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The Maoist Legacy: Party Dictatorship, Transitional Justice, and the Politics of Truth

Final Report Summary - MAOLEGACY (The Maoist Legacy: Party Dictatorship, Transitional Justice, and the Politics of Truth)

The ERC project "The Maoist Legacy: Party Dictatorship, Transitional Justice, and the Politics of Truth" (2014-2019) was devoted to one key question: How did the Chinese Communist Party deal with the legacy of millions of injustices and atrocities committed under Maoist rule? With this project, we attempted to analyze the party's policies, instruments, and procedures in order to understand how an authoritarian party-state can rely on legal or administrative approaches to cope with past injustices. By placing our research in the context of "transitional justice", we decided to speak to an audience beyond the China field and to avoid perceiving every Chinese policy initiative as unique. The project relied on a wide variety of sources, ranging from visits to over 20 state archives, dozens of oral history interviews, and a vast amount of published and unpublished sources. Due to the multiple dimensions of the CCP's politics of history and the vast space of the Chinese territory, we conducted four case studies to gain an understanding about policy implementation strategies and local differences. The capital Beijing was chosen as one case study to understand central decision-making processes. Yet developments at the center were also influenced or prompted by local developments. In some cases provincial governments acted faster than the center (case study Jiangsu), while in other regions the local leadership had to be coerced into accepting certain policies (case study Guangxi). Finally, different social groups were treated differently, depending on their relevance for party policies, as was shown through the case study on the treatment of former capitalists in Shanghai. Additionally, we documented this process termed the "reversal of unjust, false, and mistaken cases" according to Chinese discourse conventions, by creating a digital archive of our research ( which by now includes close to 4000 items and has already made a huge impact in the field of modern China studies.

The outcomes of the project may be summarized as follows: Based on a review of all provincial-level information available, we estimate that between 1976 and 1987 over 8 million cases ranging back to the 1920s were reviewed by judicial and non-judicial bodies in an attempt to wipe the historical slate clean once and for all. Additionally, dozens of millions of petitions were addressed. The CCP thus invested a massive amount of time, manpower, and money to re-legitimize itself in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, not least by providing social welfare for victims, punishing perpetrators through legal and administrative means, and by providing new grand narratives about how to perceive the past and present. For the post-Mao leadership it was a considerable success that it managed to address injustices on such a huge scale. The implementation, however, varied enormously depending both on regional and social factors. Thus the formerly stigmatized "black classes" got least compensation, while victimized party officials or capitalists were much better off. Through comparative research, we were able to point out that unlike for example in the case of the Soviet Union, the Chinese approach to historical justice was a highly public affair, involving nearly all of the Chinese population in one way or another. Different notions of "justice" were employed in the process, some of which went beyond mere instrumentalism. The limits of these politics of historical justice were clearly posed by questions regarding the fundamental legitimacy of party rule. Yet the rhetoric of socialist legality, democracy, and rights led to competing visions of the future that were ultimately suppressed.

The importance of the project outcomes pertains to at least three dimensions: We have offered unparalleled empirical information on how the CCP dealt with past injustices in different regions; we have documented our research and the underlying policies in a highly innovative digital archive, which has set a new technical standard in the field and allows for global scholarly interaction; and we have challenged current theories of transitional justice by including the discussion of cases, in which strategies associated with transitional justice were used to strengthen authoritarian rule rather than to foster democratization.