The practice of public self-criticism - de rigueur in the 1960s and 1970s during the Mao Zedong era - has made a comeback under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supremo Xi Jinping.
Last week, Chinese viewers watched as the state broadcaster CCTV showed top officials of northern Hebei province giving themselves and each other a verbal lashing. Provincial party boss Zhou Benshun chided himself for his poor work ethic. Governor Zhang Qingwei admitted he “liked to criticise others”. A couple of senior officials said it was their fault for overspending the people’s money on Chinese New Year celebrations and official cars.
Watching the proceedings, which took place over three days, was Xi, China’s president and commander-in- chief.
State media roundly cheered the unusual “self-criticism” as a sign of the CCP’s openness in admitting to its cadres’ shortcomings.
Analysts believe that more such self-criticism sessions could follow as part of the “party rectification” campaign Xi launched in June, reflecting his clear admiration for Maoist ideals. However, the same tool, used today, may bring very different results. Worse, it might even backfire on Xi and the CCP.
Much like Mao decades ago, Xi is making cadres engage in self-criticism as a means to enforce discipline and to bolster his own power. At the same time, Xi is also seeking to boost public support by projecting the image of a party that is not only willing to confront its own failings but also acknowledge them before the people.
However, all this may not satisfy today’s better educated and better informed citizenry, savvy in the use of Twitter-like Weibo microblogs to monitor erring officials.
Xi’s challenge is to convince people that the party is open and its officials not afraid to admit to shortcomings while ensuring that the actions of officials when engaging in self-criticism do not invite untoward repercussions.
The first “self-criticism” show left many people unimpressed. Some bloggers dismissed the admissions as “lies, cliches, empty words”. One noted how none of the officials confessed to “putting their children on the payroll, trading power for money or keeping mistresses”.
Netizens have also taken to mocking the Hebei leaders with parodies, saucy jokes and cartoons. A clip showing two “taekwondo” toddlers avoiding instead of fighting each other went viral in cyberspace.
When Xi launched the year-long rectification campaign, he told all party members, among other things, to study and strictly follow its charter.
Singapore-based analyst Bo Zhiyue noted how the Hebei officials were careful not to say that their actions failed to measure up to the charter, or code of conduct. “If they had done so, it would be an admission to violating party rules, which entails disciplinary action,” said Bo, of the East Asian Institute.
Another potential pitfall lies in the nature of self-criticism sessions. The recent one stoked painful memories of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. That chaotic decade saw hundreds of thousands of party members denounced and persecuted, some by family members, at “self-criticism” sessions that morphed into violent “struggle” sessions. Many died, victims of beatings or driven to suicide.
Some observers also note that such self-criticism takes up a lot of time and resources that could be better used to tackle China’s more pressing problems. Thus, Xi could run the risk of angering the very people he is trying to win over. Said Bo: “There was nothing much to show after the meetings. The time wasted could have been better spent.”
Hong Kong-based analyst Willy Lam says the self-criticism sessions do not go far enough for a public that wants a crackdown on corruption and desires genuine political reform.
Despite the pitfalls, Xi will likely continue with public self-criticism sessions, if only to consolidate his power in Hebei.
Zhou, Hebei’s top leader, is seen as a protege of retired security czar Zhou Yongkang. The latter belongs to an anti-Xi faction and is reportedly the target of a corruption probe. The two Zhous are not related.
Clearly, the self-criticism tool is a double-edged sword that could hurt Xi, especially if he allows wrongdoers to go unpunished or if the sessions do not produce tangible results, such as sound policy proposals.
Xi may want to think harder about using Mao’s pet tool, or risk having to practise what he preaches.