“Study history!” China’s sole-ruling Party leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly urged his compatriots since he took office at the end of 2012. As early as March 2013, he urged, “Take history as a mirror” (以史为镜): “Learn from the historical experience of our party and country (来龙去脉).” That is particularly important “for creating the future, because history is the best textbook.” (历史是最好的教科书).
Beijing is not concerned with the noble goal of educating China’s population in matters of historical truth. On the contrary, Xi openly admits that he wants to reinterpret the history of his Party and the development of the People’s Republic, as well as revise textbooks and curriculum in schools and universities accordingly. The Party demonstrated what this looks like in honor of its 100th anniversary in 2021. Xi downplayed the former persecution campaigns under Mao as an unsuccessful attempt to find new ways. He even relativized Mao’s destructive Cultural Revolution or erased crimes committed by the Party leadership, such as its Tianan’men massacre in 1989, from public memory. Those who insist on depicting history as it actually happened are complicit of “historical nihilism”. Legally, this is a criminal offense.
Last year, Beijing was no longer content with merely retelling history. He wanted to change it, Xi promised in a January speech to the Party School: “Time and momentum are on our side” (时与势在我们一边). Under this guiding principle, he mocked the “end of history” proclaimed by political scientist Francis Fukuyama in 1989 after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Time had put a true “end” to rash judgment. China, on the other hand, is entering a “new era” and will write the history of the future.
Yet China’s leadership had once tried to jump over its shadow. In 2006, a diplomat friend handed me an illustrated 670-page volume of selected historical documents published by the Beijing Foreign Ministry Archives. The gold-colored cover read, “Declassified Diplomatic Documents 1949-1955.” He praised it to me as a sign of “more openness and transparency of our history.”
The background: Beijing authorized a review of the development of the People’s Republic with the help of original historical sources. Provinces and the foreign ministry were allowed to open their archives for this purpose. In 2004, China’s Foreign Ministry for the first time released thousands of internal documents on events dating back decades for, free for the public to see. In 2006, it unsealed another 25,651 files covering the period 1956 to 1960. Renowned historian Shen Zhihua, a conflict researcher on Chinese Cold War history at Shanghai University, praised the opening of the archives as a “flower in the garden of Chinese reform.”
Even though the archive published only a third of its records and kept official documents on foreign policy decision-making under lock and key, Shen found pieces that shed new light on Beijing’s behavior during the Korean War (1950 to 1953) and explained why Mao – as the victor of the civil war – was unable to annex Taiwan in 1950. They also shed light on Beijing’s once rocky relationship with its “big brother,” the Soviet Union, which led to the sudden withdrawal of all Soviet experts from the People’s Republic in 1960. The subject has again regained relevance, as China and Russia celebrate their supposedly best friendship and cooperation of all time.
This much transparency made waves internationally. Christian F. Ostermann, Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, called it an “archival thaw in China”. His special documentation on the “Cold War in China,” published in 2007, was the first to analyze China’s documents in addition to the sources from the archives in Moscow and Eastern Europe, which have been open since 1992.
The thaw lasted only a few years. Beijing did not release another volume of declassified documents. Researcher Kazushi Minami of Japan’s Osaka University writes: “But as Xi Jinping came to power, the Chinese government abruptly closed the FMA in 2012.” It has been opened only sporadically ever since. 90 percent of its once-accessible documents were again locked away.
When Minami visited the archive in July 2017, he was almost alone there. He felt that “researchers are unwelcome. I felt I was under constant supervision.” The 19th Party Congress in 2017, where Xi asserted his absolute rule over the Party and the country, had cast its shadow. “China seems determined to rewrite the past. It all starts with the archives. It’s unlikely that the Xi government will loosen its control over valuable historical sources anytime soon.”
International scholars owe new insights into what once happened in China not only to open archives. They were able to, like Frank Dikoetter, who researches Mao’s campaigns, use memoirs of historical witnesses that emerged en masse in the pre-Xi era, writes Wilson Center historian Charles Kraus. Discoveries also can be made in China’s still-unregulated secondhand book and collector markets, where old diaries, private dossiers and vintage photographs are still on sale today.
Some memoirs hide revelations, as in the 2012 chatter of Wu Liandeng, the functionary who managed the Great Chairman’s household until Mao’s death, published by the Beijing Central Committee Documents Publishing House. His anecdotes show how the dictator often revealed much about his moods and true view of things over meals, including his resentment of Soviet leaders.
In July 1962, when Mao was served a curry goulash with beef, he took it as an opportunity to mock the Soviet CP leader. The latter had elevated “goulash communism” to a social ideal, where every Soviet citizen would be served potatoes with beef once a day in the future. Laughing, Mao feasted on the curry: “Let’s eat Khrushchev now.” While doing so, he insulted Moscow’s leader, who had withdrawn all Soviet experts from China. “They want to strangle us with this. I don’t think the world will stop spinning if China breaks with the Soviet Union.” The cynicism the dictator displays in this dinner scene is boundless. A year earlier, millions of farmers had starved to death thanks to his utopian Great Leap Forward.
In another scene, officials wanted to offer freshly caught sparrows as a roasted delicacy to Mao, who had visited Wuhan in the summer of 1958. Mao was irritated and asked how this was possible. After all, he had been assured that the feathered “evildoers” had been completely exterminated on his orders. “These few are the only ones left,” his hosts express themselves, frightened. But Mao was in a good mood: “Then let’s exterminate them together for good.”
Two years earlier, one of the most absurd mass campaigns had raged through China. Mao had ordered the “eradication of the Four Evils,” the quartet of pests which included the rat, mosquito, fly, and the sparrow. The dictator had heard that a sparrow would steal up to four pounds of grain per year. To prevent a threat to China’s food supply, he mobilized six hundred million Chinese to exterminate what was then estimated to be four billion sparrows.
In September 1957, Mao put the issue on the agenda of his eighth party congress and demanded: “China must become a country in which there is no longer a single one of the four pests.” Nationwide and collectively, a hunt was called. Its peak was in 1958, when authorities across China recorded the deaths of 2.11 billion sparrows. Mao only called the hunt off when he learned from researchers at the Academy of Sciences that sparrows were primarily killing plant pests and when he read reports from his agricultural officials how his campaign was further damaging the forestry industry in the midst of an agrarian crisis. They were removed from the list of four pests and replaced by cockroaches.
According to Xi, the end of history today applies only to the declining United States and the West, but not to the rising People’s Republic, which has the future in its hands. Beijing glorifies its past and does not want to see any documents from its archives that say otherwise, nor does it want to be reminded of its insane campaigns against the sparrows. It also does not want to know what Russian researchers like Alexander Pantsov claim to have found in the Moscow archives. To speed up the recovery of the almost completely decimated sparrow population, Beijing secretly had more than a million Siberian sparrows imported from the arch-enemy Soviet Union in the early 1960s.