Xi’s Mass Line Campaign: Realigning Party Politics to New Realities

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 16

President Xi Taking Directions from the People

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “mass line” (qunzhong luxian) education campaign echoes in content and format a similar effort initiated by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, to improve the party’s governance capacity. The current campaign’s effort to leverage Mao’s authority points to an increased sense of urgency owing to the exhaustion of traditional engines of economic growth and mounting public frustration with party leadership. The mass line education campaign therefore represents a major effort to realign party leadership and theoretical concepts with structural changes in the political economy that is likely to persist through much of Xi’s tenure. 

On June 18, the CCP senior leadership held a conference to kick off a planned yearlong “educational campaign,” or “education activities” (jiaoyu huodong), to promote the “Party’s Mass Line Education and Practice.” The Politburo followed up with an “ad hoc meeting” from June 22 to June 25. The six half-day meetings focused on three agenda items widely replicated in lower-level work conferences: reports on the implementation of regulations to address problems of work style; speeches on how well cadres have implemented the requirements; and discussion and study of measures, rules and regulations for improving the party’s work style. The term “work style” refers to the political loyalty, ethics, integrity and professional competence of party officials (Xinhua, June 25).

In early July, Hong Kong press reported that forty five high-level supervisory teams oversaw implementation of the campaign (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], July 4). Each Politburo Standing Committee member carried out inspection trips to hold symposiums with local officials, hear reports from local party committees and oversee arrangements for mass line education work. Xi visited Hebei province on July 11–12 (Xinhua, July 12).

Similarities with Hu’s Advanced Nature Campaign

The mass line campaign shares many similarities with the 18-month-long educational campaign called “Maintain the Advanced Nature of CCP Members” launched by then-General Secretary Hu Jintao in January 2005. Both campaigns began at the beginning of the respective general secretary’s tenure and served in part to help the new administration consolidate control of the party apparatus. The two campaigns also drew heavily from the repertoire of “rectification” (zhengfeng) campaigns from which they are derived, including study sessions, criticism, self-criticism and lectures. 

Both the Hu and Xi campaigns have been carried out in conjunction with other activities to standardize party procedures, curb corruption and enhance the party’s overall competence. Following its June work conference, for example, the Politburo issued requirements to standardize procedures and mechanisms for performance evaluations and promotions. It also ordered governments at all levels to standardize cadre entitlements for housing, cars, secretaries, public receptions, guards, social benefits and vacations (Xinhua, June 25). 

The two campaigns thus aim in large part at reshaping the CCP into a competent “governing party” (zhizheng dang). The CCP’s designation of itself as a governing party stems from the 16th Party Congress, held in 2002, and is aimed at increasing the CCP’s ability to lead an increasingly complex market economy and pluralistic society. The focus on improving governance capacity has deepened since that time. For example, the Fourth Plenum of the 16th Party Congress in 2004 put forth requirements to “institutionalize, standardize and regularize” party procedures and to govern in accordance with the law and to “serve the public and govern for the people,” requirements reaffirmed in subsequent party congresses. Similarly, party theorists have focused on outlining a “systematic” and “scientific” approach to ideology—exemplified in Hu’s “scientific development concept”—to support policy analysis that could improve governance. This approach to politics and ideology has facilitated the CCP’s pursuit of a new identity as a stable, competent bureaucratic actor capable of policymaking to realize rationally defined national objectives. 

The Search for Political Leverage

On the surface, Xi’s invocation of a concept deeply associated with Mao Zedong, the mass line, thus appears as a striking counter-trend to the general reformist trend of Chinese politics. While Deng and his successors have each provided their own reinterpretation of the concept (as they have with virtually all Maoist concepts), none of them devoted much energy to the topic. The mass line remains closely associated with the Great Helmsman. As if to underscore this point, Xi punctuated the mass line campaign with a visit to Mao’s former home, where he praised China’s revolutionary heritage as the “best nutrition” (Xinhua, July 12). The interest in China’s pre-reform past, however, remains limited. Beyond a few gestures praising revolutionary virtues, the party has made no effort to revive radical politics or the type of “red” theatrics associated with the now-disgraced Bo Xilai.

