Oct. 3 (Bloomberg) -- On the evening of Sept. 25, Xi Jinping debuted in his role as China’s father-confessor across state-owned television stations. The occasion was the conclusion of three days of self-criticism sessions that the Chinese president oversaw in Hebei province. Wearing his signature black jacket and open-collared white shirt, Xi sat listening to nervous high-ranking local officials. They had reason to be worried: According to Xinhua News Agency, the state newswire, Xi had stern expectations for what would be accomplished (according to official press accounts, he attended four half-day sessions): “I don’t want to hear fancy words from you when I take part in your sessions. I want real criticisms and self-criticisms.”
For older people, the phrase “self-criticism” evokes the excesses of Maoism in a way few other terms can. Under Mao Zedong, such sessions were, in theory, a way individuals could be freed of their selfish tendencies and better align themselves with the Communist Party’s ideological goals. In actuality, especially during the Cultural Revolution, they were a means of public punishment and humiliation.
The practice, in its uglier, highly public form, died out with Mao. But every few years, the national government seems to spearhead a publicized revival, driven by leaders who are concerned that scandals have eroded the party’s legitimacy and who are unable to address failing confidence through genuine reform. The Hebei sessions derive from Xi’s so-called “mass line” educational campaign (with a particularly Maoist edge), which is designed to reassert bonds between the cadres and the masses.
And so, last week, officials took turns criticizing themselves and -- in soft terms -- their colleagues. Yet, far from realizing the “real” criticisms that Xi allegedly desired, much of what was revealed was little more than bureaucrats being bureaucrats. “Some comrades, after careful consideration, had to admit that they suffered from ‘terminal job syndrome,’ whereby they no longer want to listen to other opinions,” according to the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s self-proclaimed mouthpiece newspaper, and “don’t want to place strict demands on themselves.”
Some officials admitted that they enjoyed large, fancy banquets as opposed to small, modest ones. Others said they appreciated it when subordinates and ordinary folks kissed up to them. And Sun Ruibin, the highest-ranking official in Shijiazhuang, the province’s largest city, audaciously conceded: “After becoming the party secretary of Shijiazhuang, I equipped myself with an SUV. Even though it’s against the rules to have such a vehicle, I was comfortable with it and thought the matter no big deal.”
While some members of Hubei’s bureaucracy may now have clearer consciences, these aren’t the sorts of admissions that will satiate a public that equates government service with corruption. Even Sun’s SUV confession, perfectly aligned to Xi’s campaign against official extravagance, probably won’t accomplish much in the eyes of a people accustomed to hearing revelations about the vast real-estate holdings that even minor bureaucrats have managed to acquire.
Indeed, ever since the self-criticism footage was broadcast, the sessions have become material for jokes, disdain and vicious criticism on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging service. “Self-criticism becomes an ineffective and ridiculous farce,” tweeted Hu Zhihong, a lawyer in Jiangxi province, on Sept. 30, echoing many others. “It is simply playing with words. All sensitive issues, such as rules on the disclosure of officials’ assets, corruption and power-for-money deals, are avoided.”
As in many other leadership-driven government initiatives, the gap between the opinion of the state-run news media and that of the social-media-driven Internet is gaping. The state-run outlets have extolled the sessions as major steps forward for transparency and political reform. Zhang Guangzhao, a columnist with People’s Daily-owned Haiwainet, turned Sun’s SUV confession into an act of political courage in a Sept. 27 piece: “For anyone who truly understands China’s political culture and environment, such self-exposure means ruining one’s political future. Nonetheless, the senior officials of Hebei province admitted their mistakes, one after another, and even put forward ideas to correct them. Such political courage is largely attributable to China’s new leadership, which sets an example by its pragmatic style.”
Does Zhang actually believe this? Does Xi? The possible answers do not inspire much hope that the frayed bonds between the Communist Party and its subjects are likely to be repaired soon.
Xi and the Communist Party may sincerely think -- or believe they can get the people to think -- that criticizing one’s attachment to modest perks of power inspires public confidence. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence, at least on social media, that it has. “Most people believe that the self-criticisms focus on trifling points and are superficial, amounting to nothing,” tweeted Xu Deming, a Shanghai-based artist, on Sept. 30. “The government’s goodwill effort has failed to please the people and instead caused ridicule.” At this point, any true belief that the people might take these sessions seriously is an unsettling portrayal of just how little China’s leaders understand those they lead.
It’s also possible that Xi knows that last week’s Hebei sessions -- and the self-criticism sessions that have occurred elsewhere in recent days -- will have little effect on how his government is perceived by the Chinese people and doesn’t really care. Xi’s zeal for self-criticism may instead be motivated by a desire to appease conservative elements of the Communist Party. Whether he can be successful in meeting their expectations is difficult to judge from outside the party’s inner circles.
What can be judged is Xi’s inability to connect with a people who seem inclined to view his public initiatives as stunts irrelevant to their interests. Perhaps if Xi subjected himself to some self-criticism, he might better understand what he’s missing.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.)
To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.
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