The Politics of History: Why Anniversaries Matter in China

The Year of the Pig is supposed to be “a sensitive year for China,” according to The New York Times. That’s because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is “nervous” about the spate of anniversaries that loomed in 2019, declared The Economist.

Indeed, this year sees the decennial anniversaries of several landmark events, including the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests (see the Appendix below for more anniversaries in 2019).

But the rush of the day-to-day often crowds out more fundamental questions: Why are historical anniversaries important in Chinese politics? What makes one particular day, much the same as another, more subjectively significant?

Anniversaries are important primarily because the CCP, lacking the popular mandate conferred by elections, has made its role in China’s history a cornerstone of its political legitimacy. History is not just a stream that carries the country forward from the past into the future, but a swelling lake that immerses both the Party and the people. The CCP’s understanding of history is inseparable from its practice of politics.

Anniversaries are important primarily because the CCP, lacking the popular mandate conferred by elections, has made its role in China’s history a cornerstone of its political legitimacy.

Take the Party’s own key performance indicators—the “two centenary goals”—which are both pegged to historical milestones. It promises a “moderately prosperous society” by the CCP centennial in 2021 and to “Make China Great Again” (to paraphrase) by the 100th birthday of the PRC in 2049.

The PRC constitution itself begins by declaring “China is a country with one of the longest histories in the world” and credits the CCP with fulfilling the “historic mission of the Chinese people to overthrow imperialism and feudalism.” Every nation needs a creation myth to bind its people, and the CCP ably deploys patriotic education, propaganda campaigns, and strict censorship to create a deterministic narrative that portrays the present as ideal and inevitable.

neil img1 1 - The Politics of History: Why Anniversaries Matter in ChinaThe parade in Beijing to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the PRC in 2009.
Source.

The official celebration of significant events in this narrative serves as a sluice gate through which to control the flow of the past, letting through only favorable episodes that burnish Beijing’s image. By way of illustration, PLA propaganda guidelines for the military parade that marked the PRC’s 60th anniversary in 2009 said the commemoration was “a comprehensive display of the CCP’s ability to rule” and designed to “bolster confidence in the Party’s leadership.” The Party honors numerous anniversaries, including those of World War Two and the Constitution.

Historian Paul Cohen has described anniversaries as “an emotional bridge between present and past,” which the CCP has continually exploited to inspire nationalistic loyalty as capitalism and globalization brought dramatic change to China.” Such self-legitimating rituals have long antecedents. Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang regime sought to foster pro-regime patriotism by proclaiming, in August 1928, the annual observation of over two-dozen “National Humiliation Days.” Chinese emperors would hold special celebrations on the 60th anniversary of their reign, equivalent to one cycle (zhoujia) of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Placing symbolic weight on historical anniversaries is a double-edged sword, however. In non-democratic polities where the government dominates public discourse, political activists often appropriate official commemorations to express dissent or mobilize protest, as such events provide a sanctioned veneer that can restrain or delay government responses. Historical anniversaries also serve as “focal points” for collective action because they help protestors overcome the coordination problem posed by state gags on unapproved information.

In non-democratic polities where the government dominates public discourse, political activists often appropriate official commemorations to express dissent or mobilize protest…

In China, this dynamic goes back to at least the Republican period, according to scholar Elizabeth Perry. For instance, educated youths often protested against Chiang Kai-shek on the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, because such actions “explicitly challenged one of the most sacred stories the GMD used to legitimate its rule.” Republican protestors also mobilized on anniversaries of the May 30th Incident and the death of Sun Yat-sen.

Perhaps the most notable example was when student leaders of the 1989 protests aligned themselves with the revolutionary patriotism of the May Fourth Movement (which the CCP claims as its own). They issued a “New May Fourth Manifesto,” published a New May Fourth journal, and rallied hundreds of thousands to march on Tiananmen Square on May 4. More recently, a Marxist student activist was arrested for commemorating Mao’s 125th birthday.

text img2 - The Politics of History: Why Anniversaries Matter in ChinaChinese and Japanese youth dance on Tiananmen Square, National Day, 1984. Source.

But not all anniversaries are feted, especially those that disrupt CCP myths. These “dark anniversaries” suggest the possibility of Chinese futures that deviate from the sanctioned narrative. The Party denounces the remembrance of these events as “historical nihilism” and such memorials are increasingly repressed under President Xi. For example, the influential history journal Yanhuang Chunqiu had its liberal editors purged in 2016 after it published articles commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution.

These “dark anniversaries” suggest the possibility of Chinese futures that deviate from the sanctioned narrative…

Might the CCP’s iron grip on history impede its ability to learn from past mistakes? It’s certainly possible, but the Party has always been an astute student of history, conducting sober historical research to glean insights on how to fortify its rule. The Party’s monopolization of force and discourse also means it is well prepared to do whatever is required to ensure the “harmonious” passage of anniversaries—between 1998 and 2014, political detentions more than doubled during significant months in the “dissident calendar.” This year, many schools, including the Beijing Dance Academy, enhanced security during such “sensitive periods” (min’gan qi).

In October, the CCP will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the PRC with a once-a-decade “major celebration” (daqing), including a military parade on Tiananmen Square. The tragedy is that the more Beijing controls history, the less potential this history has to shape Chinese politics, because the public is inoculated from all but state-approved memories. In China, anniversaries are increasingly anodyne affairs, stripped of their subversive potential.

Appendix: A Selection of Chinese Anniversaries in 2019


Get Our Stuff

SHARE THIS ARTICLE