There are several reasons CCP leaders seek to invoke Mao’s authority through the mass line. Raising Mao’s egalitarian ideals could help blunt criticisms of the inequality generated by the party’s economic policies. Deploying a fundamental Maoist party precept is also a shrewd political tactic to pressure recalcitrant cadres. With Mao as political cover, Xi and his cohorts have put a formidable onus on those who may be tempted to resist such reforms. 

Most importantly, harnessing Mao’s authority to the campaign communicates a sense of urgency and seriousness about the need for reform in the face of dramatically changing circumstances, the most important of which is economic. The main engine of China’s spectacular economic growth over the past decades has exhausted itself. In the words of an official press commentary, the current export and investment-led growth model has reached a “dead end” (Xinhua, December 21). The political situation has changed dramatically as well. A population enriched by decades of rapid growth has raised its expectations of authorities. Popular anger and resentment over innumerable examples of official incompetence and malfeasance—manifested in protests over tainted food scandals, battles over land seizures, local police brutality and corruption—threaten to bubble over into large scale unrest. 

Senior leaders have responded to these trends with warnings unusually stark even for a party habituated to routine self-criticism. The 18th Party Congress work report grimly warned of “grave dangers” facing the party, criticizing members as “lacking drive, incompetence, being out of touch with the people, corrupt and malfeasant.” Corruption, it warned, could prove “fatal” to the party and even cause the “collapse of the party and the fall of the state.” The problem goes beyond a few “bad apples.” The leadership has declared that many ideas, notions, policies and political arrangements require an urgent upgrade in the face of changing circumstances. Hu declared in the 18th Party Congress that the CCP must “resolutely discard (jiejue pochu) all notions and concepts that hinder scientific development.” Other senior leaders have advocated a similar intellectual and political overhaul. At the annual 2012 economic work conference, Premier Li stated the CCP should “resolutely discard all limiting ideas, concepts, structures and mechanisms which obstruct scientific development” (Xinhua, December 16).

Xi’s Challenge: Structural Reform 

The intense pressure to realize major structural reforms in order to sustain economic growth and ensure social stability provides the critical context that explains the sense of urgency surrounding the mass line campaign. The impact of economic globalization, decades of growth and rising public expectations have put profound stresses on China’s society and political system. In many ways, China is experience a phenomenon similar to that underpinning the unrest in countries ranging from Egypt to Turkey to Brazil: rapid economic growth has generated demand for improved public goods and services that often exceed the capacity of authorities.

Chinese media have been attuned to this association, as can be seen in official media commentaries. One article, written by the pseudonymous “Zhong Sheng” (widely viewed as representative of party leader views), noted the “frequent occurrences of social turmoil” and widespread “anxiety” in Egypt, Brazil, Thailand, Turkey and Greece. The article asserted that the turmoil is ultimately traced to a “root cause that is closely related to development issues.” Reiterating a theme common in senior leader speeches, the article pointed to “scientific development” as the key to avoiding such turmoil (People’s Daily, July 13).

As the CCP’s traditional Leninist networks of secretive decision-making cells have produced increasingly erratic, economically inefficient and politically damaging results, the party has sought to develop institutions and bureaucratic systems to stabilize and buttress the exercise of CCP authority. The 18th Party Congress stood out in its requirement to consolidate the foundations for the nation’s continued rise and accumulation of national power through the establishment and strengthening of an array of economic, social and political “institutions” (zhidu) and “systems” (tixi) (“The 18th Party Congress Work Report: Policy Blueprint for the Xi Administration,” China Brief, November 20, 2012). 

Properly built and resourced, party leaders view institutions and systems as the sturdy backbone that can sustain the steady, balanced economic growth; efficient and fair distribution of public goods; and moderate exercise of judicial and political power, that together compose the essence of the “scientific development” sought by Beijing. The success or failure of Xi’s tenure will likely be judged by China’s leadership against the standard of how well he has performed this task. 

