24. Sep 2009

Anders Sybrandt Hansen, Ph.D. student, Department of Anthropology and Ethnography, Institute of Anthropology, Archaeology and Linguistics, Aarhus university

The 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China is to be found absolutely everywhere in Beijing these days. Its presence shows in the never-ending news coverage of the preparations for the grand parade that will take place on October 1st allegedly involving 200.000 participants rallying under 50 mottoes issued by the Central Committee covering the themes of socialist modernization, establishing the harmonious society, upholding the one China policy and the unity of China’s ethnic groups. The upcoming anniversary can be seen in the traffic jams brought about by parade rehearsals at Tiananmen Square, It shows in the omnipresence of security volunteers, in commercials attaching the spirit of the occasion to their product lines and of course in the red banners hung up by the CCP’s local propaganda branches everywhere, urging your participation in- and devotion to constructing a civilized and harmonious society. The celebratory spirit is thus hard to miss, though I have heard a complaint as well, which was on the yellow colour of the volunteer sweatshirts and delivered with a sly grin: it attracts insects, doesn’t it?

Now anniversaries are instances of commemoration, but the history of the People’s Republic of China being as diverse as it is, the question is which Chinese history will be evoked on October 1st? In anticipation of the 60th anniversary I will in the following paragraphs briefly discuss the fate of the trope of historical materialism and its historical agents, the classes, within the labour of historical forgetting, invention and remembrance performed by the CCP since the late seventies, asking what future the CCP envisions for China today.



A most interesting historical move made since 1979 is the discursive postponing of the future stages of socialism and communism promised by historical materialism hereby accommodating contemporary economic ambitions. Since the Deng-era the Chinese economy has thus been officially referred to by the puzzling term socialist market economy (????????). An economic system, that Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin has tried performing a considerable labour of legitimisation upon, by proclaiming it a necessity of the preliminary stage of socialism. The socialist market economy, according to Jiang, should be understood as a precondition for the development of the advanced productive forces that will eventually lead China into a socialism with Chinese characteristics (?????????), but what is especially striking is that this future stage has been postponed – the preliminary stage of socialism, which China according to official discourse is currently occupying, with its attendant socialist market economy is now expected to last for another hundred years[1]. Immediate modernist development has here been displaced unto the lesser project of attaining the moderately well-off society (????), a term interestingly borrowed from the Book of Rites, and a societal state of being that has been readily translated into per-capita GDP by both Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin[2].

Since the 80s the political program of the CCP has increasingly committed itself to encouraging economic and educational modernisation at the expense of its former ideological programme of socialist collectivism. This change in focus is expressed by the more or less complete disappearance of the formerly central ideological objects of class and class struggle from official party discourse, but also in a very concrete way in the 2004 revision of the constitutional foreword: it is here stated that the CCP now leads the Chinese people under the guidance of sange daibiao thought (??????). This line of thought, originally proposed by Jiang Zemin, points out three groups within Chinese society, the interests of whom, the CCP should now represent: 1) The advanced productive forces, 2) The advanced cultural forces and 3) The majority of the Chinese population. In contrast to this, article one of the constitution states that the PRC is a socialist state based on the people’s democratic dictatorship, led by the working class in an alliance between workers and peasants. As early as in 1981 Deng Xiaoping, avoiding distinctions between productive and unproductive labour, proclaimed that intellectuals with university credentials formed part of the working class and so lent legitimacy to recruiting intellectuals, experts and technocrats into the ranks of the CCP. But a very concrete result of the recent inclusion of sange daibiao thought into official party policy is that now even capitalists may obtain CCP membership, the official membership recruitment line reached at the 16th party congress in 2002 being to focus on inclusion of the new economic elite and parts of the growing middleclass[3]. In a sense the addition of sange daibiao thought to the constitutional foreword here indicates, using a term from Prasenjit Duara, a rift in the CCP’s regime of authenticity[4] as it introduces non-class based differentiations within the Chinese masses – the distinction between the advanced and the non-advanced members of society.

