China is in the midst of a new political campaign. Launched as a “major task” in June, the Mass Line Campaign has been conceived as a means to bring the Chinese Communist Party closer to the people through “serving the people, being down-to-earth, upright and corruption-free.” Although the authorities may not characterize it as such, the campaign bears all the hallmarks of a Party rectification drive, compelling members and cadres to examine their own work performance and engagement with the public at large.
The campaign is predicated in the political notion of the “mass line,” described as a “guideline under which Party officials and members are required to prioritize the interests of the people and persist in representing them and working on their behalf.”
Rectification campaigns have a long and varied heritage in the CCP. The progress of a campaign does not necessarily have to be in response to a specific problem. Periodic rectification campaigns are of great utility to the Party leadership. They can provide an important means of avoiding potential stagnation and rigidity among cadres and members, while asserting the control and authority of the central Party leadership. During these campaigns the leadership is able to bring greater scrutiny in examining the behavior and politics of individuals, to test their political loyalty. Such campaigns often carry the threat of arrest or expulsion from the Party for those deemed guilty of transgressions. With such punishments hanging over members like the Sword of Damocles, members will potentially find greater cause and impetus to cooperate with the campaign.
In recent decades the Party has engaged in two rectification campaigns. The Three Stresses campaign was launched by Jiang Zemin in 1998, while the Campaign to Maintain the Advanced Nature of Communist Party Members was launched by Hu Jintao in 2005. Both campaigns compelled members to attend political education sessions and provide self-criticisms. Historically, rectification campaigns have addressed issues of ideology. The punishment for deviating from the accepted political line could be brutal. Given the shifting mores in Chinese politics and the declining influence of ideology, contemporary rectification campaigns are more about the management of Party members. Ideological transgressions have been replaced in seriousness by corruption and disengagement. The present Mass Line campaign represents a further development. The focus of the campaign is on how the Party engages with the public. At the launch of the campaign in June, Xi Jinping stated that “Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the CPC’s survival or extinction,” that elements of the Party suffered from the hated maladies of formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance.
Though it is clearly aimed at rectification, the Mass Line Campaign is different in structure from the two previous efforts. The public relations aspect of the campaign is particularly important. While authorities are maintaining a closer focus on the work performance of members and cadres, the means to correct behavior is far from political education sessions and self-criticisms. Across the country, cadres and Party members are being encouraged to reach out to the community and perform public services. In the city of Yueyang in northern Hunan Province, cadres from the municipal departments and bureaus have been dispatched to perform various duties in the community. In one instance, a group of cadres from one particular bureau have been tasked to visit a particular residential community to conduct a detailed survey among households, while also organizing a job fair for the unemployed in the same community. A temporary free medical clinic will also be established there. Other cadres have been sent to clean the streets. This is in keeping with the themes of the campaign, articulated by Xi as being that cadres must become closer to the people to generate feelings for them, that officials must see the public as their teachers, and work tirelessly to resolve their problems.
In attacking formalism and bureaucratism, the rectification campaign is making a statement (perhaps unintentionally) about the formal internal processes of the Party. In a complementary campaign authorities have abolished nearly 40% of intra-Party rules, with the remaining provisions under review. Xi echoed this at the launch of the campaign, when he stated that it presented an opportunity to make new internal Party rules and remove outdated ones. There has also been some suggestion that the Communist Party has become too big to be manageable. A meeting of the Politburo in January agreed that the Party should be downsized, and some members should be compelled to leave. Xi also echoed this when he called upon Party members to reflect on their actions and take steps to improve themselves.
For now, the public manifestations of the rectification campaign will capture the most attention. It may succeed as a public relations exercise to reconnect the Party to the people. These other developments going on inside the Party itself may have a more lasting impact, even if it may not be publicly apparent for some time. Either way, the Mass Line Campaign shows that the Party still has the capacity to reflect on potential problems and act upon them.
Brendan Forde is a a PhD Candidate at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University, researching Chinese politics.