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China will never stop rewriting history No party on earth leans more on myth to create unity than the CCP

Mao was great, say the CCP ‚ÄĒ just don't mention the famine! (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Mao was great, say the CCP ‚ÄĒ just don't mention the famine! (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


February 12, 2021   5 mins

In his¬†address¬†to the nation last month, Xi Jinping, after praising his country‚Äôs pandemic efforts, drew attention to the upcoming centenary in July of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. But his purpose wasn‚Äôt to look back into the past. It was to signal his plans for the future, namely for the Party to still be in charge for the¬†next¬†big centenary in its diary ‚ÄĒ the founding of the People‚Äôs Republic of China itself in 2049.

Still, at 100 years old, the Communist Party will have much to celebrate: after 30 disastrous years under Mao, Deng Xiaoping‚Äôs opening to foreign investment and global markets laid the ground for decades of growth and made possible Xi‚Äôs vision of China‚Äôs ‚Äúgreat rejuvenation‚ÄĚ.

Yet it is interesting to speculate what the twelve delegates, among them the young Mao Zedong, who met a century ago in Shanghai to found the CCP would make of today‚Äôs China. With the country‚Äôs New Year celebrations starting today, Mao, we can be fairly certain, would not be amused: he spent the last two decades of his life trying to prevent Deng Xiaoping from coming to power, accusing him, not unreasonably as it turned out, of wanting to ‚Äútake the capitalist road‚ÄĚ. But what of the other revolutionaries, men for whom Confucius was the despised symbol of everything that was wrong with traditional, imperial China, who dreamed of a society in which class divisions had ceased to exist and who proposed ‚Äúliberation‚ÄĚ and independence for Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia?

They would be pleased, no doubt, that China was stronger and wealthier, and that the era of western colonialism was over. But what would they make of the country‚Äôs wealth distribution, which a century later is among the¬†most unequal in the world? Or that the current Communist Party leadership, while proclaiming ‚Äúsocialism with Chinese characteristics‚ÄĚ, also promotes Confucius and invokes the glories of its imperial history as a source of its own legitimacy?

In¬†another speech¬†last December,¬†this one to celebrate 40 years since the beginning of Deng Xiaoping‚Äôs reforms, Xi repeated the most common, and questionable, claim about that history. ‚ÄúTo promote reform and development in China ‚ÄĒ a large country with a more than 5,000-year history of civilisation and more than 1.3bn people ‚ÄĒ there is no textbook that can be regarded as a golden rule, and there is no great master who can dictate to the Chinese people,‚Ä̬†he said.

His appeal to China‚Äôs uniquely ancient calling card is one frequently repeated by visiting foreign dignitaries and business leaders ‚ÄĒ some, perhaps, because they know no better, others because they understand that making money in China is easier with a smile from above. It is also at the core of Chinese exceptionalism promoted by Xi and all who seek to please him: we are the world‚Äôs oldest continuing civilisation and that will never change.

From there it is an easy step to say that these unique characteristics allow the country to make its own rules, and to question them is a hostile act. No so-called ‚Äúuniversal principles‚Ä̬† ‚ÄĒ let alone human rights ‚ÄĒ¬† can get in the way of that story. How could they, given China‚Äôs serene and unbroken accumulation of wisdom over more than five millennia?

These claims are, of course, historical nonsense. The China of today bears little resemblance to that of the past. Put to one side the fact that the Great Wall, commonly thought of as a defensive fortification against invasion by the intermittently dangerous steppe peoples, is puzzlingly located today in the middle of the map of China. A glance at any historical atlas reveals that the Ming Dynasty borders (1388-1644) enclosed a country that was half the size of its current ‚Äúimmutable‚ÄĚ version. Turning the pages further back reveals a pattern of continually shifting boundaries and frequent divisions.

So why does the Chinese Communist Party insist upon its alternative history so strenuously? The answer, I suspect, lies in the fracture of the country’s imperial model in the early 20th century, as well as the new ideas, such as Marxism, that took hold among intellectuals and revolutionaries as they struggled to imagine a different polity. In their attempt to define post-imperial China, these revolutionaries had to grapple with the question of what, in the absence of an emperor to whom all loyalties could be directed, was the big idea that would hold this huge and diverse former empire together.

