This week’s Sixth Plenum will be historic. Which is not to say that it comes at a historic juncture, or that it is momentous of its own nature, but rather that the event will re-mould and reshape China’s understanding and consensus on history as a reflection of the party’s dominant priorities. Those priorities can ultimately be summarised in a single name: Xi Jinping.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping gives a speech on July 1, 2021 as the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary. File photo: RTHK screenshot.

The Sixth Plenum will bring a tempest of political discourse in the form of a document called Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议), to be “examined and approved,” or shenyi (审议), during this week’s session. But the essential function of all of this verbiage, make no mistake, will centre on the person and power of Xi Jinping, defining his leadership as the way forward, on the basis of an understanding of history that defines his core agenda.

Back on October 18, at a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo, the country’s top leaders discussed, according to the official People’s Daily, “the documents to be submitted for examination and approval by the Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee.” It was at this point that the full name of the upcoming “Resolution” was publicly revealed. That report said that all those present at the meeting “fully affirmed the draft resolution, and were unanimously in favour of the framework structure and main content of the draft resolution, holding that the draft resolution was factual, showed respect for history, was thematically clear and comprehensive in its summary.” So the “Resolution” was by that point a fait accompli — and the plenum’s process of shenyi is a meaningless gesture, a mere affirmation.

There will be nothing to examine or approve this week. The “Resolution” will be unveiled in full to the world, so that we can all pick apart its finer points – beyond, that is, Xi Jinping’s blunt claim to power. But we can prepare for the release of the “Resolution” with a bit of historical context. What do such resolutions mean? And why should we care about them at all?

First of all, this will be the third such resolution on history since the founding of the CCP. This resolution, however, will be different in the sense that it is not a resolution on historical “problems” or “questions,” or wenti (问题). Instead, it centres on “major achievements” (重大成就) and “historical experience” (历史经验), as the title of the document clearly indicates. As such, we can say that this week’s resolution is not a third CCP resolution on “historical questions.” It is not meant to be, as the previous resolutions were, a corrective to certain “errors” within the CCP.

Photo: China Media Project.

The first history-related resolution within the CCP was the 1945 Resolution on Certain Historical Issues (关于若干历史问题的决议), which unfolded against the backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Yan’an Rectification Movement, the first ideological mass movement within the party, which began in 1941. By March 1943, Mao had gained real supremacy over the party, and had proceeded to carry out a purge of elements opposed to his rule. The first resolution was meant to summarise the lessons of the political movement under the CCP since its founding, focusing on the period from the 4th Plenum of the 6th Central Committee (January 1931) and the supposed damage brought about by “left-leaning opportunism” (左倾机会主义).

The second resolution, the so-called Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China (关于建国以来党的若干历史问题的决议), was introduced in 1981 as a corrective to the “questions” raised by the Cultural Revolution. This resolution began:

The Communist Party of China has traversed sixty years of glorious struggle since its founding in 1921. In order to sum up its experience in the thirty-two years since the founding of the People’s Republic, we must briefly review the previous twenty-eight years in which the Party led the people in waging the revolutionary struggle for New Democracy.

The document focused on “Left errors” in the principles governing economic and political work, on the “confusing of right and wrong,” which resulted in extensive suffering that the resolution acknowledged, with grudging admission of Mao’s culpability without undermining his revolutionary role. “Chief responsibility for the grave ‘Left’ error of the ‘cultural revolution,’ an error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration, does indeed lie with Comrade Mao Zedong,” said the document. “But after all it was the error of a great proletarian revolutionary.”

A Cultural Revolution poster of Mao Zedong. Photo: Flickr/Jornny Liu.

By contrast with these previous two resolutions, the resolution introduced this week will be far more expansive in time frame. While the first covered a period of around 14 years, and the second covered “thirty-two years since the founding” of the PRC, Xi Jinping’s “Resolution” will cover the period from the CCP’s founding a hundred years ago through the present day.

The effect of this expansive history will be to focus the CCP’s experiences, achievements and historical legitimacy in the present-day glories of Xi himself. As such, all previous top leaders, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, will be phantoms (都是虚的, as one knowledgeable observer explained), and Xi Jinping’s achievements and experiences will become the overriding facts of Chinese politics.

There will be much language to unpack and debate this week, naturally. But the simplest conclusion to be drawn from this moment of historical and discursive significance can be summed up in just two Chinese characters: 连任. Xi Jinping will seek a third term in power.


This article was republished with permission from the China Media Project.


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David Bandurski

David is the co-director of the China Media Project, a research and fellowship program with the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. A frequent commentator on Chinese media, his writings have appeared in Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, Index on Censorship, the SCMP and others.