Is the Chinese government feeling nostalgic for the 1960s, the glory days of Communist Party sloganeering and dominance? First, it emerged that Foreign Minister Wang Yi (and soon other top Chinese officials) was eschewing a foreign-made luxury car for a domestically produced Red Flag sedan, which used to be the ride of choice for Communist bigwigs. Then China’s leader Xi Jinping announced a new “party rectification” campaign against official corruption and abuse of power. The drive will be promoted by an online landing page called Mass Line Net, a term popularized by Chairman Mao Zedong that refers to the Chinese Communist Party’s need to connect with those it governs.
Certainly the perceived impunity with which some government officials have acted has galvanized public anger in China, where the gap between haves and have-nots is growing wider. But as the New York Times noted in a strong June 20 story, officials are being prosecuted for supposed malfeasance using an internal—and utterly unaccountable system—called shuanggui (双规)or “double regulations” that harks back to the bad days of the People’s Republic. In April, at least three Chinese state-linked individuals died under suspicious circumstances while under shuanggui detention, according to the Times.
Xi’s year-long party rectification drive, announced by teleconference on June 18 to clutches of serious-looking Communist Party cadres, is ambitious. He is ordering a “‘thorough cleanup’ of undesirable work styles such as formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance,” according to state newswire Xinhua. These four –isms have been grouped together by China’s party thinkers as the “Four Forms of Decadence.” Xi was quoted saying that members of the Chinese Communist Party should instead be striving toward four goals: self-purification, self-perfection, self-renewal and self-progression.
To reach such lofty targets, Chinese officialdom is supposed to rely on “the mass line, or furthering ties with the people, [which] is the lifeline of the Party,” Xinhua noted. Ironically, the last major Chinese figure to have resurrected the “mass line” terminology was Bo Xilai, the controversial Communist Party big shot who was removed from power last year in one of modern China’s most electrifying political purges.
The rectification effort, which is set to begin on July 1, will surely mean more long meetings for Chinese cadres, who are being asked to attend “study sessions” devoted to the topic. In the metaphorically driven language of Party guidance, Xi told Chinese bureaucrats to “look in the mirror, straighten your attire, take a bath and seek remedies.” But the drive has with some skepticism on Weibo, a popular social-media service, where members of the Chinese public can express themselves. In comments that went viral (and that, surprisingly, have not yet been banished by government censors), novelist Yang Hengjun wrote:
We have high expectations of this new rectification movement but past history tells us such movements are merely black clouds thundering a great deal while raining little. According to Xi Jinping, the success of this rectification involves the masses and an efficient system. If we want to involve the masses, we should allow the masses to do their own monitoring. We cannot just let those cadres criticize themselves. We should establish a constitutional government, we should use the system of rule of law to limit officials’ power and we should establish a system to protect civil rights.
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After coming to power last November, Xi announced another campaign against official excess, urging cadres to eschew lavish banquets for the relatively Spartan option of “four dishes and one soup.” Because of this austerity drive—as well as an online vigilante movement to shame government officials found outfitted in luxury clothes or accessories that outstrip their state salaries—sales of certain high-end products have dipped in China. Shaming of wayward officials has spiked. Xinhua reported that in the first five months of 2013, the southern province of Guangdong had punished 258 officials for violating Xi’s crusade to instill discipline in Party ranks.
Which brings us back to the Chinese Foreign Minister’s new ride. Chinese assembly lines began rolling out Red Flags for central-government leaders in the late 1950s. But in recent years, foreign cars like Audis, usually in telltale black, became the vehicles of choice for Chinese officialdom—so much so that speeding, dark-hued Audis served as a byword for official arrogance on the roads. The return to the Red Flag serves a dual purpose: price and patriotism. Wang’s new vehicle, the boxy H7 model, is cheaper than a comparable Audi. And it’s a domestic company. “China is a big power, so we should use our own high-level, brand-name car [to transport officials],” says Zhao Yan, the Beijing sales manager of Yiqi, the manufacturer of Red Flag cars.
But not everyone is quite so eager to return to the old days. Earlier this week, a retiree named Liu Boqin took out an advertisement in a reformist Chinese magazine apologizing for his behavior as a young Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, when he persecuted his teachers and other adults. Growing up in the comfortable confines of a local leadership compound in China’s eastern Shandong province, Liu, now 61, was just in middle school when his world turned topsy-turvy. Like many children of that era, particularly those with party connections, he participated in a frenzy of destruction and humiliation of anyone thought to have suspect political roots. Tens of millions suffered during the decade-long political movement, yet there has been relatively little introspection about the damage caused by what Mao and his cohorts unleashed. (Chinese leader Xi’s own family endured hardship during this time.) Liu, though, used his purchased space in Yanhuang Chunqiu to try to redress past wrongs:
“I was so young, naïve and bewitched, and I could not distinguish between good and bad…Now as an old man, I have conducted introspection on what I did at that time. Although I was in a violent environment and was bewitched by external circumstances, I should shoulder responsibility for my past wrong behavior. I hereby apologize sincerely to those people. I hope you can forgive me.”
But after Liu’s ad became a hot topic on Weibo, the penitent former Red Guard retreated a little, publishing an open letter refusing to comment further on his apology:
“Although I have prepared for this, I still was astonished by the fallout of this event…Before I published the ad, my children did not agree with me on this matter. My family does not support me doing this. Now the whole thing has become a public issue, and I was forced to become a public figure, which is not really what I want to happen.”
Ironically, both the open letter and Liu’s original ad read like self-criticisms, the documents of contrition often written by force during the Cultural Revolution—yet another way in which the 1960s have infringed on China’s present.
—with reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing