Essay

Reformist Propaganda6 min read

Yifu Dong visits Beijing’s new exhibit celebrating economic reform

Forty years ago, China’s leadership decided that the Chinese people deserved better than having to suffer from mass hunger, abject poverty and periodical chaos. It rolled out a program called Reform and Opening, setting China on a path of capitalist normalcy, or as most pundits put it, “an economic miracle.”

This past November, the National Museum of China, a sullen monolith hunching over the east side of Tiananmen Square, put on a grand exhibit called ‘The Great Transformation,’ which celebrates China’s progress in the past four decades. Before it opened on November 13, when President Xi Jinping visited, the National Museum closed for 50 days in preparation. Seeking earth-shattering revelations about Chinese politics from such a well-orchestrated propaganda exhibit is the same as digging for gold in a coal mine, but the basics of China’s new narrative about Reform and Opening are worthy of a recap.

This spring will mark the sixth anniversary of Xi Jinping’s inauguration as president. Yet in the exhibit, the past six years under his leadership seems to account for roughly 55% of the history of the past four decades – or at least that’s the proportion Xi occupies in the exhibit’s chapter on the four reform-era leaderships. Raw power, not the number of trips around the sun, determines the distribution of gallery space in China’s political exhibits. The fact that Xi takes up more than half of the space in that section, and has 45 photos prominently featuring himself (the other three reform-era leaders, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, only have 38 among them) is no longer surprising.

What did surprise me was when two young men in dark suits told me to back off from the photos of President Xi, and the moment I stepped back, a protruded belly nearly bursting out of a dirty-green uniform wobbled into sight. I had just respectfully made way for Mao Xinyu – Mao Zedong’s grandson – and his entourage.

In the exhibit, the past six years under Xi’s leadership accounts for roughly 55% of the history of the past four decades”

Officially, Little Mao is known as a cheerleader and scholar of Old Mao’s philosophy and also as the youngest person ever – in 2009, when he was 39 – to be made Major General in the Chinese military. But on the Chinese internet, he is widely mocked for his incoherence in front of the camera and elementary school-level calligraphy. (My high school history teacher once warned us, “Do not commit evil in your lifetime, or your grandchildren will be like that.”)

While the nepotism and privilege Little Mao enjoyed was on full display, his grandfather was barely present in the exhibit. The only references that I saw to Mao Zedong included the “decade of chaos,” a euphemism for the Cultural Revolution, and a brief mention of Mao Zedong Thought in parallel with Xi Jinping Thought – both of which are enshrined in China’s constitution.

The omission of Mao reflects a simple fact: Reform and Opening, as well as economic development as Chinese people know it today, is an outright rejection of Mao’s policies, and began after he died. However, omission from this exhibit is in no way an overall repudiation. If the trip turned out to be a disappointment for Little Mao, he could have visited the “Maosoleum” (Mao’s memorial hall) on the other side of Tiananmen Square, where his embalmed grandpa remains one of the top attractions in Beijing.

A captioned screenshot of a photo from the exhibit

Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both of whom were notable figures in initiating the reforms, were also missing from the exhibit. Both general secretaries of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1980s, they have long been completely expunged from official propaganda about Reform and Opening. Their alleged mistake was their sympathy for political reform, which clashed with Deng’s vision of a strictly economic opening and culminated in the events of 1989. As if prepared for accusations of omitting the sensitive events of 1989, the exhibit shows a photograph of a smiling Jiang Zemin sitting next to Bill Clinton in 1993, with the caption explaining that the Chinese leadership deftly handled backlash and sanctions “after the political upheavals of 1989.” A product of extensive intra-party debate, Reform and Opening is reduced to a one-man show in the exhibit, starting with Deng and with each subsequent period being presented as having a single leader around whom the entire country coalesced.

The exhibit became an exercise in quantifying meaninglessness”

But visitors didn’t line up for an hour in the freezing cold outside the museum just to learn about reform-era leadership. Their minds were already saturated with similar propaganda from state media, the internet and school textbooks. Instead, the majority of visitors went to seek good vibes, basking in a collective pride for China’s progress and a validation of the improvements in their own lives.

Although the chapters of the exhibit were organized thematically, many sections were decked with entire walls of photographs covering every part of China’s progress that the curators could think of. With so much packed into the narrow space of the exhibition halls, the exhibit became an exercise in quantifying meaninglessness.

Most popular with visitors were the material displays, the ones that evoked reminiscence and that inspired awe. The “time machine” displays – old cell phones, old cameras, and a setup of shops with old brands of snacks and toys – drew crowds, especially older people, who could be heard bragging to younger generations by wistfully exclaiming, “I used to have these!” or “I remember this!” The young people, for their part, probably just felt sorry for those who had to put up with the inconveniences of prehistory.

Displays of technological achievements were also catchy, from models of rockets and spaceships to deep-sea oil drilling machinery, plus a 3D model of the Three Gorges Dam and displays of model military vehicles captioned as “the world’s first” or “the world’s biggest.” As technological progress is welded with nationalistic pride, few bothered to uncover the dirt beneath the facade. Visitors may have forgotten, or more likely have forgiven, the massive corruption that fueled the development of China’s high-speed railway. Few are aware of the environmental risks of deep-sea drilling or the ecological consequences and displaced populations of the Three Gorges Dam. And many have only recently realized, following the news of China’s trade conflict with the US, that some of China’s top tech companies are vulnerable to bans on the export of core components from foreign countries, because China often does not own the most cutting-edge technology.

Inside the exhibit – just as in Chinese society at large – the propaganda was overbearing, yet also somehow reassuring. It squeezed out much-needed public debate on China’s real challenges and shielded the public from the burden of confronting the harsh realities to which materialism has no answer. After all, the biggest achievement of China’s Reform and Opening is the normalization and anointment of materialism. As for how long this amoral materialism can run in China, no one really knows. Between the bright red display boards and the blinding yellow lights of ‘The Great Transformation’ exhibition, visitors were joyous and prideful. Despite the enormous challenges China faces today, they understood how to enjoy the party while it lasts. ∎

Header: Visitors view exhibits at the exhibition in the National Museum of China in Beijing (China.org.cn).

Yifu Dong

Yifu Dong is a Beijing native and a graduate of Yale College. He writes in both Chinese and English, and has contributed to The New York Times, Foreign Policy, ChinaFile and Caixin. He is a Research Associate at the Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.