China calls for mindset change to grow, end ‘lying flat’ bureaucracy

Hunan province directive seen as countering Deng Xiaoping’s reform theory despite a sputtering economy.
By Kitty Wang for RFA Mandarin
2024.02.20
China calls for mindset change to grow, end ‘lying flat’ bureaucracy Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen leading other top officials pledging their vows to the party on screen during a gala show ahead of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
Ng Han Guan/AP file photo

A directive from a Chinese provincial government seen as aiming to further shore up the ideology of Chinese President Xi Jinping and break away from late leader Deng Xiaoping’s reformist thoughts has stirred up heated debate.

The campaign by Hunan officials called for “large-scale discussions on emancipating the mind” throughout the province, known for its red propaganda. It was launched on the eve of the 27th anniversary of Deng’s death.

The notice of “emancipating the mind” was a reference to the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to introduce economic reforms after the death of Mao Zedong under the opening-up policy of which Deng has been credited to be the architect. 

But it also stated that it is “to consolidate and expand the educational achievements of learning and implementing the theme of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” emphasizing “an inherent requirement to further unify thinking, unify will, and unify action.”

‘Emancipating’ from Deng’s thoughts?

United States-based chairman of the National Committee of the China Democratic Party, Wang Juntao, said the main thrust of the campaign is to “liberate ourselves from Deng Xiaoping’s structure.”

“We know that Xi Jinping wants to reverse history and go back to Mao Zedong thought [reverting to hardcore leftist]. But there is a problem, he cannot get around Deng Xiaoping,” he said in an interview with Radio Free Asia.

Wang said there may be many people within the Chinese Communist Party  who will use the thoughts and theories of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and even Hu Jintao to counter Xi's leftist turn, which compels Xi to feel the need to “liberate” from the existing Party theories.

“You need two things for a dictatorship: one, a saber and a sword, and two, an orthodox scripture. Both are indispensable as you need violence and ideological control.”

Xi, who has ruled China for more than ten years, has violence grasped firmly, Wang said. The next step is to resolve the “ideological” problem.

History has provided examples. Wang said one was Mao’s rectification movement in Yan’an to seek truth from facts by getting rid of book worship, dogmatism and party stereotypes targeted at the-then Soviet Union with the goal to unify ideology towards himself. 

Deng also latched on to “seek truth from facts and emancipate the mind” to back his reform and opening-up policy, which meant liberating from Mao’s dogma.

‘Seek truth from facts’

Wang pointed out that while Xi is playing up the emancipation factor, he has omitted to “seek truth from facts.”

“What is Xi’s embarrassment now? He talks about ‘emancipating the mind’ – liberating from Deng, which is equivalent to liberating from a situation where economic development is relatively successful. But under him, his entire economy is now in a mess … he wouldn’t dare mention ‘seek truth from facts’.”

The central province of Hunan is known for its ideological solidification of political propaganda and conservative policies. The first thing Party-Secretary Shen Xiaoming did when he took office was to go to Shaoshan, Mao’s hometown, bow and pay his respects. 

ENG_CHN_Mind_02212024_2.jpg
Trainees receiving a lecture on the Chinese Communist Party at the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong in Shanghai, China. CELAP, an academy for training party and government officials, is funded by the central government and supervised by the Organization Department of the CCP Central Committee. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP file photo)

A Chinese political commentator in the U.S., who goes by the name Yokogawa, told RFA that the Hunan campaign, however, has nothing to do with Deng’s theory on emancipating the mind.

“Deng’s original plan to emancipate the mind actually involved two concepts, one is an ideological issue, and the other is an organizational form.”

He said Deng also held a major discussion on the “standard of truth,” which liberated people’s minds from Mao’s dogma and communist thought, as well as negated Hua Guofeng, Mao’s successor, opening the path for reforms.

On the other hand, the ideological emancipation by Hunan officials is carried out under the guidance of the “Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era.”

“The problem now is that Xi Jinping himself does not actually have a relatively clear system. Unlike Mao’s era, which was a planned economy, Deng’s era was to partially cede power and then carry out market economic reforms,” Yokogawa said.

He added that Xi neither dares to completely dismiss the market economy, nor admit the advancement of state enterprises and the retreat of the private sector.

“What is Xi Jinping Thought? No one knows. Under the guidance of this thought, we must emancipate the mind, and emancipating the mind means breaking the guiding ideology which is not possible, and that itself is contradictory.”

Resolving bureaucratic lying flat

The “emancipating the mind” notice issued on Sunday also stated it aimed to resolve issues surrounding officials lying flat – the Chinese neologism describing a person’s rejection of societal pressure to over-work or over-achieve – such as lack of confidence in development, weak sense of mission, insufficient spirit of responsibility. It proposed 10 changes to reversing the lying flat mentality and the “ostrich mentality” of deliberately avoiding and covering up conflicts and problems.

Yokogawa said he believes that the notice does not deny Deng’s reform and opening up policy, but outlines that bureaucrats lying flat under the current situation needed to innovate under the guidance of Xi’s Thought.

That said, he pointed out that Xi’s Thought itself inhibited innovation and risk-taking as his series of measures are all about strengthening control. 

Yet Yokogawa said Xi wanted to improve the economy and avoid officials lying flat. “So he came up with the idea of ​​​​liberating the mind, but he couldn't think of a new term,” he added.

Translated by RFA staff. Edited by Taejun Kang and Mike Firn.

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