On June 18, Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, announced a new campaign to “rectify” the Party, calling on members to follow “the mass line” and clean up their degenerate habits. The movement is reminiscent of Maoist-era rhetoric and purges: news of officials dying during secretive Party interrogation procedures has trickled out of China, and one of Xi’s pithy new slogans is, “look in the mirror, fix your attire, take a bath, and treat your illness.”
The advice could be helpful to the cadre corps, given recent scandals: in one of China’s highest profile corruption cases, the former rail minister Liu Zhijun was put on trial earlier this month for accepting 64.6 million yuan ($10.5 million) in bribes; he was also accused of using his official post to maintain improper sexual relations with 20 actresses. To the Chinese public, cases like this confirm that official corruption has pervaded every level of government. Since Xi took power in March, he has launched an anti-corruption campaign in an attempt to restore people’s faith in the Party; the “mass line” education movement appears to be an attempt to kick it up a notch.
Given that they have “separated from the masses” as of late, Party members should return to “serving the people wholeheartedly,” Xi said in his first speech outlining the campaign on June 18. Meanwhile, a large-scale “cleansing” will commence to rid the Party of the four ills: “formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism, and extravagance.” Commentators have noted the close similarity between these loathed “isms” and those pointed out by Mao Zedong 50 years ago.
As in all Chinese communist political mobilizations, loyalty to the leadership is key. That is why Xi Jinping has given a key role in his mass line campaign to his old schoolmate, Chen Xi.
Chen’s job title is a mouthful: “Deputy Group Leader of the Mass Line Education and Practice Movement Leading Small Group.”
As a right-hand-man in the Party small group in charge of the campaign, Chen has a good perch to supervise it. In Chinese media reports, he is often reported to watch over political study groups, and speaks at length about the need to adhere to Party discipline.
Born in Fujian Province in 1953, Chen was a friend of Xi’s in their university days. Both were students at Tsinghua University from 1975 to 1979, where they majored in chemical engineering. With Xi as a reference, Chen became a party member in 1978.
Chen was also promoted to a range of Party positions with Xi’s help. After staying on at Tsinghua to earn a master’s degree, he continued to work at the school as a leader in the university’s Party committee, a small group of cadres that supervise and dictate affairs. In 2002, Chen was made Secretary of the group.
In 2011, Xi Jinping brought Chen to Beijing, and arranged his entry into the 18th Central Committee, a group of about 350 Party officials that wield great power in China.
Chen’s weightiest position yet was bestowed him in April of this year, when he was appointed to executive deputy secretary of the Organization Department, an important organ in the Party that handles personnel assignments. Less than two months later, he has now been appointed to be one of the supervisors of Xi’s new rectification campaign.
Party rectification campaigns, called “zhengfeng yundong” in Chinese, were invented by Mao to eliminate political opponents and entrench himself as the final authority on communist ideology. The first such campaign, from 1942 to 1944, was supposed to test the loyalty of Party members and remove those suspected of being “spies” for the Nationalist opposition. Similar campaigns were launched throughout the 1950s, many of them employing brutality and strict quotas on how many members to persecute.
Perhaps the most notorious was Mao’s 1957 “Anti-Rightist” campaign, which savaged intellectuals who dared to criticize the Party’s rule. Many were forced to undergo “thought reform” in labor camps, while others were jailed and many lynched.
Scholars who study the subject say that Party rectifications have several distinct phases: First, the leader identifies the problem, then members study and discuss major communist texts that explicate it, after which they are grouped together to engage in criticism and self-criticism. The final step is disciplinary action to punish the ideological stragglers—in this case, corrupt officials who happen to get caught.
Xi’s “mass line” may not use the old-school form of forced small group study, but so far the campaign, which is to take place over the following year, has begun in traditional Maoist fashion. Blaring propaganda has been posted on the website dedicated to the campaign, which is sponsored by the Party small group and compiled by the People’s Daily state newspaper.
“Using a ‘blood and flesh connection’ to describe the origin of the Party-masses relationship,” is the headline of one of the essays posted on the site. “Actively using the honest and clean political culture of our country’s history as a reference, while constantly increasing the ability to fight corruption, prevent moral degeneration, and withstand risks,” another reads.
Given that it’s the 21st century, the criticism and self-criticism aspect has taken on a virtual touch: the movement’s website includes an online message board where Party members can post their reflections after engaging in study.
Violence against problematic officials is still very much on the menu, though. Since Xi began his anti-corruption campaign, media reports have emerged of officials being tortured and interrogated, sometimes to death in “shuanggui,” a form of disciplinary detention. Bo Xilai, the disgraced Politburo member and Chongqing party chief, spent 10 months in “shuanggui” detention before he was handed to the judicial system to await trial.
Within the past four months, at least three officials have died during shuanggui. The latest victim was Qian Guoliang, head of the Earthquake Administration in Huangmei County, Hubei Province, who was detained by Party investigators on April 8, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily. Chinese authorities said the cause of his death was respiratory failure, but photos that circulated online showed the man lying lifeless on a hospital bed, the area around his mouth black, bloody, and bruised.