Self-Criticism in the Era of Xi Jinping: Chinese Leader Resurrects Maoist Tactics to Solidify Rule

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim that he has ‘enormous evidence’ that the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic originated from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan is likely to further strain relations between Washington and Beijing. That Pompeo hasn’t shared this evidence is problematic but it is not unreasonable to suggest that China has plenty of questions to answer.

China’s slow initial response towards containing the virus, coupled with a characteristic lack of transparency on its potential origin and subsequent spread, is troubling. The relatively low number of reported deaths in the country (under 5,000) may seem to be a testament to effective containment measures but it is surely not a coincidence that far more deaths have been reported in democratic states, where governments are unwilling to conceal the reality of the virus from their people.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was slow in visiting Wuhan after news of the coronavirus outbreak went viral

In December 2019, Wuhan-based doctor Li Wenliang tried to sound the alarm about the potential repercussions of the cornoavirus outbreak. He was silenced by his own government, castigated for distorting the facts, and yet he died of the virus in February. What’s more, prior to his death Li was forced to make a ‘self-criticism’ for the “negative impact” his whistleblowing caused, which “severely disturbed the social order”.

The term self-criticism is synonymous with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that has ruled the country since its victory in a civil war that concluded in 1949. It was a favourite tool of Mao Zedong from as early as the 1920s, borrowing the idea from the Russian communists after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

By forcing people to regularly engage in self-criticism, Mao consistently re-enforced the party line, which by extension was his line. That his opinions and policies wavered feverishly throughout his dictatorship made it all the more difficult for his loyal acolytes to predict how they should proceed when examining their own ‘mistakes’.

Mao said of the practice of self-criticism: “dust will accumulate if a room is not cleaned regularly, our faces will get dirty if they are not washed regularly”.

Invariably, any economic mishap – of which there were numerous during Mao’s rule – was blamed on whichever official happened to have displeased the Great Helmsman of late. There was often very little evidence on which to base an individual’s complicity in economic or other negligence, aside from the obvious fact that they had listened to Mao. Normally they would have to repent for ‘rightist’ or ‘capitalist’ tendencies, serve a period of penance and then hope that Mao would invite them back into the fold.

For some, such as Liu Shaoqi for instance, the harassment brought about by the frequent requirement for self-criticism, coupled with the unfettered fury of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, led to an early death. Indeed, by the time of the Cultural Revolution, the self-criticisms of leading officials were seen as an assurance of their guilt, with their misguided confessions published in party newspapers and smeared in large slogans across any public space available. With the tacit support of Mao, the young fanatics of the Red Guards took this as permission to subject the individual and their families to constant verbal and physical assault.

Mao skillfully fostered a cult of personality resting upon the foundations of a rampant youth movement

Even Deng Xiaoping, credited with opening up China to the world, was not immune to this unsavoury aspect of Maoism. Despite having proven ferociously loyal – to the point of blindness – to Mao from the 1930s, Deng was outed during the Cultural Revolution as the ‘Number Two Capitalist Roader’ (Number One being Liu Shaoqi). This was due to his perceived objections towards the repression of cultural expression happening at the time, including some barbed comments he had made regarding a play commissioned by Mao’s ferocious wife Jiang Qing.

Slavishly subjecting himself to self-criticism was not enough. Deng was removed from the Politburo Standing Committee, forced to leave his house within the Zhongnanhai complex in Beijing, and prohibited from seeing his children. With the CCP press screaming his guilt, Deng and his wife were physically and verbally attacked by Red Guards. Nor were his children spared; his son was even paralysed after he tried to commit suicide by jumping from a fourth-storey window, unable to take any more abuse.

Red Guard recruits cut off the hair of an official deemed to have strayed from Mao Zedong Thought

There are fears that Xi Jinping is trying to orchestrate a return to the bad old days of Mao’s rule, at least in terms of ensuring loyalty to the CCP and, most importantly, himself. Self-criticisms have been relaunched in a major way during his reign, his campaign against ‘corruption’ a thinly-veiled exercise to crush his internal opponents.

After the coronavirus began to spread through Wuhan and the world took note, Xi fired two senior officials in Hubei province (of which Wuhan is a part). As with the self-criticisms, this tactic helps to deflect any blame away from Xi and it appears that he has no qualms cultivating a strongman persona in the image Mao, despite the latter’s devastating affect on millions of ordinary Chinese people.

