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Communist emperors do not practice self-criticism

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

Every time Xi Jinping is elected as leader, the submission ritual of the Communist Party follows. In 2013, 2017, and most recently at the end of December last year, Xi summoned the Politburo for a special “criticism and self-criticism” session.

With it, Xi also gave the starting signal for the nearly 100 million party members in the country to follow their leaders by holding their own criticism and self-criticism sessions in their local party cells. The idea is that they should criticize each other while simultaneously practicing self-criticism and admitting their own shortcomings. Xi demands that they face their own mistakes so harshly that “the sweat beads off their foreheads”.

Xi demands to take criticism and self-criticism seriously: Ring-around-the-rosy back-scratching. “Criticism” doesn’t hurt if everyone just scratches each other’s backs.

This concept originated in the Soviet Union; Mao copied it from Stalin for ideological cleansing and education of his party. He used it as a scare tactic for brainwashing and self-mortification of millions of Chinese and extended it to everyone during the Cultural Revolution. Xi reintroduced the Politburo special sessions after he came to power.

After 2017, the rules were tightened. All CP cells above the county level must hold such sessions at least once a year. Xi had Chapter 4 of the regulation include what he already demanded of all Party members back in 2013. As an act of self-criticism, everyone must “look in the mirror, fix their clothes, wash, and cure their illnesses.” (照镜子、正衣冠、洗洗澡、治治病).

Propaganda board in praise of the party motto “Criticism and Self-Criticism”. It is as important to Chinese socialism as the national flag, Tiananmen Gate and the Great Wall.

But those who expected Xi to lead by example ended up disappointed. At the Politburo criticism session last December, his comrades showered him with praise. Xi, they said, was not only the core of the party, but as the creator of the new socialist doctrine, he was also their ideological role model. They repeated this three times. Who would now dare to criticize Xi or demand self-criticism from him? Only everyone else makes mistakes.

In February, China’s public learned that Xi unexpectedly became the staunchest advocate of the market economy. The CC theory magazine “Qiushi” revealed that he straightened out the Central Committee in December. “For quite some time, incorrect, even deliberately false views have been circulating in society about whether we are running a socialist market economy and whether we still adhere to the two unshakables.” that is, unshakably promoting both the state and private economies equally (一段时间以来,社会上对我们是否还搞社会主义市场经济、是否坚持 “两个毫不动摇” 有一些不正确甚至错误的议论). Xi added that everyone must take a “clearly and unambiguously” position on this and not act like fools (决不含糊).

Even for Beijing’s propaganda, this is some strong stuff. After all, Xi had openly lashed out against the private sector, tech platforms, monopolies, and real estate speculators with an ideological control spree. Now, however, he called for a U-turn in order to boost the weak economic growth. The People’s Daily promptly praised him: “General Secretary Xi Jinping has always cared about and supported the healthy development of the private sector” (习近平总书记一直关心和支持民营经济健康发展).

The surprising embrace of the private sector came on the heels of Xi’s departure from zero-Covid. Instead of explaining his sudden change of heart, he unceremoniously proclaimed himself the victor over the pandemic – not despite, but thanks to his back-and-forth policy.

Caricature sketches by the grand master of satire, Hua Junwu, on how officials avoid self-criticism (from the early 1990s): for example, by shining a flashlight on others but not on themselves; being sick because the medicine is too bitter; not listening to unpleasant truths; getting dirt in the face from a dirty towel; and not learning anything because the books were too heavy.

Like Mao, Xi never admits to a mistake. China’s old emperors were more conciliatory. They coined three characters: “罪己诏” (Zui Ji Zhao). The state encyclopedia Sea of Words (Cihai) explains the ancient Chinese expression as a term for an imperial admission of guilt. “China’s rulers issued so-called edicts of their guilt, in which they assumed responsibility for severe natural disasters or great calamities. By doing so, they hoped to calm dreaded uprisings.”

However, Mao, who was well-versed in dynasty history, did not believe in imperial self-criticism. When revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh privately told him in the 1950s that he wanted to ask his people to forgive him for radical leftist mistakes, Mao strongly discouraged him. At internal party meetings, he warned other CP leaders not to make such mistakes. The dictator told his nephew Mao Yuanxin: “All dynasties whose emperors made confessions of guilt before the people perished afterward.”

