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Xi’s China Is Steamrolling Its Own History
The Chinese Communist Party sees the past as a resource to be plundered by the present.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is directing a vast ideological war across multiple theaters—politics, culture, ethics, economy, strategy, and foreign relations. Among its most intense flashpoints is historiography, particularly of China’s last empire, the Qing, which ruled from 1636 to 1912. Historians, whether foreign or domestic, who resist Xi’s determination to design a past that serves his ideology have been targeted repeatedly by state propaganda organs. A new editorial suggests that this attack on Qing specialists is escalating.
Xi has a powerful weapon at his disposal. In 2003, 10 years before his assumption of power, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) initiated an ambitious project dedicated to Qing history. It was granted headquarters in the Zhongguancun district of Beijing, next to China’s leading technology companies. Its budget—never definitively quantified but clearly stratospheric as far as historiographical enterprises go—supported a threefold mission:
The first of these has been to complete the traditional arc in which each imperial dynasty declared its legitimacy by writing the history of its predecessor. At its demise in 1912, the Qing was not succeeded by a new dynasty, though Republican-era loyalists drafted a history that the new government refused to publish. In our century, the CCP has decided to seize the mantle of legitimacy by rewriting and publishing the Qing imperial history, which is now nearing completion.
The second is to digitize all the archival materials relating to Qing history. By 2014, the digitized image files of the documents were reported to total 1.5 million, searchable by metadata, and recent announcements show the number moving toward 2 million.
The third is to translate all foreign scholarship on the Qing period, which could run to tens of thousands of titles. But this task has become part of the intense struggle for control over the characterization of the Qing period—one in which Xi has co-opted the history project to defeat challenges to his historical confabulations from either conventional Marxist historians in China or from foreign scholars of the Qing.
Half a century ago, scholars from around the world agreed on the basics of Qing history. It began in 1644 when invading Manchus seized the former Ming capital, Beijing, and proceeded to establish their control over all of China. Their government followed the Ming model, and in the late 17th century the Qing began to spread Chinese control to Taiwan, Mongolia, Tibet, and what is now the province of Xinjiang. The 18th century went well for the Qing, which became the world’s largest economy. Its achievements in architecture, philosophy, and art were celebrated internationally by Jesuit residents of Beijing and their readers in Europe, including Voltaire. But in the 19th century, the empire was afflicted by the bloodiest civil war in history, the Taiping Rebellion; an onslaught of foreign gunboat diplomacy that deprived it of full control of its economy and urban spaces; and devastating military and economic incursions from rising, modernizing Japan.
But there were variations within this template. Historians who were part of China’s Nationalist movement condemned the Manchus as foreign vandals only too happy to abandon the Chinese to enslavement and massacre by other foreign aggressors. The idea of the “Century of Humiliation”—meaning, roughly, 1842 to 1949—that is now an all-purpose gripe in CCP justifications of its aggressive economic and military maneuvers is a synopsis of the Nationalist narrative of Qing failure, as is Xi’s claim that Confucianism was the core of Chinese tradition and must remain so. (In contrast, for Communist historians in China, the Qing, like other past rulers, oppressed the entire population of China by Confucianism, which blessed the predations of the land-owning elites while indoctrinating the masses in virtues of servility.)
In the late 20th century, historians in the United States, Europe, and Japan focused on the effects of early modern conquest and domination in the broadest comparative contexts—not only in Asia and the Middle East, but also in southern Africa and North America. They closely examined the effects of the great land empires of Russia, the Ottomans, and the Qing.
American historians, particularly, produced a narrative of the Qing as a conquest empire of global prominence, with not only power and wealth but also with the usual dynamics of violence (including genocide), hierarchy, and marginalized cultural identities. They noted that before its conquest of China the Qing was already an empire of considerable size, controlling Manchuria (including the former Ming province of Liaodong, roughly corresponding to the modern province of Liaoning) and dominating eastern Mongolia and Korea; they argued that that even after the conquest of China, Qing imperial government continued to show deep traces of its origins in Manchuria.
