Xi Borrows From Mao Playbook in Power Play Ahead of Plenum

The mission for the near-dozen Communists sitting round a table at a Beijing ministry was explicit: criticize their boss, who was present. Party cadres carefully recorded their comments as they spoke, in an echo of sessions held decades ago under Chairman Mao Zedong’s direction.

“Every party member, every division chief, each department head and the ministers have to go through it,” said 31-year-old Tang, who participated in the September gathering and asked to withhold his full name and work unit because he isn’t authorized to talk to reporters. “There are clear instructions that criticism must be genuine. For instance, you can’t say ‘Oh, you have worked too hard and should take more breaks.’”

The purpose of such meetings being held across China -- at least one of which was attended by party chief and Chinese President Xi Jinping -- is to reinforce adherence to the official line and strengthen the position of the nation’s new leaders in the minds of China’s 85 million Communists, according to Sidney Rittenberg, 92, a party member from 1946 to 1980 who was Mao’s translator.

Getting cadres in line behind the leadership that started taking up its positions a year ago would reduce the danger of fracture should Xi follow through on what one member of the paramount Politburo Standing Committee says will be “unprecedented” reforms to reshape China’s $8.4 trillion economy. The introspective sessions come ahead of a four-day conclave, known as a plenum, starting Nov. 9 that Credit Suisse Group AG says may see decisions that allow local governments to issue bonds and ease China’s one-child policy.

Maoist Techniques

“It’s not Maoism -- Mao would be the last one to increase the role of market forces in the economy -- but what it is doing is reviving some of the practices from Mao’s day which made the party popular,” said Rittenberg. “The reason Xi is trying to do it is his main interest is focused on restructuring the economy.”

Party members are encouraged during the sessions to learn more about the concerns of ordinary citizens, shun extravagance and admit their shortcomings. Xi himself listened to top local officials in the northern Hebei province on Sept. 23. The provincial leaders pledged to live among the masses for at least three days, according to an account published by the official Xinhua News Agency.

“I don’t want to hear fancy words from you when I take part in your sessions,” Xi was quoted as saying. “I want real criticisms and self-criticisms.”

Economic Upswing

The plenum, a meeting of the party’s more than 200-strong Central Committee, will provide Xi with a chance to put his mark on China’s economy, much as the late Deng Xiaoping did more than three decades ago. Two years after the death of Mao, the 1978 plenum helped usher in reforms that led to the dismantling of the communal farm system and the opening of China to foreign trade.

Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News last month said policies that emerge from the plenum will lessen the odds of a severe economic slowdown or financial crisis and will most likely include changes in financial markets and local-government funding.

Signs of an economic upswing may boost the leadership’s confidence in promoting reforms. A non-manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index rose to the highest level this year in October, a government report showed yesterday, following faster-than-expected growth in two manufacturing indexes last week.

Stable Conditions

China’s overall economic conditions are stable and the country is able to meet its main economic targets this year, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli said during a visit to Shanghai and Zhejiang provinces, according to a State Council statement posted on the central government’s website today.

Rittenberg, who took part in self-criticism campaigns in the late 1940s, said the group sessions were essential for bolstering unity by smoking out “politically deviant tendencies” among leaders at all levels and involved close study of the top leadership’s policies.

“The current leadership wants everything under control and no surprises, no indirect challenges, before the plenum,” said Ding Xueliang, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The campaign may be having the desired effect on a 31-year-old bureaucrat surnamed Wang, who works at a government ministry in Beijing. He said he didn’t know what to say in the 90-minute sessions he attended before seeing television footage of the Hebei meeting where Xi spoke.

New Leadership

“It’s easier to understand than what we learned in the past 10 years under Hu and Wen,” Wang said, referring to former President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who stepped down this year. “The new leadership has already demonstrated its vision and has already set out some plans or initiatives like a free-trade zone in Shanghai.”

While the self-criticism campaign is aimed at bolstering party control, Ding said it will spur “distrust” in the ranks. “This has already created a lot of embarrassment for party officials,” he said.

Zuo Chunhe, who sits on Hebei’s legislature and isn’t a party member, questioned whether the group confessions would address core problems like official graft.

“This kind of mindset provides no solution for corruption and carries little meaning, because corruption comes from the way our system is built,” he said.

The surroundings in the room where the Beijing ministry’s Tang faced his boss were austere, in line with Xi’s frugality drive.

“No flowers, no ornaments, just a bottle of mineral water for each person,” he said. “When it was a leader’s chance to hear criticism from colleagues about his working style, he had to listen to everyone and then make comments himself. The atmosphere was serious.”

— With assistance by Henry Sanderson, Michael Forsythe, and Xin Zhou

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