By Qiyang Niu
If one tracks China-related news in Western media, it is easy to notice how important human rights issues are. Reports on topics like the National Security Law, crackdown on lawyers, and activist of Tiananmen Square are receiving as much attention as international affairs topics such as South China Sea dispute, cyber-attacks and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Even if the reported event is in an unrelated field, for instance, the Winter Olympics, it is still often linked with human rights criticism. A Google search of “China human rights” gets 250,000,000 hits whereas the results for “China expansion” and “China reform” get 226,000,000 and 187,000,000 hits respectively. China’s human rights issue is no doubt an important focus of the West. As a result, the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s attitude towards its historical problems, which relate to its embarrassing civil rights record, is not only an important national issue, but also an international one.
Surprisingly, the CPC’s attitude and reaction toward such crucial issues have never been well managed. On June 3, for example, during a regular press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a foreign journalist posed a question to Hua Chunying, the Chinese spokeswoman, concerning the CPC’s attitude toward the Tiananmen protests and its request for Japan to face its WWII crimes. Hua first denied the similarity between the two events, adding that China had long reached a "clear conclusion about the political turmoil of the 1980s." She concluded with the argument that, "more than 30 years of the great achievements brought about by China's reform and opening up have proven that the path of development that China has chosen is completely right." Needless to say, the whole question was later deleted from the daily press conference record on the Chinese MFA website, and was not allowed on any other social media site in China. Hua’s response and the Chinese government’s long-standing tradition of censorship perfectly illustrate the CPC’s stance on history: Do not question. Economic triumph is the proof of our legitimacy.
The Communist Party of China is a party with a long ideological and philosophical history. Moreover, the establishment of People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the early success of the CPC were not based on the CPC’s economic triumph, but on its general moral advantage during 1920-40s. It is impossible for the CPC not to realize the necessity of moral legitimacy to a regime. Economic legitimacy alone is not sufficient as it cannot be transformed into moral legitimacy. Why then does the CPC prefer ignoring the issue instead of facing and fixing this problem? Why does it show a tendency to feign amnesia, which is surely not going to succeed in this age of social media? This unwise approach of the CPC, I believe, is a tragic result of its complicated position in the ideological fight with the West.
On one hand, it is urgent for the CPC to face and fix its historical problems. Given that the intellectuals were often the victims of the CPC’s past movements, the delay in confronting history has caused a deep distrust among the contemporary Chinese intelligentsia and the younger generation toward the CPC. As time passes, distrust towards the CPC expands from the intellectual circles to the broader public. In turn, these misgivings as a whole also grow from questioning the CPC to doubting the general communist ideology. This makes it easier for Western values -- which the CPC especially opposes -- to gain popularity in China, and consequently destabilize the CPC’s regime. The continuous debate about ideologies and values on Weibo (China’s biggest social media website) has become one of the CPC’s serious concerns as well as the main target of censorship. To Chinese intelligentsia, when they could not find a sense of safety from the CPC, Western values naturally become a place of refuge. This is exactly what the CPC fears the most, as one can tell from the CPC’s vehement defenders: Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), Global Times, Hongqi Wengao (Red-Flag Manuscript) and other government and party-owned media. The longer the CPC fails to deal with its historical problems, the more disadvantaged it becomes in the ideological fight.
On the other hand, it is risky to change even a bit of the CPC’s attitude towards its historical problems, since it is highly related to the CPC’s long-standing ideological strategy. The Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CCPPD) has been adopting the notorious ideological strategy for decades. The principle behind this strategy is comparable to that of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984: ‘Anything can become the truth in order to serve the needs of the Party’. There have not been any significant changes in the CCPPD since the Cold War, despite the radical change in the economic and social spheres. Due to various reasons, many of the high-ranking leaders’ theories and talks are either based on or entangled with this old strategy – even when it does not reflect their real thoughts.
Accordingly, changing this strategy would mean diminishing the CPC’s authority, which is what the CPC least wants and greatly fears. Starting from 2012, the compulsory study sessions mandated by the CPC of numerous publications (books, articles, documentary films, etc.) as well as the speeches given by top leaders including President Xi on the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse all show the CPC’s deep fear that self-criticism within the CPC would result in a Gorbachev-like collapse.
