Home Political science China’s Ethical Revolution and Regaining Legitimacy: Reforming the Communist Party through Its Public Servants
Politics of Shame, Sincerity and Honesty in Avowal
In the practice of avowal, he/she who speaks obligates himself/herself to being what he/she says he/she is; while avowal ties the subject to what he affirms, it also qualifies him/her differently with regard to what he/ she says (Foucault 2014: 16-17). The goal of practices of the self involves two opposite practices: the practices of self-creation through conforming to certain criteria of style and practices of self-destruction through a rejection of the self, an absolute self-renunciation, realized through a successive (self-) disassemblage of the subject (Horujy 2015: 65).
In short, avowal is a verbal act through which the subject affirms who he/she is, binds himself/herself to this truth, places himself/herself in a relationship of dependence with regard to another and modifies at the same time his/her relationship to himself/herself (Foucault 2014: 17). In this practice of avowal, it requires a sense of shame. Shame has also become a central element of the intended transformation of the self through the rituals of criticism and self-criticism in the study sessions. In these sessions, shame is an embodied process to be sweated out. For example, an official from the disciplinary department elaborates:
Meetings among the leaders on the themes of “strictly regulating the Party political activities, strictly observing Party discipline, deepening the development of work style, so as to be loyal and honest to the Party to fulfil the responsibility” were held with the aim of strengthening the Party spirit, strictly discipline themselves and to form earnest work styles for the purpose of serving the healthy development of the local economy—all of this was to be achieved through criticizing and self-criticizing which requires “blush and sweat with shame.”
For Agamben, shame is the hidden structure of all subjectivity and consciousness, which lies solely in the event of enunciation (De la Durantaye 2009: 280). Thus, the sense of shame and the practices of shaming are closely associated with the rituals for reintegrating transgressors back into society, which is premised upon them being purified through shaming rituals (Braithwaite 1989). This is a very similar ritualistic process to what happens in criticism and self-criticism study sessions, where officials who had committed errors of thought and judgement are verbally attacked and threatened with exclusion from the group during these sessions; however, subsequently, they are welcomed back into the fold once they have made sincere self-criticisms (Ji 2004: 162).
In the criticism and self-criticism study sessions, officials are only required to critique each other (and themselves) in front of peer communist members, rather than in front of members of the public. During the self-criticism sessions, there is a rite of participation among other officials, who are listening, nodding and contemplating their own practices (Foucault 2014: 115). As an official from a propaganda department told us:
In the study sessions for criticism and self-criticism, people sit together and make analysis, of oneself, of others or of each other. This is for the purpose of helping others and improving oneself, as we all help each other to analyse our strengths and weaknesses. So, I think it is actually like introspection, where you can analyse your behaviours, discover your weaknesses and then try to correct them. So we have the study sessions, but we also have interviews, through these processes, you begin to see from the perspectives of others that your well-intentioned practices can sometimes be perceived differently by others who have been hurt by them.
Thus, through self-criticism, individuals think, reflect and turn inward upon themselves. On hearing the words of the Party, individuals grasp the truth within themselves and tell the truth. In this sense, selfhood refers to the capacity not only to take ourselves as objects but also to objectify our experiences and to act in relation to them—to signify or to say something or to make something of these experiences while, at the same time, referring them to ourselves and to others (McCarthy 2005: 69). Thus, self-criticism is a hybrid between the examination of conscience and avowal, by which the form of examining one’s conscience and the form of exposing one’s soul to colleagues in the meetings are combined (Foucault 2014: 95).
