China's leadership takes "big exam"

From: Xinhua Updated: 2014-03-25 11:32
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When the leaders of Communist Party of China (CPC) packed up and left the village of Xibaipo in north China's Hebei Province on March 23, 1949, the world changed forever.

Their destination was Beijing, about 350 km away. The journey from a mountain village to the city where emperors had ruled the Middle Kingdom for more than five centuries was epoch-making.

The question on everyone's lips was how long they would stay there. Today, the CPC leaders are still beating themselves up over the same question.

Party archives suggest that in 1949 the Party leaders were not dizzied by their success, following a string of military success against Kuomintang troops: They were alert.

Mao Zedong compared the trek to "going in for a big exam in the capital city" and pledged not to fail as Li Zicheng, a farmer who led an insurrectionist army in the seventeenth century did. Li only keep his grip on the city for 42 days after he deposed the Ming emperor.

Sixty-five years after leaving Xibaipo, the CPC is still in power, and the People's Republic of China, founded six months after Mao arrived in the capital, is the world's second largest economy.

Xi Jinping, elected general secretary of the CPC Central Committee in November 2012, brought up "the big exam" again when he visited Xibaipo in last July.

"Six decades have passed. We have made great progress. Chinese people are becoming independent and affluent, but we still face complicated challenges and severe problems. To be honest, the Party has a long way to go to pass the big exam," Xi told the people of Xibaipo.

The 18th CPC National Congress in November 2012 was in no doubt that the Party still had plenty of tests to face in governance, reform, opening up and developing a market economy. "The Party is confronted with increasingly grave dangers: lack of drive, incompetence, being out of touch with the people, corruption and other misconduct," read the congress report.

To deal with the problems, the new leadership has borrowed some wisdom from the old. What Mao's had said on Party members' work prior to the founding of New China in 1949 still has ideological and historical significance today, Xi said in Xibaipo.

In March 1949, Mao called on the whole Party to display modesty and prudence while guarding against conceit and impetuosity, to work hard and live simple lives.

Xi believes that Mao's remarks echoed lessons learnt from ups and downs in Chinese history, summarized the process of the CPC's development and showed profound thoughts about how to keep the CPC's advanced nature and purity as a ruling party and maintain long-term stability of a new nation.

The current leadership's attempt to sustain and improve Party's rule is a national campaign that has been underway since last June, the "mass-line", a renewal of the bond between people and Party.

The campaign was expected to be a thorough cleanup of undesirable practices by civil servants and Party officials. The targeted behavior was formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance: essentially, misuse of power.

Each of the seven members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee was assigned to supervise the campaign in a province. Xi got Hebei, where he made an inspection tour in July, paying tributes to Xibaipo, meeting local people and explaining why the Party needs such a campaign.

Two months later, he met members of the Party provincial committee, listened to them criticize one another and themselves about their lives and work, and told them what needed to be corrected. Then he made sure that they put their ideas into practice.

The feedback from the people in Hebei seemed positive.

"I will give him 100 (the highest score in Chinese school tests)," said Liu Chao, a Hebei villager from Tayuan where Xi went in July. "I met Xi. He is very down-to-earth."

He Yu, a resident of Zhengding County in Hebei, gave a score of 80: "I would like to leave room for improvement. People still worry that the campaign is a one-off thing. We expect the Party to continue improving its working practices."

KEEPING FAITH

Xi Jinping has called belief the "master switch" for the CPC. "Ideals and belief are like vitamins for communists," said the president of the second phase of the "mass line" campaign in January this year.

Without ideals and belief the Party will suffer from "vitamin deficiency" and consequently get "rickets". Cultivating belief in every Party member is the foremost task of the mass-line campaign.

It was unprecedented for a CPC leader to take part in the session in Hebei last September where provincial officials talked their problems.

Xi shared his thoughts with the CPC Hebei provincial committee in August: "I don't want to hear fancy words from you when I take part in your sessions. I want real criticisms and self-criticisms."

