Date: 05/10/2013

Ananth Krishnan

People queue up before a giant vase on Tiananmen Square in Beijing to mark the 64th anniversary of founding of the People's Republic of China by Mao Zedong on October 1. The giant vase has met with scathing criticism from Chinese internet users after a newspaper revealed its high cost. Photo: AP
“Our banquets were excessive,” confessed one Communist Party official.

“After my promotion, I started becoming arrogant,” revealed another. A third said, head bowed down, that he ordered a luxury car for his official commute because he “enjoyed riding in it”.

The confessions were made not in a courtroom — where erring Communist Party of China (CPC) officials, like the former Politburo member Bo Xilai, are usually brought to book in choreographed trials — but, amazingly, on State television.

Last week, tens of millions of Chinese tuned in to the daily State news broadcast on China Central Television (CCTV) at 7 p.m. — the most watched show across China — to witness a spectacle rarely seen since the days of Mao Zedong.

Sat around a table were officials from the northern Hebei province who, one by one, narrated their failures in front of cameras.

At the centre was the CPC’s General Secretary, Xi Jinping, who nodded as he listened quietly and took down notes furiously, betraying no sign of emotion.

The “self-criticism” session, televised across the country, was only the latest move by Mr. Xi who has, since taking over as Party chief last November and as President in March, focused on attempting to improve the ruling party’s image, particularly when it comes to the issue of official corruption.

In past months, Mr. Xi has put in force crackdowns, ranging from banning alcohol at government functions and limiting cadres to simple meals of “four dishes, and one soup”.

Addressing public anger at the often wayward lives of high officials may be his abiding objective, analysts say, but the moves have also helped Mr. Xi quickly consolidate his position at the top of the party. In doing so, Mr. Xi (59), the “princeling” son of a former leading CPC official, has also established a style markedly different from that of his more subdued predecessor Hu Jintao.

The Hebei “self-criticism” session, most strikingly, did not involve lower-level cadres but the senior most officials, including the Governor, of the northern Chinese province.

The officials’ comments touched upon topics that often emerge as the subject of Chinese citizens’ ire, such as extravagant banquets, luxury government cars and elaborate “inspection tours” that are often meaningless charades.

“We began just glancing at ‘shop fronts’ and rarely checking out ‘the backyards’ and ‘corners’ during inspection trips,” confessed one official, as the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported.

Said another: “After we were promoted and were officials for a long time … we started feeling good and arrogant… surrounded by praise and constantly pleased by others”.

The Hebei session, CPC officials say, may be just the beginning. In recent months, Mr. Xi and other leaders of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee have warned officials to follow a year-long “mass line campaign” — another move from the Mao playbook.

Since the Hebei session, Party units at state-run enterprises, government departments and universities have held sessions to study Mr. Xi’s remarks to the Hebei officials, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. The objective was to remove “undesirable work styles among officials and forging closer Party-people ties”.

The campaigns have divided opinion, at least judging by the reaction on China’s microblogs. Some welcomed any move to improve work-styles, while others expressed discomfort at the invocation of a sensitive chapter in China’s history.

Chinese liberals, particularly, have derided the moves as populist window-dressing in the absence of more substantial political reforms.

Mr. Xi, however, made clear to the officials in Hebei he did not just want “fancy words” from them, but “real criticisms and real self-criticisms”.

Keywords: Communist Party of China, Bo Xilai, Chinese party image