Xi Zhongxun from a postage stamp commemorating the Chinese military leader.
Xi Zhongxun from a postage stamp commemorating the Chinese military leader. Foreign Policy illustration/AFP via Getty Images

Feature

A Squabble About History Almost Killed Xi Jinping’s Father

Fights about the party’s past are serious business in Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is the son of a revolutionary whose life was more shaped by the danger of competing narratives about party history than perhaps anyone else in his generation. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was persecuted for 16 years because of his support for a novel about party history. Now, his son has led the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to a new “historical decision”—only the third in its hundred-year history—and one in which Xi junior is an extraordinarily prominent figure.

A new history resolution allows Xi to implicitly compare himself to illustrious predecessors such as Mao and Deng Xiaoping and present the CCP as a historic force uniquely capable of modernizing China. But the actual content of the document prioritizes continuity, treats several controversial subjects vaguely, and avoids assigning blame. Although the resolution acknowledges an accumulation of problems during his predecessors’ eras that only Xi is allegedly capable of solving, the Cultural Revolution is still characterized as a mistake and Reform and Opening Up a triumph. Xi uniquely understands why historical grudges and differing views about the past are so potentially explosive.

Xi Zhongxun was from the northwest, where the local CCP movement was far distant from the Central Soviet, the party’s core leadership, in the southern provinces of Jiangxi and Fujian. The Long March of 1934-35 would eventually bring the central party leadership to Shaanxi, but before that Xi and other Communists from the northwest went through vicious factional infighting that left behind mutual antagonisms that lasted decades. Personal and party histories became deeply intertwined, and the battles of the 1930s would shape CCP politics for decades. Wang Xiaozhong, who worked for the Central Advisory Council in the 1980s and helped manage those continuing debates over what happened 50 years earlier, wrote in his memoirs:
The scars left behind by brutal killings within the revolutionary units left a deep mark on their hearts forever, hurting them for their whole lives. … In party history propaganda, such a major historical event as the Northwest Issue was played down, skirted around, treated casually. As for the internal turmoil and butchery that are unbearable to look back on, they were simply not brought up.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is the son of a revolutionary whose life was more shaped by the danger of competing narratives about party history than perhaps anyone else in his generation. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was persecuted for 16 years because of his support for a novel about party history. Now, his son has led the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to a new “historical decision”—only the third in its hundred-year history—and one in which Xi junior is an extraordinarily prominent figure.

A new history resolution allows Xi to implicitly compare himself to illustrious predecessors such as Mao and Deng Xiaoping and present the CCP as a historic force uniquely capable of modernizing China. But the actual content of the document prioritizes continuity, treats several controversial subjects vaguely, and avoids assigning blame. Although the resolution acknowledges an accumulation of problems during his predecessors’ eras that only Xi is allegedly capable of solving, the Cultural Revolution is still characterized as a mistake and Reform and Opening Up a triumph. Xi uniquely understands why historical grudges and differing views about the past are so potentially explosive.

Xi Zhongxun was from the northwest, where the local CCP movement was far distant from the Central Soviet, the party’s core leadership, in the southern provinces of Jiangxi and Fujian. The Long March of 1934-35 would eventually bring the central party leadership to Shaanxi, but before that Xi and other Communists from the northwest went through vicious factional infighting that left behind mutual antagonisms that lasted decades. Personal and party histories became deeply intertwined, and the battles of the 1930s would shape CCP politics for decades. Wang Xiaozhong, who worked for the Central Advisory Council in the 1980s and helped manage those continuing debates over what happened 50 years earlier, wrote in his memoirs:

The scars left behind by brutal killings within the revolutionary units left a deep mark on their hearts forever, hurting them for their whole lives. … In party history propaganda, such a major historical event as the Northwest Issue was played down, skirted around, treated casually. As for the internal turmoil and butchery that are unbearable to look back on, they were simply not brought up.


Mao Zedong during what is thought to be the Long March in Shaanxi, China.

Mao Zedong during what is thought to be the Long March in Shaanxi, China, circa 1934-1935. Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

When the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), turned against the CCP in 1927 and began a bloody anti-communist purge, the party in Shaanxi was badly damaged. Subsequent uprisings and mutinies almost all ended in failure, and communication with the party center was poor. Power struggles became common. In February 1932, for instance, two prominent cadres, Xie Zichang and Yan Hongyan, secretly decided to execute Zhao Erwa, a close associate of Liu Zhidan, another legendary Shaanxi Communist. At a rally in Sanjiayuan, Xie declared that Zhao was a bandit and that his unit’s weapons would be confiscated; Zhao was shot dead as he started to realize what was happening. Xi joined the base camps shortly after the incident and became one of Liu’s favored proteges.