Mao was wrong, says historian Xiao Han (萧瀚). He found examples in the chronicles of 79 emperors who published 260 edicts of guilt over 2,000 years of dynastic history without causing their empires to collapse.

But the chairman avoided serious self-criticism even at the legendary mammoth conference in early 1962, at which China’s leadership had to justify itself before 7,000 officials for the catastrophic famine caused by Mao’s collectivization madness and attempt to change course. According to the official party biography (毛泽东传, 1949-1976, p.199), Mao said at the conference, “Those who make mistakes must correct them. If they are mine, I will change them” … “You are the chairman, is this not something you must do?” (谁的错误谁就改。是我的错误我要改 … 你当主席嘛,谁叫你当主席?)

Mao knew what he had done. After learning about acts of cannibalism committed in his and Mao’s home province of Hunan, then-President Liu Shaoqi told him to his face, “So many people have starved to death. In future history books, your and my guilt of this and the cannibalism will be recorded” (饿死这么多人,历史上要写上你的我的,人相食,要上书的!). A few years later, Mao persecuted Liu until the latter’s death. The incident is described by former Vice Minister of Culture and historian Yu Youjun 于幼军 in his book “Socialism in China 1919 to 1965”, officially published in 2011 (社会主义在中国 1919-1965, p.412).

In the famous Red Book “Quotations from Chairman Mao”, chapter 27 is dedicated to Mao’s quotes on criticism and self-criticism. A Red Book, “Quotations from Vice-Chairman Lin,” was also printed for his crown prince, Lin Biao, during the Cultural Revolution. In it, a chapter is devoted to Lin’s quotes on criticism and self-criticism.

Mao used “criticism and self-criticism” as an instrument of power. The two slogans shaped the Maoism myth even beyond China. In the Red Book “Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong,” which was printed more than a billion times during the Cultural Revolution between 1964 and 1976 and translated into 20 languages, Chapter 27 is devoted to Mao’s quotations on “criticism and self-criticism.” Mao calls for criticizing opposing opinions without compromise. “Can we approve of any political filth staining our pure face, of any political microbes eating our healthy body?” And, self-criticism is necessary “to always be clean and remove the dirt, wash our face every day and sweep the floor.”

Xi adopted this cleaning analogy half a century later when he re-planned his inner-party education campaign in 2013, calling for “self-purification, self-perfection, self-renewal, and self-improvement.” Today, Xi is planning “criticism and self-criticism” campaigns to unleash a “self-revolution” in the party so it is able to withstand any attempt at regime change.

The party motto “criticism and self-criticism” still contains the Soviet legacy. When Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic in Beijing on October 1, 1949, bookstores filled their shelves with propaganda pamphlets. These included educational books, such as a pamphlet printed in September 1949, “On Criticism and Self-Criticism.” They were Stalin’s translated speeches and essays from Pravda on the subject.

China adopted the inner-party education method of “criticism and self-criticism” from the Soviet Union. One of the early textbooks on criticism and self-criticism with translated texts by Stalin and from Pravda (published in September 1949).

Soviet communists, influenced by Russian Orthodox Church teachings, had already developed the method of criticism and self-criticism in the 1920s with their purification rites and repentance ceremonies. Nanjing historian Pan Xianghui (潘祥辉) discovered how much the traditions of the thousand-year-old church influenced Soviet political culture.

Among China’s Communists, the terms began to appear in Mao’s writings in 1937. For the purpose of re-education, subjugation and self-purification, he decreed criticism and self-criticism on his comrades. In 1942, Mao used them in his first systematic party purge and persecution campaign in the guerrilla base of Yan’an (批评与自我批评成为整风运动的基本原则和方法),

Behind the campaigns that Xi is pursuing once again now is still the conviction that he can totally subjugate his party members and the myth that he can transform them into perfect, loyal, socialist people with their own set of values. But in China, just like anywhere else, only the old Adam emerges instead of the hoped-for new human.


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