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Home arrow Political science arrow China’s Ethical Revolution and Regaining Legitimacy: Reforming the Communist Party through Its Public Servants


Mutual Criticism and Self-Criticism

During the MLE programme, officials were induced to speak and write self-critically and listen to their peer’s advice and perspectives during criticism and self-criticism meetings. Party-led, so-called democratic life meetings like these were first introduced in Yan’an in the early 1940s as a tool to strengthen Party democracy by allowing people to voice their opinions about one another. These meetings are now being revived across China under the MLE programme for local officials to confess their misdeeds and to criticize one another for the purposes of exposing traces of the four undesirable work styles (Yuen 2014: 45). The rationale is based on the imperatives of Party unity in the pursuit of the socialist ideal. Under Chairman Mao, the techniques of self-criticism were aimed at the removal of personal faults and incorrect thoughts that threatened that ideal and the end result was supposed to be the restoration of unity (Ji 2004: 162). A mid-level official from a propaganda department explains the centrality of unity and discipline for the Party in the present day:

The so-called discipline, refers to the rules of conduct that the Party and societies expect its members to abide by, thus ensuring the realization of goals. Discipline plays the function as glass to the water. Without glass, the water will be scattered. People who are organized but without discipline are like a magnet demagnetized.

We will suggest that Party discipline is being reasserted through these compulsory criticism and self-criticism study sessions. We describe the study sessions as examples of “democratic panopticism,” through which a form of evaluation from the surrounding asymmetrical power relations of the Party is fulfilled (Rehmann 2016: 147). In these study sessions, officials are mobilized against each other and against their own cooperative interests; therefore, the interactions in these meeting are superimposed by tactical considerations, which can prevent the development of friendships (148). More importantly, as we will examine below, it is through these study sessions that the truth of the Party (articulated as knowledge of the masses) is embodied and enacted in the subjectivities of officials in the process of self-criticism, as a technology of the self. We will also show that the way in which the care of others and the care of the self are further annexed is through the notion of “self-cultivation.”

Party meetings are like a juridical body that is seen as just and can entail truth-telling through validation procedures (Foucault 2014: 45). Officials are directed towards the worship of greatness (i.e., the Party’s initiatives) and the struggle against the self (Ji 2004: 173). In summary, officials are required to perform self-criticism in the light of the Party’s policies and texts, and they were pressed to criticize others whose behaviour dose not measure up. Group leaders and mediators are then able to detect and correct misinterpretations (of the Party’s rules and purpose) (228). In this process, the subject is placed at the intersection between the rules of conduct that must be remembered and the point of departure for future actions that should conform to this code. In other words, the subject is placed at the intersection between code and actions. So in this process, there is no subjectivity (Foucault 2014: 100). This is also where the techniques of discipline and self become fused.

Stressing the conscious and critical awareness of the self and of one’s historical situation in and through the deliberate imitation of models is an integral part of the Chinese tradition itself (Nivison 1956: 59). This is a basic neo-Confucian dualism, for which “his principles (li) being correct, his spirit (material energy, qi) is strong and he will defend these principles to the death, even when he stands alone (in glorious isolation) opposed by all” (60). In the past, being critical of others was the mechanism through which the central Party employed a mass discourse to discipline local cadres and rectify their ideology (Ji 2004: 73). Within this more recent disciplinary institution (i.e., the criticism and selfcriticism sessions under MLE), there is an obligation to tell the truth about oneself, which is inscribed within a relationship to another that is considered indispensable, foundational, and that was at the same time a relationship of obedience and a relationship of submission (Foucault 2014: 129). Obedience presupposes the total monitoring of behaviour by the master. It is a sacrifice of the self, a sacrifice of the subject’s will (Horujy 2015: 55). Obedience is one of the instrumental, not one of the generative, principles of ascesis (56). That is to say, officials have to practise a pure form of obedience that does not owe its value to the order itself, but simply to the fact that it be followed under any and all circumstances (Foucault 2014: 137). In other words, there is a director and directed relationship within this institution (131), in which colleagues or cadres are taking it in turn to act as directors and also as the one who performs self-criticism. One can never assume that one has attained a definitive state of mastery over others and the self (135), and as a consequence, ethical self (and other) scrutiny becomes a perpetual process.

In these study sessions, the others (i.e., session-facilitators and other officials) are the mediators in relation to participating individuals. Interaction with others, for example, through conversation, is also an important technique of the self, for it can facilitate a return of the self (self- subjectivation), or it can lead to a drastic and fundamental change, that is, a transformation of the self (trans-subjectivation) (Horujy 2015: 14). As a mid-level official from a provincial department told us:

There are required tasks for everyone in the meeting to fulfil, such as learning the Party’s standards, writing self-analysis, comments, and presentation, listening to the views, putting forward measures, comparing and inspection, rectification.

During these sessions, officials are expected to perform unconditional obedience, uninterrupted examination and exhaustive confession, which form an ensemble in which each element reinforces the others (Horujy 2015: 58). In this ensemble, as under previous disciplinary campaigns, officials are not only required to say certain things but also to use exactly the right words when saying them (Ji 2004: 44). Thus, in the study sessions, there are:

[t]echnologies of systems of signs which permit the use of signs (Party decrees), meanings, symbols, or signification; techniques of power which determine the behavior of individuals, subordinate them to certain ends or to domination, and objectify the subject; technologies of the self which permit individuals to effect, alone or with the assistance of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, on their thoughts, their behavior, and their mode of being; and to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality. (Horujy 2015: 66)

Yet, in this environment, where discrepancies between thoughts, words and deeds were frequent, those who are able to retain their integrity became much admired. So too, those able to beat the system or to make the system work for them were admired by some (Oksenberg 1970: 323). Thus, these self-criticism meetings become a theatre that can barely distinguish between the bad and the good; as a consequence there is an anomic element. However, at the same time, there is an element of boredom in the power functioning of mutual self-criticism (Weller 1994: 211).

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