smallSince Xi Jinping He has kept officials on their toes since taking over as China’s leader more than a decade ago. Every two years on average, he conducts “education” campaigns for them and the 97 million other Communists to ensure they grasp the party line (slacker beware). A new beginning unfolds. For weeks, if not months, it will command the attention of the bureaucracy and the armed forces, as well as many businessmen, academics and others. This time the theme is very personal. This is to keep pace with Xi Jinping himself.
That may not be a response to any new threats to Mr Xi’s control. The timing seems normal. It has been about two years since the last such campaign focused on instilling a highly sanitized version of the party’s history. It has also been about six months since the party’s five-yearly national congress, where Mr. Xi appeared to strengthen his power by replacing colleagues with his protégés and securing an unconventional third term as party chief. One of those protégés is Cai Qi, who was named Xi Jinping’s chief of staff last month. Mr Cai also oversees ideological and propaganda work on the most powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. He is in charge of the new campaign. This is your chance to impress your boss.
But the scope of this latest campaign was anything but routine. The first five items introduced by Mr Xi usually emphasize specific aspects of party members’ behavior, such as their obligation to pay attention to the needs of the “mass”, study the party constitution, resist corruption and remember the “original heart” of Communists. The movement bears the brand of Xi Jinping: officially described as “studying and implementing Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” That means party members must master Xi Jinping’s broad thinking on everything from maintaining party discipline to environmental and national security. After Xi Jinping became the party leader in 2012, the new era is the endorsement of the party.
State media traces the history of Xi Jinping’s education campaign to Mao Zedong’s “rectification movement” in the 1940s when he was part of the party’s guerrillas. They fail to mention the thousands who died in the purges sparked by Mao Zedong’s attempt to reform the thinking of party members. Today’s campaign is much more restrained, but officials still use macabre language to describe the psychological impact they intend to have. Urge cadres to “face each other with swords” and “scrape bones to cure poison”. They are required to hold “criticism and self-criticism meetings” and “blush in the face”.
In some parts of the bureaucracy, the recent campaign has been combined with an ongoing purge of corrupt and disloyal officials. One is the disciplinary agency, which earlier this year began a “clean up” campaign among its ranks. The other is the government’s sports administration, which has been cracking down on football corruption in recent months.
The education campaign was launched with great fanfare. On March 30, the ruling Politburo formally approved the decision to launch the plan. Four days later, Xi Jinping himself launched the plan at a meeting of officials. He said that this was a “thought tempering” and “spiritual baptism”, which played an important role in unifying the party’s thinking and solving “prominent problems within the party”. The term is a euphemism for everything from ideological bias to infidelity.
Few details have been revealed about how the campaign will be implemented — including a target date for completing it. Party committees across the country have been meeting to discuss the directives, but they remain classified. Yet such campaigns in the past suggest it will combine study sessions, field trips and a mind-control tool Mao would favor: a portal-cum-smartphone app that tests users’ knowledge of prescribed material. It is called learning to strengthen the country, which means both “learning to strengthen the country” and “learning to strengthen the country”.
Launched in 2019, the app has become the life nemesis of many party members. By recording users’ scores and daily usage habits, party thinkers can quickly identify those who don’t care about tasks. Boredom with educational activities is a common problem. A 2019 survey (published last year) showed that nearly 60 percent of those who participated in one of Xi Jinping’s educational activities at vocational training colleges believed that the theory they needed to learn had no obvious connection to real life, according to Guangzhou scholar Li square. Many teaching materials are copied from the documents provided by the superiors.
Officials will have to think more creatively as part of their education. They were told to organize research on “complex and difficult” issues affecting the new era, such as food safety or public health. They have to interview people at the grassroots level about these problems and come up with good solutions. “Don’t go through the motions,” they were warned.
Among party members, many eyes are on Mr Cai, as he is the main implementer of such directives. He ranks fifth in the Politburo, but his power is enormous. The chief of staff of a party leader (officially known as the chief of staff of the Central Committee) has not been a member of the Politburo Standing Committee since the Mao era. The combination of roles would make him a formidable gatekeeper between Xi Jinping and other members of the ruling elite.
Mr Cai’s meteoric rise shows that Mr Xi has complete confidence in him. The two worked together in Fujian Province in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2017, Mr Cai was promoted to Party Secretary of Beijing, but he did not serve on the party’s Central Committee (the usual path to such a job). In his new job as an ideological watchdog, he has skills to draw on. Most of his work in Fujian involved party affairs. There he did an undergraduate degree in political education in the 1970s.
Perhaps distressingly for a Party member struggling to learn the app, he showed early on a fondness for using digital tools to improve bureaucratic behaviour. While working in Zhejiang province in the 2010s, he opened a social media account that he used in part to denounce officials for misconduct. “Openness is a good thing,” said one of his most-followed tweets. He even lamented China’s blockade of Facebook. Today, however, few see Xi Jinping as anyone but his loyal servant. The only hope some may cling to is that he might one day reduce the unwieldy 16-character title of Xi Jinping’s philosophy to “Xi Jinping Thought.” This saves a lot of time in meetings. ■
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