Controlling the future
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” George Orwell famously wrote in “1984.” He finished the novel in 1948, but his prophetic proposition reminds us of what’s happening in China in 2021. I may not be the only one to think of Orwell after a landmark resolution on the country’ modern history was adopted at the sixth Plenary Session last week of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The one who controls China’s present is Xi Jinping, the president and general secretary of the Communist Party. He also dreams of controlling the future of China, as well as the present. After breaking his party’s convention of allowing only two five-year terms for leaders, he paved the way to his own extended rule. The only thing left is justification and legitimatization of his reign. It stands to reason that one controls the past by renewing the interpretation of history. China adopted a new resolution on history as the pinnacle of a project to control the present through controlling the past — and to control the future.
In China, the Communist Party monopolizes the authority to interpret history. The CPC’s history resolution is adopted as the official interpretation of the country’s history and becomes the standard in education, ultimately dominating the consciousness and mindset of the people. The weight of the CPC’s history resolution is significant, as there have been only three of them, including this one.
However, it is unclear who Xi fought against and won. At the beginning of the administration, he started an intense anti-corruption campaign and purged a number of heavyweight officials. But it is hard to regard it as a struggle over the path of the CPC and the country. Nevertheless, Xi intends to change the basic line of the party and the country as Mao and Deng did. It is concisely put in the sentence that “Mao Zedong made Chinese people stand up; Deng Xiaoping made Chinese people rich; Xi Jinping will make Chinese people strong.” To achieve the goal, Xi needs to draw a line from Deng’s direction and put an end to Deng’s era.
There are two things differentiating Xi from Deng. The first is changing Deng’s theory of “get rich first” to Xi’s “common prosperity.” The other is ending Deng’s “Hide your brightness, bide your time.” Xi’s pursuit of common prosperity means he will be more faithful to the ideology and principles of socialism. China once sought its own capitalism, but Xi wants to be a new leader pursuing socialism further, as clearly seen in the definition of his socialist philosophy for a new age as “21st century Marxism.” That helps make the ominous prediction — that the U.S.-China contest will expand to a new Cold War of clashing values — more convincing.
Ending the “Hide your brightness, bide your time” is bound to result in discord and clashes with the international community more directly. Deng not only instructed the Chinese people to “hide your brightness, bide your time” but also to “never stand forward.” Deng’s teachings are nowhere to be found, as it is openly said that anyone coming after China would “crack their heads and spill blood” in the Xi era.
By succeeding in adopting the monumental history resolution that controls the past, Xi’s stature has been elevated to the ranks of Mao and Deng. While he controls the present and the foreseeable future, it is unclear if he will be rated on par with Mao and Deng in the historical evaluation that will be made in the far future. As Xi’s rule will be another past someday, those in power will try to control the past again.