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China's Shiny New History
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Although Chinese and foreign scholars say that as many as 36 to 45 million Chinese died in the great famine of 1959-1961, a massive new official history of the Communist Party says only 10 million died.
The missing 26 million-odd are the discrepancy between Socialist reality and historical reality.
The second volume of the party history, covering the period from 1949 to 1978, was published in Beijing in January and has gone on sale in Xinhua bookshops nationwide. The Propaganda Department has instructed party members and government officials to study the book and told propaganda outlets to spread the message through the media and television.
The history will become a compulsory text in schools – the official history of China. The two red volumes run to 988,000 characters in 1,074 pages. The authors are two dozen scholars from the party's research department, aided by experts from the Central Party School. Several editors died during the marathon writing and editing process, which took 16 years.
The history has 22 pages of photographs with the highlights of the period – including land reform, the establishment of collective farms, building steel mills, China's first car, the explosion of the atom bomb, the development of the Daqing oilfield, model workers Wang Jinxi and Lei Feng,China's entry to the United Nations and Mao Zedong meeting Richard Nixon.
It is a meticulous work of scholarship, with a wealth of detail and references. But it was written from the inside of the institution and within the ideology and guidelines set by party leaders. So readers will find little that challenges the official version of history that was previously published.
Critics say that it does not address the many lacunae during those traumatic 29 years, during which millions died for man-made causes, were exiled or imprisoned. They say it will be left to others to write the complete version of China's history.
The first volume, covering 1921 to 1949, was published in May 1991. One spring day in 1995, the staff of the research department were summoned to a meeting and told that, now they had completed volume one, the party's Central Committee wanted volume two and they must start on it.
The three decades are the most difficult and sensitive period of the 90 years since the party was set up in Shanghai in July 1921. In a meeting with American journalist Edgar Snow in December 1970, Chairman Mao described it as period of twists and turns, "like the shape of an S."
That was a profound understatement – the period includes the Korean War, vicious political campaigns against landlords, rich farmers and 'rightists', the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) that left millions dead.
"The history of the International Socialist movement teaches us that, while a party searches to build the Socialism suitable to its own country, there is no party which has not made mistakes," the book says in its conclusion. "The important issue is whether it can learn from its mistakes. The Chinese Communist Party has sincerely learnt from the experience of history, especially to improve its understanding of external regulations, corrected its mistakes and turned them into the right leadership.
"The public has great confidence in the party leadership in building Chinese socialism … while the party has committed serious mistakes, it has learnt from them and studied many things it did not understand or misunderstood before, in order to guide Chinese socialism forward."
The greatest proof of this, the history says, was the reform and open-door policies adopted since 1978, a great awakening of the party in the conditions of a new era.
"In this new revolution, Socialist China is gradually saying goodbye to poverty and backwardness, moving to progress and prosperity and implementing the great renaissance of the Chinese race," it said.
Scholars will find the book more valuable as a record of the party than a history of China. No one can question the diligence of the authors, who read tens of thousands of documents and consulted with more than 100 specialists. But they were writing not for the ideal of scholarship nor international recognition but their superiors. Their first draft was rejected by the Central Committee as too negative, so they had to make major revisions.
Former President Jiang Zemin, his successor Hu Jintao and the man who will follow him, Xi Jinping were among more than 100 senior officials who gave comments and advice on the content. These high officials had contradictory views on different issues.
In total, the authors sent the history four times to the Central Committee for review and correction, which led to more revision and exhaustive discussion. Once the text was complete, they held meetings at which each writer had to account for every line he had written, to ensure that there were no mistakes.
One of the main authors, Zhang Qihua, former deputy director of the party research office, said the history had to be in step with the Central Committee, its documents, the speeches and ideas of party leaders and 'a resolution on certain questions' of party history passed by the committee in June 1981.
This resolution said that, while Mao made grave mistakes during the Cultural Revolution, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweighed his mistakes. "His merits are primary and errors secondary," it said.
Zhang said that the Central Committee had not approved the first draft, because it concentrated too much on the mistakes of the party. One example was the coverage of the 1966-76 period. While the book strongly criticized the Cultural Revolution, it also describes achievements in other fields, such as diplomacy, science and technology, agriculture and economy, during this period.
Shi Zhongquan, also a former deputy director of the party research department, said the book followed the 1981 resolution in evaluating Mao.
"We cannot put all the blame on Mao alone nor put them all on the moral quality of a single person. He was the principal leader but it was a collective leadership. The large amount of material in volume two shows that Mao paid great attention to overcoming the failures and problems of the party and people's living conditions. In his later years, after the second half of 1957, he could not analyze correctly many problems and in the Cultural Revolution confused truth and fiction and friends and enemies," Shi said.
Many people are disappointed with the book, saying that it was impossible to write history when the text had to be approved, line by line, by senior officials, and follow an ideology set in advance.
"Ever since the Xinhai revolution (of 1911), how much has history been distorted by political parties?" asked one Internet reader under a pen-name. "History should be written by scholars who are independent of parties and write in a fair and objective manner. That is history as it should be written. We have been given fragments of the truth for so many decades – this situation has to end."
"Before the party existed, there was history," wrote another Internet respondent who gave the name of Zhang. "The history of the party cannot replace the history of the country. Allegiance to a party cannot replace the reality of history. Gennady Zyuganov (the head of the Russian Communist Party) said that the lesson of the failure of his party was that it monopolized power, interests and truth. Are we writing another history of the Soviet Communist Party that monopolized history?"
Jin Zhong, editor of the Open Magazine of Hong Kong, was more scathing. "This history is a major step back in the thinking and theory of the party. It is very fake and self-serving."
"The figure of 10 million dead in the Great Famine was published by an official scholar in 1984. Since then, scholars in China and abroad have done a great deal of research, with a death toll of more than 30 million or even 40 million. This history avoids the issue. The attitude is that, since it was not the mistake of the current leadership, they can just leave it.
"It takes no account of an enormous amount of scholarship done in the last 30 years by expert, reasonable and responsible academics. It just says that 'they must be in line with the central leadership and consolidate the political power'. People should not bother to read it," he said.