Last Wednesday, China’s new leader went looking for advice. “The CPC should be able to put up with sharp criticism, correct mistakes if it has committed them and avoid them if it has not,” said Xi Jinping, referring to the Communist Party of China. “Non-CPC personages should meanwhile have the courage to tell the truth, speak words jarring on the ear, and truthfully reflect public aspirations.”
Did Xi, in just a few words, overturn decades of Chinese Communist thinking on social control? Just about no one thinks so. “Sharp criticism?” asked Zhang Xing, a Beijing lawyer. “We cannot even comment on news reports, let alone make sharp criticism.” Zhang, like many others, suggests the party is “enticing the snake out of its cave.”
That’s a reference to Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, a period beginning in 1956 when the Chinese people were encouraged to voice their views. Yet the Great Helmsman, as Mao was known, changed tack the following year and, with the Anti-Rightist Movement, punished or imprisoned those who had earlier expressed criticism.