As much as I would like to believe that Xi Jinping’s recent “Criticism and Self-Criticism” campaign has anything to do with “traditional Confucianism” or Zengzi, any such suggestion unfortunately seems to overlook a crucial difference between the two: “Successful” self-criticisms under the Chinese Communist Party, whether in their initial 1953 incarnation or today, institutionally depend on winning the approval of one’s peers and, especially, superiors; whereas none of Zengzi’s three standards rely upon any form of external validation. As Professor Angle notes himself, “[o]ne key difference between Zengzi’s self-criticism and that promoted by Xi Jinping, obviously, is that Zengzi faced no television cameras. His audience was only himself. But this only scratches the surface of the difference. As anyone who has read historical records or attended one in-person can attest, CCP self-criticisms generally must go on until the self-criticism is deemed sufficiently genuine and substantial by their audience, particularly by the most political senior among them. If the audience is unreceptive, self-criticisms can become extremely humiliating and time-consuming, draft after draft, whereas they can be completely painless when conducted among friendly colleagues. In other words, the audience is both judge and jury, and the entire process, especially when it involves members of a group taking turns to self-criticize, is fundamentally designed to generate group acceptance, validation, and homogeneity. Unlike Zengzi’s “three self-examinations,” there may or may not be any objective moral judgment involved.
It is also worth noting that self-examination or, indeed, self-criticism is something that virtually all major religions or moral traditions promote: Consider, for example, the central role that confession of sins and wrongdoing in Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and multiple branches of Christianity. In fact, many of these religions, insofar as they require the active presence of a priest or senior, bear somewhat closer resemblance to the CCP procedure than Confucian doctrine. But ultimately, the explicitly public nature of CCP self-criticism—and, furthermore, the elasticity of the actual moral norms involved—fundamentally distinguishes it from almost any form of religious practice, especially Confucianism, and suggests that it was far more likely to have been the CCP’s own brainchild than an adaptation or continuation of cultural tradition.