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China’s Communist Party plans Stalinist-style purge ahead of Congress

Attendees read a work report during the opening session of China's 19th Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday urged a reinvigorated Communist Party to take on a more forceful role in society and economic development to better address "grim" challenges facing the country as he opened a twice-a-decade national congress.
Attendees read a work report during the opening session of China's 19th Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday urged a reinvigorated Communist Party to take on a more forceful role in society and economic development to better address "grim" challenges facing the country as he opened a twice-a-decade national congress. AP - Mark Schiefelbein

A new pilot project has been announced in China for five cities which aims to “rectify” “corrupt” cadres, using 1940 hard-line terminology  in order to “scrape the poison off the bones.”

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The purge, announced by an official who was sent to Wuhan to deal with bureaucratic mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be applied nationwide in 2021, one year before the 20th Party Congress where Xi Jinping hopes to extend his tenure as General Secretary.

Historical precedent

Thousands of Chinese communists were purged during the 1942 Yan’an rectification campaign. The ones that could stay in the party were forced to ‘unify their thinking' and toe the official line of Mao Zedong. If they deviated from the official line, their fate was expulsion, torture and even death.

Group of Mao loyalists who survived the 1942 rectification campaign. They would form the core of the Communist Party, but many of them would be purged in similar purges in the decades to come.
Group of Mao loyalists who survived the 1942 rectification campaign. They would form the core of the Communist Party, but many of them would be purged in similar purges in the decades to come. © Wikimedia Commons

At the time, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was fighting Japanese occupiers and Chinese nationalists from a remote base in China’s northwest, where they had arrived after the harrowing “Long March,” escaping from Nationalist forces, a journey that decimated their ranks

In his purges Mao was guided by Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks:) Short course. The 1942 Yan’an rectification campaign would set the tone of all internal party purges the CCP would go through over the decades until today.

Mao Zedong speaking during the 1942 rectification campaign in Yan'an.
Mao Zedong speaking during the 1942 rectification campaign in Yan'an. © Oil painting

Rectification campaign

Last week, the 1942 Yan’an rectification campaign hit the headlines once more.

A “Yan’an rectification” style purge of party cadres was first announced by Chen Yixin on Juy 8 in a speech at a meeting of the Central Political and Legal Commission, a powerful policy making body directly under the Communist Party’s Central Commmittee.

Portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong. "Long live the unbeatable Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought" on a Chinese propaganda poster. During the Yan'an era, theory was dominated by Stalin's "History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course."
Portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong. "Long live the unbeatable Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought" on a Chinese propaganda poster. During the Yan'an era, theory was dominated by Stalin's "History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course." © Poster

In what would for outsiders chilling- terminology, he says that party cadres must “turn the blade of a knife inward, cure the poison by scraping it from the bones” in a “self-revolution” that must cleanse the country’s justice system of “corrupt elements” and purge “two-faced” officials who only paid lip service to the CCP.

Wuhan pandemic

Chen Yixin, who gave the speech, was the very person who Xi Jinping sent to Wuhan in February to deal with perceived local mismanagement of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

At the time, local officials were accused of having acted too slowly, allowing the virus to spread beyond control. Chen then stepped and enforced the stringent lockdown that may have helped slow down the spread of the virus. He also reorganized the local political apparatus.

The new “rectification campaign” starts this month in nine pilot places, initially focusing on “legal personnel,” hitting court officials, prosecutors, police stations and even two jails.

The pilot of this “rectification,” which is meant to sweat out people who don’t toe the party line, will last four months and end in October.

In 2021, the experiment will move to a national level and broaden its scope considerably, and, according to Chen, “the task of rectifying and educating the national political and legal teams will be completed …” just in time for the 20th Party Congress of the CCP.

Stalinist echoes

The looming “rectification campaign” hardly got any international coverage. The English website of the official Xinhua News Agency dedicated four lines to the campaign that was to “rectify problems in political, legal organs” and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post dedicated an article to it.

It was first reported in the west by human rights watchdog Bitter Winter, which reminds readers that “(Stalinist) purges were needed to keep Communist Party members in a constant state of terror, crushing any possible dissent even before it was manifested.”

“It’s not very reassuring,” says Massimo Introvigne, the Editor-in-Chief of Bitter Winter.

It would be like a French politician would invoke the 1793 revolutionary terror to push through certain policies. Introvigne calls the campaign a “political” campaign, rather than a movement aimed at rooting out corruption, adding that the speech “shows that there may be some uneasiness about possible criticism of Xi Jinping during the epidemic,” that has to be wiped out.

Xi Jinping, China's President for life - now working to become the Communist Party's General Secretary for life as well?
Xi Jinping, China's President for life - now working to become the Communist Party's General Secretary for life as well? Greg Baker / AFP

“Reading between the lines, one has also the impression that the CCP is concerned with what it sees as a soft enforcement of the law in courts and jails,” says Bitter Winter, pointing at Chen using tested Maoist slogans of “punish before and after, "cure and save the people” and “punish severely.”

Millions of party cadres are potientially at risk of being targeted.

Chen Yixin was the man who Xi Jinping sent to Wuhan in February to deal with perceived local mismanagement of the COVID-19 Pandemic. At the time, local officials were accused of have acted too slowly, allowing the virus to spread beyond control. Chen then stepped and enforced the stringent lockdown that may have helped slowing down the spread of the virus.

Cleaning the Swamp with Chinese characteristics

“There seems to be a feeling that the whole system is corrupt and needs cleaning out,” says Michael Dillon, independent China researcher and author of China, a Modern History.

“One of the Chinese phrases used in the speech could almost be translated as a to drain the swamp, which would go down nicely with Donald Trump,” he notes.

In 2022, the CCP will hold its 20th Congress. “If we follow precedent, Xi Jinping would step down and be replaced by somebody else,” says Dillon.

So this seemingly legal and judicial campaign is likely to be partly about his consolidating his own position in the party.” Xi already secured a tenure-for-life for the state Presidency when restrictions on the number of terms were removed during a session of the National People’s Congress in 2018.

And Hong Kong?

Effects in Hong Kong may not immediately be affected by the “rectification campaign” but the imposition of a controversial National Security Law on July 1 has opened the floodgates for China’s policy to enter the once relatively autonomous city as Beijing interferes more and more openly in Hong Kong’s politics.

Campaign for the Hong Kong primaries on 11 July 2020, which Beijing said were "illegal."
Campaign for the Hong Kong primaries on 11 July 2020, which Beijing said were "illegal." © AFP/Archive

On Monday, representatives of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong called the primaries “illegal, ” saying that organisers of colluding with foreign powers in a “serious provocation” of Hong Kong’s electoral system.”

According to Dillon the “Yan’an rectification” campaign, that  rolls-out at national level in 2021, could potentially be used in Hong Kong against more critical lawmakers within for instance the pro-democracy camp.

“It would strengthen (the CCP’s) control over the Hong Kong legal system,” which, until recently, was “one of the things that made Hong Kong different and gave people with dissenting opinions a degree of protection,” he says.

 

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