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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024
The Observer

The value of the mass line

One of my favorite classes this semester has been Politics of China, a solid political science course dedicated to the history of Chinese politics since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in the fall of 1949. I have been able to learn a great deal about China’s journey from near anarchy in the turbulent decades following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 to its transformation into East Asia’s first socialist experiment. Despite being considered the United States’ greatest rival in the 21st century, China remains an enigma to most people. Beyond the elements of Chinese culture and identity that have managed to permeate into the mainstream within the United States and around the world — like its cuisine, celebrations like the lunar new year, the zodiac and its “communist” government — the intricate details of Chinese history easily remain mysterious and hidden to many. 

One of the first lessons in Chinese politics this semester was about the elements that define Maoism, communist China’s foundational ideology, and how they played crucial roles in overhauling Chinese society during Mao Zedong’s quest to radically transform what he considered a feudal and retrograde society into a shining, socialist utopia. The key components that distinguish Maoism from other flavors of Marxist doctrine include a focus on the peasantry, egalitarianism, anti-intellectualism, a push for struggle and voluntarism. In order to build legitimacy and convince the millions of disengaged citizens scattered across the newly established People’s Republic, Mao relied on a series of strategies and public relations coups cleverly designed to grant the Communist Party and its objectives total hegemony within China. 

China’s socialist experiment has been a journey over 70 years in the making and has not been an easy task. Its mistakes and failures cost tens of millions of lives. Its iron grip on power and information has resulted in thousands of jailed or exiled dissidents and created an alternate reality that only state media happens to dwell in. Nonetheless, it has also managed to transform China into an emerging superpower ready to challenge anyone and anything that comes in the way of its interests and objectives.

One of the concepts that has left a lasting impression on me throughout this semester has been that of the “mass line”. It was an indispensable component of orthodox Maoism and remains one of the key tenets Chinese politicians try to abide by. The mass line is a political, organizational and leadership method that can be attributed exclusively to Mao Zedong, relying on a highly pragmatic approach when it comes to developing policy and moving the government forward. Mass line relies on perpetually receiving feedback from the general public in order to grasp whether or not policy is working. In theory, adhering to the mass line would allow the Chinese Communist Party to stay in touch with the people and remain knowledgeable of real world conditions and whatever is happening on the ground. Whenever implementing a new policy idea, Chinese leaders were meant to consult the populace regarding their opinions and make any modifications to their original plans based on the lessons learnt by interacting with the people they ought to serve. It is a self-purification ritual, meant to keep those in the upper echelons of power humble and in touch with their communities. 

Why should I write a column extolling the virtue of a key policy of one of the United States’ greatest adversaries? In my mind, a concept like the mass line is not something inherently communist or authoritarian. Instead, it is something that can be used as a valuable tool to improve the society we live in. A government keeping in touch with the people it serves makes it more effective and responsive to the population’s needs. More often than not, those in positions of power and authority are able to bask in privileges that move them from the everyman’s reality into comfortable ivory towers far from the troubles they are meant to resolve. This creates a stark disconnect between the masses and the elite. The larger the gap, the more ineffective governance becomes. When looking at many of the world’s violent revolutions, most of them were a direct result of gaps like these. Had regimes like Tsarist Russia, Imperial China or Bourbon France been in close contact with their populace, they probably would not have succumbed to violence the way they did. 

Following the mass line — and being in permanent contact with the people — is not something that hinders governance, but instead steadily transforms it into something more transparent and adequate. When the mass line starts to counter a government’s plans, those ought to be pretty clear indications that things require some tweaking in order to attain better results. 

The mass line is not something exclusively related to politics. If leaders everywhere walked a mile in the shoes of those they lead or serve, things would turn around in many places. The value of the mass line resides in eliminating becoming out of touch. Understanding the realities of others and being able to view the world from the perspective of those around us enriches our experience and ability to get things done. 

Huge distances between the different strata of society weakens the social fabric that keeps it together. Understanding and listening to those above, next to and below us is the key to attaining a more respectful, supportive and engaged community.

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes and karaoke. You can reach him at placayo@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.