However, as Amoureux (2015: 16) finds, we must distinguish between ethical reflexivity and strategic reflexivity, in which strategic reflexivity is more concerned with how to achieve a predetermined objective than with scrutinizing goals and normative guideposts. That said, as we will reveal below, while the Party attempts to encourage an environment of ethical reflexivity, some members can be engaged in strategic reflexivity, by which they attempt to meet the demands of the Party while minimizing the risks of exposing the self in front of other members. In these instances, resistance and tension exist between an ethic of cultivation and the persistent circumstances of political engagement (Connolly 1993: 379). There is a kind of trinity, in which the techniques of unconditional obedience, interminable examination and exhaustive confession are perplexed (Miller 1993: 324). The criticism and self-criticism study sessions and associated meetings and interviews can be described as an institutionalization of individual asceticism, precisely because the ascetic of the self can only be achieved through the relationship to others, peers/colleagues and with the Party (Foucault 2014: 128). Thus, the practice of truth-telling can be a weapon (that is also how President Xi describes the criticism and selfcriticism study sessions) in the relationships between individuals; it is a means of modifying relations of power among those who speak, and is an element within an institutional structure (28).
The language used in the criticism and self-criticism sessions is highly ritualized, with stock phrases and linguistic formulae prescribed for use, as well as the inclusion of more elaborate forms of linguistic ceremonial practices (Ji 2004: 161). The Party attempts to penetrate this politicized language into officials’ private lives and to turn the whole of officialdom into “thought police” who monitored words to detect “incorrect” thought (2). It is extremely difficult and potentially dangerous for officials not to fully engage in this process. Faking acts would draw considerable criticism and exposure of dysfunctional attitudes. As an official from the disciplinary department told us:
Everyone has to write a report of his thoughts in order to summarize and capture the spirit of the meeting. This summary is then submitted to the supervising Organization Department or superior leaders. Our writings will be reviewed and could even be returned for rewriting and revision. It is really a problem for you if you did not pass the test of this exercise the first time.
According to Amoureux, through “writing self-analysis,” we open up the self to the examination of others and not just the self. This type of writing constitutes practices for shaping the self (2015: 87). Thus, by scripting of the self through the exchange of letters, for example, with likeminded (colleagues) souls, the self is offered the techniques and reasoned arguments for mastering personal flaws (Miller 1993: 340). Similarly, in the criticism and self-criticism study sessions, to appreciate the spirit of the Party’s documents, officials are expected to not only to be under examination, but by so doing, they are expected to review their entire lives by studying the Party’s documents, through learning key lessons from bad and good examples, and engaging in constant and detailed self-criticism (Nivison 1956: 67). As truth is the accomplishment of knowledge (McCarthy 2005: 37), so too, one’s own truth must be accomplished through self-knowledge. In other words, in order to know the truth about oneself, one must know the eternal truths of the nation that care for the masses (Foucault 2014: 117). This is a characteristic of learning the code, a rule of conduct, and a way of life (132). In other words, the care of others requires the care of the self; similarly, for the public good, the official has to be an honest man and remember what the Party demands (Foucault 2005: 201).
It is not only the written forms, in terms of self-evaluation and selfcriticism reports that are under scrutiny but also officials’ spoken words and ways of speaking that are being scrutinized. In this sense, officials had to speak as if they were doubt-free supporters of the current political line to protect themselves from political stigmatization and professional demotion (Shirk 1982: 114). Thus, for officials, speaking the coded language of the Party in terms of a discursive genre rests not so much on the referential meaning of pronunciation as it does on the correctness of the discourses (Hansen 2013: 48). In other words, it is the verbal act in itself that has interpretive values (Foucault 2014: 167). In this sense, it is not a matter of true or false, but a matter of being sincere or not. As President Xi says:
Some people express Marxism-Leninism to others and liberalism to themselves, they speak out of two voices from their mouth and treat people with two faces. In the criticism and self-criticism study sessions, some people believe whether I will criticize you or not is totally dependent on whether you will do the same for me or not, the superior care for the subordinate and the subordinate laud the superior, by so doing, the counterparts shield for each other. (9 May 2014)
President Xi’s concerns that some officials are performing “strategic” and half-hearted reflexivity have resulted in an intensification of the demands on officials to participate in even greater “ethical reflexivity.” This has included the introduction of a culture of fear, whereby officials are less fearful of openly revealing their wrongdoings than having them singled out by others (Ji 2004: 174). In Chap. 10, we will further elaborate on resistances in this context, for example, through examining cynicism associated with criticism and self-criticism sessions. The discourse of “honesty” denotes the notions of loyalty and righteousness, with which the official balances personal loyalties (to the self) with a more transcendent commitment (to the Party), while maintaining personal integrity (Shirk 1982: 115). As an official from an education department explains:
For the analysis on my own problems on undesirable working styles, I think I treat it very seriously and honestly. A lot of people also help you to analyse your practices. It was not the same as in the past when the study sessions were organized loosely and superficially. No one treated it seriously before and would not go further in examining themselves and others. This time is different, if I don’t mention a small aspect of my problems with regard to work styles, other colleagues would pick-up on this and ask me about it. This would be very embarrassing.
