Last Wednesday, China’s new leader went looking for advice. “The CPC should be able to put up with sharp criticism, correct mistakes if it has committed them and avoid them if it has not,” said Xi Jinping, referring to the Communist Party of China. “Non-CPC personages should meanwhile have the courage to tell the truth, speak words jarring on the ear, and truthfully reflect public aspirations.”
Did Xi, in just a few words, overturn decades of Chinese Communist thinking on social control? Just about no one thinks so. “Sharp criticism?” asked Zhang Xing, a Beijing lawyer. “We cannot even comment on news reports, let alone make sharp criticism.” Zhang, like many others, suggests the party is “enticing the snake out of its cave.”
That’s a reference to Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, a period beginning in 1956 when the Chinese people were encouraged to voice their views. Yet the Great Helmsman, as Mao was known, changed tack the following year and, with the Anti-Rightist Movement, punished or imprisoned those who had earlier expressed criticism.
Was “letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thoughts contend” a ploy to see who opposed the regime? Many now think so, hence Zhang’s reference to getting the snake to slither out of its nest. Yet others instead believe Mao had misjudged his popularity and had thought that critical views would be directed at his enemies, not at him.
What is Xi Jinping’s motivation for starting a new Hundred Flowers period? He could be emulating Mao and waiting for enemies to expose themselves. He could be completely cynical by using reformist language to hide increasingly harsh repression. He could be merely trying to make his mark by saying something flashy. He could even be hoping public opinion will support an agenda of change.
Whatever he is doing, it looks as if he is also responding to pressures in society. Last year, the mighty Communist Party of China was rocked by the ambition, corruption, intrigue, lust, murder, and treason of its senior officials, and so perhaps it must now appease growing discontent.
Yet as the party does so, the Chinese people are seeing an opening to push their leaders. Microblogger Duan Wanjin, for one, wasted no time. “Mr. Xi, I was encouraged today to hear you say citizens and other civic groups can sharply criticize the ruling party,” the lawyer wrote. “Sharp is a good word, but you would be better served to let those at the Supreme Court give it a legal definition and clearly define the difference between ‘inciting subversion’ and ‘sharp criticism.’” Ai Weiwei, the famed artist-turned-dissident, wasn’t bashful either. “First sentence of the New Year,” he wrote on Twitter, “release all political prisoners.” The Chinese people are responding with gusto, mostly with suggestions antithetical to the notion of one-party rule.
The worst thing for the party is that the Chinese people take Xi seriously. He surely knows his Qing dynasty history. China’s last set of imperial rulers had to pay lip service to constitutional reform to quell popular discontent at the end of the 19th century. When the populace wanted real change, however, conservative elements in Beijing backtracked and cracked down even harder. The failure of the Hundred Days’ Reform initiative then spurred revolutionary forces into action.
We all know what eventually happened to the Qing.