Xi Jinping Is Fighting a War for China’s History

Fear of “historical nihilism” has haunted China’s leadership for years.

By , a senior editor covering China and global affairs at the New Statesman magazine.
Chinese President Xi Jinping takes his tea cup during the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 11, in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping takes his tea cup during the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 11, in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping takes his tea cup during the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 11, in Beijing, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin strode out to the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the center of Beijing. The sky overhead was perfectly blue. The crowds waved their red flags in perfect unison. This was the entrance to the Forbidden City when China’s last emperors ruled, and it was where Mao Zedong declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. But that wasn’t why they were here. They had come to commemorate Victory Day, the anniversary of the end of World War II in China—or as it was known there, the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War.

“In that devastating war, the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression started first and lasted longest,” Xi said in his speech on Sept. 3, 2015. “The unyielding Chinese people fought gallantly and finally won total victory over the Japanese militarist aggressors, thus preserving the achievements of China’s 5,000-year-old civilization and defending the cause of peace for mankind.” Then, to celebrate that peace, there was a massive military parade.

Twelve thousand troops marched into Tiananmen Square in perfect lockstep. When they reached Xi, their heads snapped right, a sea of resolute faces turning to salute their commander in chief. From the crowded press pen, I squinted up at the tiny figures of Xi and Putin on the balcony high above us as the soldiers goose-stepped past below. Most of all, I was struck by the sound, the boots stamping out a relentless drumbeat on the pavement and then the low guttural growl of the tanks. They rumbled past in a cloud of engine smoke, and they were so heavy I could feel the ground shaking beneath my feet. Next came a procession of the country’s latest, most formidable weaponry. There was the new long-range strategic missile, the Dong Feng (East Wind) 5B, designed to carry a nuclear warhead and capable of reaching targets in Western Europe and the United States, and the Dong Feng 21D anti-ship missile, dubbed the “carrier killer” for its purported ability to sink an aircraft carrier.

China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin strode out to the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the center of Beijing. The sky overhead was perfectly blue. The crowds waved their red flags in perfect unison. This was the entrance to the Forbidden City when China’s last emperors ruled, and it was where Mao Zedong declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. But that wasn’t why they were here. They had come to commemorate Victory Day, the anniversary of the end of World War II in China—or as it was known there, the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War.

Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia and North Korea, by Katie Stallard, Oxford University Press, 304 pp., .95, May 2022
Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia and North Korea, by Katie Stallard, Oxford University Press, 304 pp., .95, May 2022

This article is adapted from Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia and North Korea, by Katie Stallard, Oxford University Press, 304 pp., $29.95, May 2022

“In that devastating war, the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression started first and lasted longest,” Xi said in his speech on Sept. 3, 2015. “The unyielding Chinese people fought gallantly and finally won total victory over the Japanese militarist aggressors, thus preserving the achievements of China’s 5,000-year-old civilization and defending the cause of peace for mankind.” Then, to celebrate that peace, there was a massive military parade.

Twelve thousand troops marched into Tiananmen Square in perfect lockstep. When they reached Xi, their heads snapped right, a sea of resolute faces turning to salute their commander in chief. From the crowded press pen, I squinted up at the tiny figures of Xi and Putin on the balcony high above us as the soldiers goose-stepped past below. Most of all, I was struck by the sound, the boots stamping out a relentless drumbeat on the pavement and then the low guttural growl of the tanks. They rumbled past in a cloud of engine smoke, and they were so heavy I could feel the ground shaking beneath my feet. Next came a procession of the country’s latest, most formidable weaponry. There was the new long-range strategic missile, the Dong Feng (East Wind) 5B, designed to carry a nuclear warhead and capable of reaching targets in Western Europe and the United States, and the Dong Feng 21D anti-ship missile, dubbed the “carrier killer” for its purported ability to sink an aircraft carrier.

