“The regime wants us to forget. I hope to use my camera to remember…We are resisting in our memories. We are resisting forgetfulness.” – Kiwi Chow, documentary filmmaker in Hong Kong, referring to the events in Hong Kong in 2019, “In a Scarred Hong Kong, ‘Beautiful Things Are Gone’” Reuters, June 29, 2021
The centenary commemoration of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Zedong in 1921 commemorates a myth. The party was founded on July 23, but this year’s celebrations commenced July 1, which coincides with the date of the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997. According to China Digital Times, July 1 has a nice symmetry to the dates of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Republic of China—August 1 and October 1, respectively. Therefore, the writers of the Party’s sanitized history have decided that modern China was founded on July 1, 1921.
The theme of this year’s commemoration will center around loyalty to the Party and reinforcing “Red Genes.” According to the China Media Project,
One key focus of the Party’s campaign to secure its position at the center of Chinese life and identity has been the nation’s youth. One of the most commonly seen phrases in Chinese schools in recent months has been “transmitting red genes, telling China’s story well.
The centenary is also encouraging “Red Tourism” which, CNN says, is ironically religious in tone, given the Chinese Communist Part is avowedly atheist:
In party literature and state media, former revolutionary bases are labeled “holy sites,” and the almost obligatory visits to such locations by the rank and file are meant to “baptize” members in the Communist “faith.”
The July 1 event was a grand affair in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered a much-anticipated speech to mobilize nationalistic fervor for the country, recounting how the country has grown to rival the U.S. Xi Jinping, dressed in the sort of gray button-down suit style that Mao Zedong wore, received extended applause for saying China will not be bullied.
“No one should underestimate the great resolve, the strong will, and the extraordinary ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity!” said Xi. “Chinese people will never allow foreign bullying, oppressing, or subjugating. Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of steel, forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people,” he said.
An Anxious Birthday
Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Nathan points out, however, that this will be an anxious birthday for the CCP and that the Party is worried for good reason:
The great dilemma for the party is that citizens of such a highly developed country are unlikely to accept the infantilizing control that its increasingly authoritarian regime imposes on them. A generational shift is under way in China, with traditional values giving way to more liberal attitudes, and it does not favor the long-term prospects of the CCP.”Andrew Nathan, “An Anxious 100th Birthday for China’s Communist Party” at Wall Street Journal (June 25, 2021)
When the CCP established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China was in chaos after the fall of the last dynasty in 1911, a civil war that lasted almost ten years (1927–1936) until the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, followed by another civil war lasting from the end of World War II until 1949.
Mao’s China was a different country from the one today. Today’s China has a thriving urban middle-class as well as rural Chinese who do not have the same benefits. Ironically, because of China’s prosperity, increasing educational levels, and stability, many young people, who have never learned of the chaos under Mao during the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward, are less tolerant of a state that promises security and stability in exchange for fundamental freedoms.
Andrew Nathan cites statistics indicating that urban Chinese middle-class are more likely to be dissatisfied with the CCP and to “endorse liberal-democratic values such as independence of the judiciary and separation of powers.”
Journalist and author Kai Strittmatter cites the results of the MERICS study that surveyed over 1,600 forum users in China (without getting dinged by the censors). The study found that 62% of users wanted an internationally strong China, and 75% welcomed “Western values” even though the CCP’s propaganda machine has worked to demonize Western values. The top four values that respondents considered “mainstream” were freedom, democracy, equality, and individualism. Socialism ranked number 7 and patriotism was number 14. (See We Have Been Harmonized, by Kai Strittmatter, HarperCollins, 2020, page 87 and 88.]
While many of China educated young adults may lean toward liberal democratic values, there is also a cadre of young people who have gone the other direction as vehement nationalists, or “wolf warriors.”. These hyper-nationalists call out Chinese and foreigners alike on social media for not showing respect for China and the CCP that runs it. Zhai and Wong report that some officials have asked the wolf warrior brigade to temper their rhetoric as China seeks to pursue global influence:
China’s leadership is straining to dial back its country’s chest-thumping “Wolf Warrior” approach to foreign policy, afraid it has begun to undermine the country’s interests, according to people familiar with the matter. The effort has been impaired by nationalist fervor in the country, the people said, which is only intensifying as the party marks the 100th anniversary of its founding this week.Keith Zhai and Chun Han Wong, “China’s Effort to Tame ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomats Is Stymied by Nationalism” at Wall Street Journal (June 29, 2021)
The Only History Is the “Official” History
The Wolf Warriors have grown up with the sanitized version of China’s history that the Propaganda Department has been promoting leading up to the centenary celebrations. The events will laud the CCP for making China into a great nation while ignoring the millions who died from famine caused by The Great Leap Forward or were executed during the Cultural Revolution. Any references to negative events in the Party’s history or criticism of the CCP’s first thirty years are deemed “historical nihilism.”
Xi’s centennial speech took place in Tiananmen Square , the site of the massacre on June 4, 1989. Kai Strittmatter, a China correspondent of thirty years standing, says that the way China functions today is inseparable from the Cultural Revolution, and the way China looks today cannot be separated from Tiananmen Square in 1989. But most young people in China today have no idea about either of these events. Anyone born after 1980 has no idea that the People’s Liberation Army turned on the demonstrators in front of a gate whose name is “Heavenly Peace.” In 2020, for the first time in thirty years, Hong Kong was no longer allowed to hold a vigil for the event.
From this perspective, today’s CCP is celebrating its anniversary there even though no one is allowed to talk about how its victories came about.
According to Strittmatter, an autocrat needs the collective amnesia of the people: “The CCP simply pressed “delete” and reformatted the Chinese people. The Tiananmen Square massacre shook the world—but in China, it has been forgotten. The year 1989? “Without a doubt, quite an ordinary year,” according to a poem by writer Yang Lian.” (We Have Been Harmonized, by Kai Strittmatter, HarperCollins, 2020, page 108)
The erasure of history has worked so well that the propagandized young people no longer clearly understand what they are not supposed to know. Strittmatter recounts an incident in which a young editor ended up approving an ad in his paper that was a “tribute to the strong mothers of the victims of June 4.” He had asked the person placing the ad, who was a civil rights activist, what was significant about June 4. The person said it was the anniversary of a mining accident (Strittmatter, 127). The ad ran and the editor was fired for reasons he did not understand.
The CCP began as small group of leftists who were interested in Marxism and disillusioned with the current government. This eventually led to a rift within the government and ultimately a civil war in which the CCP was victorious. Ironically, if the Party has succeeded in erasing memory and forging people in its own image, it may very well have engineered its own demise.
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