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Fears of a Political Purge Grow in China as Editor and Professor Are Sacked for ‘Improper Discussion’

A new booklet on the Chinese Communist Party's New Disciplinary Rules. Image from Chinese state-owned media outlet China.com

A new booklet on the Chinese Communist Party's New Disciplinary Rules. Image from Chinese state-owned media outlet China.com

Under the pretext of improving the management of its 88 million members, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) announced a new set of disciplinary rules on October 22, 2015.

The most controversial rule was against the “improper discussion of central government policy” (妄議中央), which could result in members being expelled from the party. Though the rule applies only to the CPC's members, some observers have theorized that it represents an effort by central leadership to consolidate its power by purging the party of dissent.

The first party corruption case based on the “improper discussion” rule involved the sacking of Xinjiang Daily editor-in-chief Zhao Xinwei in early November. The CPC accused him of making public comments criticizing the central government's anti-terrorism and anti-extremism policy in Xinjiang, a region home to the Muslim Uyghur minority where ethnic tensions between authorities and locals have erupted in violence since 2008. Zhao was expelled from the party and could face further criminal charges of corruption.

In a separate corruption investigation carried out by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, a number of top officials — including Zhou Benshun, former party secretary of Hebei Province, Yu Yuanhui, former party secretary of Nanning city in Guangxi Province, among others — have also been accused of “making public comments that go against the spirit of the central committee.”

Many opinion leaders have criticized the new “improper discussion” rule as hindering the development of “intra-party democracy”, the idea that China's single-party system could incorporate internal checks and balances based on deliberation and voting. Those who support the rule, on the other hand, argued that it will not affect society as it only applies to party members in order to protect the central authority's leadership.

Yet, as the majority of employees from the public sector, including media outlets, schools and universities, are party members, the rule's impact is potentially pervasive. Liang Xinsheng, the vice department head of the English Department at Lingnan Normal University in Zhanjiang city, was also sacked under the new rule for making comments on social media platform Weibo that allegedly defame the party and the country.

A history of political persecution

The rule is ambiguous in nature; the basic question of who judges what is inappropriate remains unanswered. In fact, those who raised that very question on social media saw their comment censored. Law professor He Weifang's post below, in which he mentions famous party members who were persecuted by the party's leadership, only to later be “rehabilitated” posthumously years later in recognition of the injustice, was among the deleted posts:

【妄议?谁做裁判】当年中央搞大跃进时,彭德怀提出质疑,算不算妄议?毛发动文化大革命,打倒刘少奇,当然也是中央大政方针,党员张志新表达不满,算妄议么?按当年对彭和张的处理,不仅是妄议,更属于反党和反革命。但最终却要为他们平反。我想问你:妄议或批评界限谁来划,争议谁来裁?

Improper discussion? When the Central Committee launched the Great Leap Forward [an economic campaign in the late 1950s and early 1960s that forced rural peasants to form agricultural collectives and give up private farming, which contributed to widespread famine], [senior military leader] Peng Dehuai questioned the policy. Is that improper discussion? When Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution and attacked [statesman] Liu Xiaoqi, it was central committee's policy. [Party member] Zhang Zhixin raised her voice in opposition. Is that improper discussion? Back then, the way the party punished Peng and Zhang, they were more than improperly discussing — they were anti-party or anti-revolution. But eventually, their persecution was rectified. So the question is: who defines what is improper or not? Who is the judge?

Many saw worrisome parallels between the “improper discussion” rule and the Anti-Rightist Movement (1957-59) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), both campaigns that sought to purge undesirables from the communist party. As the term “improper discussion” is newly invented, blogger Sima Dang traced its origin to a historical term — “criticism in public” (指斥乘輿). Similar to He Weifang, he feared the rule would be used as justification for widespread political persecution:

新中国成立后,为了巩固无产阶级专政政权,在1957年反右斗争中,把“指斥乘輿”范围扩大化,“凡是对本单位的党领导有意见就是反党,就是右派”。有不少右派不服气,说我又不是反对党中央,不过是对本单位领导有意见。回答是“党的领导不是抽象的,而是具体的,党中央的正确领导难道不是体现在本单位的党组织的领导中?” […]

又过了十年,出于打倒“走资派”的需要,“指斥乘輿”的范围大为缩小。1967年1月13日发布的“公安六条”,仅仅明确凡是“攻击污蔑伟大领袖毛主席和他的亲密战友林彪同志的,都是现行反革命。”此后,因“妄议”毛泽东和林彪的张志新、李九莲们被关押、被割喉、被枪杀的不计其数。

After the new China was established [in 1949], to consolidate the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957 made extensive use of “criticism in public” — “anyone having an opinion on their working unit leaders is anti-party, and hence they are also rightist.” The rightists argued back that they were not against the Central Committee but just wanted to raise their opinions on their working unit's leaders. The answer they got was “party leadership is not abstract but concrete. Isn't the leadership of the Central Committee also embodied in the leadership of working unit's leadership?” […]

A decade later, in order to crack down on the bourgeoisie, “criticism in public” became more specific. On 13 January 1967, “Regulations on Strengthening Public Security during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” were announced. They specifically stated that “any attack and defamation of great leader Mao Zedong and his comrade Lin Biao is anti-revolutionary.” After that, Zhang Zhixin and Li Jiulian, among numerous others who participated in “improper discussion” of Mao Zedong and Lin Biao, were arrested, silenced and murdered.

Where will it end?

The anxiety over a possible return of violent political struggle nationwide is reflected in the following satirical comment that went viral on Chinese social media platforms:

继党中央提出“不得妄议中央”以后,各级地方政府积极相应,相继提出“不得妄议省委”、“不得妄议市委”、“不得妄议县委”、“不得妄议乡党委”、“不得妄议村委会”等号召,把行动落到了实处。朋友圈也马上开始“你不得妄议我,我不得妄议你”运动!

After the party's Central Committee introduced “improper discussion of the Central Committee,” all level of governments have followed suit and introduced “improper discussion of the provincial committee,” “improper discussion of the county committee,” and “improper discussion of the village committee.” Let the new rule take effect. Among circles of friends, we will soon see campaigns of “mutually forbidden improper discussion.”

The satire isn't so far off the mark. Recently, a high school teacher named Zhang Aijia from Hubei province was fired for reposting a comment that mocked the online propaganda surrounding Xi Jinping's reading list. Even though Zhang did not make any comment of her own and the reposted comment did not mention Xi Jinping's name, the school was under political pressure to dismiss Zhang. All this dark humor risks turning into political reality.

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