Xi Jinping appears well aware of the responsibility entrusted to him and his colleagues. Within the past few months, Xinhua has reported efforts to introduce structural reforms aimed at modifying or building systems and institutions in the economy, government and party:

  • Economy: At the 2012 Economic Work Conference, Premier Li identified “restructuring of the economic development model” as a top priority for the coming year, focusing on the imperatives to do the following: increase domestic demand; increase independent technological innovation; and change the pattern of economic development. To support this transformation, he outlined a requirement to centralize key policy decisions through a system of “top level design” (dingceng sheji) as a way to resolve structural irrationalities and improve the efficiency of the market economy (Xinhua, December 16, 2012). 
  • Government: In March, the 12th National People’s Congress and Second Plenary of the 18th Party Congress passed the State Council Institutional Reform and Functional Transformation Plan. The plan outlines tasks and timelines over the next three to five years to “accelerate construction of a service oriented government featuring scientific functions, an optimized structure, integrity and high efficiency and producing satisfaction among the people” (Xinhua, March 28, 2013). These aim to reduce permit approval requirements, standardize and streamline procedures in the acquisition and distribution of goods, eliminate redundant bureaucratic offices and procedures, cancel unneeded or revise excessive administrative fees, establish and improve macro-economic controls, improve market mechanisms and improve public and social service functions. 
  • Party: Among an array of regulations to standardize promotion, recruitment and other procedures, the CCP published two comprehensive sets of regulations that regularize some of the most basic party processes. The first set detailed which party organs are authorized to draft, approve, publish, amend and abolish party regulations and which procedures they are expected to follow. The second set detailed how party regulations should be recorded, reviewed, amended or abolished. While based on provisional rules enacted in 1990, the new regulations introduce requirements for the CCP to publish “all” of its regulations, except in a few “special cases”—a significant loophole. It also stipulates the CCP must have both annual and five-year plans for drafting and amending party rules (Xinhua, May 28).

Implications for CCP Politics and Ideology

In the classic 1943 formulation from Some Questions Concerning Leadership, Mao explained that the aim of the “mass line” was to “take the scattered and unsystematic ideas of the masses,” turn them into “concentrated and systematic ideas” and then “go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own.” This formulation pointed in two directions: toward Leninist elitism, in its assumption that the CCP could discern and dictate an agenda that embodied the deepest yearnings of the masses; and yet toward a genuine populism, in the assumption that the people should determine their own affairs. 

Xi’s formulation bears little resemblance to this classic formulation. As explained by Xi at a Politburo study session, the “main point” of the mass line is for the party to “focus on working for the people” as well as for cadres to be “competent and incorruptible” (Xinhua, April 19). Speeches by senior leaders on the “mass line” similarly have focused overwhelmingly on the topic of improving the overall competence and integrity of CCP cadres so that the regime can provide more effective governance and realize its goals and objectives. In his “investigation” trip to Hebei to model behavior for all officials, for example, Xi focused on topics such as the availability of consumer goods for rural populations, the quality of social services and opportunities for advancement. Under Xi, the mass line thus appears to be less about mobilizing the masses against entrenched elites to realize utopian visions than it is about mobilizing party elites to more effectively manage the masses in support of the national leadership’s economic and political objectives.

The reorienting of party leadership toward the provision of goods and services to meet the diversifying needs of an increasingly prosperous, pluralistic society has already become a hallmark of party politics and ideological concepts under Xi. These features are evident in Xi’s signature “Chinese Dream” concept. The Chinese dream draws heavily from the collective national ideal of “the rejuvenation of the Chinese people” (zhonghua minzu de weida fuxing) refined by generations of party leaders. Xi’s contribution has been to highlight how national rejuvenation will benefit the average citizen. In his inauguration speech as President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi explained the Chinese dream must remain “close to the people” and “benefit the people” (Xinhua, March 17). Xi similarly has explained that to “meet the people’s desire for a better life is precisely our mission” (Xinhua, November 15).

The CCP led by Xi has shown no interest in liberal reforms that could impair the exercise of party rule. Nor does the party appear likely to ease any time soon the extensive surveillance and control so essential to the regime’s survival. Nevertheless, the trends represented by the mass line campaign point to a recognition that the regime’s long-term prospects hinge on reforms to accommodate the growing clout of its citizenry. With the collapse of the decades-old export and investment driven growth model, China’s future development will depend much more on consumer spending by a large body of prosperous citizens, who are likely to be well educated. With their spending power as leverage, these citizens are likely to demand a far higher level of goods, services and competent governance than authorities have hitherto provided. Through the mass line campaign, institutional and systemic reforms as well as other measures to buttress and improve the regime’s performance, Xi and his colleagues are seeking to align the party’s politics and ideology to better accord with the new realities. The task is tremendous and probably will take years of work. For this reason, the mass line education campaign represents the fundamental concerns and themes that are likely to dominate political thought and policy through the rest of the Xi administration.