Xi seemed intent not only to explain 100 years of the CCP’s history, but also to reinterpret modern Chinese history more generally, writes Shin Kawashima.
By Shin Kawashima, November 1, 2021
On July 1st, 2021, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held a ceremony to commemorate the centennial of the Party’s founding, with General Secretary Xi Jinping giving a speech to those present as part of the day’s events. Up until this point, Xi’s regime had set its sights on two key anniversaries: the 2021 centennial of the CCP’s founding and the 2049 centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Each anniversary had its own policy goal attached. By 2021, the aim was to develop China into a “Moderately Prosperous Society in All Aspects,” which meant that poverty would be eliminated from all counties and autonomous regions, and that every part of the country would obtain a per capita GDP of US$4000 or above. By 2049, China would see the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” meaning that China would surpass the United States in all respects – including militarily – and resolve issues such as the “Taiwan Question.”
As a result, the chief aim of Xi’s speech at the centennial was to mark China’s realization of a “Moderately Prosperous Society.” He thus heralded the end to poverty within China and touted his present goal of obtaining “common prosperity.” As part of this, he displayed his commitment to cracking down on monopolistic industries and applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). In short, the 2021 centennial was meant to delineate a new era in policy-making by the Communist Party, with Xi Jinping likely using these new policy goals to bolster his case for another term as General Secretary or aid in his bid to become Party Chairman.
A New Interpretation of Party History
In reading the hour-long speech, Xi seemed intent not only to explain 100 years of the CCP’s history, but also to reinterpret modern Chinese history more generally. This fits with his regime’s broader moves on this front. The government has promoted the study of the “Four Histories” – of the CCP, new China, reform and opening up, and socialist development – with the history of the Party receiving the most attention. The month before Xi gave his speech, work began to promote the teaching of the Four Histories at all levels of society, including plans to offer courses on the subject as part of every university student’s required coursework on government.
Xi Jinping’s speech portrayed modern Chinese history not in terms of the Chinese state – his account notably excluded the Qing Dynasty, Republic of China, and the Kuomintang (KMT) – but in terms of milestones in the history of the CCP itself. Xi similarly omitted the KMT from his October 9, 2021 speech to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, as he gave the KMT almost no credit for any of its contributions to modern Chinese history. This is likely a reflection of the fact that cooperation with the KMT is no longer a key plank of Xi’s Taiwan strategy.
The CCP’s Propaganda Department has worked hard to promote these new policies on historical interpretation, but what are their broader implications?
First, they are related to Xi’s wider push for CCP leadership in all areas of society. In essence, the Communist Party is meant to play a decisive role in guiding military, diplomatic, social, and environmental policies, with its role clearly defined by the country’s political and legal systems. In effect, aside from certain areas of economic policy that will continue to fall under the purview of the State Council, it appears the CCP will be the prime mover in determining national policy. The CCP has also taken the lead in defining the country’s orthodox historical interpretation, with the retelling of historical events focused on the Party’s actions rather than on the Chinese state as a whole.
Second, by promoting the teaching of a CCP-centered history in universities and as part of other social education activities, Xi’s aim is to leave Chinese citizens with the impression that the Party is the only organization capable of governing the country, with socialism serving as the governing philosophy best suited to that task. The use of history is thus a means of bolstering the CCP’s legitimacy.
Xi Jinping’s Taiwan Policy
Next, let’s take a look at how Xi Jinping’s speech dealt with Taiwan. When it comes to areas of contention in the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan ranks equal in importance to disputes over the South China Sea. Xi’s speech included a section that directly mentioned Taiwan, stating that:
Resolving the Taiwan Question and completely reunifying the motherland is the unwavering historical duty of the Communist Party of China. It is also the shared hope of all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation. Firmly maintaining the One China Principle and the 1992 Consensus, we must advance the peaceful reunification of the motherland.
Xi’s reference to the “shared hope of the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation” has direct ties with his vision of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Importantly, this speech marked the first time that Xi has referred to “One China Principle” as being separate from the “1992 Consensus,” as his administration has generally used the two terms interchangeably. This new formulation is somewhat favorable to Tsai Ing-wen, whose administration has a different interpretation of the 1992 Consensus than the Communist Party.
Importantly, one should not overlook the fact that Xi’s speech made no reference to the prospect of a military invasion of Taiwan. Xi then went on to state:
…all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation, including compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, must work together toward achieving our shared goal, smashing all plots that seek to attain ‘Taiwan independence’ and creating the beautiful future that is our national rejuvenation. No one should underestimate the rock-solid determination that the people of China have when it comes to defending our national and territorial sovereignty to the death.
Xi contends that the Taiwanese people should celebrate “China’s national rejuvenation” and share in the construction of China’s “beautiful future.” Instead of viewing Taiwan as a target for “liberation,” language of this nature suggests Xi hopes to develop a shared vision for building that future across the Taiwan Strait. To this end, China has been working to develop “forces for patriotic reunification” across Taiwanese society and amongst its businesses.
China has been ramping up its work to penetrate into Taiwanese society using military, cyber, and a variety of other assets. At the same time, its verbal communications have emphasized its work to turn Taiwanese society as a whole toward supporting reunification. Needless to say, with Taiwanese public opinion on China having worsened significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, such a task is not at all simple. But the increase of “Chinese elements” in the daily lives of Taiwan’s residents means that Taiwan cannot let its guard down over the long-term.
China-US Relations in the Indo-Pacific and the Role of America’s Allies
Recently, a number of diplomatic moves have taken place across the Indo-Pacific region in relation to China-US relations. Cooperative arrangements like Five Eyes, the Quad, and the recently announced security pact between Australia, UK, and the US (AUKUS) have coalesced to deal with issues related to military security and the high-tech sector. Militarily, the United States has sought to constrain Chinese action in the Indo-Pacific through cooperation with its allies, including the United Kingdom and NATO at large.
Taiwan and the South China Sea are the two major focal points for such moves because they are areas where China has sought to change “facts on the ground” without resorting to direct military confrontation. At the same time, when it comes to military issues such as Afghanistan and North Korea, both the United States and China have attempted to find common ground.
The US has also sought bilateral cooperation on issues such as climate change, and America’s allies have largely followed the US approach of confronting China militarily while seeking China’s cooperation on other matters. Japan, for example, has retained its ability to engage with China on Southeast Asia – a region of high geopolitical importance to the former – through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. However, similar to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s position at his climate summit with John Kerry, China has demanded that other countries give ground on key diplomatic issues as a precondition for its cooperation.
How we should interpret China’s application to join the CPTPP this September remains an open question. Will Canada, Australia, Japan, and others dismiss the application out of hand? Or will they accept it with open arms and attempt to turn the pact into another space for dialogue with China? This will likely become a test of each country’s individual approach.
When it comes to Taiwan, it is important to note that China’s CPTPP application finally gave the Tsai Ing-wen administration an opportunity to apply on its own accord. However, lingering questions related to food safety and opposition by agricultural industry groups will give Tsai some trouble as she heads into an election year. As a result, while countries that support Taiwan may be in favor of the Tsai’s CPTPP application, excessive support may spur – ironically – more domestic problems for her administration.
Shin Kawashima is the professor at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the University of Tokyo. This article was translated into English by George Remisovsky.