In 1935, Guo Hongtao and Zhu Lizhi led a purge in the region that culminated in the arrest of Xi, Liu, Gao Gang, and other prominent local Communists under the charge of “right-ism,” a term that referred to not adopting sufficiently radical policies. These men were only released when Mao and the rest of the party leadership happened to arrive in the region. Yet Mao did not fully reverse the verdicts—for many years, the cadres who suffered in the purge worked in low positions with a black mark on their record.

In 1936, Liu, Xi’s beloved mentor, died trying to demonstrate his loyalty to the CCP by showing personal valor on the battlefield. Zhou Enlai himself later said Liu “was trying to clean himself, to prove that he was not an agent. He preferred to charge ahead into battle to sacrifice himself.” Despite Liu’s valiant efforts, however, his record still included the verdict that he had “previously committed the serious mistake of rightism” when he died.

Since Xie Zichang had already died from a battlefield injury in 1935, Liu’s death the following year left the northwestern cadres without a leader whom both they and outsiders respected. This was a particularly tricky problem because of regional prejudices: As Mao noted, outside cadres often said, “What do locals understand? They’re country bumpkins!”

It was under these circumstances that Mao used his own interpretation of party history to “adopt” Xi and the other northwesterners. At the 1942 88-day Northwest Bureau High-Ranking Cadres meeting, Mao, himself determined to rewrite the history of the CCP in a way that would put the stamp on his final victory over internal opposition, helped shape a resolution on the Northwest Issue that defined its history as a microcosm of the party as a whole. Gao Hua, a historian of the Yanan era, noted that Mao was “making the resolution on the Northwest a test case for a resolution of the entire party.”

For the chairman to compare himself in such powerful terms to Liu, Xi, and Gao Gang must have been electric for these men who had suffered so much. At the meeting, Xi said, “If past history is not clarified, that means, in the future, the party in the border region will suffer major failure!”

One purpose of the new version of history was to install Gao as the undisputed leader of the northwesterners. Yet not everyone, especially Yan Hongyan, believed Gao had made enough contributions to deserve such a position. Yan, along with Zhu Lizhi and Guo Hongtao, rallied to oppose Gao, and recriminations were so severe that rumors spread that the party in northern Shaanxi would split when the party center left the region. According to Gao, some people spread rumors that “Xi Zhongxun is a baby, he didn’t do any work, he’s stupid and confused, he smokes opium, and so on.”

Therefore, another history discussion meeting on the Norwest Issue was held in 1945, at which Yan, Guo, and Zhu were mocked. In Xi’s own speech at the meeting, he emphasized that while it was “no big deal” if people did not know history, “the most damaging is the distortion and falsification of history.” Kang Sheng, a close ally of Mao, declared, “Gao Gang is the revolutionary leader of the northwest. Subsequently, no one is allowed to oppose him. Yan Hongyan’s opposition to Gao Gang is wrong.”


But this version of the northwest’s history was soon challenged. In 1953-54, Gao was the target of the first great purge of the People’s Republic of China. Goaded by Mao, Gao complained to many top elites about Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s named successor who was associated with the “white areas,” meaning underground CCP activities in KMT-controlled areas. Gao said it was inappropriate to equate the historical contributions of cadres in the white areas with those of cadres in the red areas (controlled by the CCP), and he was upset that the northwesterners were dismissed as “riffraff, bandits.”

Yet Gao had misunderstood Mao’s intentions. While Mao had likely only wanted to issue a warning to Liu, Gao, believing Mao’s intent was to remove Liu, went too far and started to tell people about private conversations with the chairman. Gao’s behavior became too dangerous, and Mao, with some regret, was forced to give up one of his cherished allies. Gao was subjected to outrageous accusations and killed himself.

Xi was upset with Gao’s machinations, which he thought were foolhardy, because they, as northwesterners, could never, in his mind, win the respect of people who had participated in the Long March. But Xi was also deeply frustrated by how Gao was treated. Xi was forced to perform multiple self-criticisms, managed by Deng Xiaoping, another rising star in the party, about his relationship with Gao. In 1958, Mao apologized to Yan Hongyan for ignoring his warnings against Gao. Deng encouraged Guo Hongtao and Zhu Lizhi to challenge the Yanan-era history decisions, and in 1959, the Central Supervisory Committee finished a report that absolved them of most of their crimes.


Chinese peasants work on a communal farm in the 1950s during the Great Leap Forward.

Chinese peasants work on a communal farm in the 1950s during the Great Leap Forward. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Also in 1959, Defense Minister Peng Dehuai was purged from the leadership because of his criticisms of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s disastrous agricultural-industrial project that produced mass starvation. It was the second fall, after Gao, of a major party figure since the foundation of the People’s Republic. Xi and Gao were deeply linked to Peng—Xi was Peng’s top civilian lieutenant on the northwestern battlefield against the KMT, and Gao was the party boss in the northeast during the Korean War, during which he supported Peng’s forces on the front line.

