Historical nihilism

Historical nihilism (Chinese: 历史虚无主义; pinyin: Lìshǐ xūwú zhǔyì) is a term used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to describe research, discussions, or viewpoints that contradict its official version of history in a manner perceived to question or challenge the legitimacy of the CCP. Viewpoints deemed to be historical nihilism are subject to censorship and legal repercussions.[1] The CCP opposes historical interpretations that are critical of it, the People's Liberation Army, socialism, and related topics.[1][2]

In a January 2013 speech, CCP general secretary Xi Jinping accused “hostile forces” of using historical nihilism to weaken the party's rule by smearing its history.[3][4] In early 2021, Xi increased efforts to promote a “correct outlook on history” ahead of the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, including opening a telephone hotline and website for citizens to report instances of historical nihilism.[5][6]


Historical nihilism has been described as criticism of the entirety of an entity, such as the CCP, its national heroes, leaders, socialism and its official history, by citing only certain events about the entity without consideration of the whole.[7] Academic Roland Boer characterized it as "the denial of the proletarian revolution, negating the leadership of the CPC, and ignoring Marxism or suggesting that Marxism is outdated and that China has abandoned Marxism."[8] Although 'incorrect' interpretations of history would have been censored and punished during the period of Mao Zedong (1949-1976) and Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989), neither leader made a clear attempt to engage against 'historical nihilism' as it is specifically understood today. According to Chinese historian Zhang Lifan, the main push to fight against 'historical nihilism', according to its specific modern meaning, undertaken by the CCP has its origin following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre and coinciding events within the communist countries of Eastern Europe. In December of that year, Jiang Zemin made a speech in which he said the liberation of the bourgeoisie had led to the spread of 'national nihilism' and 'historical nihilism', which had entered party thinking and brought about confusion.[9]

Historical nihilism is one of "The Seven Noteworthy Problems" discussed in the 2012 Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere (Document No. 9).[10] It states that the main expressions of historical nihilism are:[10]

Rejecting the revolution; claiming that the revolution led by the Chinese Communist Party resulted only in destruction; denying the historical inevitability in China’s choice of the Socialist road, calling it the wrong path, and the Party’s and new China’s history a “continuous series of mistakes”; rejecting the accepted conclusions on historical events and figures, disparaging our Revolutionary precursors, and vilifying the Party’s leaders. Recently, some people took advantage of Comrade Mao Zedong’s 120th birthday in order to deny the scientific and guiding value of Mao Zedong thought. Some people try to cleave apart the period that preceded Reform and Opening from the period that followed, or even to set these two periods in opposition to one another. By rejecting CCP history and the history of New China, historical nihilism seeks to fundamentally undermine the CCP’s historical purpose, which is tantamount to denying the legitimacy of the CCP’s long-term political dominance.

Government characterizations of historical nihilismEdit

Media and education in China is not allowed to represent history in a manner that is forbidden by government censors. In 2018, the Law on the Protection of Heroes and Martyrs banned the slander of “heroes and martyrs”.[1][5] In May 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China confirmed it had deleted over 2 million posts containing 'harmful' discussions of history.[11] The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences established a specialized unit to propagate an official version of history.[1]

Topics on things like the Great Chinese Famine, the Cultural Revolution and 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre are often scrubbed or at least depicted in such a way as to avoid blame on the party.[9][12] Chinese students in public schools, for example, may be taught that the Great Famine was caused by bad weather conditions without mention of human factors related to contemporary government policy at the time.[citation needed] One of the textbooks in use for grade 10 history, in the part of the book dealing with the period, contains only a single sentence devoted to the famine that simply claims there were 'great economic difficulties for the people between 1959 and 1961'.[13] Modern Chinese history is generally presented to praise the achievements of the CCP and its role in creating a prosperous 'new China'.[9]

When Xi Jinping became CCP general secretary and paramount leader in January 2013, he made a speech in which he said, 'The history of the post-reform period cannot be used to contradict the history of the pre-reform period, and the history of the pre-reform period cannot be used to contradict the history of the post-reform period'.[9] Although China's reforms since the 1980s caused it to radically change and abandon many of the Marxist policies that had existed under Mao Zedong, the official state-sanctioned version of history under Xi Jinping teaches an interpretation of continuity, praising both the contributions made by the CCP of Mao's generation and the CCP of the post-reform period. This is in contrast to interpretations in the period prior to Xi Jinping whereby some of Mao's policies could receive heavy criticism and the official stance of the party was a rejection of the Cultural Revolution, which had been referred to as the 'Ten Year Calamity' (十年浩劫).[14]

Some critical events preceding the history of the CCP also may have interpretations that can be labeled as 'historical nihilism'. For example, in 1994 Li Zehou, a Chinese scholar, criticized Sun Yat-Sen and the Xinhai revolution of 1911, which marked the overthrow of the old Imperial system in China. His view was that the revolution was rooted in radicalism and had created a disaster, while it would have been better to slowly reform and modernize the system. This viewpoint was condemned as 'historical nihilism', because it was in contradiction to official CCP interpretations.[9]

Collapse of the Soviet UnionEdit

In a 2013 speech, Xi Jinping described historical nihilism as contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union:[15]

Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union fall to pieces? An important reason is that in the ideological domain, competition is fierce! To completely repudiate the historical experience of the Soviet Union, to repudiate the history of the CPSU, to repudiate Lenin, to repudiate Stalin was to wreck chaos in Soviet ideology and engage in historical nihilism. It caused Party organizations at all levels to have barely any function whatsoever. It robbed the Party of its leadership of the military. In the end the CPSU—as great a Party as it was—scattered like a flock of frightened beasts! The Soviet Union—as great a country as it was—shattered into a dozen pieces. This is a lesson from the past!

