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Cynicism in Criticism and Self-Criticism Sessions

Just as the anti-corruption campaign has created a sense of fear among officials and the eight-point code has imposed an institutionalized process of internalizing new identities and interests among officials, they have also produced a kind of inactivity among some officials, rather than facilitating the presumed ethical subjects. In a context such as this, officials strive to reduce the risks and uncertainty for themselves while simultaneously calling for less risk-averse behaviour by others (Bevir and Rhodes 2010: 203). The problem is some officials have not necessarily fully engaged with the ethical transformation advocated by the Party. As a result, the implementation of the regulations and their interpretation can lead to practical problems. For example, some of President Xi’s most powerful initiatives, the anti-corruption, anti-four undesirable working styles campaigns and in particular the MLE programme have opened up spaces for engagement, in which there has been a continuum of involvement, from full engagement to a wide range of practices, such as irony, cynicism and anomie among officials (Weller 1994: 200). As an official from an education department told us: [1]

ary between the public and the private is. It is quite logical and reasonable that I have fun with my own money and without any violation of the rules of the Party. I find that the leaders are afraid to go on their vacations as they would be suspected of spending public funds or using the government cars. Last year, there were more than 100 million people going abroad for holiday, it is also normal that leaders would like to spend their holidays with their families, they are also citizens who have the right to enjoy the benefit of the reform and the opening up. They need to take care of their own lives in addition to their work.

For many Party members, following organizational disciplinary guidance is far from a conscious choice made by themselves (Gong 2008: 151). The reason for this is meanings become fragmented through the process of interpretation in the myriad levels and layers of the Party. That is, in the tension between the formation of the discourses of the central Party and the interpretation of this discourse among officials, “discourse domination” can never be total (Weller 1994: 205).

In these institutional spaces, discourses can be fragmented by numerous official lines of interpretation and many alternative sources of meaning, even though they remain firmly embedded in the system itself (200). The unintended consequence of this institutional freedom to interpret discourse is that it can enable both a kind of inactivity and also a kind of opportunity where opportunistic officials can seek personal profit from activism (Hualing 2013: 11). For example, a case in point is the criticism and self-criticism sessions: these can deteriorate into a superficial ritual and/or an arena for political competition (3). As a result, officials often find it is difficult to be completely honest at criticism and self-criticism study sessions. An official working in higher education says:

Because unity is the ultimate priority, so while we try to be sincere as we speak of our faults and conduct the criticism on others, we do not mention all of our or their problems. We just include a few of our or their smaller faults. We have to take into account that they are sometimes our leaders. You need to keep their faces by proposing their faults in a euphemistic way.

Thus, as President Xi feared (see Chap. 9), there could be occasions where officials out of loyalty to friends and also superiors tend to shield each other from criticism. Thus, while officials participate in campaigns, conduct their political study and perform criticism and self-criticisms, they can also manipulate the system for their own survival and sit quietly by as others do the same (Weller 1994: 212). The discourse of “unity with leaders” here is translated into practices dedicated to self-protection. In the process of criticism and self-criticism sessions, they act in a moderate way that in practice is neither “honest” nor “dishonest” merely “euphemistic.” These officials find themselves treading a fine line, in which the unity of the Party can be harmed by saying too much, or while the effectiveness of the meeting is compromised by saying too little. So the meeting as the technology of governing others becomes neo-collectivism, in which people adhere more to the form than the content of proceedings. Thus, although the criticism and self-criticism sessions were designed for the purpose of officials to “bathe the soul,” in order to perform penance and transform the self, officials can create “multiple sites of resistances” (Chang 2011: 174) that undermine the hegemonic control of the Party.

As we have shown in Chap. 9, in the meetings, officials have perfected strategies for survival that have deflected the current campaigns without ever resisting it directly (Weller 1994: 208). For example, there is a case of cynical learning of Party decrees among officials, as an official working in higher education told us:

My leader is very busy. He has to deal with a lot of complicated practical problems. Therefore, it will not be possible for him to sit in meetings and study sessions to learn the Party decrees as normal officials do. Therefore, he has to find out for himself, for example, he learns about the China Dream from the news.

“Rational” discourse of the Party thus finds itself undercut from the beginning, even in the absence of any direct resistance (Weller 1994: 207). Thus, the reaction of officials may not be directly opposed to the Party line. Instead, they consider policies and strategies alternative to those initiated by the Party. For example, a middle-level official from a provincial government complained to us about the lack of objective and realistic steps for the achievement of the China Dream: [2]

you see people from the very bottom become prestigious figures, have you ever found such a one in contemporary China?

Moreover, cynicism such as this can become both hidden and embedded in formalism. That is, officials can read all the Party decrees in the same way and convene different levels of meetings to spread Party messages, with a cynical view towards their significance (Weller 1994: 206). For example, sometimes they neither follow what the Party requires nor refuse to act, but act in an empty way without meaningful ends. This is also called “using formalism to counter formalism.” As an official from an education department told us:

I will look through the Party’s texts, but I will not look into the deeper meanings of these texts, such as what is the actual purpose of the campaign etc., I feel they do not have any meaning, and many texts also contain too much formalist writing styles.

In other words, through cynical reading, nothing is directly resisted; however, through this practice, officials can undermine the underlying message contained in official discourses, which are concerned with a practical phenomenon (Weller 1994: 206). As the same official further elaborated:

Mass Line Education is not good, as sometimes it becomes a mere formality.

It is difficult to balance, forms are important, the sense of form is to raise work to a higher level, but in some places there is too much formality in the process and the result is there is limited impact. In some places, the problem is to oppose formalism with a new form of formalism.

Thus, by adopting formalism to counter the initiatives of the MLE programme, officials have been accused of wasting time on what some refer to as useless projects in local contexts, therefore further risking the negative reactions of the masses. In the criticism and self-criticism study sessions, “stupidity” is also a good veil for passive workplace resistance (209). As the case in a province, according to a teacher we interviewed:

The Mass Line Education programme was implemented for the purpose of consulting with and empathising with local people. In our school, the school leaders were taken to a small rural county and instructed to live with the local people for a month. I think this requirement is very stupid. What can a school leader do in the rural countryside, apart from perhaps donate money? I think this is an empty initiative. If empathy and understanding is not from the bottom of your heart but only performed as a form, what use is it?

In this case, formalism and stupidity are blurred and they are practiced as a strategy of officials’ resistance. Here we see the distance that can exist between the governing “mentality” of the central Party and governing in practice. We argue that the central task is a matter of working out the viable balance between the governed and the governing self and the other, between public behaviour and private thoughts, as well as between political ideals and the messiness and contingencies of everyday life (Bregnbaek 2012: 735). There are numerous strategies for achieving this viable balance, which further signifies numerous subjective singularities. This is what we call hybridization.

  • [1] don’t think the definition of unsatisfactory work styles is clear. For example,when we talk about anti- extravagance, it must be clear where the bound-
  • [2] think it is better to propose 10 objectives rather than the China dream,once the objectives are met, we are a step closer to the China dream, like theten-year program, and the five-year plans, that is, the journey towards Chinadream should be mapped out in a number of different steps. Now a lot ofpeople consider the China dream a joke, how can we turn our hope of a better life into a dream? It is also not the same as the American dream, where
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