China Power

Xi’s Mass Line Campaign Casts a Dark Shadow Over China

What was first hailed as an anti-corruption campaign increasingly looks Maoist. Worst yet, it’s here to stay.

Xi’s Mass Line Campaign Casts a Dark Shadow Over China
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

China’s mass line campaign is well in gear: self-criticisms are grabbing headlines, ideological warfare against all things foreign is underway and China’s online world continues its descent into digital hell. As it nears its fourth month, the government is trying its level best to make clear that this mass line is the future.

Since its inception, constant reminders have been issued that this crusade is here to stay. Last Wednesday, Xi Jinping urged further self-criticisms in line with the campaign; the previous week saw calls from Liu Yunshan to keep the mass line “strict and honest”; and earlier that month the Party issued warnings about mooncake moderation.

The mass line campaign began in early June as part of President Xi Jinping’s new anti-corruption effort–a tenure that has thus far seen a litany of high-profile corruption cases. In the beginning, the purpose of the campaign was to attack “formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance.” Unsurprisingly, the mass line concept did not stay long in the realm of political theater; it quickly began targeting police officers and netizens through the nation’s now notorious online rumor crackdown.

Far from the usual declarations, China’s leaders are at the forefront of this march for efficiency. The campaign quickly called on seven major politburo members in July. From Li Keqiang to Zhang Gaoli, the word was out: get in line. Later than month, 259 units (the first batch) descended on the nation to educate local and provincial offices.

Cleaning up corruption and bureaucracy are all well and good, but the dark side of the mass line campaign is its Maoist undertones. The government’s insistence on ideological supremacy has coincided with the reprinting of Mao’s “Little Red Book.” The new version is set to hit shelves in November to coincide with Mao’s 120th birthday. Any hopes that Xi Jinping’s government would liberalize died long ago; to the contrary, this government’s obsession with steering the country’s principles is ambitious. Despite the showmanship of self-criticism, many in China are worried that this obsession with the mass line and party direction is leading down an all-too-familiar path.

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Of course, despite attempts to quash “rumors,” China’s web users are not taking the mass line campaign lying down. In the highly publicized self-criticisms in Hebei Province outside of Beijing, which Xi Jinping himself attended, web users were quick to mock, complete with accusations of hypocrisy, crude cartoons and calls for official asset disclosures. To those who are more pessimistic about the party’s newer, happier face of party control, the public shaming isn’t doing much.

This resurgence of the mass line has been viewed with suspicion, and considering the Party’s renewed passion for quashing dissent online and throughout the country, few are commenting–uncertain if this is just part of the crackdown on corruption or a wider campaign. At this point, most–even the country’s state run press–are careful not to comment too much on the future or direction of the mass line. As Bao Tong, former Director of the Office of Political Reform and current democracy advocate, said regarding the purpose of the mass line campaign: “I don’t know, and I daren’t start any rumors.”