And the criticisms were for real. They analyzed their own conduct, exposed their failings, analyzed the causes and made plans to set things right. Shortcomings confessed to included obsession with show off work performance, slackness and self-indulgence.

Zhou Benshun, secretary of the Hebei committee believes that frailty of belief and poor theoretical study as the root causes of bad working practices.

Xi told Hebei officials never to waver in their faith and strive for "the common ideal of socialism with Chinese characteristics".

"If you cannot rouse yourself and our Party cannot rouse itself, then who will wake you up?" Xi asked.

The Hebei session was covered by state news institutions nationwide and became a textbook case of how criticism sessions should be conducted.

Previous Chinese leaders have expounded the importance of faith to the CPC and set examples as models of firm belief.

In 1925, Mao Zedong wrote, "I have faith in communism and advocate a proletarian social revolution."

Deng Xiaoping, who orchestrated reform and opening-up, told a CPC national conference in 1985 that: "In the past, however small or weak our party was, and whatever difficulties it faced, we maintained a great fighting capacity thanks to our faith in Marxism and communism. With common ideals we have strict discipline. Now, as in the past and in the future, that is our real strength."

Addressing a symposium in 1999 to mark the 78th anniversary of the CPC, Jiang Zemin, then general secretary of the central committee, said "Communists should adhere to socialism and communism as their fundamental political convictions, as well as Marxist dialectical materialism and historical materialism as their outlook on the world."

In 2006, Hu Jintao, Xi's predecessor, told a ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the Long March that, "a lofty ideal and firm belief should be upheld as a great banner for pooling cohesive force and inspiring people to advance, as well as the source of strength for overcoming difficulties and winning battles."

In the CPC's 93 years, communists have shed their blood and sacrificed generation after generation in their pursuit of national independence and liberation. Faith has guided and supported the CPC through decades of revolution and construction in peaceful times. In the face of temptations and challenges, Xi has called on all Party members to use their faith to make themselves "indestructible."

Once communists cast aside their ambitions, it is easy for them to get lost, become utilitarians and begin to pursue immediate pleasure. Some will use official positions to seek personal gain, the president warned.

The mass-line campaign has taken CPC members and officials on a purifying journey by teaching them to "look in the mirror, straighten their attire, take a bath, and seek remedies."

It has inspired CPC members to face up to their weak faith and spiritual "vitamin deficiency". It has blown the dusty cobwebs from their minds.

IMPROVING WORKING PRACTICES

In an exhibition at Xibaipo about its revolutionary past, there is a display of six restrictions the CPC imposed on officials 65 years ago: do not celebrate one's birthday; do not give gifts; fewer toasts at dinners; less clapping at meetings; do not name a place after a person; do not honor a CPC official in the same way as prominent communist leaders such as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.

In his visit last July, Xi stood in front of the board and crosschecked the rules with what the Party does today. His conclusion was that not all rules are fully observed.

The CPC has always believed the behavior of its members, officials in particular, plays a serious part in its rule. The current CPC leaders introduced an eight point rule a month after they were elected in November 2012 as the first battle in the war against corruption and bureaucracy.

The rule tells CPC officials to adopt a no-nonsense approach without ceremony and with less visits and meetings.

The rule may have its origins back in the early 1980s, when Xi was party chief of Zhengding County in Hebei. Locals still recall how Xi reacted to officialdom when he was a county official.

In the summer of 1983, Xi's jeep got stuck in the mire on a rural road. When they noticed that the passengers were officials, villagers refused to lend a hand and swore at them. Xi stopped one of the officials from berating the villagers and told them to reflect on why villagers might react this way.

The incident was a prelude to a regulation requiring officials to reject bureaucracy, take the lead in eschewing unhealthy practices, cut meetings and receptions; and value work efficiency.

Cheng Baohuai, a retired official from Zhengding, said the eight point rule "reflects the same revolutionary tradition" as the Zhengding regulation of 30 years ago.

