By Palden Sonam*
In China, rewriting history entails emergence of new heroes as well as victims, depending on the direction of the political wind in Beijing. Today, it appears that late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping has found himself in the wrong direction of the new political wind spurred by incumbent President Xi Jinping’s rise.
At present, there is a visible and steady effort by Xi to downplay Deng’s role in Chinese politics, particularly in China’s ‘Reform and Opening’ policy. If a picture speaks thousand words, then there is certainly a lot to read in the official ‘Spring Tide on the Pearl River: A National Exhibition of Fine Arts Works to Commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Reform and Opening’ at the National Art Museum of China. One of the 256 works on display was a painting that depicted Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun delivering a lecture to a group of Chinese leaders, including Deng. This painting generated considerable confusion and conjectures on social media in China as to whether the person in the painting was President Xi. Another interesting development that raised many eyebrows was the replacement of a giant sculpture of Deng in the museum with a huge TV screen flashing quotes by Xi. Additionally, the biggest painting on display was one that featured Xi, and the second biggest painting was one that featured his father. In CPC propaganda, the size and placement of a leader’s image says a lot about their place in the Party.
However, what is more intriguing is the deliberate distortion of historical facts in the painting. A quick inquiry into the meeting depicted in the work reveals several aspects that contradict the Party’s own official version of history. The Party meeting in focus was held in April 1979 and the leader presiding over the meeting was Hua Goufeng, who was the chairman of the Party and China’s premier at that time. Moreover, Deng and Marshal Ye Jianying were not present at the April 1979 meeting. However, in the painting, Deng and Marshal Ye are depicted as present, and Hua is missing. In China, producing such an artwork without the prior approval of higher authorities amounts to a serious crime of ‘historical nihilism’–any narrative/view of the past events that contradict(s) the official line. However, the past is strangely not often constant in Chinese politics.
This begs the question as to what the new painting indicates in the context of China’s Party politics. This particular piece of art did contain interesting insights, but it was not the only one. In fact, the entire exhibition seemed to be an attempt to legitimise Xi’s policies, and points to his politics of power and image.
First, Xi is downplaying Deng’s leadership as the paramount leader in the reform initiatives by magnifying the role of his father, who was the party secretary of Guangdong province at that time. Until now, the party’s version of history held Deng as the architect of the reform policy that had rescued China from the consequences of the disasters caused by Mao’s policies. However, Xi now seems to be interested in rewriting the Party’s version of history around his father by portraying him as the main brain behind the reform initiatives.
Second, it appears that the painting attempts to blend the Party’s official narrative of reform as being in the nature of the party itself with some form of hereditary link. In the painting, Xi is not portrayed as inheriting power or privileges from his father, but instead as carrying forward his father’s work as part of the national mission of continuous reform and opening up. Such a depiction subtly projects a connection between bold national reforms seemingly started by his father and Xi’s national rejuvenation project. In this context, in the exhibition, Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is presented as a continuation of his father’s reform initiative.
Here, it is important to note that Xi is not only presented as a great leader but also a good son–faithfully fulfilling the Confucian ethics of filial piety by completing something remarkable started by his father. However, the highly sophisticated Party propaganda does not categorically state this. Instead, it is presented in way that the Chinese people view it in that manner.
Deng’s Legacy Vs Xi’s Legitimacy
It is also important to understand why it is politically necessary for Xi to downplay Deng’s contribution and highlight his and his father’s roles. This has much to do with some of his policy initiatives like the termination of the presidential term limit; re-partification of state and society; more ideological control; and the development of a cult personality around him. These actions signify a reversal of what Deng managed to do after taking over the party leadership. This raises the question of legitimacy, which is essential for Xi not only as a politician but more so as the core leader within the one-party system.
This issue of legitimacy must be understood on at least two levels, personal and policy, both of which are directly related to each other. When Xi began dismantling Deng’s policy initiatives, he essentially began questioning the latter’s political wisdom as a core leader and the relevance of the policy reforms he introduced. The attempt to downplay Deng’s role in the party propaganda is to make him fade away from Party lore and public memory as a reformist leader. The likely calculation is that the less the Party mentions Deng in official propaganda employed in the media and museums, the less people may talk about him and his policies that Xi is overturning. It could also be Xi’s reaction to the minor and marginalised voices that are critical of his policies at home and abroad.
In China, the Party as an Orwellian Big Brother takes a keen interest in what it wants the people to remember or forget; particularly individuals and events with significant political implications. Therefore, in Chinese politics, much like the present and the future, the past too is a theatre of power struggle–sometimes more unpredictable than the future.