Reformers were calling for science and democracy, but first there had to be a clear idea of what China was, what it would be called and ‚ÄĒ given the vast diversity of languages, loyalties and cultures ‚ÄĒ what common appeal could be offered to people who identified with their province but lacked the sense of China as a nation state.

In the end, they looked less to history for their answers than to western writings on race, eugenics and social Darwinism. The outcomes were not always pretty, and strong racial influences still underscore the way the state defines China and who belongs there. Some drew lines around peoples who did not share their language or culture, and claimed both them and the territory of the collapsed Manchu empire as innately ‚ÄúChinese ‚ÄĚ on spurious genetic grounds.

Yet all this was far from a given. After all, it was Sun Yatsen, the country‚Äôs first president, who said: ‚ÄúThe¬†Kuomintang¬†(Nationalist Party)‚Ķ recognises the right of self-determination of all national minorities in China and it will organise a free and united Chinese republic.‚Ä̬†And the Communist Party went further, first calling for a federated republic,¬†then, in Article 14¬†of its first constitution in 1931, stating that the national minorities of China ‚ÄĒ from the Mongolians to the Tibetans ‚ÄĒ had the ‚Äúright to complete separation from China and to the formation of an independent state of each national minority.‚ÄĚ It continued:¬†‚ÄúThey may either join the Union of Chinese Soviets or secede from it and form their own state as they may prefer.‚ÄĚ

That promise did not last. Today, the party insists that all those territories that could have been independent under the terms of the 1931 constitution have ‚Äúalways‚ÄĚ been part of China. In fact, it claims, these regions had only been granted a highly qualified ‚Äúautonomy‚ÄĚ that promised cultural and language rights and a nominally autonomous government. The Party was always in command.

And this message was particularly important following the death of Mao Zedong and, later, the crushing of the student-led occupation of Tiananmen Square in 1989. A new national story was needed and history was pressed into service. Instead of a socialist paradise tomorrow, the party offered the memory of a past greatness cruelly stolen by rapacious foreigners. Only the party, they said, could prevent that from happening again. That story, coupled with rising living standards, more or less held the line until 2012, when Xi became President.

Today, however, living standards are rising less rapidly and that national story again needs a refresh. Xi Jinping‚Äôs revision, accompanied by a re-centralisation of power in the party and himself, is that western democracies are decadent and that China‚Äôs model ‚ÄĒ drawn from Marx, yes, but resting on those accumulated 5000 years of wisdom ‚ÄĒ will emerge triumphant.

In this new narrative, the essential requirement of belonging in the rejuvenated China is to love the Party; a 21st-century version of the imperial idea that allowed barbarians to consider themselves ‚Äúhua‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ civilised ‚ÄĒ if they embraced the superior culture. In today‚Äôs version, however, loyalty is the most important factor. In China‚Äôs new national story, assimilation is the only option.


Isabel Hilton is a London based writer, broadcaster and China watcher.

isabelhilton

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Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago

In a BBC documentary about the origins of mankind, a Chinese anthropologist argued on the basis of a skull that Han people are a completely separate lineage, not H. Sapiens at all, but from a superior evolutionary tree. If the flooding of Han people into non Han areas of China, swamping their ethnic majorities, looks similar to National Socialist racial policy, that’s because it probably is.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Same happened in Japan. The people on the northern island are not of the same race and they tend not to do well in life.
Was this the Alice Roberts programme? I seem to remember vaguely that there was an academic reversal of some kind after that programme – but it doesn’t take anything away for your excellent post.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

You mean the Ainu or the ‘hairy ones’ as they are known by the rest of Japan.

Perhaps our Japanese expert, Basil Chamberlain could explain to us how, and why they are so reviled and despised.

Are they in fact Japan’s “untouchables”¬Ě?

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

In the past the Ainu looked very different – but after so much interbreeding they do not look different to other Japanese now. Nor are they treated as untouchables. In the far north of Japan, Japanese who trace their line back to the Ainu do not hide it – they are proud of it, and hold annual events and so on.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul Marks
George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago

“my cup runneth over”¬Ě, an excellent essay Ms Hilton that full endorses Ian Birrell’s superb polemic on Wednesday, thank you.

You have brilliantly excoriated the the ‘myth’ of modern China, a state without conscience, humanity or intellect, but nonetheless a clear and present menace to the West.