Putin shaded his eyes from the sun on the balcony. Xi looked straight ahead. His face was impassive, even slightly bored. Fighter jets roared through the sky above us, followed by a thunderous swarm of attack helicopters that made downtown Beijing look like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Clearly this was as much about demonstrating the country’s growing strength as it was about remembering the past. But then, both leaders insisted the two were inextricably linked.

Xi was then midway through his first term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), while Putin, his increasingly close friend, had been in power for 15 years. Putin said they had first bonded over family memories of World War II while they shared a late-night shot of vodka and “sliced some sausage” at an Asia-Pacific leaders’ summit in 2013, and they evidently also shared an understanding of the conflict’s wider resonance. The two leaders deployed their extensive security forces to crush dissent and silence their opponents, but they also both appealed to the history of the war to rally public support.

In Russia, Putin exploited the sacred myth to frame the country’s contemporary challenges and cast his enemies as traitors, and in China, too, Xi was intensifying focus on the conflict and turning to the past to serve his contemporary needs. The Victory Day celebrations in 2015 were a case in point. While the extraordinary scale and seamless choreography made this look like a long-held tradition, it was not. In fact, this was the first time the victory parade had ever been held. Victory Day was one of three new national holidays that had been created the previous year, along with an annual day to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre, which was carried out by Japanese troops during World War II, and Martyrs’ Day, which was dedicated to all those who had given their lives to defend the country.

It is not unusual for a country to designate memorial days to honor its fallen, but this was all happening 70 years after the end of the war. It had taken long enough for the Soviet leadership to reinstate Victory Day—almost two decades after Joseph Stalin canceled the holiday there—but it took the CCP another half-century to come around to the idea.

The new memorial days were just the beginning. Xi called for a renewed effort to study the history of the conflict, although on the party’s terms, and while Chinese suffering during the war with Japan had played an important role in the party’s post-Tiananmen patriotic education campaign, he now turned up the volume and shifted the emphasis. As well as remembering the country’s suffering during the conflict as part of the broader “century of humiliation” China had endured before the party came to power, he said the war should also be remembered as the beginning of the end of that humiliation and the start of the journey to what he called the “China Dream of national rejuvenation.”

The victory over Japan was the “first complete victory won by China in its resistance against foreign aggression in modern times,” Xi said in his Victory Day speech in 2015. Not only did it “put an end to the national humiliation of China,” he said, but also this “great triumph represented the rebirth of China, opened up bright prospects for the great renewal of the Chinese nation, and set our ancient country on a new journey.” What was more, the victory “reestablished China as a major country and won the Chinese people the respect of all peace-loving people around the world.”

This was an important part of Xi’s narrative of the war and another point on which he and Putin agreed: that as the nations that had sacrificed the most to save the world from fascism, the war had earned them the right to respect. They presented themselves as the founders and guardians of the postwar international order, instead of its greatest threat. Putin had illegally annexed Crimea a year earlier, and he was fighting a covert war in Ukraine at the time, while Xi was installing surface-to-air missiles and military facilities on artificial islands in the South China Sea. But both leaders claimed they were the ones upholding world peace and it was U.S. hegemony that posed the real danger.

“All countries should jointly uphold the international order and system underpinned by the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter [which China was the first to sign],” Xi said. They should “build a new model of international relations based on mutually beneficial co-operation and advance the noble cause of global peace and development.” In his telling, China’s growing military strength was simply to defend its interests and ensure the country would never again be pushed around. Even as the tanks and the intercontinental ballistic missiles rolled through Tiananmen Square, the official commentary assured viewers that China’s rise would always be peaceful.

“Our generation is lucky to be born at a time when the country will not be bullied by others,” remarked one student at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University after watching the military parade. “Now we will show the world how strong China is,” said an 8-year-old girl.


When Xi was unveiled as the CCP’s new general secretary in November 2012, there were some predictions that he would unleash a series of pragmatic reforms. “Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch,” wrote Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times in January 2013. “And Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer, will be released from prison.” Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, who had served under Mao as one of the first generation of Chinese Communist revolutionaries, had supported economic reforms, Kristof pointed out (he was not alone in his optimism), and Xi’s mother had elected to live in the “capitalist enclave” of Shenzhen. His daughter was studying at Harvard University in the United States. But as with Kim Jong Un, who took over across the border in North Korea the previous year, those early predictions turned out to be wrong. Instead of loosening his grip, Xi consolidated power and reasserted the party’s role in the economy and across all aspects of society. Liu died in detention in 2017, with Mao still firmly ensconced in his mausoleum.

