10 min read

Guest #13: Reading Between the Lines of the 2021 History Resolution

The CCP Central Committee adopted a resolution on history at its 6th Plenum in November.

In December, Neican published thoughts from three thinkers – Kerry Brown, Manoj Kewalramani and Jude Blanchette – on the resolution. We are pleased to present another guest post examining this important document.

Patricia Thornton is Associate Professor of Chinese Politics, Merton College, University of Oxford. And she is no stranger to many of you.

In her guest post below, Professor Thornton helps us read between the lines of the new history resolution and its implications. First, she compares the context and content of the 2021 Resolution with those of the two previous Party history resolutions, the first adopted in 1945 following the Yan'an Rectification Movement, and the second adopted in 1981 at the end of the Mao era.

Second, she highlights critical responses to the resolution from thinkers on both the right and left of China's political spectrum. This is a useful counterpoint to Party propagenda that tell us the entire Party and nation is behind the resolution and what it represents.

Third, she points to a number of implications of Xi's continuing campaign to personalise and centralise power. In her words:

Ironically, despite Xi’s call to “draw lessons from history and understand why dynasties rise and fall,” the Party appears to be ignoring the lessons of its past regarding the consolidation of power in the hands of a single leader bent on systematically removing limits to his own unchecked authority.

Professor Thornton's article below is one of the most detailed analysis of the Resolution and related documents currently available in the English language. It is important reading for those wanting to make sense of its implications.

Learning from the Past or Repeating it? Reading Between the Lines of the Sixth Plenum’s History Resolution

Patricia Thornton, Associate Professor of Chinese Politics, Merton College, University of Oxford

With the dust finally settling on Sixth Plenum, we can begin to take stock of its significance. The plenary session, which took place from 8 to 11 November in Beijing, adopted a resolution that has cemented Xi Jinping’s place in the CCP pantheon.

This is only the third time in the Party’s one hundred year history that it has chosen to issue such a definitive (re)statement of its own history: the first such resolution was passed in April 1945 in Yan’an at the Seventh Plenary Session of the Sixth Central Committee, acknowledging Mao’s preeminent position within the Party leadership; the second was adopted in June 1981 in Beijing at the Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee, marking the tumultuous end of the Mao era and the beginning of post-Mao reforms under Deng Xiaoping.

The previous resolutions solidified tectonic realignments within the CCP’s top leadership following years of bitter internecine struggle. They are therefore best understood, according to Suzanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik as “coalition papers, adopted not by the party congress, but instead by the Central Committee.” As such, they offer less a detailed reconstruction of major events than “the agreed upon genesis of the current hierarchy of the CCP’s Central Committee.” and provided the top leaders (Mao and Deng, respectively) enhanced control over the direction of future policy. That said, both the 1945 and 1981 resolutions also offered startlingly frank assessments of the leadership’s failures and shortcomings, capped with a summation of the lessons learned from previous mistakes.

Not so with the document approved by the Sixth Plenum in November, which breaks with established precedent in both context and tone. First, prior to the plenum, there was little evidence of historical matters that needed to be resolved. The 1945 Resolution was adopted as the Second World War was coming to an end with the imminent defeat of Japan: accordingly, the first resolution was written “to learn from past mistakes to avoid future ones...and in order to fight for total victory in the War of Resistance Against Japan.” The 1981 Resolution was adopted on the heels of what it acknowledged was “the comprehensive, long-drawn out and grave blunder of the cultural revolution,” and sought to bring to an end the internecine struggles still ongoing within the Party.

In both cases, the Party’s Central Committee struggled to agree on the meaning of recent events to determine the best course of action moving forward. The 2021 Resolution, by contrast, does not appear to have been triggered by any major event or social crisis, aside from the Central Committee’s announcement that it intends to begin “a new journey.”

Second, although the most recent resolution claims that “The Party is great not because it never makes mistakes, but because it always owns up to its errors,” the document acknowledges few gaffes committed by post-Mao CCP leaders. Whereas 44 “errors,” “mistakes”, and “shortcomings” were admitted in the 27,000 word 1945 Resolution, and 68 discussed at length in the 34,000 word 1981 Resolution, the 2021 document uses such terms only ten times, despite stretching to nearly 37,000 words.

