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Xi Jinping Gifts ‘Historical Nihilism’ to China on CPC Centenary

In his speech to mark the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, Chinese President Xi Jinping repeated the term “national rejuvenation” twenty times. The speech reminded the party’s 95 million card-carrying members that “since the very day of its founding, the party has made seeking rejuvenation for the Chinese nation its aspiration and mission.” However, just as “national rejuvenation” betrays the revolutionary conceptions at the founding of the party, the whole official narrative during the nationwide celebration is premised more on hype than reality, raising questions about the party’s commitment to its founding principles.

Marxism–Leninism has no beauty, nor is there anything mysterious about it. It is only extremely useful.

– Mao Zedong

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), as repor­ted in China’s official media, the party’s top leadership asked its millions of members to be more vigilant against the biggest threat the party is facing: histor­ical nihilism. What is historical ­nihilism? When did the phrase originate and when did it enter the party’s official narrative? Did Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping use the phrase too or is it the party’s coinage under Xi Jinping? Most of all, why do the party history and the historical question make the current lea­der­ship scared and ideologically inse­cure?

For the want of an adequate explanation, a Chinese historian tried to downplay the increasingly excessive use of the phrase by the party, saying “historical nihilism is a term with Chinese characteristics.” However, the historian Hong Zhengkuai, who was labelled by the party as a “historical nihilist” for his article, not only questioned the idea of historical nihilism but also argued that the historical study requires the search for and the verification of truth. “If the verification of truth should be labelled as ‘historical ­nihilism,’ then the study of history is pointless,” Hong said (Yu 2016).

Struck by the pandemic on the one hand and the pandemic-infli­cted slowing economic growth woes on the other, particularly in the centenary year of the founding of the party, in February 2021, the General Secretary of the party, Xi, vociferously reiterated the necessity to “clearly oppose historical nihilism.” Then just a couple of weeks before the party’s 1 July centenary ­celebrations took off, a well-known Chinese historian, Ge Jianxiong, caused a huge controversy through a lecture he delivered on Shanghai television. Quoting Xi, he said: “Opposing the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party through history is historical nihilism” (BBC Chinese 2021).

CPC and the Chinese Revolution

A few years after the founding of the CPC a century ago, the literary voice of modern China—writer, essayist, and critical thinker—Lu Xun had sadly commented and des­cribed his country as “voiceless China” (Pagano 2018). Calling upon the Chinese youth, Lu Xun appealed to them to struggle for reclaiming China’s place in the world. To realise the goal, the writer, who died in 1936 but whose “voice” continues to resonate even today, wanted his fellow countrymen and women to make sure that China beco­mes a country with more than “one kind of voice.” ­Today, under the ruling CPC, China is no more “voiceless,” but it is certainly not a country with more than “one kind of voice” (Osnos 2021).

In July 1921, the CPC had convened its founding congress in a girls’ school in Shanghai. A total of 13 delegates representing the party’s 50 founding members, including two forei­gners, had gathered to hold their clandestine meeting in the city’s “French concession.” Of the 10 Chinese delegates, two each had come from Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan, Changsha (Mao’s birthplace), and Jinan (the ­ancient Confucian town), respectively. The delegates from abroad present at the secret gathering were the representatives of the Third International or Comintern, Henk Sneevliet, and Vla­dimir Abramovich Neiman-Nikolsky, known to the Chinese as Maring and Nikolsky, respectively. Chen Duxiu, China’s first Marxist ideologue, could not attend the landmark opening meeting of the party congress but was unanimously elected to lead the party.

Scholars and observers both within mainland China and internationally, as also the mainstream global press, have been debating the century-long journey of the CPC offering differing perspectives and varying interpretations.

Marxist scholars have critically looked at the CPC journey through the ideological lens and in the process highlighted several crucial and pertinent issues. These are, first, within China, theorists and historians who have emphasised the importance of firmly holding on to Marxism–Leninism and never to lose connect between the party and the masses (drawing the lesson from the coll­apse of the Soviet Union) (guancha.cn 2021). Xi, in a speech to mark the 200th birth anniversary of Karl Marx two years ago in a speech, hailed him as the greatest thinker in human history and said: “[Marxism] is a powerful ideological weapon for us to understand the world, grasp the law, seek the truth, and change the world” (Huang 2018).

