Xi’s Self-Criticism Plea Raises Spectre of Mao

Xi Jinping, China’s President, has been on a mission to improve the integrity and performance of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials across the country by encouraging ‘criticism’ and ‘self-criticism’ sessions amongst high-ranking Party cadres.

Xi wants the self-criticisms to help eradicate formality, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance from the CCP
Xi wants the self-criticisms to help eradicate formality, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance from the CCP

Plagued by top-level corruption scandals, and with a youth population increasingly intolerant of its politicians’ corruption and excess, the CCP is, in Xi’s eyes, in need of rebuke and reform.

Commentators who heralded Xi’s succession to the Chinese presidency may well find themselves disappointed at this development so early in his rule, for the notion of ‘self-criticism’ is inextricably linked with the reign of Mao Tse-Tung and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao had encouraged criticisms as early as 1942, before the CCP had come to power. He initially used them as a means to keep his colleagues humble and cowed, to prevent them become imbued with an arrogance that came with increasing power, a power that could rival his own. Simultaneously, Mao viewed the criticisms of the CCP as a way to draw out Party ‘enemies’ who unwittingly fell into his trap, particularly if they criticised one of the Chairman’s own policies. Punishments invariably involved torture, imprisonment, detention in work camps and execution.

After the CCP won power in 1949, Mao introduced the concept of “self-criticisms” whereby Party officials were ordered to expel their own failings in front of groups of their peers, the latter adding their own criticisms to the proceedings. This not only gave the impression that all except Mao were flawed, thus preserving his superiority, but it gave the peasantry and the lower classes an outlet for their frustration and anger during the years of the Great Leap Forward, when starvation and poverty proliferated. Mao avoided criticism himself by organising collective criticisms of those officials he wanted to be deemed culpable for his own mistakes.

By illuminating the perceived weaknesses of his Party cadres through self-criticisms, Mao retained his superiority
By illuminating the perceived weaknesses of his Party cadres through self-criticisms, Mao retained his superiority

During the Cultural Revolution, self-criticism sessions were a daily event and designated ‘bourgeois’ and ‘capitalist-roader’ officials (basically anyone providing a real or imagined challenge to Mao and his deluded policies) were subjected to a barrage of vitriolic abuse which was often combined with horrific physical torture at the hands of the militant Red Guards who Mao had indoctrinated. Even senior leaders such as Zhou Enlai would be forced into self-criticisms.

Forced self-criticisms broke the will of many loyal Party members
Forced self-criticisms broke the will of many loyal Party members

Why Xi has chosen this particular phraseology – undoubtedly aware as he must be of its connotations – is debatable. One potential reason is that the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is upon us (1st October) and he is keen to show that the CCP has retained its revolutionary commitment.

A second possible reason is the fallout of the Bo Xilai scandal. Bo was a hardline leftist with a Maoist philosophy and is thought to have gained many supporters within the Chinese political establishment. This ‘shift to the left’ by Xi may be an attempt to appease those potential troublemakers angered by Bo’s imprisonment.

It may just be that Xi thinks it necessary to return to the culture of fear created during Mao’s reign to finally put an end to the ongoing corruption crisis within the CCP.

Whatever the reasoning, Xi’s self-criticism sessions have been mocked and denigrated by Chinese internet users canny enough to bypass the state-imposed firewall. Whether this will deter the President from pursuing this reinvented policy remains to be seen. Yet for those believing his ascent to power may have ushered in a period of liberal reform in China, they may have to make a reassessment.

 

 

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Behind Closed Doors: Bo Xilai sentencing a far cry from China’s past

One of the biggest political scandals in recent memory has just concluded in China with the sentencing to life imprisonment of Bo Xilai, a former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) favourite, on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

Former Chongqing boss Bo was once tipped for the highest office
Former Chongqing boss Bo was once tipped for the highest office

Bo’s trial and subsequent sentencing emphasise the modern CCP’s desire to minimise publicity of so-called ‘state enemies’, a monumental change from the days of public denunciations and show trials under Mao Tse-Tung.

Mao revelled in the public condemnation of his perceived enemies, maximising any opportunity to humiliate any official unfortunate enough to incur his wrath. With the willing help of his Red Guards, Mao used public trials and sentencing to instill fear in potential ‘traitors’, discouraging even his most courageous opponents from concocting schemes to replace him.

Two of the most important figures in communist China were subjected to Mao’s brutal treatment. Peng Dehuai, a former Defence Minister and decorated party veteran, was made to suffer years of torture in private and horrific vilification in public. With placards of hate-filled accusation hung around his neck, he was paraded by fanatical youths outside the Forbidden City, with government-sanctioned newspapers eagerly reporting each denouncement of his traitorous ways.

Mao had no moral qualms about publicly purging Peng, a hero of the revolution
Mao had no moral qualms about publicly purging Peng, a hero of the revolution

Likewise Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s number two for over a decade, was arrested and publicly paraded, denounced and beaten by Red Guard goons for being a ‘capitalist-roader’, a vague term concocted by Mao as a convenient way to undermine his enemies’ legitimacy. Liu’s wife suffered similar punishment and Mao was careful in his instructions that the two should be kept alive as long as possible for maximum punishment.

Peng and Liu were guilty of little more than challenging Mao’s insane economic and social policies, which had led China to the brink of collapse, with millions of its citizens starving to death.

Liu was viciously denounced in propaganda posters at the time (Source: Chineseposters.net)
Liu was viciously denounced in propaganda posters at the time (Source: Chineseposters.net)

Bo Xilai, whose own aspirations for party leadership were probably greater than those conceived by Peng and Liu, will be glad his downfall did not come during the dark days of Mao’s rule. Rather, for a case as high-profile as his, the circumstances of his purging remain largely unknown.

Media outlets were only allowed to print Xinhua-sanctioned reports on Bo’s trial and sentencing, just as they were when his wife, Gu Kailai, went on trial for the murder of Briton Neil Heywood last year.

Despite a feigned ideological commitment to communism and a purported reverence for past party leader’s, today’s CCP hierarchy does not want to associate itself with the actions of its predecessors, particularly those of the Maoist era.

By keeping a lid on the details of Bo’s case, and releasing carefully-manipulated reports to the press, the Chinese government hopes to diffuse the tension surrounding the scandal, divert attention away from the corruption-plagued political system and yet at the same time send a message that opposition to the Politburo will not be tolerated.

Although not nearly as crude and barbaric as Mao’s tactics, the CCPs skillful end handling of the Bo Xilai affair will dissuade would-be-usurpers from engaging in the sort of political intrigue that can overthrow a system.