No mention of either the ‘Great Leap Forward’ bar a nano one in the caption photograph, or the mind boggling, nihilistic destruction of the so called Cultural Revolution, but no matter, we must look to the future, and prepare accordingly.

Your remark that China’s perception is that “western democracies are decadent”¬Ě could not be more apposite, particularly as Western ‘Quislings and ‘Appeasers’ infest the West from the White House downwards.
Vae victis!

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

The fact that these quislings and appeasers are there is significant and it means that they can’t be ignored. How can they be removed? It seems that they are growing in number and that has to be because of the weakness of the USA.

I know that you can list every missile and every ship in the US arsenal but it isn’t really very hopeful to do that, is it? A few years ago I attended a meeting with a lot of US admirals and they saw themselves as ‘man managers’ more than fighting men. They talked about getting more black people and women into the service just like you hear on the news channels. The USA really seems to be decadent and people on UnHerd seem to say the same about the UK from tie to time.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I cannot but agree with you.
Unfortunately if HMG decides it is to be a spineless ‘woke’ monster, then our Armed Forces will necessarily reflect this regrettable state of affairs.
Senior Commanders are selected for their compliance with current ‘woke’ orthodoxy, regardless of its operational consequences.

How else can one explain the fiasco of women in HM Submarines, amusingly described by one tabloid as “Up periscope”¬Ě
Or the Airforce desecrating the grave of the dog of one of its foremost war heroes?
As for the Army, what prey is going on the Coldstream Guards? Why has a Major General in the Scots Guards been cashiered for a little ‘hanky lanky’. Why are women in the Guards at all? No wonder recruiting is at an all time low.

However their are many in our armed forces who do not share the ‘woke’ mantra of their commanders.
Such ideas are an anathema to the majority & when ‘the drum begins to beat’ I am sure they will perform superbly.

You maybe too young to recall the splendid little war we had in the Aden Protectorate, 1964-67. Even then ‘wokeness’ or at least it’s predecessor was in evidence, then described as Lack of Moral Fibre or being Spastic.
On this occasion the Commanding Officer of the Ist Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Lt Colonel Colin Mitchell (Mad Mitch) was expressly forbidden from taking the fight to enemy in their stronghold of the Crater district of Aden city, an order that he studiously ignored, with outstanding success.
Even then, an outraged Colonial official described the Argylls as ‘ a bunch of Glasgow thugs’ for which he duly apologised.
Mitchell’s career was destroyed by this incident, but he become a public hero, and later an MP. Some in the Army criticised him for “showing off”¬Ě, but many more applauded his guts and determination.
I would hope we still have many men like Colin Mitchell in the ranks,

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

In no way am I disagreeing with you – for once. But angry comments on UnHerd will not stop them. We need an alternative – see below.

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Where is the alternative you mention?
All I see is a mournful cry of despair about the fungus-like spread of unremovable quislings and US admirals having degenerated from warriors into man managers.

By the way, how did you come to be hob-nobbing with “a lot of US admirals”?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Kiran Grimm

I am a Corrosion Engineer. Back in 2010 the US Navy was told by Congress that they could not just sign a chit for another destroyer when the present one was past its best. From that moment they had to design ships which would last for 50 years but allow for new armaments to be fitted as necessary. So they had to design a concept ship which would resist corrosion for 50 years. I was invited to attend.

Everybody in sight was an admiral and I began to think that there no real junior officers. I remember very well that one particular paint for the ships was discussed – apparently this paint was fantastic but it only came in one colour – pink. This idea was rejected. Since then (but not now) I have been involved with a non-slip product for the decks of the aircraft carriers. None of this is secret – it has all been published.

However, my mild complaint about UnHerd is that everyone can criticise the Chinese or the Church or the government or the left, etc, but nobody discusses new ideas. I would have thought that if people actually discussed HOW to manage things with China rather than just calling them names, we might actually make progress.

It is dangerous just to ignore China. They have taken over a lot of Africa, Pakistan, a lot of Asia, soon Taiwan and there will become a point when there is only one thing to do – aim nukes at them. Who would wish that world on their children?

