As Chinese leader Xi Jinping looks set to seek a third term in power, he is seemingly preoccupied with the past, not the future.
When more than 300 members of China’s political elite gather in Beijing this week, their main task will be to review a draft history resolution that defines the ruling Communist Party’s “major achievements and historical experiences” since its founding 100 years ago.
The agenda of the most crucial Central Committee meeting before the twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle next autumn is carefully and deliberately chosen. It speaks of the importance Mr Xi attaches to party history, and his own place in it.
READ MORE: Australia’s most wanted fugitive arrested
In some ways, that obsession with history can be seen as rooted in a tradition dating back to ancient China. For centuries, Chinese imperial courts appointed historiographers to document the rise of an emperor, which often involved compiling — and rewriting — the history of his predecessor.
To the Chinese Communist Party, history — or rather, certain curated versions of it — can be extremely useful.
China’s alleged “historical claims” to disputed territories and waters, for instance, have been used by Beijing to bolster its case for contemporary sovereignty, while the narrative attached to the so-called “century of humiliation” by foreign powers — from the First Opium War in 1839 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 — has become a central source of legitimacy for the party.
In the eyes of the party’s leaders, losing control over these narratives can bring disastrous consequences for the country of 1.4 billion people. The collapse of the Soviet Union — a stern cautionary tale cited time and again by Mr Xi — is in part attributed to “historical nihilism”, or the ruling elite’s rejection of Soviet heritage.
As a result, the Chinese Communist Party vigilantly guards its own history by airbrushing the darker chapters of its tumultuous past and erasing particularly sensitive episodes from public memory.
But the upcoming “history resolution” is not only about reshaping the party’s past. More importantly, it’s a way for Mr Xi to codify his authority and supremacy in the present — and project his long-lasting power and influence into the future.
Since its founding, the party has only issued two such resolutions, put forward by Mr Xi’s two most powerful predecessors — Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
By issuing his own resolution, Mr Xi seeks to further entrench his status as a towering leader on the same level as Mr Mao and Mr Deng.
For now, few details about the resolution are known — barring the expectation it will most likely be passed by party elites this week.
Regardless of the details, the consensus among political observers is the resolution will further cement Xi’s authority and place him firmly at the helm of the party for the foreseeable future.
“The essential function of all of this verbiage, make no mistake, will centre on the person and power of Xi Jinping, defining his leadership as the way forward, on the basis of an understanding of history that defines his core agenda,” David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, wrote.
As George Orwell’s famous quote from his book 1984 puts it: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”.
And for Mr Xi, it seems like he’s about to control all three, at least for now.