They used documents from all the empire’s languages, including Manchu, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uighur—not just Chinese. They emphasized that the empire had grown to twice the size of its Ming predecessor by means of conquest—indirectly ruling Mongolia and Tibet, imposing an expensive military occupation regime on Xinjiang, and for the first time incorporating Taiwan into an empire based in China.
Xi’s strategy in remixing history is to draw selectively from the Nationalist and Communist historiographies, throw in some volatile nationalism, and resolutely suppress the implications of the new globalized and comparative historiography. The primary historical design shop is the Party History Research Office of the CCP Central Committee.
Through this mouthpiece, Chinese historians are instructed that a history of Qing conquest incites separatist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet, and in Taiwan it encourages those seeking formal independence for the island. Instead of an empire of conquest, Xi has rewritten Qing as a cultural and economic behemoth that awed and charmed the populations of Mongolia, Tibet, Central Asia, and Taiwan into happy submission.
Consequently, one of the first orders of business for Xi’s new administration in 2013 was to mount virulent attacks upon foreign historians of the Qing (including me) that continue today. Foreign historians are derided as imperialists in a new guise; these researchers devalue the uniqueness of the Qing as a Chinese dynasty by comparing it to other empires and imply that overland conquest as a historical phenomenon is more significant than Chinese rule. Articles describe them as “historical nihilists”; their imperialist and cosmopolitan perspectives override historical fact.
This idea that the full extent of Qing was reached naturally and peacefully is the source of China’s claims today to Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, and it is critical to its claims to the South China Sea. The underlying premise is that sovereign control of any territory is legitimated foremost by the historical geography of the nation that claims it.
Yet no modern state today adheres to such unreliable and patently illegal principles of territorial legitimacy. Before the 17th century, no states anywhere had considered national sovereignty an absolute. The concept later spread via the European empires to the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Today, territorial borders are ratified by treaty and international recognition, not by extravagant and unverifiable historical claims. Nevertheless, only contiguous countries (the Soviet Union, India, Vietnam, and North Korea) have disputed Chinese land borders, and never on a significant scale. Neither the United States nor any European power has questioned Chinese control over former Qing territories within current Chinese boundaries. Tellingly, the most intense applications of these principles have occurred in relation to various areas of the South China Sea—and the sea is the one place where claims of historical Chinese rule can never be proved or even reasonably inferred.
But it is not foreign historians or diplomats who need to be—or can be—convinced by Xi’s version of history. The intended audience is in China. Denunciations of “nihilism” have become louder as Xi pushes his programs for reification of Chinese “tradition.” The party history factory has identified historiography as a primary field of battle between the CCP and its enemies and exhorts Chinese historians to “strike” more frequently and more forcefully against foreign colleagues.
Among the most recent and ominous of these strikes is a recent editorial in the official journal Historical Research (Lishi yanjiu)—republished in both the print and online versions of the party organ People’s Daily—titled “Firmly grasp the right to speak of the history of the Qing dynasty.” The editorial states that too many Chinese historians have fallen under the sway of foreign nihilists, producing a gusher of new scholarship on the Qing that in ideological potency has nevertheless been “far from sufficient to meet the needs of the party and the people.” It prescribes a “Qing history research system with Chinese characteristics, Chinese tastes, and Chinese style”—the essentializing narrative that Xi uses to glamorize himself and his foreign ventures.
Many scholars of Chinese affairs decry Xi’s ruthless war on the cultures and communities of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. That has nothing to do with history but is a matter of humanity and conscience in the present. No pile of historical claims to control of territory can excuse such abuses, in China or elsewhere.
“Historical nihilism” is nothing more than a denial that the past is fundamentally a resource to be plundered by the present. Xi’s imagined history of the Qing as a huge empire of wealth and glory without conquest or tears may seem inane, but Western historians should note the seriousness of the CCP and the Qing History Project, because their Chinese colleagues surely do. China, after all, has a rich record, past and present, of imprisoning historians, many of whom do not emerge from custody. In the “firmly grasp” of the editorial’s title, the character used (lao, 牢) literally means “grip, fix, trap, imprison.” In that grasp can be held both the history prescribed by Xi and the historians who might resist it.