China’s Ruling Party Fears ‘Historical Nihilism’

 Mao’s record challenges elite legitimacy

Tombstone-The-Untold-Story-oAs the 120th anniversary of Mao’s Zedong’s birth approaches, China’s ruling Communist Party is afraid that its historical record threatens to undermine its fragile legitimacy, observers suggest.

“The famine that gripped China from 1958 to 1962 is widely judged to be the deadliest in recorded history, killing 20 to 30 million people or more, and is one of the defining calamities of Mao’s rule,” Chris Buckley reports for The New York Times:

Ever since, the party has shrouded that disaster in censorship and euphemisms, seeking to maintain an aura of reverence around the founding leader of the Communist state….But with the approach of celebrations of the 120th anniversary Mao’s birth on Dec. 26, some of his supporters and party polemicists are stepping beyond the longstanding official reticence about the famine to argue for their own, much milder version of the disaster and to assail historians who disagree.

30-36 million ‘abnormal’ deaths

“Scholars disagree, but whether their estimate is somewhat higher or lower, that doesn’t affect the fact that the Great Leap Forward created a massive disaster,” said Lin Yunhui, a retired party historian at the National Defense University in Beijing who has spent much of his career studying Mao’s time. “My own estimate is that there were about 30 million abnormal deaths.”

“Tombstone,” Yang Jisheng’s landmark study of the Great Leap Forward famine, estimates that 36 million people died because of brutality and food shortages.

“He called the denials of widespread famine more than half a century ago a disturbing symptom of present-day political anxieties,” Buckley adds.

“To defend the ruling status of the Communist Party, they must deny that tens of millions died of starvation,” Mr. Yang (right) Yang Jishengsaid. “There’s a sense of social crisis in the party leadership, and protecting its status has become more urgent, and so it’s become even more necessary to avoid confronting the truth about the past.”

China’s President Xi Jinping is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a comrade of Mao who suffered 16 years of imprisonment, notes Buckley. Nevertheless….

Xi told officials in January that they should not belittle or doubt Mao’s achievements. He has repeatedly cited the collapse of the Soviet Union as a warning of the costs of political laxity.

Mr. Xi’s handling of the past, however, is driven by political imperatives, not family memories, said Edward Friedman, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was an editor of the English version of Mr. Yang’s book “Tombstone.”

Xi approved a directive issued in April that identified seven main ideological threats to party rule, including “historical nihilism” — defined as attempts to “negate the legitimacy of the long-term rule of the Chinese Communist Party” by maligning the party’s record.

“They need their great leader to be pure,” Mr. Friedman said. “They need to have a vision of the past that’s worth being nostalgic about.”

Democracy Digest 

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