By Laurie Chen
Hair windswept, handsome and 32-metres high, a statue of Mao Zedong presides over a crowd of millennials alternating between selfies and bubble teas — drawing a thread through the past, present and future of China’s Communist Party in its red heartland.
As the party prepares to mark its 100th anniversary on Thursday, it has put a propaganda campaign into overdrive with movies, history tours and well-timed space missions, all lacquering the achievements of the party and its President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao.
Xi, who has led the country since 2012, abolished term limits and is yet to anoint a successor, will attend a week of events applauding the party for steering China through a tumultuous century of wars, famine and social upheaval.
China today is the world’s second-largest economy, where tech entrepreneurs write fortunes in thriving first-tier cities and millions have been lifted from abject poverty to join the globe’s biggest consumer market.
Throughout, the Communist Party has stayed firmly at the centre of the story, attracting the loyalty of a younger generation that has known no other political system and is unable to freely express dissent.
At Mao’s statue in Changsha, southern China’s Hunan province, visitors young and old said the Communist Party is the lodestar for China’s monumental progress.
“China has been developing for so long thanks to the efforts of our forefathers and that generation of Communist Party members,” said 23-year-old student and party member Li Peng.
“The CCP isn’t dying. It’s a party that’s full of life… now, young people are particularly patriotic and unafraid to speak out.”
No Xi, no party
Xi’s leadership style pulls on the past, cherry-picking Mao’s history to renew patriotism.
In Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan, an hour away from his statue, locals and tourists alike revere the Chairman as a near deity.
“Without Mao, there would be no today,” said He Shaoyun, a 75-year-old farmer from Sichuan province who saw Mao give speeches six times as a child.
Nearly 50 years apart in age, “red” tourists like He and Li are riding the same wave of interest in the origins of the party, which was founded by a handful of underground members in Shanghai on July 23, 1921. The July 1 celebration date was arbitrarily chosen by Mao much later.
A party history study campaign has passed on the red lineage to a new generation, ensuring that “a correct view of party history”, in Xi’s words, percolates through society.
The simplified narrative the party tells — a group of heroic underdogs battling evil foes to reach a pre-destined victory for Communism — inevitably glosses over its failures.
The latest edition of the CCP’s official concise history condenses the decade-long turmoil of the Cultural Revolution into three pages.
The Great Famine, when tens of millions of people died due to Mao’s disastrous economic policies, is only mentioned once in passing as a “natural disaster”.
The Xi era, since 2012, by contrast takes up over a quarter of the entire book.
The party history campaign “is about raising Xi’s own profile, and centring the party on him personally,” said Carl Minzner, professor of Chinese politics and law at Fordham University.
Any divergence from the official line is condemned as the party scrubs out dissent online, suppressing alternative interpretations of its past that are deemed “historical nihilism”.
Even veiled criticism is not tolerated. A viral essay by former Premier Wen Jiabao failed to survive the censors after it appeared to question the party’s present-day ethos.
“The China in my heart should be a country that’s full of equality and justice, that will always respect people’s hearts and fundamental humanity,” Wen wrote in April, shortly before it vanished from the internet.
In with the kids
History, relentless propaganda and zero tolerance for dissent protect the story of the party — especially its darker chapters and contradictions.
“Open debate about the Mao-era is impossible in China today,” said Julia Lovell, professor of modern Chinese history at Birkbeck, University of London.
“To Xi, the Mao revival entails party control, celebrating Mao’s philosophy of ruthless struggle against adversaries and centralising personal power.”
That “sits awkwardly within a China that’s so transformed from the Mao era,” she added.
For example, a party that was founded to empower the working masses now routinely jails labour activists, while China’s workforce still struggles with endemic social inequality, rising living costs and restricted upward mobility.
But the party has nonetheless consolidated public support, most recently by conquering Covid-19 and absolute poverty, maintaining economic growth and asserting China’s position in a hostile international climate.
The party’s longevity hinges on its promise of continued economic growth and its adaptability towards young people.
“They’ve seen that China has controlled Covid-19 relatively well and… that this kind of governance can be a substitute for democracy and freedom,” says Wu Qiang, a Beijing-based independent political analyst.
The party has also been on a social media drive, carefully nurturing a new generation of online ultra-nationalists.
“This is a very important reason why it has succeeded in turning towards and winning over the youth.”