Sixteen years of efforts by the CCP were aimed at building a “Marxist” theory of China’s history—proving inter alia that the Uyghurs are in fact Chinese.
by Massimo Introvigne
There are projects on which the CCP invests enormous resources that get little or no coverage in Western media. Yet, they are important to understand how the CCP operates. One spectacular case is the “National Research Project on Tracing the Origins of Chinese Civilization” (中华文明探源工程), which lasted from sixteen years from 2002 to 2018 and mobilized more than 400 scholars and CCP ideologists, and 70 universities. It originated with Hu Jintao, but was concluded by Xi Jinping.
On July 15, the theoretical journal of the CCP, “Seeking Truth” (Qiushi) published a long article by Xi Jinping, derived from his speech of May 27, 2002, at the 39th collective study session of the Political Bureau of the CCP’s Central Committee devoted to examining the results of the “Origins of Chinese Civilization Project.” Here, Western readers need to pause and consider what exactly happened. The Politburo, i.e., the highest body of the CCP, in the middle of several national and international crises, devoted his time to study the origins of Chinese civilization, and Xi Jinping himself gave the main speech.
There are long-term and short-term reasons for this, and both should be understood. The 1993 essay and 1996 book by Samuel Huntington on the clash of civilizations are somewhat out of fashion in the West but continue to be studied in China. Xi Jinping himself refers to them in the article, stating that the CCP should reject the part about the “clash” but be inspired (which does not mean following it blindly) by the notion of “civilization.”
It is a CCP mantra that China is the civilization par excellence, the only one that has an uninterrupted 5,000-year history. More precisely, Xi reminds us that the “Origins” project has affirmed that China has “a million-year human history, 10,000 years of cultural history, and more than 5,000 years of civilizational history.”
Being proud of a nation’s past happens in all countries, and certainly China has a lot to be proud of in terms of art, culture, and science. However, Xi Jinping’s presentation of the “Origins” project is not limited to this legitimate pride. There is the disturbing idea that “those who control history control the country,” that history in itself political, and that it should be ultimately controlled by the CCP, not by professional historians.
Those who do not adhere to the guidance of the CCP are “historical nihilists” or “cultural nihilists.” These are not merely controversial positions in Xi Jinping’s China. They are crimes, and those accused of “historical nihilism” lose their academic positions and earn a good chance of going to jail.
Another point is that history, Xi Jinping insists, should be interpreted through the lenses of Marxist ideology. While some Western theories submit ideologies to the test of history, the CCP fully intends to submit history to the test of ideology. “Our Party, Xi explains, has always viewed the history of the Chinese nation with the standpoint and method of historical materialism… We are Marxist historicists.” In interpreting, teaching, and present history, Xi insists, “we must adhere to the fundamental guiding ideology of Marxism.”
In the article, Xi himself provides a clear example of ideological interpretation of Chinese history. He has personally participated in ceremonies honoring Confucius, but states, attributing the idea to Chairman Mao, that “Confucius became a sage because he was a revolutionary and participated in rebellions everywhere.” There is much we do not know about Confucius, but from what we know he was rather a traditionalist who wanted to restore a lost social order and praised social stability.
Twisting history, making even Confucius into a proto-Marxist revolutionary, also serves more immediate aims. Xi insists that Chinese civilization is inherently peaceful, based on “dialogue and tolerance,” and “has been famous for its openness and inclusiveness since ancient times.” In fact, like all great empires, China has had its imperialistic times and has expanded by conquering and destroying neighboring states. However, the argument that China is historically peaceful and surrounded by imperialistic neighbors has been used by Chinese propaganda and “wolf warrior diplomacy” in recent territorial disputes with India and Japan.
Xi is even more interested in building a narrative “proving” that all the populations included within the present borders of the People’s Republic are part of the Chinese civilization and included in the famous 5,000-year uninterrupted Chinese history. One of the aims of the “Origins” project was to counter Western interpretations of archeological findings that point to the presence of non-Chinese civilizations in present-day China.
Chinese archeologists who discovered the so-called Sanxingdui civilization in Sichuan, dating back to some 1,100 years before Christ, were highly praised, but the “Origins” project devoted considerable resources to counter Western theories that the Sanxingdui culture was so distinctive that it cannot be included in a Chinese continuity. In fact, in the same issue of the Qiushi Xi Jinping’s article was followed by one by the staff of the Sanxingdui Museum arguing that the Sanxingdui culture was Chinese, and if anything proved the “pluralistic unity” of the Chinese civilization.
Xi Jinping made abundantly clear why controlling history and making the “pluralistic unity” of the Chinese civilization co-extensive to the present borders of China is essential when earlier this month he visited Xinjiang. He made a stop at the Museum of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and stated in so many words that the Uyghurs are Chinese, too. “Chinese civilization is extensive and profound, has a long history stretching back to antiquity, and is composed of outstanding cultures of all its ethnic groups,” Xi said. He called for “further study on the history of the community for the Chinese nation.”
He added that “we should make full and effective use of the historical facts, archaeological objects, and cultural heritage on the exchanges between various ethnic groups in Xinjiang, to prove that this region inhabited by many ethnic groups has been an integral part of China since the ancient times, and that various ethnic groups in Xinjiang have been important members of the big Chinese family in weal and woe.”
The Uyghurs do not believe that they are “members of the big Chinese family.” However, history will be twisted as much as needed to argue that they live in “an integral part of China since the ancient times.” Tibetans may expect just the same.