China’s return to Mao-style self-criticismPosted: September 28, 2013
Marxist Autocratic crackdown efforts seen as tactic to strengthen legitimacy of Communist Party.
BEIJING — Leaders worldwide may secretly envy a classic move from the Chinese president’s playbook. Tired of local officials who are corrupt, arrogant or just plain slackers? Then make them confess their errors on nationwide television.
Xi Jinping hit the road this week to Hebei, the province surrounding Beijing, whose 73 million residents have built an economy the size of Colombia’s. Instead of praise, Xi pushed Hebei’s leaders to criticize each other, and themselves, on camera.
“Criticisms and self-criticisms are forceful weapons to solve contradictions within the party,” Xi told them, in his far more important role as boss of China’s ruling Communist Party. “It’s a dose of good medicine,” he said, to boost unity, rectify decadent work styles and impose “democratic centralism.”
With language and methods drawn from the often bloody rule of Chairman Mao, Xi’s play reveals the party’s urgent need to strengthen its appeal and legitimacy in the eyes of a population deeply cynical about officials’ behavior and widespread corruption.
The unusually public self-criticism sessions this week form part of a year-long “mass-line” campaign, launched in June, to boost ties between the party’s 85 million members and the 1.3 billion Chinese people the party controls.
State broadcaster CCTV aired 24 minutes of footage Wednesday night showing Hebei’s top party members, overseen by Xi, criticizing both co-workers and themselves in sessions from Monday to Wednesday. Their shortcomings included too many official banquets, illegal use of a fancy SUV and an emphasis on showy projects, while neglecting the common people’s needs.
In Mao’s era of almost constant political struggle, self-criticism could spill confessions that led to execution. Despite the likely lack of any punishment for their mild transgressions, some participants this week strove to appear conscientious. The process was “like an X-ray and CT-Scan inside and out, I felt nervous and ashamed. I even felt the cold sweat on my back,” said one Hebei Party member, reported Xinhua, the state-run news agency.
State media rushed to praise and publicize Xi’s initiative.
“There is no doubt that the general public will welcome” more criticism and self-criticism by the party, proclaimed the party-run Global Times newspaper Friday. The critical, widely mocking tone online suggests otherwise.
“Outstanding acting skills, sophisticated lines, they could together win the Golden Rooster Award,” China’s Oscars equivalent, wrote popular micro-blogger Yao Bo.
“The self-criticisms follow the same pattern, they’re all ‘rushing for quick results’, it’s equal to covertly praising oneself, it’s totally formalism,” wrote political analyst Chen Ziming, a former political prisoner, on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service.
Despite such skepticism, some experts said the party is being sincere.
“It’s another step in a serious campaign to make the Communist Party work better and look more responsive – to both the public and to those in the party ranks concerned about shortcomings in the way the country is currently run,” said political analyst Russell Moses, dean of the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies.
Self-criticism has remained a key component of the party’s internal political discipline since the 1920s, said Ding Xueliang, a Chinese politics expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. From 1943 to 1976, the year Mao died, “self-criticism inside party organizations was a very horrible process,” he said.
Today, still nervous of retaliation, many Chinese remain careful in voicing criticism. “Once the top leader leaves, everything will return to the normal situation,” said Ding, who believes the party cannot expect concrete, sustainable effects when it denies public participation.
“They don’t want to use independent mechanisms and forces within Chinese society to deal with problems” such as corruption and abuse of power, he said.
As with every Chinese Communist Party campaign, numbers and slogans stand tall, from the “eight-point” rules to fight bureaucracy and formalism, to the fight against the “four undesirable work styles”:formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance.
“Party media editorials ask, ‘Why does the public believe the opposite of everything we say about the honesty and uprightness of officials?'” said Beijing-based analyst David Kelly, who runs the China Policy research group.
The ongoing campaign confronts low party morale, public cynicism and “a rising wave of activist citizens using social media,” he said.
While a “faint echo of what it has meant in earlier times,” self-criticism is now employed to re-establish the party’s moral standing and legitimacy, said Kelly, in a one-party system that lacks the legitimacy conferred by electoral politics.
“Beating up some of your own people may gain public support,” yet the party’s failure to discriminate good guys from bad led to the scandal of Bo Xilai, a recently jailed top leader and “the biggest legitimacy crisis for some time,” he said.
At the June campaign launch, Xi said all Politburo members should lead by example and undergo self-criticism, but there’s no public record if he volunteered any of his own faults.
“The ‘mass-line’ campaign … should not tail off once it gets started,” Xi urged Wednesday, so it’s likely to spread nationwide, though perhaps not as prominently as in Hebei.
Some Internet users even hope to expand its scope.
“It’s not bad, for the next step could they open a micro-blog to let ordinary people criticize a little?” said Zhao Wei, who works for an AIDS and gay rights non-profit. “Under the care of President Xi, could our Hebei’s air quality be improved? What a smell of coal in winter!” he wrote on Sina Weibo.
Contributing: Sunny Yang
- You: Mao-era style of self-criticism reappears on Chinese TV (latimes.com)
- Mao’s Little Red Book to get revamp (theguardian.com)
- CHINA – Xi Jinping re-launches Maoist” self-criticism” greeted with irony online (asianews.it)
- How long can China’s Communist party survive? (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- As in 1950s, China aims to erase malicious ideas of democracy and constitutionalism (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- In China, self-criticism is back in vogue (sacbee.com)
- China Takes Aim at Western Ideas (punditfromanotherplanet.com)