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)

When the Enemy is Imperceptible: North Korea and Covid-19

On Saturday North Korea fired two suspected short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. According to South Korean sources, it was the third such action this month.

Kim Jong-un watches military drills as his masked acolytes wait in the wings

Usually such provocative moves would elicit global condemnation, dominate more news headlines. Not in today’s frenzied world, where the Covid-19 coronavirus hogs nearly the entirety of every media homepage.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Kim Jong-un has used the current inattention towards his persisting missile programme to authorise these tests. Yet there may be an additional motive, for the tests may also serve as a distraction for his own people in the midst of the heightened panic over Covid-19.

Despite Donald Trump praising Kim’s handling of the virus outbreak, and Kim claiming that nobody in North Korea has yet been infected, there is serious cause for concern that the destitute people living under the Stalinist regime will suffer greatly at the hands of Covid-19.

Many North Koreans are trapped in agrarian primitiveness

Whilst much is made of North Korea’s isolation from the rest of the world, its border with China is particularly porous, with goods, legal and illicit, regularly passing back and forth. Given the Chinese origin of the coronavirus, it is surely only a matter of time before the virus breaches the flimsy wall of the Hermit Kingdom?

Despite the government maintaining a firm grip on traditional media, the North Koreans are no longer as oblivious to global events as they once were. Any spread of the virus cannot be passed off as an attack on North Korea by unfriendly powers, given that it is quite obviously spreading around the world at an astonishing pace.

Traditionally, misfortunes and crises in North Korea have been blamed on the nefarious intentions of the United States or other non-communist powers. The devastating famine of the mid-1990s is a case in point, when the government’s disastrous land reform policies resulted in millions of deaths. The people remained ignorant of the root cause, however, pervasive social media still being a couple of decades away.

Other hardline communist nations have acted similarly. Cuba was on the verge of collapse at the same time as the North Korean famine. This beautiful island, previously the elegant retreat and playground of wealthy Americans, descended into barbarism as ordinary people struggled to survive. Mass starvation was afoot and prostitution and drug dealing became rife, crime exploded in the fight over black market goods, individuals turned to criminality rather than work 100-hour weeks for an appalling government salary. One need only read the visceral depravity of Pedro Juan Gutierrez’ Dirty Havana Trilogy to get a sense of the horror unfolding because of the incompetence of the Castro regime. Of course, the Americans got the blame and given their track record in Cuba, most of the public were willing to buy the excuse.

The once elegant buildings along the Malecon in Havana crumbled as the people starved during the ‘Special Period’ of the mid-1990s when the dissolution of the USSR destroyed Cuba’s economy

Going back further in the 20th century and you find the devastation wrought by Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Soviet famine of the 1930s brought about by Stalin’s forced collectivisation. Here, internal enemies were blamed, whether they be ‘capitalist roaders’ in China or ‘Trotskyites’ in the USSR, all linked to a wider global conspiracy against the communist utopian vision.

The lack of a significant rebellion against these government-imposed tragedies was partly due to fear, but also because the government narrative was successful in portraying the enemy as the ‘other’, largely through a tight control on the media.

So-called ‘capitalist roaders’ were subjected to public trials, imprisonment and execution as Mao sort to bolster his position by creating a fervent personality cult. The internal enemy was explicitly linked with a wider global conspiracy against communism

This is no longer the case and, as is also evident in Iran, dictatorial regimes cannot keep their people in the dark about the coronavirus. Death tolls cannot be kept artificially low, ‘business as usual’ will not work in the long run.

The last ‘pure’ communist regime – albeit perhaps only in name – may be less robust than some have recently thought. Kim will be aware of the menace posed by a potentially widespread coronavirus outbreak. Will this be the surprise catalyst to ending the regime after years of predictions about an American attack, a Chinese conspiracy or an internal coup?

As Sue Mi Terry recently wrote in Foreign Affairs:

North Korea is uniquely unprepared for a medical emergency of this magnitude. With a crumbling health-care system that is starved of public investment, it is arguably more vulnerable to a viral outbreak of this kind than any other country in the world.

So Kim is resorting to the standard distraction. Look at our new missiles. Look at our national development. Look at how powerful we are. It may wash with some, but with a brave and resilient civil society operating across North Korea, aided by contacts in the neighbouring South, the narrative can become easily corrupted. Particularly if large numbers of people begin to die. The easy excuses of the 20th century are unlikely to work in the uber-connected 21st.