Many will see this as a posturing thing thing like the Cold War with Russia but it is completely different because China is the world leader in most sciences now (except armaments) whereas Russia was never up to much. There was a post in another China question last week and a lady biologist was explaining how she was moving to China because they were so far ahead of the west and they were pouring money into it. Certainly, China is right up there in the Corrosion industry.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Kiran Grimm

Actually Herbert Asquith was a very ‘woke’ character in his day, when he wasn’t ‘perving’ over the voluptuous body of Venetia Stanley.
However at the end of the day he ‘pressed the button’ and declared war on Kaiser Bill, so there is hope yet!

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago

In a BBC documentary about the origins of mankind, a Chinese anthropologist argued on the basis of a skull that Han people are a completely separate lineage, not homo sapiens at all, but from a superior evolutionary tree. If the flooding of Han people into non Han areas of China, swamping their ethnic majorities, looks similar to N*zi racial policy, that’s because it probably is.

Peter KE
Peter KE
3 years ago

CCP is the face of evil and needs to be excluded from western democracies. The CCP lies, steals and cheats at every opportunity.

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago

Not at all surprising or unusual. Just about every country keeps rewriting its ‘popular’ history and down playing the bits of ‘inconvenient history. in order to show how great it . Goes on all the time and I’m sure if can be seen in e.f the USA under Trump, and no doubt again under Biden, or in post Brexit Uk ( where we get a lot of references to ‘Great Britain’ and garbage from some Tory MPs drawing pathetic coma pistons between the EU and WWII e.g ‘my father would never have been pushed around by the Germans and his son certainly won’t let it happen – ignoring the inconvenient and sad fact that it was only the role of the superior might of USA and the USSR that prevented his father being well and truly pushed around)

Swiveleyed Loon
Swiveleyed Loon
3 years ago

That makes me angry and sad.
‘I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do.’
It was our mental determination not to be pushed around that saved us. The USA and USSR would never have got involved if it hadn’t been for that.

I’d be more respectful of your post if you’d checked it and corrected ‘coma pistons’.

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago

That is absolute nonsense! The USSRs involvement was absolutely nothing to do with what the UK was up to. They attacked because of Hitlers usual aggression etc. Similarly , the USA was deeply reluctant to get involved in yet another argument and war and stayed out for as long as possible until one of their ships was attacked and sunk. After both became involved, particularly the USSR and Hitlers long bloody and ultimately fatal attempt to invade, Germany was facing the inevitability of defeat – which it would never have done if just little Britain had made any futile attempt to fights on its own. The UK was a minor player.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago

You are right that Britain could not have defeated Germany on its own, as Churchill always knew, but its role in defeating the Nazis was absolutely critical. (Though Britain and France were strong enouugh to have called Hitler’s bluff a few years earlier – a path sadly not taken).

If Britain had lost the Battle of Britain, then Nazi Germany would have been able to launch its war earlier against the USSR, which Hitler had always intended and may well have defeated it before the winter of 1941. By the way Britain provided vital supplies to the Soviets at a critical period.

The US didn’t become involved in WW2 because ‘one of their ships was sunk’ but because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequently the declaration of war by Hitler on the US.

Britain having been defeated or capitulated would become probably a version of Vichy, the US would have had no European base and no ability or desire to get involved in the European war, (though they might have in a separate Pacific war if history was otherwise unchanged).

The UK cannot be accurately described as a ‘minor player’ throughout World War 2. At D Day for example there were 73,000 US troops, 83,115 British and Canadian (61,715 of them British) landed.

The May 1940 moment and Britain’s refusal to capitulate under Churchill – it was a close-run thing – was absolutely essential to defeating the eventual domination of Europe by the Nazis. And even if the USSR had prevailed eventually, there would have been a choice between one of two murderous dictatorships dominating the whole of Europe.

So there is nothing to belittle ourselves over that, and even, yes, a quiet pride that Britain mobilised its whole society and made the difference between tyranny and free societies, at least in Western Europe. This in turn after the war established the conditions by which the West could contain and eventually, defeat, Communism, or at least the USSR.

Having said that, there can is no need for us to be boorish and xenophobic about this history, and we have not had to deal with the terrible moral dilemmas of living in a country occupied by a vicious totalitarian power.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

A clear, informed, and likely accurate analysis of what happened – and might have happened, were it not for British resistance to the N*zi onslaught. In particular your argument that a “Vichy” Britain would have deprived the US of a base from which to fight H*tler, with the result of a likely extension of the Soviet totalitarian empire to the whole of Europe.

Last edited 2 years ago by Douglas McNeish