The return of correct thinking
April 25, 2016 | 6:42 pm| | | Start Conversation
ON APRIL 6th Xi Jinping, China’s president, launched yet another ideological campaign. It is named (as most such initiatives are) with a low number and a couple of nouns: “Two Studies, One Action.” The aim, says Mr Xi, is to “strengthen the Marxist stance” of Communist Party members and keep them in line with the party leadership in “ideology, politics and action.” Previous such efforts under his rule had focused on officials, he said. Now it was time to focus on the rank and file.
Ideology has always mattered to the party’s leaders. University students endure lessons on “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought”. Soldiers have to spend hours a week studying the party’s history and the military writings of its leaders. Applicants for party membership undergo rigorous indoctrination. Chen Xiaojie, a 25-year-old official, recalls weekly classes on party theories and having to write a 1,500-word essay every three months on the latest doctrine. “When you’re in the party, you’ll join a group at least every month to learn about the latest thing they’re promoting.” Officials take regular refresher courses at party schools.
Since Mao’s rule, when ideological training took up a considerable portion of almost everyone’s lives, leaders have given people much more time to get on with their jobs. Deng Xiaoping’s catchphrase, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice,” captured a new mood of pragmatism. But the party continued to stress the importance of indoctrination. After the pro-democracy upheaval of 1989, Deng expressed regret that there had not been enough of it. Since taking over in 2012, Mr Xi has shown particular enthusiasm for ideology. One of his first moves was to set up a National Ideology Centre to push—or invent—his own interpretation of Marxism-Leninism. He quickly spelled out to officials that ideological work was of “vital importance” to the party.
Numbers and nouns have come thick and fast. Some have been aimed at improving the behaviour of a corrupt bureaucracy. Mr Xi’s “Eight Points” campaign launched in 2012 required party officials to eschew such things as lavish welcoming ceremonies and traffic-snarling cavalcades when they tour the country. His “Three Stricts, Three Honests” drive of 2014 was about strengthening officials’ moral rectitude. Other campaigns have been more ideological: the “Eight Musts” of 2012 stressed the importance of the party’s monopoly of power as well as of “reform and opening”; a campaign was launched in February requiring officials to bone up on Mao’s essay, “Working Methods of Party Committees”, and “improve their consciousness of democratic centralism”.
Mr Xi’s attentions are not confined to the party. In 2014 he said students and teachers at universities (fountainheads of dissent, historically) both needed greater “ideological guidance”. They soon got it from the party’s Central Committee, which told universities in January 2015 to make the teaching of Marxism a higher priority. The education minister then restricted the use of foreign textbooks (Chinese microbloggers were quick to point out a problem with the party’s efforts to combat “Western values” on campuses—Marxism-Leninism being a Western import, too).
It is not clear how much the president really expects to change people’s beliefs. He will certainly have difficulty doing so. Some folk are clearly indifferent to ideological browbeating. Lin Qun, a 52-year-old teacher and party member since 2003, says he occasionally has to turn in 5,000-word essays on the latest theories. “They just have different themes once in a while.”
Bore them into submission
Why, then, has Mr Xi chosen to put such stress on ideology? Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard University says that Leninism may be the part that most appeals to Mr Xi. Lenin has a lot to offer someone trying to establish centralised one-party rule. The campaigns, with their emphasis on discipline, also help Mr Xi in his efforts to root out corruption—a problem so pervasive when he took over that he saw it as a threat to the party’s survival. By requiring members actually to attend classes as rituals of loyalty, Mr Xi is tightening his grip over the party’s 88m members and, he hopes, strengthening the party itself. The head of his new ideology centre, Zhu Jidong, argued last year that the Soviet Union had collapsed in part because it failed to maintain ideological standards.
The party’s concerns were made clear in a document that began circulating in secret in April 2013 and was later leaked. Document Number Nine, as it is called, describes “the current state of the ideological sphere” and identifies seven challenges to it. They include Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neoliberalism and “the West’s idea of journalism”. To combat these, the communique says, party members must make ideological work “a high priority” in their daily lives. The document was approved by the central leadership and appears to represent Mr Xi’s thinking. Its ideas have permeated his subsequent campaigns as well as his broader efforts to tighten social and political controls.
Mao emphasised the supreme importance of being “red”—that is, imbued with Maoist fervour—over that of being “expert”. Much of the suffering China experienced during his misrule stemmed from that. Mr Xi is hardly a man of Mao’s stripe. But after years of technocratic government that has stressed the expert end of the spectrum, he is taking a risk in tilting the balance back towards the red zone.
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