Beijing takes page from Mao’s playbook
China’s Communist party has unleashed a rectification campaign of a scale and tone not seen in more than a decade as the leadership seeks to address frustration over corrupt officials while avoiding bold political reforms.
As investors wait for party chief Xi Jinping to initiate long-delayed economic reforms and liberals in China push for political change, Mr Xi is taking a page out of the playbook of Mao Zedong, the charismatic but dictatorial politician who led China through a sequence of mass campaigns.
Mr Xi, in a speech on Tuesday, exhorted the party that it must embrace the “mass line” to avoid its extinction. Every cadre, demanded Mr Xi, must “look in the mirror, tidy your attire, take a bath and seek remedies” to clean the party from formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance.
All cadres from county level upwards have to attend study and criticism sessions during the year-long campaign. State media are blanketing the public with interpretations of the “mass line” – the concept that the party must remain close to the people to understand and address their needs.
“This is a very big thing for the party’s style. There has been nothing like it for at least the past decade,” says Wang Wen, the former commentary head of the party tabloid Global Times who now leads a think-tank at Renmin university.
A website for the campaign showed Yuan Chunqing, party secretary of Shanxi province, helping farmers to pull weeds in their fields on Wednesday, and propagated sending officials “down” to the countryside to stay with and learn from the peasants. Bo Xilai, the former party secretary of Chongqing who was purged last year and still awaits trial on corruption charges, had raised eyebrows by reviving this particular form of closeness to the masses widely practised under Mao, alongside other Maoist policies. The use of similar tactics by Mr Xi is raising slight concern among some foreign observers.
“Mobilisation of a broader Chinese public seems something that leaders want, and also fear. The 16 great mass campaigns under Mao from 1949 to his death, culminating in the vast cultural revolution, were supported but at immense social costs, and so this leaves a very hard memory stain,” says Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney. “You dabble with them at your peril. I guess that was the issue with Bo Xilai’s ersatz campaigns in Chongqing that seemed to play light with this heavy history.”
Those risks weigh less heavily for Mr Xi as the party’s leader. And faced with rising public and intraparty lobbying, he does not have much choice.
“There have been a lot of demands for reform, calls for the publication of officials’ assets, for one-person-one-vote elections. Those are very difficult, even impossible in the near future,” says Mr Wang. “So the leadership is going for something that is possible: they tackle the party’s style. This does matter because there are a lot of complaints about corruption and bureaucracy, and it is something everyone can agree upon.”
Mao’s propaganda tool kit is a predictable option for Mr Xi in the face of a party more fractured than his recent predecessors.
“In general, mass line movements come with internal struggles in the party,” says Zhang Lifan, an expert in modern Chinese history. “Perhaps there is an internal struggle here, given that there have been different voices from senior leaders.”
State media have seen a succession of high-profile commentaries advocating contrasting lines in recent months. Editorials demonising constitutionalism and civil society fighting for space with other pieces defending such western political concepts.
Insiders say Mr Xi’s move does not come as a surprise as the party has been gearing up for the campaign for months. “This was decided in the second half of last year,” says Lin Zhe, an anti-corruption expert at the Central Party School. “Since Xi Jinping took power, things have become stricter and stricter.”
Mr Xi has been balancing his messages between the proponents of economic liberalisation and left-leaning groups, such as Mr Bo’s supporters. Although his first speech as party chief in November last year impressed with straightforward language and a pragmatic tone, Mr Xi also warned that cadres’ “divorce from the masses” was one of the party’s greatest problems, both phrases leftists understood as a nod to their ideals.
Despite the similarities in language, however, observers believe the globalised economy, pluralist society, open media and decades of market reforms introduced in China mean the campaign cannot possibly disrupt economic and political life as under Mao.