Like Putin and Kim, Xi saw history as a crucial tool for maintaining power. It was the foundation on which the party built its claim to rule and framed its appeals for public support. It was the basis on which they attacked their opponents and the answer to the question as to why China needed the Communist Party at all. As Deng Xiaoping had urged in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown, they needed to continually remind people “what China was like in the old days and what kind of country it was to become” before the rise of the CCP.

Also, like Putin, Xi had seen for himself what happened when a communist regime lost power. Xi was a midranking party official in the southeastern province of Fujian when he watched the Soviet Union collapse. “All it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone,” he reportedly later said. He had given considerable thought to how the CCP could avoid the same fate, and it was one of the first issues he raised after becoming general secretary. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse?” he asked party members in a closed-door speech in December 2012, less than a month after taking office. “An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered,” he said. “In the end, nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.”

He repeated that message a few weeks later when he returned to the Soviet collapse during a seminar for senior officials. “The struggle in the ideological sphere was extremely fierce,” Xi said of the situation in the Soviet Union at the time. “There was a complete denial of Soviet history, denial of Lenin, denial of Stalin, pursuit of historical nihilism, confusion of thought.” With discipline breaking down and the party’s history under attack, he said, “the great Soviet Communist Party scattered like birds and beasts. The great Soviet socialist nation fell to pieces.”

Xi was determined not to repeat those mistakes. As he saw it, national security was not just a physical or a material concept. They also had to guard against threats in the ideological sphere. And already there were signs of some of the same looming dangers for the CCP as there had been in the Soviet Union. Organizational discipline had collapsed, corruption was spiraling, and ideological control was failing. If they wanted to avoid the same fate, they would have to act fast. Public support, Xi warned, was a matter of the party’s “survival or extinction.” Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, he intended to put up a fight.

In the spring of 2013, a secret communique known as Document No. 9 circulated among senior officials. The party faced a “complicated, intense struggle” in the ideological realm, the document warned, setting out a series of “false ideological trends” that must be confronted. These included efforts to promote “Western constitutional democracy,” “universal values,” “civil society,” and “historical nihilism,” which meant denying the party’s version of history. The goal of this historical nihilism, the document explained, was to undermine the party’s legitimacy and challenge its “long-term political dominance.” In other words, if the party wanted to hold on to power, it would have to strengthen its grip on the country’s history. Officials were urged to wage a “perpetual, complex, and excruciating” struggle, making ideological work a top priority in their daily schedules.

A select group of historians convened for a special conference at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated research institute, in Beijing the following year and concluded that historical nihilism was one of the main tactics “hostile international forces” were using to try to Westernize and divide China. They called for a more disciplined approach to the study of history that would “safeguard ideological security” and “create a positive image of China.”

Just as the party’s focus on the country’s past “national humiliation” after the Tiananmen crackdown had seen a sudden surge of scholarship on the subject, so too now did historical nihilism became a hot topic for research. New papers and initiatives proliferated. Qiushi (“Seeking Truth”), the party’s ideology journal, devoted a special section on its website to the battle to combat historical nihilism, complete with a banner quote from Xi: “History is history, truth is truth, and no one can change history or truth.”

This wasn’t true. The Communist Party had rewritten plenty of the country’s history. The extent of the human-made famine under Mao had been erased, as had the scale of the violence during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen massacre. It would be more accurate to say that history and truth were whatever the leadership said they were at that moment, and no one was allowed to challenge that version of events. But the party presented its campaign against historical nihilism as a patriotic mission, and the hunt for historical nihilists was on.

Katie Stallard is a senior editor covering China and global affairs at the New Statesman magazine and a nonresident fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.

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