China’s Quest for New Heroes

Recent Features

Features | Society | East Asia

China’s Quest for New Heroes

Beijing is mobilizing a new generation of heroes and potential future martyrs to secure victory in its battle for global power and prestige.

China’s Quest for New Heroes

Military officers line up to place flowers on the People’s Heroes Monument during a ceremony to mark Martyr’s Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Sept. 30, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

This weekend marks the start of the Dragon Boat Festival in China. During this holiday Chinese people around the world traditionally compete in or watch long wooden boat races, eat sticky-rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves, and enjoy popular entertainment. It is also a day for commemorating local heroes. 

The most illustrious among these is Qu Yuan, a poet and minister of the ancient state of Chu who was banished for advocating resistance against the rival state of Qin and drowned himself upon hearing about the latter state’s capture of the capital of Chu in 278 BC. Chinese state media today portray Qu as a “loyal statesman and a patriotic poet” whose spirit continues to inspire the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people. 

But the Chinese leadership has recently concluded that the memory of ancient heroes alone will not do, that a new generation of heroes and martyrs is urgently needed if the CCP is to accomplish its founding mission of securing victory in China’s sacred struggle for national rejuvenation and turning the country into a socialist superpower by the year 2049, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will celebrate its centenary. 

Preparing for Dangerous Storms Ahead

Rising geopolitical tensions are causing states and national elites to innovate their use of the past for present-day political ends. This is certainly true for the PRC, which prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary in October this year amid mounting China-U.S. superpower rivalry, ideological tensions with the West, and domestic challenges. “No force can ever stop the Chinese people and nation from marching forward,” Chinese President Xi Jinping warned during the previous anniversary in 2019, but his pronouncement has come under growing pressure since then. 

Confronted with “high winds, choppy waters, and dangerous storms,” as the Chinese leader recently put it, the CCP has been stressing the message that the Chinese people must not only stand together as one during this critical final phase but also be ready at all times to call on a spirit of national loyalty and sacrifice. Xi has been quoted saying on several occasions that “a promising nation cannot go forward without heroes” and “only by respecting heroes will other heroes emerge.” 

Recasting Heroes for the New Era

It is this moment-of-truth sense of emergency that explains why the Chinese government established a Martyrs’ Day in 2014 and promulgated a Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law in 2018. This year, the government embarked on an extensive campaign to refashion the traditional Tomb Sweeping Holiday into an occasion for honoring not just one’s own ancestors and departed relatives but also the loyal souls and heroic spirit of national martyrs. With this move – which at first glance seems reminiscent of the Mao-era martyrdom cult – Beijing is propagating the idea that there’s no real difference between one’s own forebears and those of the nation.

Far from a novelty, martyrdom is a recurring theme in China’s long and tumultuous history, from the Warring States period when Qu Yuan opposed his king to the PRC’s founding 75 years ago. But Mao’s 1949 victory was premised on the revolutionary zeal and combat-savviness of a seasoned group of rural guerrillas bent on overthrowing a repressive regime. By contrast, in Xi’s China it is the incumbent government that seeks to secure its own survival by fostering patriotic heroes and potential martyrs among an increasingly well-off, urbanized, and status quo-oriented citizenry. 

To confront this arduous task the Chinese party-state has now embarked on a three-pronged strategy of reconstructing martyrdom. 

The Modern Heroes of “Peacetime China”

The first innovation is a shift of emphasis in official discourse away from past conflict and the narrow in-group of the nation’s older revolutionary martyrs to a wider group of present-day Chinese patriots from “all walks of life” engaged in “peace-time” development and human security. This subtle turn away from remembrance of World War II and the subsequent Chinese civil war has allowed Beijing not only to dissociate its official narratives from Russia’s aggression in Europe but also to redirect these to the more pressing needs, concerns, and sentiments of the Chinese people, who are still recovering from two years of economic and social disruption under the zero-COVID strategy.

On September 30, 2022, during a ceremony to mark China’s ninth Martyrs’ Day, Xi Jinping led senior CCP leaders to pay tribute to the nation’s martyrs. In the commentary during the live television broadcast, Xi was quoted as saying that a nation needs heroism also in times of peace and that the modern-day heroes and martyrs are “the coordinates that guide the nation” in the right direction. Examples of these new martyrs are young volunteers, first responders, and troops who have given their lives in recent years during the fight against poverty, disaster rescue work, or U.N. peacekeeping operations

Virtual Memorials and Online Commemoration

A second major innovation is a technological shift toward the construction of virtual memoryscapes by the state and the proliferation of online commemoration practices and services, which first emerged almost a decade ago but became more widespread only during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Moving remembrance online not only increases the accessibility of commemoration but also simplifies the management of memorials, avoids the risk of politicization associated with public commemorations, and thus facilitates party-state control.

A telling example is Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, the “Wuhan whistleblower” who warned his colleagues of the outbreak of a new coronavirus in December 2019 only to be reprimanded by the authorities for “disrupting public order.” Li himself died from COVID-19. Li is one of nearly 2 million officially recognized Chinese martyrs who today has his own virtual memorial, where internet users can offer flowers, place wreaths, and make bows – all under the surveillance of the powerful Chinese cyber state.

Global China and Foreign Friends

A third innovation is the outward turn in China’s ongoing martyrdom reconstruction, resulting in a global search for Chinese martyrs and their mobilization for Beijing’s diplomacy and domestic propaganda. Recent years have seen Chinese embassies and consulates around the world step up official remembrances of Chinese killed during historical conflicts overseas, including those martyred in Japan and across Southeast Asia during World War II, in Korea and Vietnam during the subsequent wars in these countries, and in Serbia during the 1999 U.S.-led NATO bombings. Reflecting the new emphasis on peacetime China, however, these new overseas martyrs also include Chinese engineers and workers who gave their lives in the course of infrastructure construction or aid provision in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and Europe.

At the same time, Beijing has been reviving the memory of foreign heroes and friends in China, particularly those hailing from the “foreign force” it perceives as its main threat and competitor: the United States. Last year, Xi personally wrote letters to descendants of U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Stilwell, who served in China during World War II as the regional commander of the U.S. forces and of members of the American Volunteer Group, widely known as the “Flying Tigers,” who helped the Chinese air force to oppose the Japanese invasion. The main message in these letters is that the United States and China today should learn from this history and spirit of friendship not only to benefit their own peoples but also to contribute to world peace and prosperity.

The Importance of Understanding China’s Historical Statecraft

Beijing’s latest campaign to recast and refit the national pantheon of heroes is not without risk. There is only a thin line between heroes and villains in China’s evolving historical discourses, but there is a world of difference between serving as a role model of the oppressed or the oppressor, as Qu Yuan’s case reminds us. Earlier attempts in China’s modern history to substitute law-abiding citizens for revolutionary rebels in the nation’s pantheon of martyrs were not often successful. It remains uncertain whether the CCP’s current efforts will secure a different outcome this time around.

Despite their wide-reaching implications, the recent innovations in China’s historical statecraft have so far largely been overlooked. As the Chinese party-state has arrived at what it sees as a critical juncture of its nation-building project, it is important to understand who China’s 21st century heroes are, how they are created and their legacies mediated, and what this tells us about the emergence of a “global” China. 

For academics, analysts, and policy planners working on China it is worth keeping in mind that official memory serves as an invaluable “shortcut” to understanding a regime’s intent, ideology, and information strategies.