Seventy years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the legacy of great Communist leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping remains the “gravity pole” of China’s policymaking efforts, as it guarantees high levels of consistency between the country’s ideology and the dramatic pace of its modernization.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is the sole provider of behavioral norms to the country, and that it is the will of the political leadership to influence policymaking. This is only partially true, as Mao had envisioned a cycle for policymaking that included some inputs from civil society. Mao’s “mass line” (zhiliang xian) is indeed widely known as the Party’s “systematic set of programs and policies with enduring validity”, as Graham Young, keynote sinologist from the Australian National University (ANU), had defined it in 1980.
The concept of “mass line” entered into Mao’s writings in the late 1960s at a time when the Cultural Revolution had just started, and Mao had been paying growing attention to the architecture of China’s Communist leadership. Consistently with Vladimir Lenin’s belief that spontaneous mass activity was de facto inefficient, Mao had promoted the engagement of civil society into politics, while, at the same time, contending that the party had the responsibility to interpret the confused messages of the masses and transform them into substantial contributions to the principles of Marxism-Leninism. In this sense, the “mass line” was articulated under the impression that policymaking was stimulated by the masses, thus supporting the notion that politics moved “from the masses to the masses” (cong qunzhong zhong lai dao qunzhong zhong qu). The rationale behind Mao’s “mass line” was consistent with the Great Helmsman’s previous endeavors on the occasion of the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” (baihua qifang). It was indeed in 1956 that Mao publicly addressed China’s intellectuals by stating that “the policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science”. With this statement, the Great Helmsman sought to encourage China’s intelligentsia to express openly its opinions, suggestions and criticism over the work of the party. Responses were so negative and exceeded Mao’s expectations so greatly that an “Anti-Rightists Campaign” (fan you yundong) was launched shortly afterwards, remaining operative for the following two years and being revoked only in 1959. Punishments were diverse, and spanned from informal instances of self-criticism to public executions. This campaign did not even spare high-level Communist officials, as under its banner were purged both Peng Dehuai, then-incumbent Minister of National Defense and Zhu Rongji who, in 1998, would serve as the first Premier of the PRC. Other than these campaigns’ significance in the context of China’s nation-building, the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” and the “Anti-Rightists Campaign” are also among the first instances of the developing relation between the party and the country’s civil society. These campaigns should then be interpreted as “alarm bells” for what would later be the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) — one of the most gruesome times for China’s modern history — the vicissitudes of which directly affected serving president Xi Jinping. Indeed, his father, Xi Zhongxun, was among the cadres to be purged.
Given president Xi’s personal experience with the Cultural Revolution, one might have expected him to grow into a more tolerant figure towards civil society. Nonetheless, this has not been the case, as the president’s animosity is not only well-known, but commonly understood by scholars as the ultimate proof of the hard-authoritarian cycle currently experienced by the country. Yet, this interpretation is juxtaposed to another that interprets Xi’s approach to civil society as an “effort to remake [it] in the party-state’s image” (Shieh 2018). And it is this explanation that finds the most support from the analyses of Xi’s domestic policies.
Although civil society have not been completely assimilated into the CPC, it has been limited through a mixture of positive and negative reinforcements. For instance, re-organizational changes in the party’s agential structure openly challenged civil society in areas that were traditionally part of its domain (e.g., climate and the environment, health and social justice). As Carl Minzner from Fordham University stressed, Xi’s approach has, in a sense, deprived “social activists of the gradual evolutionary path toward becoming a moderate, institutionalized political force”, despite avoiding to completely obliterate their role. In fact, in the nineteenth Party Congress report, the role of “social organizations” in shaping “social governance” and “socialist consultative democracy” is incorporated among the country’s struggles towards modernization. In simpler terms, the report implies that civil society should act solely in a consultative role that supports the decisions of the party, de facto taking into consideration its impact on policy-making but limiting it to the party’s pre-approved options.
This choice of dual reinforcements is often explained as Xi’s attempt to remodel the country’s civil society. Yet, civil society in China has proven to be incredibly resilient to the strain imposed by the Party, as the 2019 Hong Kong protests have shown. And the question for Communist leaders now remains about China’s development into a mature global Communist power: how can the country grow into a stable power, if the contribution of its “masses” cannot be fully heard?