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