As trends in official historiography were moving against Xi, and his old friend Peng was facing persecution, Li Jiantong, Liu Zhidan’s sister-in-law, pressured Xi to support a book she was writing about his old hero. Xi said no. He warned her that she did not understand the history well enough, it was too complicated, and it touched on too many people who might misunderstand what she was doing. Yet Li rallied other northwesterners to pressure Xi to support her, and he finally relented.

When excerpts of the novel, titled Liu Zhidan, appeared in 1962, Yan Hongyan complained that it was trying to rewrite party history. The top party leadership response was vicious. At the time, Mao was returning to the theme of class struggle after a brief period of rectification following the Great Leap Forward, and the chairman was worried about Peng’s attempts to achieve rehabilitation. The novel could not have appeared at a worse time. As the Chinese historian Xiao Donglian explains:

According to the logic of the time, writing about Liu Zhidan meant writing about Northern Shaanxi, writing about Northern Shaanxi meant writing about Gao Gang, Gao Gang and Peng Dehuai had already established an anti-party alliance, and Xi Zhongxun moreover was the commissar of the Northwest Field Army, Peng Dehuai’s old partner. Therefore, the “Gao, Peng, Xi anti-party clique” and the “Northwest anti-party clique” were formed.

Kang Sheng demanded that investigations into the book look for evidence that it propagated the ideas that “the northwest saved the party center” and “Gao Gang was the king of the northwest” and Xi his heir. Ultimately, Xi was forced to say he had tried to “use propagandizing a dead person to propagandize the living me.” Xi was fired from his position as vice premier, and Zhou told Xi’s wife, Qi Xin, to make sure he did not kill himself. In the end, some 20,000 people were persecuted, some fatally, as part of the “Xi Zhongxun anti-party clique.”


Xi Zhongxun in his office in July 1987.

Xi Zhongxun in his office in July 1987. Xinhua News Agency via Redux Pictures

Xi only returned to work in 1978. According to Gao’s widow, Li Liqun, Xi was distressed when she asked him for support in rehabilitating Gao’s history:

Xi said while crying, “What can I say now? Everything is linked to me. … You also know I was investigated again over the Liu Zhidan novel. To be honest, I sympathized with Gao Gang. I felt very sad over his death. … Look, what could I say to the [Central Committee] now? Could a verdict on Gao Gang be done in a way that seeks truth from facts?”

When Li Jiantong told Qi Xin that she was campaigning for Liu Zhidan’s rehabilitation, she said, “Jiantong, absolutely do not appeal for justice. My husband was just released. As soon as you appeal, he will be thrown in jail again!” One high-ranking official told Li: “Comrade Zhongxun does not agree to rehabilitate you. He believes if you are rehabilitated, it would be bad for Chairman Mao.”

When all three volumes of Liu Zhidan were republished in the mid-1980s, again some of the northwesterners complained. Xi supported the party leadership’s decision that the book should be banned if Li did not make appropriate changes. Li refused to obey. In August 1986, she wrote directly to Xi:

I already do not understand you. Now, you have changed. You cannot resist the “leftist” opportunism, the repeated attacks of the factionalists. You are beaten with fear. Soon you’ll be a fool. … As soon as you fall into disarray, the “leftist” factionalists go drink in celebration. … This book should not be banned—the more it is banned, the more people will want to read it!

Yet the book was yet again pulled from shelves.

Ultimately, Gao was never rehabilitated, and Liu Zhidan was never published freely. In January 2000, Li Liqun called Li Rui, Mao’s former secretary, and told him that she had seen Xi in Shenzhen to discuss the matter of rehabilitating Gao Gang. She said: “Zhongxun was very agitated. He said even Chen Duxiu [one of the founders of the CCP who was later expelled from it] has been rehabilitated. … Gao’s verdict should be reversed.” In 2009, a publisher in Jiangxi tried to release all three volumes of Liu Zhidan. But again someone complained, and the book was banned a third time. In other words, even when Xi Zhongxun’s son was the party’s designated successor, Liu Zhidan still could not be published.

Xi Jinping, his wife, and daughter walk with Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun.

Xi Jinping, his wife, and daughter walk with Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, in an undated photo. Xinhua News Agency via Redux Pictures

Why was history so dangerous for the Xi family? As a member of the CCP, everything was political. These men and women who gave their lives to the CCP were enormously sensitive to how this all-encompassing political organization characterized their contributions to the revolution. Moreover, as I argue in my forthcoming book, for much of the CCP’s history, the most powerful source of authority for leaders has been their historic contributions to the party—and the most powerful weapon has been compromising material about someone else’s history.

In this kind of political environment, party leaders understand that history must be treated carefully. Compromise is essential, and compromise usually means adopting vague formulations, emphasizing victories, and avoiding blame. Ultimately, however, as the story of the Xi family shows, most party members accept that, even when narratives do not go in the direction they like, the party’s interests come first.

Joseph Torigian is an assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC, a Stanton Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center

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