Second, the ideological discourse within the ranks of diverse Marxist schools of thought ranges from contrasting the revolutionary founding principles at the party’s opening congress in July 1921 to the “missing” Chinese people’s struggle against neo-liberal finance capital-led class oppression globally and against (the United States [US]) imperialist domination (Campbell 2019). Third, there is the CPC invented “socialism with Chinese characteristics” theoretical formulation that some dismiss as nothing but falsifying the ruling party’s socialist credentials. For exa­mple, the grand fireworks as part of the party’s centenary celebrations on 1 July reflect reform China’s economic success, which is more about the middle-class beneficiaries of growth and of the success of private entrepreneurs but without revealing marginalisation of and discrimination against millions of rural mig­rant workers (Long ­et al 2018).) As a few strong critics of the current CPC regime have pointed out, since the 1980s, the CPC’s development strategy has been oriented not “towards building socialism but towards turning China into a big power” (Patnaik 2021).

At the same time, in the mainstream international press, including here in ­India, the CPC completing a hundred years is being analysed in terms of the growing personality cult and China’s growing ambition to become an “im­perial” power (Minqi 2021). The focal point of the rep­ortage as well as the op-ed commenta­ries is largely threefold, namely Xi’s larger-than-life leadership style; a rising China flexing muscles on the global stage; and mainland China’s reunification with Taiwan. In spite of the fact that BBC recently found itself caught in the cross hairs with the communist nation, it wondered whether to call China’s communist party at hundred, “a drama or threat.” In fact, the BBC, in quite uncharacteristic fashion, titled its story as “Theatrics or Threat: How to Handle China’s Communist Party at 100?” (Sudworth 2021).

Marx in China

How did China get Marx? True, the birth of the CPC was inspired, and perhaps expedited, by the 1917 Russian Revolution. “The salvoes of the October Revolution brought us Marxism–Leninism,” Mao (1961) wrote in one of his ideological essays in 1942. But the first time Marx’s name was mentioned in a Chinese language publication was in 1899. The publication, A Review of the Times, was the official magazine of a Shanghai-based church. It ran a rather lengthy summary in partial translation of a rec­ently published article “Social Revolution” by Benjamin Kidd. Titled Da Tongxue in Chinese, the piece included references to The Communist Manifesto, attri­buting that text to the “hundred wor­kers’ leader”—Marx. For academic rese­arch purposes, this was the first time the name “Karl Marx” app­eared in a Chinese-language publication (Wei 2021).

The first influx of Marxism into China happened in the early days of the last century. It may be recalled that the period from the First Opium War in 1840 to the end of 1900 and into the 20th century is known as the period of relentless loot, plunder, and brutal attacks first by the foreign imperialist aggressors, leading to internal Qing rule decadence and the first humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan in the Sino–Japanese war in 1895. The period was eventually called as “semi-feudal and semi-colonial” China—the CPC was the first political organisation in China in the 1920s to come out with such a formulation. Interestingly, Marxism was opted for by the then Chinese reformers when all other experiments to modernise China failed, incl­uding the last-ditch attempt by the ruling Qing dynasty to carry out a strategy to westernise China.

After the failure of the Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898, leading reformers and intellectuals showing keen interest in western civilisation, science and technology, humanities and social sciences, found themselves exiled in Japan. There, the most prominent among them, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, came into contact with the Japanese translations of Western texts. They began the work of translating them, again, into Chinese. (Wei 2021)

In 1901, in one such article, in one of China’s most vibrant journal of new ideas, New Citizen, Liang Qichao published his own piece on the work of Kidd, wherein he also referenced Marx’s works. He wrote,

In Germany, the two most influential ideas today are the socialism of Karl Marx and the individualism of Friedrich Nietzsche. Marx has stated that the problem with today’s society is that the weak multitudes are oppressed by the strong few.

Shanghai: Centre of Early Chinese Marxism

Within a year of Laing’s article, another publishing house in Shanghai called the Guangyi Publishing House, published Fukui Junzo’s Modern Socialism in Chinese translation by Zhao Bizhen. Junzo’s book became the first elaborate work in Chinese with detailed discussion on Marx’s theories, including the main arguments on key works such as The Communist ManifestoChinese scholar Ma Junwu published “A Comparative Study of Socia­lism and Evolutionism,” which featured references to Marx and his theories.