According to Ann Anagnost bridging this gap between the advanced and the non-advanced members of society has today become the key concern of the CCP. A concern it addresses through its politics of quality: population quality and education for quality (???? & ????)[5].The pedagogical project of civilizing the Chinese masses for engagement in global capitalism has thus, according to this line of reasoning, become the rationale behind the contemporary CCP. Not only are party posters urging readers to boldly build a civilized capital a common feature of the public sphere in Beijing these years, the CCP’s preoccupation with civilization is also manifest in the appointment of model households and communities and particularly salient in party discourse aiming itself at ‘culturally backward’ rural areas and migrant workers[6]

Accompanying this fascination with civilization, the last two decades has also seen a revival for pre-revolutionary history, and ‘traditional’ Chinese culture is coming to be seenincreasingly as a resource, rather than as feudal systems of oppression and superstition. That Confucianism has received official endorsement as a centrepiece of Chinese culture showed poignantly in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. We here find a Confucian quote as the first line of speech presented in the display. Taking the form of a welcome greeting accompanied by drumming, it appears just 90 seconds after the presentations of PRC President Hu Jintao and IOC President Jacques Rogge. Actors portraying Confucius’ alleged 3.000 disciples later turn up in a celebration of learning and philosophy, which is followed by what, to my mind, was the most evocative part of the spectacle: the demonstration of the Chinese invention of movable print, used here to illustrate the historical evolution of a single Chinese character central to both Confucianism and contemporary CCP policy, namely? (harmony). Throughout the opening ceremony, which of course reached an extremely wide audience gl
obally as well as nationally – thus addressing simultaneously a global audience with a brilliant display of cultural soft power, and equally importantly a national audience with an officially endorsed version of what Chinese culture and being Chinese means – the notion of historical continuity with a dynastic past was stressed, whereas the recent past, apart from the raising of the national flag and the singing of the national anthem, was wholly left out. This is the case not only concerning omissions, which were obviously going to be made, such as leaving out the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from this popular display, but even the Red Army’s liberation struggle and the founding of the PRC was left out from the storyline as it skipped in one bound from dynastic times to the present.

I suggest a similar reevaluation of Chinese ‘tradition’ may be seen to be taking place within the CCP itself. Leading party members thus visited the mausoleum of that mythical forefather of the Chinese race, the Yellow Emperor, as early as in 1994 and attended the anniversary celebration of Confucius in 1995. Confucianism in particular seems to have been embraced by the CCP and recent years has seen the Confucius Culture University opening in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, new private schools teaching Confucian values flourishing, and the proliferation of government sponsored Confucius Institutes abroad, promoting the world-wide teaching of Chinese language and culture[7]. At the highest level of politics Confucian notions have also started to appear prominently. This was the case in Jiang Zemin’s foreign policy speeches, calling for the peaceful co-existence of unlike civilizations using the concept of he er bu tong (harmonious, not homogenous ????), as it is also in Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s current work on explicating their harmonious society-theory (??????), which centres on the aforementioned Confucian concept of harmony (?)[8]


Asking what is happening to China’s past and future in CCP narratives today, I should take certain reservations. Even as the CCP may be an institution with a history of- and a structure well suited to practicing governmentality, it is nevertheless the case that there is much political discussion within the party and the party accommodates different cliques with even wildly differing political outlooks ranging from the Maoist, the social democratic, the liberalist and conservative nationalist as well as technocratic capitalist outlooks. However this factionalism within the party also leads to power struggles, from which leading groups emerge, that decide the future course of the CCP. This is why we may speak of an official party line – that which is promoted in speeches by party leaders, for instance building the harmonic society – and a dominating orientation to Chinese history within CCP discourse.

