As China marks 80 years since the Red Army ended its epic Long March, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is attacking revisionist history in an effort to compel reverence for its founding legend.
Facing annihilation at the hands of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forces during the Chinese Civil War in 1934, about 80,000 communist soldiers and leaders — Mao Zedong (毛澤東) among them — broke through encircling forces and embarked on a grueling escape.
Nine out of 10 had deserted or died by the time the last units reached Yanan in the northern province of Shaanxi as much as two years later, where Mao and his cohorts founded a base from which they went on to take over the country.
Photo: AFP / FRED DUFOUR
According to CCP lore, the marchers traveled at least 12,500km through some of the country’s most remote and hazardous terrain.
The anniversary is being marked this week with a daily drumbeat of newspaper articles and opinion pieces plus dozens of TV dramas, documentaries, trivia contests, radio broadcasts and special exhibitions extolling their heroism.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has put his stamp on the occasion, visiting museums in the northern region of Ningxia and Beijing.
Xi has declared that the party must emulate the march’s spirit in pursuit of his “Chinese Dream,” a vaguely defined promise of national rejuvenation, and the party’s centenary goal to build a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021.
“We, the new generation, should accomplish our new long march,” he said.
The drive came just ahead of a top party meeting in Beijing this month, with speculation mounting that Xi might delay appointing a successor and seek to stay in power beyond the traditional 10-year term.
Evoking the legend is “a good reminder to everybody that the party actually did, and does, stand for something” despite the CCP’s loss of “purpose and legitimacy,” Trey McArver, a London-based China politics analyst at research firm Trusted Sources, told reporters.
Xi’s embrace of the Long March reflects his desire to gather the party’s passion around him and channel Mao’s authority, Shanghai Jiaotong University historian Liu Tong (劉統) said.
China’s governance has become more focused on the leader under Xi, a style that “mimics Mao’s in many respects,” Liu said, adding that celebrating the Long March connects Xi to the “the communists’ symbol of triumph.”
However, much recent propaganda surrounding the march has “departed from the truth,” he said.
In reality the long retreat was a “military disaster” for the communists, University of Hong Kong historian Xu Guoqi (徐國琦) said.
Rather than Mao’s brilliance, it was Japan’s invasion of China that saved the party, by diverting and weakening the nationalists, he told reporters.
Survivors have spoken of rapes, executions, kidnappings and forced requisitions of grain by the Red Army on the routes it walked. Two British men who spent more than a year following the Red Army’s route calculated that it was about 6,100km — far shorter than officially claimed.
Others, such as documentary filmmaker Sun Shuyun (孫書雲), have interviewed survivors and witnesses who reported that celebrated incidents such as the Battle for Luding Bridge, where Red Army heroes reportedly made a perilous crossing under heavy gunfire, did not occur as described.
Such accounts have been blasted in state media. Those who cast doubt on the 12,500km figure are guilty of “historical nihilism,” wrote Lu Yi, an academic at the Central Party School, an institution where CCP officials are trained, in a commentary in the People’s Liberation Army Daily newspaper last month.
Lu singled out Sun and the British travelers as examples of people who “fly the flag of ‘restoring the truth’ to maliciously sever history and fabricate lies.”
The widely circulated commentary ended with a warning that “this historical nihilism must be firmly refuted.”
Warren Sun (孫萬國) of Monash University in Australia told reporters that while Xi understands the “less-than-savoury real story” of the events, in “issuing the new marching order, political necessity clearly overrides any historical truth.”
Although Mao’s own units reached Yanan in 1935, China celebrates the reunification of communist forces on Oct. 22 the following year, and the 80th anniversary is being marked with museum exhibitions across the country.
At the National Museum in Tiananmen Square, visitors gazed at oil paintings of Mao astride a white steed and displays of the Great Helmsman’s handgun.
An elderly visitor surnamed Shan said he admired the early CCP members, whose achievements “represent the indomitable spirit and strong mind of the Chinese nation.”
“Today, people’s thinking has relaxed,” he said.
However, several younger visitors said their state-run companies had bussed them in for the exhibit and required them to write a report about it.
One group of visitors posed with a CCP flag at the entrance.
Asked if she considered whether the official history was distorted, a 30-year-old woman surnamed Feng (馮) answered: “History is never objective. As ordinary people, we cannot tell whether history is true, but we can still learn from the spirit of the Long March.”
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