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Reviewed by James Farley.

The Communist Party of China (CCP) recently released a new version of their appraisal of the country’s history, entitled ‘中国共产党简史’ (Brief History of the Communist Party of China). Following in the tradition of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and their ‘short course’ that began in 1938, the China series has always provided a concise, and officially approved, guide to the history of the Party, and by extension the development of the country. The Brief History has always existed to combat what the Party terms ‘Historical nihilism,’ or rather what are perceived to be ‘incorrect’ analyses of China’s history. Whilst the content of each ‘short course’ is naturally heavily weighted in favour of the CCP, analysis of each entry in the series can provide insight into current development concerns and the standing of former leaders, as the books are framed to support current political, economic and social aims and objectives. The most recent edition, published in February 2021 for example, contains 530 pages, 147 of which focus on 2012-2021 and the leadership of the current Chairman of the Party, Xi Jinping. By comparison, the Mao years are only given 33 pages. The past is certainly being utilised to serve the future.

The extent to which the CCP values a ‘correct’ interpretation of history, and the highly politicised nature of history in China, are addressed by Kerry Brown in his new book China which provides a far more nuanced approach to Chinese history. The book provides a broad overview of the most important events that shaped the development of modern China, beginning with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and ending with considerations on the future of the country under the leadership of Chairman Xi. Unlike the CCP’s Brief History, Brown engages with arguments that surround the ‘unbroken line’ of Chinese history. He details the importance of debates related to national unity and renewal, acknowledging disputes of interpretation that have existed since the time of social and political commentators Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei in the late nineteenth century. These disputes culminated with the New Culture Movement in the early twentieth century and fed into the civil war and revolution.

However, whilst there is indeed a compelling argument to be made that nationalism and the importance of unity were at the heart of CCP development throughout each major period, Brown’s focus on it as a motivating force does mean that some other important aspects are given less attention. Ideological developments under Mao are generally framed in terms of nationalist and economic objectives, rather than their contribution to the development of Marxism. It can be argued that ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ is a separate offshoot of Marxist development with a particular focus on nationalism. However, the extent to which Mao grappled with ideological concerns that have afflicted all Marxist theorists, could perhaps have been explored in more detail to provide greater context for the country’s development. Mao’s importance with respect to the development of communism more globally and the influence this had on other nations has recently been explored in more detail by Julia Lovell in Maoism: a Global History. Moreover, analysis and explanation of the importance and nature of ‘thought reform’ and associated propaganda for the creation and maintenance of society following the revolution is rather brief. This is evident in the section detailing the Korean War, a conflict that Brown concludes was a generally negative experience for the CCP’s leadership because of the economic damage sustained and the fact that an invasion of Taiwan was prevented. Whilst the war did indeed come at an unwelcome time, the PRC managed to hold the United States to a stalemate and ensure the survival of the North Korean Communist Party. In propaganda terms this was a major victory that provided the country’s propagandists with inspirational material for decades and is, to this day, still referenced as a point of pride by the CCP with the slogan 抗美援朝! (Resist America, assist Korea!).

Accounts of the Great Leap Forward and the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution are more nuanced and provide an excellent summary of more recent scholarship that has attempted to investigate the eras from different perspectives, including the more revisionist and contentious approach of Mobo Gao’s The Battle for China’s Past. Following these events, the death of Mao in 1976, and the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Brown details the extent to which the Party has adopted nationalism as a guiding force to an even greater extent to bind the country together following the socialist experiments of earlier eras. As noted, the transition from the era of ‘high socialism’ to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has proven to be difficult as the PRC has attempted to avoid the same fate as the Soviet Union. Economic development has been the primary focus of each administration that formed part of the collective leadership under Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) and Hu Jintao (2002-2012), although this has not been the sole focus. Political reforms, although limited, were instituted during these periods and, as Brown notes, under Hu Jintao there was an attempt to promote the idea of ‘people are the core.’

The closing chapters of the book provide an analysis of the rise of Xi Jinping and the extent to which the collective system of leadership has once again retreated. It has been replaced by a Chairman of the Party who has been enshrined in Party doctrine as ‘the core’ of society. Xi has proclaimed the goal of creating a ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects’, and as Brown notes, the CCP expects that citizens should have dreams for the future, as long as they match those of the Party and its ‘core.’ Overall, Kerry Brown’s China provides an excellent overview of the complexities both in terms of events, but also perspectives of the last century of China’s history, with a detailed ‘further reading’ section that would be particularly useful to undergraduates and readers new to the field.

China, by Kerry Brown (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020; 224pp.; £12.99 paperback)

James Farley is a Post-Doctoral Researcher and Project Manager at the University of Hamburg and Honorary Researcher at the University of Kent. His most recent book, Redefining Propaganda in Modern China: The Mao Era and its Legacies, was published by Routledge in 2020.

Image Credit: 18th CPC Congress Beijing Nov 2012 by Remko Tanis/Flickr, License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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