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How Russia and China exploit history to further interests

Rodion Ebbighausen
May 11, 2022

The arbitrariness with which they deal with their own national histories helps Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin secure power and justify their policies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Beijing
The two leaders share many similaritiesImage: Alexei Druzhinin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." This quote from George Orwell's world-famous novel "1984" describes in one sentence the importance of history in politics.

The quote finds a place in the preface of the recently published book "Dancing on Bones," authored by journalist Katie Stallard. In the book, she described how the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea use history for their own purposes.

"Authoritarian regimes recognize the power and the resonance of history. They see history as a crucial tool to generating popular support," Stallard told DW.

History generates legitimacy, is closely linked to the identity of citizens, and offers an advantage to authoritarian rulers in that it can be manipulated as required, she said, adding, "economic fortunes come and go. History is the thing you can rely on."

History as justification for the Ukraine war

Russia's war against Ukraine shows the deadly consequences historical revisionism can have.

In July 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin published an essay titled, "On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians."

In it, Putin accused the West of pursuing a "dangerous revisionism" and stressed that he — as an "all-knowing statesman" who knows the "one historical truth" — wanted to counter this, historian Andreas Kappeler described in an analysis for the journal Osteuropa

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The truth, according to Putin, is clear: Russians and Ukrainians have always been a single spiritual people. It is the West that is trying to turn Ukraine into an "anti-Russia" entity.

Russia would never allow this and would prevent it by force of arms if necessary, he stressed. On May 9, when Russia annually celebrates victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, Putin repeated his view of things and went even further, claiming that the West had planned an attack on Russia.

Putin's Cold War worldview

The narrative of supposed Russian-Ukrainian unity, which the West is pushing against, is part of a bipolar worldview and thinking in great power categories, Kappeler noted.

For Putin, only big powers — like Russia, the United States and China, for example — matter, and "small" states like Ukraine have no agenda of their own. The great powers, in turn, are engaged in an ideological competition that is waged by any means necessary.

This view of Putin, which Kappeler describes as a conspiracy theory, is combined with ethnic nationalism and the thesis that allegedly Nazis have taken power in Ukraine.

All this helps connect it to "the most important element of Russian integration ideology: the Soviet victory over Hitler's Germany," Kappeler said, adding that Putin's worldview is that of a secret service agent of the now-collapsed Soviet Union.

Xi Jinping: Helmsman of history

Many patterns of the ethno-nationalist view of history of Putin and his supporters in the Kremlin can also be observed among Chinese leaders.

Yet China wants to do better than the Soviet Union, which Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly cites as a cautionary tale.

Xi believes the Soviet Union disintegrated because its leaders failed to eradicate the "historical nihilism" that undermined faith in the communist cause.

To avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came up with, among other things, an updated official history of the party in 2021 that is heavily tailored to serve Xi's interests.

"Entering the new era, General Secretary Xi Jinping has led us to analyze the mechanism of evolution and explore the laws of history from the long river of history, the tide of the times and the global storm, and has made the right choice at every major historical juncture," the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece, wrote of Xi.

The CCP's narrative is disseminated in the press, social media, cinema, and computer games. Alternative views are illegal.

The party guarantees unity

The official party narrative determines what may be thought and written in China.

Xi's conception of history offers "an ideological framework which justifies greater and greater levels of party intervention in politics, the economy and foreign policy," says Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and China expert.

The CCP uses history to justify its power: Before the Communist takeover, China was weak and divided. The disunity enabled the West to humiliate the country. Only the CCP, the subtext goes, was able to unify the country and lead it to its former glory.

The CCP is continuing what Chinese nationalists had started in the 19th century, as Bill Hayton pointed out in his book "The Invention of China."

At that time, China's history was retroactively reinterpreted to establish a Han-Chinese unitary culture. The traditions of the Manchus, the Mongols and many other ethnic groups were written out of history to make way for the vision of a China that had always been united.

Today the Uyghurs and the Tibetans are at the receiving end of this historical revisionism, with them being forced into re-education camps and having their language and culture suppressed.

It is fitting in this context that in 2013, Xi, addressing the CCP Central Committee on the importance of history, quoted Confucian scholar Gong Zhishen as saying, "To destroy a country, you must first eradicate its history."

He meant this as a warning to those who question the 5,000-year unity of China.

While it is true that there was some continuity of language and Confucian doctrine, it is inaccurate to say that the Han-Chinese culture has always been dominant in what is now the territory of the People's Republic of China.

In fact, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was the last in which the Han Chinese ruled. For centuries before that, dynasties from other peoples, such as the Mongols, ruled over most of what is now China. The last dynasty was founded by the Manchu and ruled from 1644 until the proclamation of the republic on January 1, 1912.

In the will to create a unified history from which today's Russia and the People's Republic of China emerged without rupture, things have come full circle to a point where Putin, who denies or distorts the history of Ukraine, is now able to declare that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.

'Recovered territory'

In addition, there is an obsession with territorial issues in both systems. Putin's historical statements largely exclude the crimes of the Stalin era, instead devoting considerable attention to the territory of the Soviet Union, which also included Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, the states of Central Asia, and others.

China, meanwhile, has laid claim to the entire South China Sea — a body of water the size of the Mediterranean — based on what it says is its historical right to the area.  

At the same time, it refuses to recognize the decision of the International Court of Arbitration, which declared all historical claims null and void.

Putin and Xi against the West

Laying emphasis on territorial disputes has two functions, according to Stallard.

On the one hand, it emphasizes the humiliations of the past: something was taken away from us that was rightfully ours. And at the same time, it highlights the strength of the current leaders: we are taking back what is ours, she explained.

"This is part of defending sovereignty, of the idea that you are a strong country which can be proud of itself and defend yourself," Stallard said.

No competing views allowed

Even if there are differences in the content of the historical narratives in Russia and China — China's more pronounced personality cult around Xi, for instance — the patterns are clear.

Both systems claim a unity and continuity that never existed. Anyone who questions them in Russia or China must expect severe punishment.

They construct an external enemy, the West, from which only they — Putin and Xi respectively — can save the nation and link history to territorial claims.

"The impulse to manipulate history for political purposes is not a uniquely authoritarian trait," Stallard said. But only authoritarian systems clamp down on dissent.

This article was originally written in German.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum