David Ownby on China’s ‘Resolution on History,’ Ideology, and Intellectuals

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David Ownby on China’s ‘Resolution on History,’ Ideology, and Intellectuals

Reflections on CCP ideology — including the latest Resolution on History — and how it is received by Chinese intellectuals.

David Ownby on China’s ‘Resolution on History,’ Ideology, and Intellectuals
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

The Chinese Communist Party’s “Third Resolution on History,” released in full on November 16, presents the party as a major force for good in Chinese and world history from its founding in 1921 up to the present day.

In this interview with The Diplomat’s Jesse Turland, Professor David Ownby discusses the CCP resolution, its approaches to communication with the public, and the value of the listening to intellectuals for understanding China.

Ownby is a professor of history at the University of Montreal, specializing in religion, social movements, and intellectuals in China. At the website “Reading the China Dream,” he publishes translations of the writings of contemporary Chinese intellectuals unavailable elsewhere in English.

What are your impressions of the Third Resolution on History?

The resolution didn’t seem especially drastic to me in comparison to many alarming headlines leading up to its release. I expected Xi Jinping to put himself front and center, and he did.

I would say that I’m not shocked that the CCP would rewrite history. People rewrite history all the time. The American Supreme Court rewrites history, political parties rewrite history. Given that it is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party, it would have been more surprising if there hadn’t been a resolution on history in China this year. In the party’s Marxist system, there is a long tradition of historical exegesis, of rethinking where and how the dialectic of history has brought China to this particular point.

One thing that struck me was that they didn’t claim victory in the fight against corruption. They said that it is still ongoing. This may be true, or it may be said because it’s useful to the regime, or a bit of both. It’s very useful to say, “We’re corrupt, and I’m fixing it.” It gives you a lever against anybody you don’t like. They have been quick to claim victory on poverty alleviation and declare they are moving on from that. But they didn’t do that with corruption. They said, “Corruption is still a problem, and if we don’t fix it, we’re in bad shape.” This was interesting.

As to the impact of the resolution, even within the party, I wonder really how many people will pick over the finer details of the 30,000-character text. They may care about Xi Jinping naming himself to a third term, and that’s a big deal. But a theoretical document may not be of that much interest to most party members.  This is just speculation on my part.

What do you think Chinese intellectuals and the educated public make of the party’s style of communication? This resolution was clearly written in the style sometimes called “official speak” (官话 guanhua), full of party terminology and references to the “thought” of leaders from Mao to Xi.

Even people on the side of the regime do not really repeat that kind of guanhua language. The authors I translate don’t repeat guanhua at all. I think that’s because Chinese intellectuals have globalized in the last 40 or 50 years. They have the same intellectual resources that you or I have, and they have the same methodology. They speak much the same language even when they are speaking Chinese.

For Chinese intellectuals, even if they support the regime, they wish that the regime would stop being something from the last century. They don’t want a “great leader” with “great thought.” China is awake to the world in a lot of ways, whereas the party is still stuck in 19th or 20th century Marxist rhetoric. For the establishment intellectual men and women I translate, I think the feeling is pretty widespread: “We’re richer than we were, we’ve pulled off an economic miracle, but stop making us think these silly things. Let us think something else… I’m an intellectual, I know how this works, let me help you, let me take over your messaging.” That’s what they would like to do.

One of the key figures who has shaped China’s ideological messaging is Wang Huning. You have translated some of Wang’s essays. What are your thoughts about Wang’s role and legacy?

All of Wang’s writing in his own name was done in an earlier time before he entered the government. That makes it difficult to conclusively say anything about him now. I don’t have a strong opinion about this idea that Wang is somehow the essence of where China has wound up.

As for Wang’s 1986 essay “Reflections on the Cultural Revolution and the Reform of China’s Political System,” when I read it, I thought he was quite liberal. It’s very interesting that he rewrote it five times over the course of the succeeding decades. The last time I think was 2012, right before or as Xi came to power. The fact that Wang reworked and refined this piece so many times reflects the import of the Cultural Revolution for Chinese intellectuals and for China as a whole.

The whole point of this essay seemed to be to say that China messed up terribly and needed to liberalize. If I read this essay in the context of the other figures I read now, what stands out is how liberal Wang was early on.

How would you describe your “Reading the China Dream” project?

“Reading the China Dream” is about reading, translating, and curating a wide range of Chinese establishment intellectual opinion. It started a few years ago by accident, when I was on an airplane and happened to read a really gripping Chinese book, one of Xu Jilin’s books about the Chinese Enlightenment. It was about the May Fourth Movement, written in plain, understandable language with no party intervention, with no preconceived conclusions. It was backed up by excellent research. I had been reading Chinese texts for 30 years, but until that point had never read something that made me think, “This is just a good book!” And I said to myself, “Why didn’t I know this was out there?” And I realized that if I didn’t know this material was out there, other people may not know either.

It became a sort of obsession to translate. The project and the website aim to translate Chinese establishment intellectuals, who are people writing in Chinese in China, and who play by the rules of the party state without being propagandists. The idea is to show that there is real debate, real intellectual difference in China. Certain red zones are off limits, of course. They can’t talk about Xinjiang, or Tibet, or Falun Gong, or Taiwan. But there’s still a huge range of stuff that they can talk about: what reforms mean, what democracy means within China, gender (to a certain extent), the environment.

These writers have a vast frame of reference. A lot of them know the Chinese classical tradition. They have also embraced the West in many ways and draw from Western thought. And they try to provide insights into what China’s doing or what the West is doing in a way that I think is very worthwhile to look at.

What ideological trends or issues in China will you be following with interest in the next year? Do you anticipate anything different for the public sphere under a third Xi term, or more of the same?

Some issues will simply not go away, like China’s rise and the Sino-American rivalry. I think there is a lot of concern that China’s period of extremely rapid growth is coming to an end, and even the party admits as much on occasion. This will be a significant challenge to the regime’s management capacity, which can readily become a challenge to the regime’s ideological legitimacy.

I think populism in China might become a real problem as well. At present, China’s “little pinks” have a lot of fun defending China’s reputation around the world against whomever dares to offend China, but the same forces could conceivably turn inward.

I think that many Chinese establishment intellectuals will watch such events carefully, trying in their patient, roundabout way to hold the party-state accountable and perhaps move it in a different direction.