an attempt to position Xi as modern China’s second most important figure after Mao.

The bulk of the document was a recitation of the immediate problems Xi inherited (lax Party discipline, a broken growth model, etc) and the steps he has taken in his first two terms to address these issues. The intended conclusion is obvious: Xi has done an impressive job and deserves to remain in power. (But of course, this is self-reverence, as Xi personally led the drafting of the document.)

The issue of Taiwan received considerable treatment in the Resolution. Two assessments, now likely to stand for decades, are worth noting.

The first is that the document demarcates 2016 as the divide between a healthy cross-Strait relationship and one marked by “stepped up separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence.’” Of course, this is another way of saying that it was the democratic election of the DPP’s Tsai Ying-wen to the office of the presidency that spoiled progress in the relationship. Beijing has now enshrined blame for the recent instability on the result of a free and fair democratic election.

Equally important was an adjustment of the longstanding assessment on unification, “time and momentum are on [Beijing’s] side.” Interestingly, this wording now reads:  “For realizing China’s complete reunification, time and momentum are always on our side.” [Emphasis added] This is a smart statement from Xi, for it both signals confidence (Don’t worry, we’ve got this under control), yet also dials down the heat (I’m under no real time pressure here).

For those of you who know Chinese, I (Adam) reflected on the resolution and history during a recent interview with Voice of America:  

专访学者倪凌超: 谈中共历史决议与中国公众智商
Interview: transcript
Interview: video