Asia Briefing 16. Mai 2017
Sebastian Pfütze

An old communist joke has it that Marxists can tell the future but find the past more difficult to predict. One-party states constantly rewrite their own history, if only because it legitimizes the present. China is the most recent example for this practice of searching for legitimacy by creating a new kind of nationalism based to a large degree on historical arguments.

Against this background, Frank Dikötter, professor of history at the University of Hong Kong and one of the most renowned scholars of modern Chinese history, discussed "the China story" in a public lecture organized by the Bertelsmann Stiftung as part of the Berlin "Asia-Pacific Weeks". In a nutshell the "China story" goes like this: the country was all misery and humiliation until it was liberated by the communists in 1949. A period of transition followed under Mao Zedong, but the turning point is the advent of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of economic reforms who turned China into a huge success story, one that has today become a viable alternative to democracy for countries around the world. Endless versions of this story are propagated not only by Beijing, but also by true believers abroad, whether politicians, entrepreneurs or sinologists.

Yet, according to Dikötter, this narrative of Chinese history does not sustain a critical reality check. "The story is propaganda, not history." Instead it seems to follow the insight George Orwell proclaimed in his novel 1984:

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

George Orwell, 1984

Based on extensive research in Chinese archives, Dikötter started to challenge the China story by reconstructing an era constantly distorted by Chinese authorities. He calls this era the "age of openness", referring to the period which began after the collapse of the Chinese empire in 1911 and ended when the red flag of Mao's communists was raised at Beijing in 1949. According to Dikötter, this period was not a time of humiliation and misery, but of openness and globalization. Asia's first Republic - the Republic of China - showed decades of experimentation with democracy, human rights and the rule of law. People, goods and ideas moved in and out of China. The right of assembly appeared, which led to an unprecedented thriving of the country's civil society.

This age of openness found its end when Mao and his fellow communists "liberated" the country in 1949 - or, as Dikötter puts it, conquered it through a military intervention from the North. The picture that the historian drew of the following events is dominated by the systemic devastation caused by the Maoist era. Private enterprises were nationalized, land was taken away from its owners and people lost their basic freedoms. As if that were not enough, Mao started the "Great Leap Forward", an initiative resulting in one of the greatest famines in the history of mankind. Founding himself in a weak position in the aftermath of the famine, Mao called for the "Cultural Revolution", throwing the whole of China into turmoil.

Only when Deng Xiaoping seized power after Mao's death in 1977, the situation improved and people were given back some basic economic freedoms. It is sometimes claimed that the Chinese Communist Party has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But, according to Dikötter, in reality it was the people who pulled themselves out of the dark hole of misery and despair into which they were thrown by the party during the Maoist era.

Dikötter emphasized the fundamental continuity in the communist one-party state in the People's Republic of China, arguing that Chinese communism has never been about Marx, but about the party. 

"China today remains a Leninist one-party state in which party members are in an exclusive position of power that enables them to enrich themselves and their families."

Frank Dikötter, Asia Briefing 16 May 2017

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains the all-embracing power in state and society, which also determines how China is remembering its past. However, the China story, as propagated by the CCP, does no justice to the complex and rich history of the country. As a result, Dikötter concluded “China is in a state of enforced amnesia about the past.“