After the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic of ­China (RoC) in 1912, the centre of reform and revolutionary activity shifted from overseas to China. Shanghai soon bec­ame a centre of the early Chinese Mar­xism. In 1915, Chen Duxiu founded New Youth magazine out of Shanghai, kick-starting the New Culture Movement and giving Marxism a key platform within China (Wei 2021). Since it is not the objective of this article to discuss the history of spread of Marxism in China at length, it would suffice to say that prior to the Russian Revolution, especially during the period from 1911–12—the time of the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the RoC—the centre of reformist intellectual debates and revolutionary poli­tical activities moved from overseas, mainly Japan, back into China. With China’s first Marxist thinker Chen Duxiu, who would eventually become the founder and the first general secretary of the CPC, moving into Shanghai in 1915, the city became a centre of the deve­lopment of the early Chinese Marxism (Kagan 1972).

New Youth immediately became the most sought-after journal not only in Shanghai but also among the intelligentsia in the RoC. The journal advocated Western “individualism,” respect for human rights, science, and democracy while challenging the conservative traditional Chinese value system and Confuci­an­ism. At the same time, it also championed vernacular writing system instead of traditional Confucian writing conventions or the classical script (Spence 1999). By 1917, around the time of the October Revolution, Chen Duxiu had moved to Beijing (then called Peiping) and with the help of a young Marxist acti­vist, Li Dazhao, had launched a project to translate The Communist Manifesto into Chinese. It is pertinent to mention that following the October Revolution, the journal New Youth became inc­reasingly bold in its promotion of Marxist ideas in China. It is now indeed viewed by scholars and historians in China as “extraordinary” that the journal’s fifth issue of volume six was a special issue on “Marxist Studies” (Wei 2021).

At another level, Chen Duxiu’s efforts to translate and publish The Communist Manifesto into Chinese bore fruit. It was during the peak of the May Fourth Move­ment in 1919 that a well-known linguist and translator of Western texts, Chen Wangdao was chosen for the translation task. Wangdao took more than six months to finish the translation. Compared with the Japanese, English, and probably the Russian versions, Chen’s translation is (still) considered a masterpiece as its idiomatic Chinese conveys the brilliance of the original. Additionally, it is not known whether Chen Duxiu and others had planned to publish the Chinese version of The Communist Manifesto, but it did play a significant role in the founding of the CPC one year later in July 1921.

Historical Nihilism

Lu Xun, mentioned in the opening part of this article and who Mao had dec­lared as “the sage of modern China,” was one of the most influential voices during the revolutionary decade of the 1920s and thereafter. More importantly, Lu Xun was least enamoured by the birth of a new political party. Successive failures of a series of anti-Qing rule, anti-foreign imp­erial forces in the preceding quarter century had injected a strong pessimistic feeling among a large number of educated, urban intelligentsia. The last such experiment had resulted in the chaotic war-lord era following the disastrous end to the founding of the RoC in 1912. Even after seven decades of the CPC rule and in spite of the new China’s numerous achievements, a large number of ordinary Chinese or common people (Laobaixing), those within the ranks of the CPC members and cadres as well as sections of the intelligentsia, have not stopped questioning several of the party’s policies in the context of the Marxist ideas that had first crept into China both before and following the ­October Revolution.

Recall the dying words of the COVID-19 whistle-blower Li Wenliang, which a large number of the state-controlled ­media outlets dared to carry on the front pages. “A healthy society shouldn’t have just one voice,” almost invoking Lu Xun, the Chinese doctor had said (Yu 2020). Or take the example of Wuhan-based several prestigious national literary awards winner, the novelist Fang Fang who bec­ame the most vilified and atta­cked (by the pro-regime leftist intelligentsia) both in the party-run digital current affairs platforms and on the Chinese social media. People online called her a liar, traitor, a villain, and an imperialist dog (emphasis added). Fang Fang’s only crime was she documented her lockdown experiences in an apolitical account, which was later translated into English and published in the US as the ­Wuhan Diary, every day for almost a month following the passing away of the “Wuhan hero Dr Li Wenliang” (Adlakha 2020).

