China is obsessed with history. Not the objective inquiry that can withstand scrutiny by divergent viewpoints with uncensored access to documents and records. It is obsessed with the history the Communist Party controls, writes and promotes to serve the nation’s collective dictatorship.
History’s paramount utility for Chinese leaders is to justify the Communists’ monopoly of power.
The Communist Party’s entire senior leadership reads almost exclusively Party-sanctioned history books. The goal is to inculcate a sense of historical mission in order to revive “the Great Chinese Nation” — or, in current Party talk, “the Chinese Dream” — code-words for a dominance in world affairs that China supposedly exercised for centuries until the arrival of Western values and powers in East Asia.
In September 2013, the Party’s Central Committee published a reading list of the top 10 books for Party leaders and high officials. The first five — and in total seven of the 10 — are histories written by Chinese authors to glorify the Communists’ inexorable responsibility to revive and strengthen the nation and realize the “dream.”
Topping the list is “Pain and Glory,” a hagiography of the Communist Party written by military historian Maj. Gen. Jin Yinan, of the Chinese Defense University. Its central theme is that the Party — morally and spiritually superior and invincible — is endowed by historical logic with the mission of realizing the Chinese Dream.
There is a reason the book sits at the top of the list: Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has been a most enthusiastic promoter of the book since its publication in 2009, despite the fact that the author is a serial plagiarist who lifted a significant portion of the book from another historian in Shanghai. Since becoming supreme leader in November 2012, Mr. Xi has ordered state-run China Central Television to produce and broadcast a 12-part series on Party history based on the general’s book.
History also is playing a role in China’s foreign policy. Beijing has launched a series of propaganda campaigns aimed at isolating Japan in an attempt to drive a wedge into the Japan-U.S. defense alliance, the cornerstone of the United States’ Asia Pacific presence. The chief weapon is history, with Beijing noting Tokyo leaders’ inability to sufficiently explain the fundamental differences between today’s free, democratic, pacifist and pluralistic Japan that respects human rights and international norms, and its imperialist, militarist past that inflicted much suffering on its neighbors early in the 20th century.
China is trying to convince the world that Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, plots to revive itself as a pre-World War II militarist state; and that Mr. Abe, as the People’s Daily stated recently, should be compared to Adolf Hitler.
History — not international law, geography or administrative status quo — also seems to be the main basis for Beijing’s vast, disputed territorial claims in or near the South China Sea.
On the other hand, being a historian can be dangerous in China, as any deviation from Party-approved areas of inquiry will result in trouble. Forbidden topics include the various pogroms carried out under Mao Zedong and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
On Jan. 5, 2013, Mr. Xi issued an order to the nation on the correct historical narratives of the Communist state. Known as the “Two Negations Not to Be Allowed,” his edict forbids the denunciation of the Mao Zedong era, which saw the “unnatural deaths” of more than 70 million Chinese. It also forbids denouncing Party history after Mao’s 1976 death, a period that saw China’s economic achievement as well as repressive actions.
To the Chinese Communist Party, history is not just the past. It’s the present and the future.
• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @Yu_miles.