Moreover, although all of the specific policy errors mentioned in the third resolution took place during the Mao era (the Great Leap Forward, people’s commune movement, the excessively broad struggle against rightists, and the Cultural Revolution), the glossing of the Party’s previous shortcomings has provoked pointed questions from both the “right” (liberal reformers) and the “left” (pro-Mao forces) both in and outside the Party. Long-time liberal dissident Hu Ping, editor-in-chief of the liberal samizdat journal Beijing Spring, argued that the third history resolution failed to sufficiently endorse the more searing criticism offered by the second history resolution of “cults of personality in any form,” precisely because doing so would have invited criticism of Xi Jinping. The latest resolution thus represents “a slap across the face” and substantive “denial” of the historical lessons summarized in the 1981 resolution. On the left, retired Nankai University lecturer and loyal CCP member Liu Xiaoduo posed a series of questions in an open letter addressed to “relevant units” within the central Party apparatus regarding the new resolution’s contradictory praise and blame of the achievements of the Mao era: “If the country’s "great leap into socialism" and "great achievements" were achieved under Mao, why was [Deng’s] ‘reform and opening up the only way out, lest China’s progress toward modernization and socialism be buried’?”

Such critiques aside, policy mistakes, this document assures us, occurred exclusively in the distant past. Despite the passing reference to occasional cases of “selective implementation” and “feigned compliance” with the Centre’s “line,” the bulk of the third resolution extols the many achievements of the post-Mao Party without acknowledging any major gaffes since the Cultural Revolution. As one anonymous Party member pointed out in an article, instead of reflecting on the CCP’s 91-year history before Xi Jinping came to power, approximately three-quarters of the text instead either laud the Party’s allegedly superlative performance since the 18th Party Congress, or offers various promises for a brighter future.

While acknowledging the general existence of unspecified issues arising from “long unresolved, deep-seated problems as well as newly emerged problems regarding reform, development and stability…[and] previously lax and weak governance,” no specific failings are identified, let alone discussed, in the text of the Resolution itself. The narrative, therefore, serves chiefly as a paean celebrating Xi’s leadership, prefiguring the collective expectation that he will in fact continue at the helm of the Party – indefinitely.

For his part, after taking the rostrum on the first day of the plenary session to deliver the Politburo work report and state the importance of the proposed resolution on history, the supremely self-confident General Secretary of the Party left the Plenum early to pre-record his address to the APEC summit. The members of the Central Committee were broken into ten smaller discussion groups overseen by “senior Party leaders,” to consider the text of the resolution. As expected, the Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party Over the Past Century was unanimously adopted on the final day of the Plenary session, as well as a second resolution to convene the 20th Party Congress in late 2022.

Later that day, a 7,200 word Communiqué was released – the longest plenary communiqué since the Ninth Party Congress – that arguably placed Xi Jinping ahead of all of his predecessors, including even Mao himself, in terms of his comprehensive domination over the ideological field. Reaffirming Xi’s “core position” within the central leadership, the Communiqué identifies him as the “chief representative” (主要代表) of the Party during the period of his tenure (a descriptor applied to each of his predecessors in turn: Mao, Deng, Jiang, and Hu).

However, it further designates him as the “principal founder” of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想的主要创立者). By contrast, the Communiqué states that it was the Party members (中国共产党人), and not Mao himself, who collectively “established Mao Zedong Thought” by 1945, when the Party’s first history resolution was adopted. Again, the Communiqué posits that it was “the Chinese Communists, with Comrade Mao Zedong as their chief representative,” who “put forward a series of important theories for socialist construction,” marking “the first step” in adapting Marxism-Leninism principles to the uniqueness of China’s historical experience. Likewise, during “the new period of reform, opening up, and socialist modernization,” it was again “the Chinese Communists” (中国共产党人) with Deng Xiaoping as their “chief representative” – and not Deng himself – who “established Deng Xiaoping Theory.” Under Jiang Zemin, it was “the Chinese Communists” who “formulated the Three Represents;” and, “the Chinese Communists with Comrade Hu Jintao as their chief representative” that founded the “scientific development concept.” The Communiqué’s recognition of Xi as the “principal founder” (主要创立者) of his own Thought arguably confers greater weight and ideological power, to Xi than to Mao.

Although Xi had previously been described as the “principal founder” of Xi Jinping Thought in the October 2017 “Publisher’s Note” prefacing the second volume of his The Governance of China, the Communiqué’s formal recognition of Xi’s primary role in shaping his own cannon in an explicitly comparative historical context suggests that he has now officially attained a status equal to—if not greater than— Mao himself.

