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December 5, 2016

Seek Truth from Facts: The Chinese Communist Party’s War on History

(Source: The Project 2049 Institute)

By: Sebra Yen and Rachael Burton |

The phrase “Seek Truth from Facts” was introduced to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a hallmark slogan of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP’s historical narrative is a critical component of its domestic and foreign policies, as it aims to legitimize its own power and supremacy. The slogan has been used throughout the PRC’s 66-year history, and served as a political tool in Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 speech, which allowed the Party to enact much needed reforms while maintaining its authority. The Chinese Communist Party thus utilizes political work groups and education to push its narrative of history to shape and define the discourse on the Party, rule of law, and foreign policy. However, to “Seek Truth from Facts,” has tragically resulted in the revision of history, human dignity, and the pursuit of “adherence to the Party.”

Expert Conference on the CCP’s War on History

On September 20th, 2016, the Project 2049 Institute hosted a conference titled “Seek Truth From Facts: The Chinese Communist Party’s War on History.” The conference brought together two expert panels that identified and assessed the impact of the CCP’s war on history at home and abroad. The conference hosted two sessions with one focusing on the Sino-Japanese War and another on the Party’s historical narratives and its impact on the ‘rise of China.’

The Sino-Japanese War

Last year, the CCP commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese War, highlighting the victory and sacrifice of the Party’s Red Army and the Chinese people. While reflection and acknowledgement of history is important, allowing differing analysis and an accurate depiction of the circumstances surrounding the Chinese victory pays tribute to the complexities regarding the outcome of the War.  By comparing and contrasting Japanese sources, such as Memories of Shanghai―the memoir of Iwai Eiichi―with Chinese sources, evidence suggests the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conspired with Japan in order to weaken the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) during the war.

This particular view was corroborated by the first panelist’s findings, which pointed to Mao ordering Pan Hannian, the most well known CCP spy, to infiltrate the local agency of the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the Japanese Imperial Army. Mao called for Pan, as well as other communist spies, to sell military intelligence attained from the Chongqing Government (led by Chiang Kai-shek) to the Japanese Imperial Army in order to incapacitate the KMT forces, which allowed Mao time to strengthen the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The implications of the CCP assisting Japan are monumental. The Party was engaged in a massive United Front Work campaign to weaken the KMT’s ability to stifle its influence and amass public support for the CCP under a “united campaign” against Japan. If Pan Hannian’s missions had come to light, it would directly contradict the Anti-Japanese United Front campaign, where Mao himself called upon “all political parties and groups and the people throughout the country to organize an anti-Japanese united army and a government of national defense for a common fight against Japanese imperialism.”[1] Later, in 1955, Pan and other communist spies were arrested. The arrests can be interpreted as a means for the CCP to cover its covert actions; evidence that points to Mao’s strategy to work with the Japanese Army to the detriment of KMT forces and inevitable CCP victory. These findings contrast with the negative and often volatile Sino-Japanese narrative that we see today. For instance, it was found that Mao never publicly celebrated the CCP’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War or allowed Chinese school children to learn about the Nanjing Massacre. Reason being, Mao did not want the Chinese people to learn that it was the KMT that mainly fought Japan during the brutal war – CCP forces fled. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Tiananmen Massacre, the CCP sought to further consolidate and supplement communist ideology.  In 1994, the CCP launched the ‘Patriotic Education’ campaign, which highlighted the Party winning the war, along with an increase in nationalistic, anti-Western, and anti-Japan rhetoric. In addition, the significance of the review of the Sino-Japanese War is the emphasized fact that its result heavily influenced the Chinese democratic progress, ultimately changing China’s history.

(source: The Project 2049 Institute)

Historical Narratives of the PRC and its impact on the ‘rise of China’

The second half of the conference focused on the Chinese Communist Party’s historical claims to Tibet, and the Party’s use of history to consolidate national identity and its relevance to the ‘rise of China.’ An expert panel discussed various CCP policies and assessed its impact on the Chinese people, students, and beyond.

Land Reform and The Great Famine:

The effects of the 1950-53 land reforms and the 1959-61 great famine not only demonstrate the tight control the CCP employed on media and education but also the failures of socialist policy, as millions of lives were lost.  In an effort to jump-start the PRC’s economic revival, the Party subverted agrarian traditions and exploited the grievances of the “working class” in a propaganda campaign that directed hatred and aggression towards landowners instead of the Party. Since ‘opening up and reform,’ the Chinese government has shifted away from socialist policies and tapped into newfound nationalism. The Chinese Communist Party has continued its narrative that the West is constraining and containing China’s rise, as evident in the recent Pew Poll. The poll found that 52% of the Chinese public believes the U.S. is trying to prevent China from becoming an equal power and 71% believe the U.S. is unwilling to accept China’s rise.[2]  Moreover, the reliance of using nationalism to divert from domestic issues can be dangerous, as the PRC experienced during the years of land reform and the great famine.

