In the days since, that phrase has proliferated through state media, with the official Xinhua news agency announcing on Thursday that the Communist Party had published, not one, but two new books on interpretations of “mass line” by everyone from Friederich Engels to Jiang Zemin.
The concept of a mass line harkens directly back to the Maoist era. It denotes the need for officials to get close to the masses, and to know their needs and demands intimately. References to “taking the mass line” have reappeared only sporadically in the years since reform took hold, as revolutionary visions were largely supplanted by slogans emphasizing China’s need for scientific development.
Xi himself took this new campaign high-profile in a videoconference meeting Tuesday (in Chinese), outlining the need for a crusade to educate Party members about the evils of the “Four Winds,” namely “formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and waste.” He argued that cadres “should focus on self-purification, self-improvement, self-innovation, self-awareness” – or, as he put it in a folksy way, ”watching from the mirror, grooming oneself, taking a bath and seeking remedies.”
How to interpret this resurrection of old political language by China’s new leader?
While some worry that Xi truly intends to ape Mao, the dominant read holds that he is preparing the political ground for a set of far-reaching and potentially disruptive economic reforms later this year.
Both arguments miss the mark, for a couple reasons.
First, these Party editorials are intended for cadres, not citizens. The idea is for officials to sit up, take notice of their shortcomings and start working differently. Citizens aren’t being coerced or prepared for disappointment; it’s cadres who are being told to change.
And while Xi’s brand of leadership might pick and pull from Maoist discourse selectively, there’s no Maoist strategy in evidence. Xi hasn’t identified political enemies or called for class struggle. Nor has he sought to bring former Chongqing Party chief and Leftist champion Bo Xilai back from jail and political exile.
Instead, Xi wants to genuinely shake up political system – not by going around the Communist Party, as Mao often did, but by attempting to save it.
With the country’s wealth gap widening while some officials line their pockets, Xi and his colleagues rightly realize that the Party could be dangerously close to losing the hearts of the people. As Tuesday’s sharply-worded editorial noted “Too many officials grew up in the new era of the market economy…and have less of a natural or spontaneous link with the masses,” the commentary noted.
Cadres have relied far too much on the presumption that people have been pacified with the economic success of reform, the essay argues, adding that the ability of the Communist Party to take “the mass line,” is “a test of faith in our rule, a test of our ability to govern.”
The state of the economy is not the main problem; it’s the state of the Party. Leaving cadres doing the same old thing will mean disaster, in Xi’s view.
That’s not Xi the Maoist, or Xi just going through some political motions. It’s Xi the Party modernizer, using some fierce language to get cadres to think less about growth and more about the grassroots.
Of course, there are some downsides to Xi moving with such pace and purpose to rework the Party.
Some in the Party ranks seem increasingly uneasy about criticism directed their way. A growing number of cadres may no longer be listening so actively to such assaults, or bothering to adjust their work style (in Chinese).
And as Premier Li Keqiang himself warned three months ago (in Chinese), critiques and admonishment of officials can end up diverting the government from carrying out essential, practical work on administrative restructuring – restructuring that the Party leadership claims will benefit the public at large, instead of the usual vested interests.
Still, Xi’s strategy for reforming the Party rapidly above all else demonstrates that he is a different sort of leader. Now the question is whether there are enough cadres ready to support the real changes Xi’s urging on them.
- China’s Communist party takes page from Mao’s playbook (chinadailymail.com)
- New Party Purge Has Xi Jinping’s Old Friend as Commissar (theepochtimes.com)
- Is Xi purging the party? (powertransition.wordpress.com)
- China’s President ‘lacks wisdom and courage’ says state owned magazine (chinadailymail.com)
- More Maoist than thou: Xi Jinping is in, Bo Xilai is out, but the CCP is still thoroughly corrupt (worldtribune.com)
- Notes on Mass Line, Communist Organization, and Revolution (maosoleum.wordpress.com)
- China: Xi Jinping says party should be able to put up with sharp criticism (chinadailymail.com)
- China’s Xi Jinping: A man of quick decision and actions (chinadailymail.com)
- Restraint is the new red in China (chinadailymail.com)