As noted above, on occasion, the study sessions can result in physical and emotional impacts, such as, embarrassment, shame and sweating, especially when errors and wrongdoings are exposed by others in the sessions. When we asked participants what “sweating” means in this context, one participant from a provincial government answered:
It is both a means of reminding you of what is expected and as a kind of warning to yourself. For example, it is a process whereby people gradually change themselves, they find themselves going bad. As a result, you will then feel shamed and start sweating when you compare your behaviours with the standards. You would become scared by what you have done in the past.
Thus, “sweating” is an effect of the technique of self associated with, as noted above, the ritual of shaming that enables the self to compare, renounce and transform the self when the self performs sincere selfreflection. There is a close connection between the purpose of purification and truth-telling, in which truth-telling purifies and through the physical act of sweating, “evil” is extracted from the body and the soul of the one who purges it through avowal (Foucault 2014: 13). This is the technology of the subject through which the individual is brought, either by himself/ herself or with the help or the direction of others, to transform himself/ herself and to modify his/her relationship to himself/herself. In avowal, we find that veridiction and technologies of the subject are integrated (24).
That being said, there is a reciprocal risk in this process. The one who confesses his wrongdoings runs a risk of disclosure of information that could be damaging (Shirk 1982: 129), while the one who critiques runs a risk of being seen as a political opportunist. In this context, there are risky and less risky ways of preforming self-criticism and criticism: here the dictates of honesty are combined with stipulations on acting authentically. In this sense, honesty, authenticity and responsibility are all remnants produced by the tensions between the self and others, and between the self and the Party. Thus, criticism and self-criticism are types of ethical work, which are part critical activity and part thought experiment, for the primary purposes of attempting to transform the criticizers into ethical and authentic colleagues and to transform oneself into the ethical subject of one’s behaviour, through the process of identifying what we are to do, either to moderate our acts or to decipher what we are (Foucault 1997: xxxiii). The purpose of this conversion is the transition of the self into a new self:
Conversion implies a sudden change ... this change must be a unique and sudden event, both historical and metahistorical, which immediately reshapes and transforms the subject’s mode of being. Secondly ... in this dramatic collapse of the subject taking place within history and also above history, you always have a transition: a transition from one type of being to another, from death to life, from mortality to immortality . Thirdly, conversion can take place only if there occurs a rupture in the very interior of the subject. The self that converts itself is a self that renounces itself. (Horujy 2015: 62)
These ascetic practices of avowal and conversion have been institutionalized by the Party in order to prevent behavioural and doctrinal excesses that might have emerged in the context of a competitive individual asceticism (Foucault 2014: 126). In other words, the ascetical self is both enabled and confined by the criticism and self-criticism study sessions and meetings launched by MLE programme. Thus, to foreground ethics includes an analysis of knowledge and power from the site of practices of the self, as a form of self-reflexivity. It is to control and dominate the self by exercising moderation (Amoureux 2015: 87). What is then being cultivated? According to Connolly, it is the possibilities of being imperfectly installed in established institutional practices (1993: 370).
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