Another question is in what mode one should read contemporary preoccupations with the past. Why is it that the so-called Mao craze among Chinese youth in the 90s with its ubiquitous Mao Zedong t-shirt designs and Cultural Revolution memorabilia turning cool is so easily read as (postmodern?) pastiche, whereas contemporary CCP invocations of Confucius is thought to be invested with more meaning in its interaction with an ‘authenticated’ past? Is it the commercial aspect of the Mao craze? Or does the fact that the Chinese youths involved in the Mao craze were too young to have lived experience of the Cultural Revolution preclude them from any real knowledge of that period, which would have allowed a deeper investment of meaning in their reanimation of the past? A final challenge might be termed a ‘return of the repressed’. In the case of China, the posthumous publication of former Premier Zhao Ziyang’s private journals concerning the Tiananmen Incident of June 4th 1989 just in time for yet another 2009 anniversary, the 20th commemoration of June 4th earlier this year, might pose such a challenge. Zhao’s recollections, according to media sources, were compiled on cassette tapes during his house arrest following the crackdown in 1989 and then smuggled out for publication in Hong Kong. The Tiananmen Incident being a repressed part of history, which the CCP is currently unwilling to discuss, Zhao’s journals will find no publisher on the Chinese mainland for now but pirated copies are likely to flourish.

The above reservations aside I tentatively suggest that in current CCP narratives of history we may discern a remarkable change in the trope of historical stages on the road to communism. If the evolutionism in historical materialism can be summed up in this metaphorical figure: history is as a flight of stairs, societies are steps, and revolution is ascension, then what has happened in CCP discourse is that the current step called preliminary socialism has been extended indefinitely, the next step beyond line of sight.

A contending historical trope to that of historical materialism, which now suffers from an uncertain future, may well become that of the renaissance[9]: a curve that falls from an early cultural Golden Age to a low point – most likely the century of humiliation – then rises unto a cultural renaissance. This notion of history would be free to take the entire Chinese population as its historical agent, rather than the classes used as historical agents in historical materialism and would thus perhaps be able to imagine forth a new regime of authenticity based on a shared national civilization?

I argue we may see some accommodations towards such a view of Chinese history in current CCP fascinations with population quality, civilization and Confucianism. However we judge the plausibility of such a transformation, what looms large in current CCP discourse is, using historian Paul Connerton’s terms, a forgetting that is constitutive in the formation of a new identity[10], namely the forgetting of class struggle as an ideological practice and the substitution of class discourse for something else – a something else, that has perhaps not yet fully crystallised?

[1] Hughes, Christopher R. (2006):67 Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era. London & New York: Routledge.[2] Xinhua News Agency 20.09.09:[3] Hansen, M.H. & Thøgersen, S (2008):72-73 Kina – individ og samfund. København: Forlaget Samfundslitteratur.[4] Duara, Prasenjit (2009) The Global and Regional in China’s Nation Formation. London & New York: Routledge.[5] Anagnost, Ann (2004) ‘The Corporeal Politics of
Quality’, Public Culture 16(2):189-208.[6] Yan Hairong (2006) ‘Self-Development of Migrant Women and the Production of Suzhi as Surplus Value’, in Yue Dong & Goldstein, J., eds. Everyday Modernity in China. Seattle: University of Washington Press. pp. 227-259[7] Sigurðsson, Geir (2009) ‘Where to Place One’s Hands and Feet: Toward a Confucian Sociology of Tradition’, in Lodén, T., Löthman, H. & Rydholm, L., eds. Chinese Culture and Globalization: History and Challenges for the 21st Century. Stockholm: Department of Oriental Languages, Stockholm University. pp.41-61[8] Qing Cao (2007) ‘Confucian Vision of a New World Order?’, The International Communication Gazette vol. 69(5):431-450.[9] Aronsson, Peter (2004) Historiebruk – att använda det förflutna. Lund: Studentlitteratur.[10] Connerton, Paul (2008) ‘Seven Types of Forgetting’, Memory Studies vol. 1(1):59-71.