“History is the best teacher,” Xi Jinping said in 2019 as he addressed a seminar for teachers of ideological and political theory courses. This laconic statement about the wisdom to be drawn from the well of the past might have been inspired by any number of historical figures, from Rosa Luxembourg to Winston Churchill. But it prompts an even more basic question: What does Xi Jinping mean by history?
The most recent edition of Seeking Truth (求是), the Chinese Communist Party’s official journal of theory, goes a long way in answering this question. Once again, as in previous editions, the table of contents is topped by an article attributed to Xi himself, a practice dating back to early 2019 that is an unmistakable sign of the general secretary’s commanding position within the CCP.
As has also been the practice since 2019, the publication of Xi’s article in Seeking Truth is announced with great fanfare in the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper today, and also tops the paper’s website – with the headline that tells us history is a “mirror,” and that understanding it leads us to a love of the CCP and a love of the nation (以史为镜、以史明志，知史爱党、知史爱国).
In fact, Xi’s article, like so many that have taken a commanding position at Seeking Truth in recent months, is a compilation of quotes he has made in official speeches and letters since 2013. The reference to history as a mirror, for example, comes from a speech he made on December 28, 2015, at a so-called democratic life meeting of the Politburo.
“We must strengthen our study of history, particularly the study of the ancient history of China, of contemporary Chinese history, and of the history of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “History is a mirror, and from history we can be enlightened and receive direction.”
But reading Xi’s lines, and reading between the lines, it is clear that what history is mirroring back for the CCP is a story of unmitigated glory. This is not about reflection in the deeper sense, of questioning the errors and missteps of the past and pledging never to repeat them. There is no mention of the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward. Nor is there any word about that document that in the earliest days of the reform era defined the sense of self-examination, the Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Xi Jinping’s history, above all, is a resource of legitimacy. As such it must brim with “positive energy.” This Xi-era term denoting confident and uplifting messages (and the necessary restriction of their opposites) appears twice in the Seeking Truth article. “For us communists, the history of the Chinese revolution is the best nutrient,” Xi said during a visit to Hebei province in July 2013. “If we revisit the great history of our party leading the people in the revolution, we will increase a lot of positive energy in our hearts.”
Many of the quotes emphasize the value of China’s revolutionary history, focussing on the period before the establishment of the PRC – including episodes like the Long March and the Anti-Japanese War (抗日战争). These have been braided together in the CCP’s current conception of history with notions of the greatness of traditional Chinese culture, forming a DNA strand that is meant to cement the Party’s position at the center of Chinese identity.
The idea of the CCP’s legacy as a Chinese cultural inheritance is everywhere in the political discourse as the 100th anniversary of the Party approaches, epitomized by the notion of “red genes” that must be nurtured and passed on. In a May 2018 letter to a primary school in Shaanxi, Xi Jinping wrote: “I hope that all of you come to better understand the history of revolution, [PRC] establishment and reform in China, that you learn from heroic and exemplary figures, that you ardently love the Party, ardently love the motherland, ardently love the people, and that through your actions you transmit red genes from generation to generation.”
The People’s Daily report on the Seeking Truth article by Xi emphasizes another line from the general secretary that appears in the first two quotes listed. “History,” says Xi, “is the best textbook.” The proviso of course is that the textbook must, as another of Xi’s quotes says, “focus on why the CCP is ‘capable,’ why Marxism ‘works’ and why socialism with Chinese characteristics is ‘good.'”
As Xi has regularly stressed, echoing Mao Zedong: “East, west, south, north and center, Party, government, military, society and education – the Party rules all.” If history is a mirror, the CCP must command the reflection.