— Xi Jinping, Uphold and Develop Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

In February 2022, the CCP published the documentary Historical Nihilism and the Disintegration of the Soviet Union.[16] The documentary argues that Nikita Khruschev "lit the fire of nihilism" by criticizing predecessor Joseph Stalin in his On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences speech.[16]

Ji Zhengju described the lesson that the CCP draws from historical nihilism in the Soviet Union as "weakening and abandonment of Party guidance in the ideological field serves the schemes of western powers to divide, westernize, and vilify the system, and leads to the proliferation of all kinds of erroneous thought tides."[17]

Academic analysisEdit

Academics Jian Xu, Qian Gong, and Wen Yin write that the CCP's attention to historical nihilism "has gained momentum in the 21st century due to the rise of market-oriented cultural production in post-socialist China as well as the development of new media technologies."[18] They cite the TV drama adaptation of Red Classics as "a pertinent example of historical nihilism caused by market orientation in cultural production," explaining:[18]

To produce 'selling points' and increase audience ratings, some of the original works have been greatly revised for more dramatic tension, especially the stories and images of some high-profile revolutionary heroes and CCP leaders. To curb the trend, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARAFT) issued a notice in 2004, stipulating that all Red Classics TV dramas had to be submitted to the Censorship Committee of SARAFT for final approval after passing the initial censorship at the provincial level.

Non-government usageEdit

Marxist academic Roland Boer has labeled several genres of works on China as historical nihilism. He describes Gordan H. Chang's The Coming Collapse of China (2001) as an example of the "China doomer" approach to historical nihilism.[19] He also labels anti-communist tropes and atrocity propaganda as historical nihilism as well as "betrayal" narratives in which Deng Xiaoping is cast as a "traitor" who supposedly undid the achievements of the Chinese Communist Revolution and brought capitalism to China.[19]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Mai, Jun (2021-05-11). "2 million posts deleted for 'historical nihilism' as party centenary nears". South China Morning Post. Archived from the original on 2022-01-05. Retrieved 2022-01-05.
  2. ^ Brown, Kerry (2016). China and the new Maoists. Simone van Nieuwenhuizen. London. p. 114. ISBN 978-1-78360-761-7. OCLC 958084156.
  3. ^ Zhai, Keith; Chun, Han Wong (2021-06-15). "China Repackages Its History in Support of Xi's National Vision". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Archived from the original on 2021-12-05. Retrieved 2022-01-05.
  4. ^ Scott, Liam (2022-08-08). "China wages war on 'historical nihilism'". Coda Story. Retrieved 2022-08-13.
  5. ^ a b Denyer, Simon (April 27, 2018). "China criminalizes the slander of its 'heroes and martyrs,' as it seeks to control history". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on January 11, 2021. Retrieved January 4, 2022.
  6. ^ Costigan, Johanna M. (September 23, 2022). "China's War on History Is Growing". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 2022-09-28.
  7. ^ 王瑾; 文世芳. 1949~1989年《人民日报》对历史虚无主义的解析. 当代中国史研究. 2017, (02): 6–17,127. [Wang Jin; Wen Shifang. An Analysis of Historical Nihilism in the People's Daily from 1949 to 1989. Research on Contemporary Chinese History]
  8. ^ Boer, Roland (2021). Socialism with Chinese characteristics : a guide for foreigners. Singapore. pp. 10–12. ISBN 978-981-16-1622-8. OCLC 1249470522.
  9. ^ a b c d e "中共建党百年:"虚无主义"阴影下剪不断、理还乱的中共历史" [The 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China: the history of the Communist Party]. BBC News. June 28, 2021. Archived from the original on July 1, 2021. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  10. ^ a b "Document 9: A ChinaFile Translation". ChinaFile. 2013-11-08. Retrieved 2022-07-26.
  11. ^ Mai, Jun. "Chinese academic under fire over 'historical nihilism' remarks". The Star (Malaysia). Archived from the original on 2021-07-09. Retrieved 2021-09-17.
  12. ^ "【中共決議】繼續否定文革、大躍進 不提胡耀邦、趙紫陽". Radio Free Asia (in Chinese (Hong Kong)). Retrieved 2022-10-09.
  13. ^ https://xuezhi5.com/beishidaban/gaoyilishibixiu2/8030_3.html, 北师大版高一历史必修2, retrieved July 26th 2022
  14. ^ "毛泽东、斯大林、希特勒等独裁者"不再风光"的最后一程" [The Last Journey of Mao Zedong, Stalin, Hitler and Other Dictators "No Longer Scenery"]. BBC News. September 9, 2021. Archived from the original on September 10, 2021. Retrieved September 10, 2021.
  15. ^ "Xi Jinping in Translation: China's Guiding Ideology". Palladium. 2019-05-31. Retrieved 2022-07-24.
  16. ^ a b "The specter of the Soviet collapse still haunts China". Le Monde.fr. 2022-04-16. Retrieved 2022-07-22.
  17. ^ Ji, Zhengju (December 19, 2017). "Lessons from the collapse of Soviet communism seen in the light of historical nihilism" (PDF). University of Notre Dame. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 24, 2022. Retrieved July 24, 2022.
  18. ^ a b Xu, Jian; Gong, Qian; Yin, Wen (November 2022). "Maintaining ideological security and legitimacy in digital China: Governance of cyber historical nihilism". Media International Australia. 185 (1): 26–40. doi:10.1177/1329878X221111826. ISSN 1329-878X.
  19. ^ a b Boer, Roland (2021). Socialism with Chinese characteristics : a guide for foreigners. Singapore. pp. 10–12. ISBN 978-981-16-1622-8. OCLC 1249470522.