The Tibetan Memorandum:

Tibet has implications on human rights, the international community, and China’s rise. The issue of China-Tibet relations has been marred by disputes based on competing historical accounts. After the 2008 uprising, the international community pushed China to address the ‘Tibet issue.’ As a result, Beijing hastily organized negotiations between PRC representatives and envoys of the Dalai Lama. The PRC continued to maintain that there was only an issue regarding His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet, and denied there was a broader “Tibet Problem” related to CCP rule. However, PRC negotiators did ask the Dalai Lama’s envoys to provide a more detailed explication of their positions on issues such as “genuine autonomy.” In response, the Exile Government drafted and submitted to their PRC interlocutors the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People. In order to ground their positions in international law concepts, that the PRC recognized as valid, the Memorandum drew from the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which states that self-determination, autonomy, and protection of spiritual and religious traditions are fundamental rights. The CCP’s response to the memorandum―that genuine autonomy was nothing more than covert independence― served as an important indicator that the CCP continues to use historical narratives to legitimize its rule and authority over Tibet. China has viewed Tibet as an inseparable part of China since ancient times. The Tibetan side on the other hand maintains that the historic relationship is more complicated, and includes periods where Tibetan areas were not subordinate to Chinese rule, or were parts of other empires. Even under Chinese accounts, there does not appear to be direct rule until the 1950s. In essence, the two sides can never agree on history.  Though the CCP has signed many agreements and declarations, such as the 17-point agreement, the PRC’s national minority laws, and the signing of UNDRIP, the CCP refuses to recognize Tibetans as a group of indigenous peoples. The Party also continues to eschew negotiations or even engage in meaningful discussion with the exile-Tibetan government (the Central Tibetan Administration) and His Holiness the Dalai Lama regarding the “Middle Way” approach. If the CCP is sincere in its own laws and agreements, then a “2.0” China-Tibet discussion should occur with a negotiating mediator and the UNDRIP as a guideline.

History’s Use in Nation Building:

Historical narratives are important to all states, especially for nation building and cohesion. With China, this tool is used to maintain its power, and is comprised of two faces: the shameful face, which is based on the century of humiliation, and the nationalistic face, which buys strength for the Party. For example, the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics boasted the Party’s achievements in bringing prosperity to the country. Moreover, President Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ is based on a grand historical past and nostalgia for greatness, when China was the center of a tributary system.  For many years the CCP has worked to achieve this goal and does not want to be compromised, as seen recently with its assertive behavior in the region. Historical narratives are about the future just as much as it is about the past, and the PRC wishes to return to regional hegemony, when the international system was hierarchical, placed value on order over freedom, and elite governance over human rights.

The Changing Meaning of Patriotism:

In China, the meaning of patriotism has evolved, and Chinese people who voice critical views towards CCP policies or those who struggle for democracy in China have become the target of attacks by young Chinese with deep patriotism that entwines love of country with love of Party. After the June 4th military suppression of the Tiananmen protests, national sentiments framed on a Western conspiracy to weaken China have developed substantially. The CCP pursued a path that betrayed values in exchange for the development of the nation, and it included the implementation of  “patriotic education.” This education process censored the violent crackdown and focused on devotion to the Party, which warped the cause of the Tiananmen events. For those involved with the Tiananmen protests, the movement was a culmination of love of country and a desire for the government to reform. To them patriotism included the betterment of the Chinese people, society, and government ― and in extension the Party. However, patriotism was subverted by CCP national sentiments that tainted a genuine desire for peaceful reform. When more people speak out against the CCP’s usage of historical narratives in consolidating legitimacy and national development, only then can the path of truth and reconciliation be pursued.


The two panels on the CCP’s use of historical narratives provided timely analysis, as China continues to place importance on its historical accuracy as it relates to its domestic and foreign policies. Randy Schriver, President of the Project 2049 Institute, noted that it is important to understand why historical narratives are so critical to China and why the Party continues to want its people to be more patriotic and devoted to them. A directive issued by the Communist Party organization of the Ministry of Education is an example of history being used as a tool to attain the CCP’s political objectives. The directive called for more “patriotic education” at every stage and aspect of schooling, including textbooks, student assessments, museum visits, and the internet. Moreover, “patriotic education” is to extend past the boundaries of the PRC through “multidimensional contact networks linking the motherland, embassies, consulates, overseas student groups, and students abroad.” Moreover, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the Long March, and the Ministry of Education required 200 million children to watch a TV show commemorating the Communist Red Army. The message was meant to encourage Chinese youth to “not get soft and to follow the Communist party” in order to achieve victory. All of these recent efforts and emphasis on “patriotic education” are in conjunction with Party propaganda injecting insecurity and fear of “China” being targeted and infiltrated by hostile forces. Yuan Guiren, the Minister of Education stated that Universities and College professors must cultivate future generations to “help develop socialism with Chinese characteristics and consolidate the guiding role of Marxism in ideology.”  Since historical narratives undoubtedly shape national identity, its effect can be seen in how an individual or country views itself in the region and the world. Understanding the way in which the Chinese Communist Party controls the historical narrative, as well as education and media outlets will allow for better understanding of China―and by extension the Party’s―external behavior.

Sebra Yen is an Intern at the Project 2049 Institute. He is currently a Master’s candidate at The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University, where he concentrates in politics and security in East Asia.  Rachael Burton is a Research Associate at the Project 2049 Institute conducting research on the United Front Work Department who contributed to the article.

[1] see “Urgent Tasks Following the Establishment of the KMT-CCP Cooperation” (Sep. 29, 1937), Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, vol 2, pg 35-46


[2] note original statistic: 29% believe the U.S. is willing to accept China’s rise