However, the current situation does not necessarily mean that the CPC is bound to lose its powerful position. I think, rather than delaying for another few decades until it completely loses the support of the Chinese intellectuals and younger generations, it is better to take the risk and break the fear of the Soviet’s example now. As I see it, the CPC has been worrying about its stability too much and underestimates itself to the point that it lacks self-confidence to change.
It is not very suitable for the CPC to get stuck on the example of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The collapse was not merely a result of Gorbachev’s opening of past crimes. The Soviet Union’s planned economy had been carried out for 60 years, and made quick radical reforms impossible, especially together with ideological reforms. By contrast, China’s economic reforms, as the CPC itself asserts, have achieved significant triumph. This could avert the Soviet situation of facing both the economic and ideological reform simultaneously, while adding to the CPC’s credit when its legitimacy is questioned.
The situation of the CPC’s historical problems is not as terrible as that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The 1932-33 Famine was not admitted by the Soviet government until 1990s; and the rehabilitation of victims of Stalin’s Great Purge was not comprehensively carried out until Gorbachev’s time. These and many other topics were not open to public discussion until Perestroika. In contrast, the CPC admitted that the 1958-61 Famine and the Cultural Revolution had been mistakes, and admitted the party’s fault as early as 1981 in The Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the PRC. Although some details remain debatable and some extremist Chinese leftists deny these events, at the official level these crimes have been admitted the victims broadly rehabilitated. This makes the major unfixed historical problems ones pertaining to the post 1989 democratic movements such as the Tiananmen Square protests.
Moreover, the CPC exists in an age quite different from that of the CPSU. The information era has given the Chinese people enough ways to discuss “secrets.” This more or less mentally prepares the public for the full disclosure of the “forbidden topics.” Contemporary Chinese people’s willingness to demand an official justification is gradually replaced by quiet curiosity, and this curiosity is being fulfilled by Weibo, Wechat and various online media. In other words, for modern PRC, the process of opening is more like a stream of information, which is way safer and better than the Soviet Union’s massive flood of revelations.
On July 1, the CPC celebrated its 94th anniversary. At present, the CPC has not shown sincere willingness to face its historical misdeeds. It is still vainly struggling in the ideological fight with old fashioned tactics (Document No. 9): information blocking, higher education control, media propaganda, and dissident persecution. What is more, these unhealthy methods are supported from the top down. As Zi Zhongyun, a distinguished scholar and former translator for Chairman Mao summarizes, “The CPC is evoking Chinese nationalism to counter Western values.” This series of extremely unconfident actions could never be a resolution to the CPC’s historical dilemma, but it is rather a way of further undermining itself in the ideological fight as well as in rebuilding its own legitimacy. I would argue that it is advisable for China to oppose some of the Western values if the CPC as a ruling party sees it necessary (it is also likely true that current Chinese society is not mature enough for American-style democracy), but China’s ideological opposition must be based on building up the CPC’s own persuasive value set. This is hard to achieve with its current avoidant attitudes and ossified strategies. Although from time to time positive signals have been observed, such as Xi’s talk on democracy in Sept., 2014 and the official commemoration of former party leader Hu Yaobang (whose death triggered the Tiananmen protests) in Jan., 2015, there are many contradictions, among inner-party groups, between the time and the CCPPD as well as within Xi himself.
The CPC is not an omnipotent organism, but Francis Fukuyama’s End of History -- the final form of human government -- is not necessarily the Western liberal democracy either. By realizing this fact, regaining the confidence to face problems, and updating its ideological strategy, the CPC could gain the basis of becoming the only communist party in history with true legitimacy. If the CPC keeps China’s economy growing simultaneously, the CPC has the potential to become the Beginning of History (this is not to say that economic and moral legitimacy are the sufficient conditions for it, but rather the necessary conditions). However, if the CPC cannot even take the first step to face the problems, it will soon see its rigid ideology falling and it will lose not only the ideological fight, but also its already precarious legitimacy.
Qiyang Niu is an intern with the Strategic Trust-Building Initiative at the EastWest Institute's New York City Center. He is a graduate student of European and Russian Studies at Yale University. Qiyang's interests include Russian/Chinese foreign policy, Russian/Chinese history from 20th century, and Russian literature and music.