Focus topics

China’s Party History: the Cultural Revolution falls by the Wayside

By Johnny Erling
Die Kommunistische Partei Chinas: Die Kulturrevolution bleibt auf der Strecke in der Parteigeschichte

On July 1, the Communist Party of China(CPC), founded in 1921, is staging its centenary as a very big spectacle. To mark the occasion, the world’s sole ruling and most populous CP has published its new “Brief History of the Communist Party of China” (中国共产党简史). Its final chapter on Party leader Xi Jinping as China’s new strongman alone accounts for about 25 percent of the content. Instead, there is no longer a separate chapter on the Cultural Revolution.

“Short” history is an understatement at 531 pages. Thanks to 92 million party members, however, the book is already a bestseller despite the heavy fare. China’s party history once took the somewhat misleading title from the Soviet Union. In 1938, the “History of the CPSU (B) – Short Course” appeared there for the first time. Scoffers attributed the adjective “short” to the radical revision of each new edition. Party leaders who had fallen out of favour were cut out. This went well until the CPSU itself evaporated with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Since then, only China’s party still holds up the flag. Every ten years, it published its own “Brief History”. None of the editions published since 1991, however, has been changed as much as the current new version. Although Xi has only been leading the 100-year-old party for barely ten years, he gets the starring role. Under the heading “China’s Special Socialism Enters a New Age,” the chapter on Xi fills a quarter of the book. It ends in 2021 with his outlook for the year 2035, when China is supposed to have reached the next milestone on its long march to becoming a world power, which is planned to last until 2050. To achieve this, it must be “socialistically modernized” by 2035, lead the way in all high-tech areas, and upgrade its military to world-class standards.

So there is still a lot for the soon-to-be 67-year-old Xi to do. As the founder of the “new era”, he has ensured that he can continue to rule China without a time limit by amending the constitution and party statute. All he has to do is have it approved by the 20th party congress in 2022.

Cult of Personality around Xi taken to Extremes

How do you read between the lines in China’s party history abroad? Beijing is helping out, at least linguistically. According to Xinhua, it is currently being translated non-stop by 40 translators into seven world languages. For the first time, it is also illustrated. For starters, five color portraits show who among the numerous CP leaders since 1921 has survived party ideology. In historical order, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi greet us, but Xi comes first when it comes to the number of photos in the book (12) – even before Mao (eleven). The others account for only half as many pictures. The three-way split gives further clues when it comes to the merits of the party leaders: Mao made himself immortal because he made the People’s Republic “stand up”, just as reform architect Deng did because he made China “become rich”. Xi, however, is making the nation “strong.” ( 站起来-富起来-强起来).

Under him, “never before in its history has China moved so close to the centre of the world stage as it is today”, and “never before has it been so close to the rebirth of its nation as it is today”. That, he said, has an impact both internally and externally. China trumpets Xi’s November 2014 proclamation to the CC’s Foreign Affairs Committee: From now on, China “must pursue its own special great power foreign policy.” Deng’s famous warning to his compatriots to keep a cool head and “hide their light under a bushel” (韬光养晦) is no longer up to date.

Mao’s Cultural Revolution put in a positive Light

The most serious change in the new Party History is its relativizing account of the Cultural Revolution (1966 -1976). Unlike the previous volumes, which still condemned Mao’s disastrous policies in separate chapters, the new edition suffices just 20 pages to describe and reassess the persecution campaigns under the heading: “Explorations in Building Socialism and Its Development in Twists and Turns.”

To be sure, leftist despotism had occurred and serious mistakes had been made. Millions were unjustly persecuted. But the chairman would have erred in good faith to explore new ways to build socialism. Even Mao’s erstwhile justifications are being reprinted. He wanted the Cultural Revolution to “protect China from the danger of capitalist restoration and eliminate corruption, privilege and bureaucracy in the Party and government.”

Listing the major military, scientific and economic achievements of the 1966-1976 period, the new Party History attempts to prove that the catastrophe was not so bad after all. The 2001 Party History, on the other hand, said that all the progress “should in no way be regarded as the success of the Cultural Revolution, but on the contrary were achieved because those in charge resisted the disruptions caused by the Cultural Revolution.” ( 当然,这一切决不是 “文化大革命 “的成果,恰恰相反,是抵制 “文化大革命 “的干扰而取得的.) Also in 2001, it was said that “Mao Zedong bears the main responsibility for the leftist mistakes made everywhere and long-lasting in the Cultural Revolution.”

Claim of Infallibility

Now the party is “correct” again and always has been. Where it made mistakes, it corrected them itself. Immediately after taking office, Xi demanded that a line be drawn under the different ways of dealing with Mao’s 30-year rule from 1949 to 1978 and the 30-year reform period that followed. The two developments should not be played off against each other, he said, but should be of one piece. On January 15, 2013, Xi delivered the speech in question. It is in his new book: “Xi Jinping: On the History of the Communist Party”. It is the counterpart to the “Short History”. Xi sets the course. To make his role even more conspicuous, a complementary anthology of the other leaders was published as a separate reading: “Mao, Deng, Jiang and Hu on the History of the Communist Party”.

Reading the “short” 100-year history leaves one with an uneasy feeling. The cult of CP leader Xi, the glorification of the party, and the tabooing of any critical coming to terms with the past cast a dark shadow over China’s future development as a responsible world power.


    Forging prettier numbers
    A big payoff from US-China climate cooperation
    At what point does cooperation lead to complicity?
    China’s true soft power