It would be a naïve and gross error to view the public abuse and humiliation heaped on Li and Fang Fang, both on social media and on the internet, as isolated incidents. It would do well to bear in mind that the CPC has a history of controlling narratives, especially about its own past serious mistakes, according to Li Yuan. Under Xi, the party has become even less tolerant of unorthodox historical ideas. While it is true that the threat of imperialism the party faces has been around for hundred years, one is not sure if the party’s “chronic” weakness of intolerance to “more than one kind of voice” can be simply explained away as the party perpetually in a state of the “fear of imperialist encirclement” (Patnaik 2021).

Under Xi, the CPC has “added a new layer to its already extensive censorship” by announcing a new euphemism—“histo­rical nihilism”—to crush and demo­lish any distortion of the CPC history or any attack on the party’s leadership and ideology (Symonds 2021). Particularly since the beginning of his second term as the top leader, Xi has shown growing intolerance to “independent” interpretations of Marxism. Two years ago, just as Xi was delivering a speech at the Great Hall to commemorate the centenary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, six Peking University students were arrested and sent to prison. They were not criminals nor did they indulge in a criminal activity. What was their crime?

All they did was remain loyal to Marxism, seeking to commit their youth to the cause of workers, as the centenary of May Fourth and the international labour day of May First approached. (Young Pioneers 2019)

Historical nihilism is a phrase used in China to express doubt and scepticism over the CPC’s description of past events. In the words of China’s semi-official daily Global Times, the term describes the ­ongoing battle between “China’s leftists and rightists over how to interpret the CPC’s revolutionary past” (Yu 2016). President Xi himself was quoted in February 2021 as saying “historical nihilism would not be tolerated, ordering a nationwide campaign to study party history ahead of the anniversary” (Mai 2021). The CPC released a series of cultural propaganda package in the form of feature films, television docudramas, dramas, etc, depicting the current regime’s version of the party history. For example, in spite of the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic, the cinemas all over China were ordered to screen the “official” CPC centenary film, 1921. One of the striking anomalies in the film is the date of the founding of the CPC hundred years ago. According to reports, the party branches at all levels were iss­ued instructions to make sure 1921 beco­mes “a grand box-office success” on the opening day (Davis 2021). Following Xi’s emphasis that historical nihilism is the negation of historical materialism, the party ideologues and pro-party Marxist scholars advocate that the former is dangerous and as damaging as “ideological opium” (Li 2015).

To sum up, just as the “national rejuvenation” betrays the revolutionary conceptions at the time of the founding of the party, the whole official narrative during nationwide celebration is premised on the widening gap between hype and reality, raising questions about the party’s commitment to its founding principles. As the CPC centennial celebrations are ­underway in China, the party leadership has introduced as many as 80 new slogans to glorify the CPC’s achievements, especially the “economic miracle” in the 40 years since the Open Door policy. One of the many slogans is that “only the CPC can save China.” In contrast, China’s young leftists who are being punished and arrested for being “historical nihilists” have their own ­slogan—“only ‘Marxism’ can save China.” Defying the ever-increasing oppression and political censorship, people in China continue to raise uncomfortable questions such as “whose rejuvenation?” Whose “China miracle”? “It is not the reju­venation of the Chinese people. It is the rejuvenation of the bourgeois class. It is not the rise of a socialist China. It is the rise of a new empire” (Young Pioneers 2019).1 True, 100 years later, the history has moved forward and the “changes shaking the heavens have occu­rred in China.”

Note

1 As mentioned in the beginning of this article, frequent mentioning of the phrase “national rejuvenation” by President Xi Jinping in his 1 July CPC centenary celebratory speech, has been questioned in academic debates in both China and internationally. The central question being asked is, why is the party leadership in China today assertively stating that phrases such as “rejuvenation” and “China dream” had been an integral part of the party’s original asp­iration and mission as sought by its founders a hundred years ago? It is in this context, that the quote from the anonymous article in the New Left Review, a translation from Chinese that was removed from Chinese social media soon after its appearance on the internet, rightly exposes the bitter ironies of the party’s ideological cracking down upon dissenting labour rights activists and “public intellectuals” under the pretext of “historical nihilism.”

References

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Updated On : 1st Aug, 2022
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