Critics both within and without China have suggested that Xi Jinping’s promotion of self-criticism by Communist Party cadres has at least two motives: it promotes the appearance of concern with lax discipline while avoiding deeper reform, and it softens up potential targets of Xi’s behind-the-scenes campaign to consolidate his power. I suspect the critics are right on both scores. But are there other reasons one might promote self-criticism?
In light of another of Xi Jinping’s recent initiatives—his directive that the Party should be more tolerant of traditional religions like Confucianism, so they can fill China’s moral void—it seems worth asking what Confucius might say about self-criticism. In a well-known passage from the Confucian Analects, the Master’s student Zengzi tells us that every day he examines himself on three counts: Has he carried out his activities on others’ behalf with devotion? Has he been faithful to his friends? Has he put into practice that which has been passed down to him? (Analects 1:4). Zengzi does not dwell on his failures, but we are left to imagine that often enough he discovers ways in which he has fallen short of ideal relationships with others, with friends, and with his teachers. So, presumably, he criticizes himself, urging himself to a greater level of commitment to the values that Confucius is teaching.
One 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. Indeed, Confucius would remind us that being virtuous comes from the self, not from others (Analects 12:1). While introspection is not always easy or infallible, it surely is less mixed with other motives than the kinds of self-display we are witnessing in China today. Still, is Confucian self-criticism the cure for contemporary China’s ills? It probably couldn’t hurt, but notice the degree to which it depends on a pre-existing commitment to a set of values and to their disciplined practice. Without such commitment, self-examination will be of little use.
The kind of criticism that China most needs, in fact, is not self-criticism but public criticism. Confucius at least partly realized this, asking rhetorically, “If you are devoted to someone, can you avoid criticizing him?” (Analects 14:7) But traditional Confucianism provided too little institutional protection for those who criticize the powerful. Nowadays, we realize that systems of laws and rights are essential to enable a healthy public discourse. Many modern Confucians have realized this as well. If Mao had really wanted the Mass Line to reflect the thinking of the masses, in fact, he should have endorsed civil rights such as freedom of expression as well. To the extent that Xi Jinping wants to learn from Mao—or, for that matter, from China’s experience with Confucianism—he should learn that public criticism, protected by a system of rights, is the answer he seeks.