Significantly, although the text of the Resolution itself further underscores Xi’s unchallenged ideological hegemony, it does not replicate the Communiqué’s unique formulation. However, it certainly places Xi Jinping and his “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the leading position. Collectively, Xi and his Thought together accumulated 22 mentions, followed by Mao and Mao Zedong Thought (18), Deng and Deng Xiaoping Theory (6). Predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – along with their respective theoretical contributions – merit only five mentions each.

Xi’s ideological contributions are further underscored in the “two establishments,” a formulation that has dominated subsequent calls to “study and implement” the Resolution adopted at the Sixth Plenum. The first reaffirms that “the Party has established Comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Central Committee and of the entire Party;” the second “establishes the guiding position of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in “reflecting the shared aspirations of the entire Party, the army, and the people of all ethnic groups.”

At the press conference held on the November 12, Xi’s “core position” was further extolled as the “equilibrium point for the entire Party” (全党[的]定盘星) and the “mainstay of the whole nation”(全国人民[的]主心骨). Jiang Jinquan, Director of the Central Policy Research Office, hailed Xi as the “man at the wheel” (有掌舵者) of the great ship of state – an honorific clearly intended to evoke Mao’s role as the “Great Helmsman,” a laudatory sobriquet that had previously been lavished on Xi in the Fifth Plenum Communiqué, which described Xi as “the pilot at the helm”.

Reading “between the lines” of at least one official account of the Sixth Plenum, there are some suggestions that both Xi’s continued consolidation of power and his reconstruction of Party history have not gone entirely unopposed: once the Resolution was distributed to those in attendance for discussion, “everyone scrambled to speak first, and the atmosphere was spirited. Sometimes, as soon as one comrades’ voice fell off, several comrades stood to speak simultaneously. After the close of the meeting, everyone still had many thoughts, and walked in groups of twos and threes to continue the discussion.” One item of “great concern” for the participants was the question of “how to properly handle the relationship between the new historical resolution and the previous two historical resolutions,” the second of which, of course, targeted Mao’s violation of the Party norm of collective decision-making, and his “cult of personality,” as sources for the “grave errors” he committed in his later years.

Within days of the Plenum’s end, Xi Jinping released his address at the opening session in the form of an unprecedented “explanation” (说明) as to how the Resolution came to be drafted. In it, Xi defensively reaffirmed his commitment to Party norms of collective leadership and consultation by describing a process of consultation that began in April, and resulted in ‘many good opinions and suggestions on major issues that need to be studied and resolved.” At the prompting of the Politburo, “select” and “retired senior Party officials” were then consulted at the beginning of September. “The feedback we received indicates full endorsement of the draft resolution text, its general framework and main content, by the consulted localities, departments, and other circles.” Xi went on to explain that the working group that produced the initial draft – chaired by Xi himself – then analyzed “the individual opinions and suggestions received and incorporated as many of them as possible.” The Politburo Standing Committee met three times and the full Politburo twice for “careful consideration,” after which a total of 547 revisions were made to the draft before it was submitted to the Sixth Plenum.

Subtle intimations of contestation aside, the Central Committee’s message is unequivocal: Xi’s position has now been inviolably fixed at the very pinnacle of the Party-state. With no designated successor or known rivals, and no identifiable “erroneous lines” against which to struggle, the 68-year-old Xi will likely remain at the Party’s helm for years to come.

Yet therein lies the danger: if history is any guide, the breakdown of Party norms favouring collective leadership can deprive the “core leader” of reliable access to critical information, a healthy diversity of alternative perspectives, and a decision-making process with in-built checks and balances.

By allowing power to concentrate in the “core,” the Party risks undermining its own governing capacity over the longer term. Deng Yuwen has suggested that Xi’s manufactured indispensability to the Party-state is behind his newfound reluctance to travel abroad, thereby restricting his scope to represent the PRC as its head of state internationally. Chen Guoxiang has warned that the over-centralization of political power in Xi’s hands has vastly increased the risk that critical feedback will be withheld from top decision-makers, undermining the Central Committee’s ability to respond effectively to unanticipated developments, as was likely the case with the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in 2019. As exiled human right lawyer Teng Biao observed, this third history resolution greatly reverses “the developmental trend running from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao,” not only inaugurating Xi’s “new era,” but also “transforming the collective dictatorship of the Party into the personalist dictatorship of Xi Jinping.” Ironically, despite Xi’s call to “draw lessons from history and understand why dynasties rise and fall,” the Party appears to be ignoring the lessons of its past regarding the consolidation of power in the hands of a single leader bent on systematically removing limits to his own unchecked authority.