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The Mass Line Campaign in the 21st Century

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China Power

The Mass Line Campaign in the 21st Century

Xi Jinping’s “mass line” campaign reveals the Party’s convoluted relationship with China’s citizens.

Mao Zedong’s 120th birthday is today, but Xi Jinping gave the venerable leader an early present this past summer— a revival of one of Mao’s old ideas, the “mass line” campaign. As 2013 winds to a close, Chinese media outlets are reflecting on the successes of the campaign, and wondering what new form the “mass line” will take in 2014.

The mass line campaign was rolled out with great fanfare in June by Xi Jinping.  The campaign was supposed to result in what Xi called a “thorough cleanup” of the Party by weeding out the “four undesirable work styles”: formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism, and extravagance. A China Daily article explaining the concept noted the ties to Chairman Mao and the other “founding fathers of the People’s Republic of China.” “Though the mass line has been followed in different times,” the article continued, “the need to prioritize the interests of the people, to make efforts to solve their problems, and to share their successes and failures was never more urgent than now.”

In order to bring Party officials closer to the people, the mass line campaign called for officials to practice self-criticism and to spend time interacting with the masses. A Xinhua “yearender” article looking back on the campaign described the “democratic life meetings” where self-criticism takes place. The article interviewed several officials who said that self-criticisms and interactions with average citizens helped them realize and correct their mistakes. The report noted with satisfaction that, thanks to campaign, “officials fear they will face hard times unless they get closer to the people.”

A recent New York Times piece had a much different take on the mass line campaign, especially the self-criticisms. According to this perspective, the self-criticisms by Party officials are watered-down to ensure that no one will face too harsh of a punishment. The strategy, according to an anonymous official interviewed in the piece, is to “act sincere” without actually saying anything that could threaten either yourself or your colleagues. In other words, the mass line campaign is self-criticism with all the pageantry and none of the consequences.

The Xinhua article recognizes the cynical perspective by mentioning the danger that “the campaign would become ritualized or a formality.” But according to the piece, Xi Jinping is determined to make sure the mass line campaign is taken seriously. Xinhua says that almost 20,000 Party officials have been punished this year for violating the new anti-bureaucracy and anti-waste guidelines. And Xi isn’t done yet: Xinhua quotes China’s leader as saying that officials “should not have the wrong idea that they have passed the test just because the sessions are over.”

In fact, though the mass line campaign Xi announced in June is drawing to a close, a separate Xinhua article reports that the leadership is already preparing for “phase two” of the campaign. According to the article, Xi has warned officials “that the upcoming second phase of the mass line campaign will be greater in scale and the problems faced by the officials will be more specific and difficult.” There were no specific details, but Xinhua expects the campaign to include both stricter supervision for officials and tougher punishments for disciplinary violations.

But, other than inspiring self-criticisms that take place behind closed doors, how exactly do the masses fit into Xi’s mass line campaign? As I wrote earlier, the Party is treating publicly aired and unvetted accusations of corruption extremely cautiously. This year’s crackdown on online rumors is aimed in part at discouraging accusations of corruption from being aired on social media. Even while encouraging Party officials to draw closer to the masses, Xi and other leaders are careful not to accord the people too much power.

Writing for the China Media Project, Qian Gang notes the revival of the term “Fengqiao experience,” which had fallen out of use after the Mao era, to promote a particular sort of mass line campaign. To Qian,the “Fengqiao experience” represents the height of the terrors of the Cultural Revolution. As described by the People’s Daily in 1977, the “Fengqiao experience” was the use of the “the masses to carry out a struggle of reason, to deal with the enemies… without the need to submit issues to higher authorities.” In other words, it was the sort of violent anarchy that defined the height of the Cultural Revolution.

Now, however, Qian notes a curious new tendency in the Chinese media’s revival of the “Fengqiao experience”: tying the mass line campaign to the rule of law. Under this new definition, the “Fengqiao experience” means “employing legal thinking and legal methods to resolve problems and tensions concerning the vital interests of the masses.” Qian is confused about the paradox:  “Mao Zedong’s mass line was about organizing the masses to control evildoers, in other words a kind of ‘mass dictatorship’ (群众专政). These ideas are poles apart from modern ideas of rule of law. How can they possibly be implemented in a present-day China?”

The answer is fairly simple, actually — Xi wants to tackle corruption and is seeking to both do so and boost his own legitimacy by employing a tactic popularized by Mao Zedong himself. However, Xi and China’s other leaders fear the actual return of a “mass dictatorship,” which represents the mass line campaign taken to the extreme. So Xi and company coax officials to spend time with the people and practice self-criticisms and call it a mass line campaign. This modern version of Mao’s mass line campaign avoids actually giving any power of criticism to the people themselves.

Still, the Party also acknowledges that the masses are its greatest asset in truly weeding out corruption within the ranks. The Party will need some sort of watchdog procedures in place if it is ever going to truly combat corruption. But before the Party can accept suggestions from the people, it first needs to make sure the people are correctly trained. An anti-corruption expert at Jiangsu’s provincial party school told Xinhua that the people should “be guided to exercise their supervision duties.” Thus the flip-side to the mass line campaign is a mass education campaign, to make sure that the “mass line” the Party wants its officials to follow doesn’t stray too far from the Party’s will.

This explains the Party’s recent call [Chinese] for the promotion of “core socialist values” in schools, mass media, and the business community. Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University, told South China Morning Post that “Xi is trying to leave his own legacy” by both defining and spreading a new set of social values. Xi might be using Mao-era campaigns to spread his values, but he is not calling for a return to the chaos of true mass rule. In Xi’s version of the mass line campaign, it seems that the Party can learn from the people only after the people have been told what it is they should be teaching.