Whether Xi will meet with the same success as Mao in terms of maintaining the loyalty of both party officials and the general public remains to be seen. But his government’s harnessing of pervasive surveillance technology, in addition to their stranglehold on the media and the internet, means that he has a fighting chance, even in a country of more than 1 billion people.

As there was Mao Zedong Thought, there is now Xi Jinping Thought

There will be further fallout from the Covid-19 origin scandal and the US administration should be pressing Beijing for further cooperation, if not revelation. But if Xi can keep hold of the narrative and come through this pandemic unscathed, there is no reason to believe that he will not follow Mao’s example of ruling China until his natural death.

Additional Reading

A.V. Pantsov & S.I. Levine, Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life (2015)

One Belt, One Road: Barking Next Stop for China’s ‘New Silk Road’

‘One Belt, One Road’. This is the slogan of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s landmark development strategy to create a new, twin-pronged ‘Silk Road’ between China and Europe.

One Belt, One Road as initially conceived
One Belt, One Road as initially conceived

It resurrects the halcyon early days of Eurasian integration when overland routes were established between the Spice Islands of present-day Indonesia and the capitals of Europe, passing through multiple cities whose fortunes prospered as trade flourished.

Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kashgar, Kandahar, Tehran, Baghdad, Palmyra, Lanzhou. All these names once threw up images of medieval wealth, with their fabulous spires, learned universities and libraries, powerful overlords and multicultural marketplaces. Alas, most are now known for wholly different reasons.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Bukhara, Uzbekistan

The originator of the Silk Road of antiquity was the Han Dynasty, who traded the eponymous luxury (in addition to many other goods) across its vast empire and beyond from the 2nd century BC until its fall in the 3rd century AD. Whilst it survived in various incarnations, the route best known to history was at its strongest during the so-called ‘Pax Mongolica’ and here it is worth quoting at length from the eminent J.H. Parry:

In the great days of the Mongol Khans much Chinese merchandise destined for Europe had travelled overland on the backs of camels and donkeys by many different caravan routes, to termini in the ports of the Levant and the Black Sea; and European merchants, not infrequently, had themselves travelled with their goods by these routes. Flourishing Italian merchant colonies had grown up at the principal termini, at Constantinople and Pera, its commercial suburb; at Tana (Azof); at Caffa in the Crimea and at other Black Sea ports. In the fourteenth century Pegolotti’s safe route to Peking became exceedingly unsafe and European travel to the east came to an end. The overland routes in general declined in importance, not only because of political disturbance, but from the same physical causes which kept the predatory nomads on the move. Progressive desiccation in the lands of central Asia made pasture unreliable. The flow of merchandise overland diminished, and the ancient towns through which the caravans passed became impoverished. (Parry, 1963, p.56)

The Silk Road of the Middle Ages
The Silk Road of the Middle Ages

The final death knell in the coffin of the Silk Road was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, with European states and merchants no longer able to possess a foothold in the Middle East, let alone a launchpad for Asian trade.

Now, the Barking Rail Freight Terminal in London is waiting to become the 15th destination on the ‘New Silk Route, a Chinese freight train expected in the coming days. Overland trade is being re-popularised, a cheaper alternative to air freight, a safer and quicker alternative to the sea. It forms one strand of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, the other to create a ‘Maritime Silk Road’ between China, India, the Middle East and Africa.

For the countries of Central Asia, decimated by first the Russian Empire and then the ravages of Soviet rule, it is an opportunity to reinvent themselves and potentially recapture some of their past glory. Simultaneously it offers China a chance to increase both its economic and political influence in regions where the US footprint is light at best. What Russia thinks is another matter.

It is unlikely that China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ will captivate the popular imagination in the same way that the Silk Road of old does, yet it is nevertheless a proactive step by the Chinese government to integrate a giant landmass in a way not seen for centuries.

Xi's seminal project has not been without its challenges though its ambition is undoubted
Xi’s seminal project has not been without its challenges though its ambition is undoubted

What the geopolitical consequences of this bold venture will be cannot yet be known, but it certainly goes some way to undermining critics who view China as an insular power unwilling to responsibly use its ascending role on the global stage.


Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance (1963)