Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. – Asia policy. This conversation with Katie Stallard – senior editor, China and Global Affairs, at the New Statesman, non-resident Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. and author of newly-published “Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia and North Korea” (Oxford University Press 2022) – is the 321st in The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.

Explain the correlation between myth and memory in the strongman regimes of China, Russia, and North Korea.

The leaders of these three autocratic regimes draw heavily on the history of the last century’s wars – specifically World War II and the Korean War – to frame their countries’ contemporary challenges and shore up support for their actions. These three nuclear powers regularly top U.S. and European lists of threats to security and the postwar order, but the stories those in power tell their own citizens are about how they are threatened; how their enemies (generally some combination of the U.S. and “the West”) seek to thwart their development, undermine their sovereignty, and bully them in territorial disputes.

They invoke the memory of these past wars to remind their citizens how they repelled foreign aggression back then, and why they must rally behind the regime again now and build up their military strength to defend themselves. History can be a potent political tool, as Vladimir Putin is currently demonstrating. Since the start of his invasion of Ukraine, he has repeatedly appealed to the memory of the Second World War to justify his actions to his domestic audience, presenting the conflict as a new version of that past war and falsely claiming that his troops are once again fighting Nazis.

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Analyze the interplay of truth, lies and deception and its impact on the preservation of power for Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong Un.

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There is a glimmer of truth at the core of all these historical narratives, which is part of what makes them so effective. It is true, for instance, that the Soviet Union and China suffered catastrophic losses during the Second World War, and that North Korea was utterly devastated during the Korean War. The memory of these wars resonates with the population in a way that GDP growth rates do not, and there is genuine grassroots support for some of the official commemoration efforts.

Yet these stories are also highly selective, glossing over the atrocities the wartime leaders also presided over, the mass rapes carried out by Soviet troops, the mass starvation in China, the fact that it was actually North Korea that started the Korean War. These leaders appeal to an idealized (in North Korea’s case, partly fictional) version of the past that serves their own needs first. Of course, it is not only autocrats who seek to manipulate history in this way, but in these three states it has become increasingly difficult, even dangerous, to challenge the official narratives as those in power go to great lengths to co-opt and control the past.

How do enemies and victims serve the agenda of Chinese, Russian, and North Korean autocracies?

By revisiting the terrible suffering their nations have experienced at the hands of foreign enemies in the past, these regimes seek to remind their citizens what is at stake, and why they must be in power. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership made a deliberate shift to emphasize the country’s past victimization and “century of humiliation” during the post-Tiananmen patriotic education campaign of the 1990s. Deng Xiaoping declared that they had not done enough to educate the population about what China was like before the party came to power, and the unofficial slogan of the campaign that followed was “never forget national humiliation,” with only the CCP portrayed as capable of defending the country and securing its future. Xi Jinping has doubled down on that message in recent years, describing the party’s leadership as the “foundation and lifeblood” of the country, and the “crux upon which the interests and wellbeing of all Chinese people depend.”

Compare and contrast the construct of control in Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang.

These are very different countries, with different political systems, and different mechanisms of control. Russia has long had a much more open information environment than China, for instance, with independent media outlets previously tolerated and much greater freedom online. But the Kremlin has ramped up its control significantly in recent years, especially since the start of the war in Ukraine, and scholars have accused Putin of carrying out a “soft North Koreanization” of Russia as he ratchets up official censorship, propaganda, and repression.

The Russian leader has dramatically increased funding for patriotic education and patriotic youth initiatives over the last two decades and he has introduced new laws that make it a crime to question certain aspects of World War II history, such as comparing the actions of Stalin to Hitler. He also changed the constitution in 2020 to enshrine the heroism of the soldiers who fought in that war, and the country’s status as a “victorious” nation, making it even harder to challenge the official narrative.

In China, Xi has made clear since he first came to power that he regards control of the past as an existential matter for the CCP. He has identified the loss of ideological control as a key factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union and presided over a nationwide campaign against “historical nihilism” – efforts to subvert or challenge the party’s version of history – that has intensified in recent years. Like Putin, Xi has passed new laws that serve to protect the official account from scrutiny.

The ruling Kim regime in North Korea has gone much further, attempting (although not always successfully) to keep its citizens cut off from foreign sources of news, and requiring ritualistic public displays of devotion to the Kim family and its mythologized history. The current leader Kim Jong Un has stepped up efforts around ideological control, targeting people who smuggle foreign television shows and movies into the country, and ordering propaganda workers to erect a “mosquito net” against the “viruses of capitalist ideology,” as well as investing in rebuilding the country’s war museums.

Assess the impact of victory, heroes, and patriots on national identity and image for China, Russia, and North Korea.

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These stories have changed over time, depending on the needs of the regime of the day, but in all three of these countries the current leaders share an understanding of the potency of history as a political tool, and therefore the importance of keeping that history under strict control. They have weaponized the idea of patriotism, insisting that now as during these past wars they are valiantly defending the country as the ultimate patriots, and that only traitors would argue against their rule. It is an effective strategy – and one that appeals to leaders across political systems – but this approach to the past primarily serves those in power and helps to entrench the status quo, rather than protecting the interests of the wider population.