The eight point rule preceded the mass-line campaign. Reflecting on their work and correcting bad practices are main contents of criticism and self-criticism sessions for Party officials during the campaign.

Over the past year, Party discipline has repeatedly barred officials from giving and receiving gifts bought with public money, and stopped them from going to fancy dinners during festivals and holidays. Xi has taken the lead in these measures. There are no traffic controls nor closure of public places during Xi's domestic inspection tours.

Since 2013, the number of official meetings, documents and news reporting for the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee were reduced. The efficiency of administrative approval has been raised. Spending on receptions, overseas trips, and vehicles have been reduced. Festival exhibitions were cut by more than a half. In 2013, more than 30,000 Chinese officials were punished for violating the eight point rule.

During his visits to Hebei for the mass-line campaign, Xi told the officials to treat themselves as ordinary Party members in implementing the rules. All people are equal in enforcing work style regulations, Xi told them.

Locals felt the changes. Chen Sumei runs a restaurant at Xibaipo, now a famous tourist site. A large number of visitors here are Party and government officials from across the country.

She told Xinhua that fewer and fewer of her customers paid for their dinners with public money. "More and more customers pay out of their own pockets, so they prefer less expensive dishes," she said.

CHALLENGING GDP OBSESSION

Within 24 hours on Dec. 17, 2013, a total of 18 cement plants in Hebei were demolished, just one of the ways the province is slashing overcapacity. The target is to reduce cement production by 60 million tonnes by the year of 2017.

Cuts are also in the offing in steel production (60 million tonnes), coal production (40 million tonnes) and flat glass (30 million weight boxes).

Setting these targets is no easy job. For years, increasing industrial capacity meant a better place in the regional GDP rankings, even though production may already have been redundant. This resulted in dwindling profits and aggressive pollution.

Changes to the mindset of provincial officials came out of the "mass-line" campaign, which is not only a moral movement but addresses pragmatic concerns.

At the criticism and self-criticism session in Hebei last September, Xi described how determination was the key to structural adjustment. "Do you think the GDP winner takes all? Does a higher ranking make problems seem more decent?" Xi asked. "Over a half of the ten cities with the most serious pollution are in Hebei. Strap yourselves in for some adjustments. That is what you owe the public and history."

Xi's demands might be challenging for local governments, but many officials are relieved to be freed from the yoke of GDP obsession, said Hebei Governor Zhang Qingwei.

"We believe green GDP is a long-term, fundamental solution," Zhang added.

Luquan, a small city in Hebei, was once dubbed a "city of cement" and boasted a cement production capacity of 50 million tonnes. With cuts to overcapacity, Luquan slashed four fifths of its cement output. As the cement industry wanes, information, logistics and recreational services wax.

In 2013 Luquan's industrial electricity consumption fell by 130 million kwh, thanks to cuts in production, but fiscal revenue did not shrink. On the contrary, it increased by 360 million yuan (58 million U.S. dollars).

Since Xi took over as CPC general secretary, the economy has been under pressure and doubts about the sustainability of growth have been heard from abroad.

"It is not impossible for China to secure a faster growth, but we are refraining from seeking it," Xi said. "We would rather take initiative and gear down a little to handle the matter of long-term development with a fundamental solution."

It is not just officials who have changed their perspective. Ordinary people are seeing things differently too.

On an inspection tour about poverty alleviation in December 2012, Xi told Tang Rongbin, a 70-year-old farmer from a Hebei mountain village, that confidence could turn sand into gold. "The General Secretary told me to pay attention to my grandson's education, as hope always lies with the next generation," Tang recalled.

The 70-year-old also sees hope for himself. "I have joined with other villagers and obtained a loan to raise cattle. Selling a calf can bring in about 15,000 yuan," he said.

Xi's visit and the ensuing campaign have brought about changes to the county in many aspects, said Hao Guochi, local Party chief in Fuping.

The most obvious one, he said, happened in people's minds.

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