As everyone struggles to unpack the significance of the “Decision” on “governing in accord with the law” (依法治国) emerging from the recent 4th Plenum, the clues continue to confuse.

Take, for example, this commentary appearing in the “People’s Forum” section on page four of today’s People’s Daily.

A cursory reading would suggest the piece is what it seems to be — an anthem to “rule of law” (法治) that categorically rejects its evil twin, the autocratic “rule by man” (人治). In the People’s Daily Online version, a single sentence is bolded: “Nevertheless, some leading cadres are still obsessed with rule by man. In their eyes, legal process has too many limitations, and they think it’s better and more effective to deal with certain ‘defects’ by applying the flexible methods of rule by man.”


But if you think this is a simple struggle between the forces of light and dark, read more carefully.

The second paragraph of the piece praises the “Fengqiao experience” (枫桥经验), which as CMP director Qian Gang explained a year ago — when Xi Jinping surprised many by raising the specter — is a relic from one of the darkest chapters of contemporary Chinese “rule by man” under the Communist Party.

The fanning to life of this Mao-era term is a lamentable surprise, the latest reminder of those chilly winds that have lately been blowing so strongly from the left, particularly as we near the 120th anniversary on December 26 of Mao Zedong’s birth.

The “Fengqiao experience” derives from the socialist education movement of the early 1960s — ahead of the Cultural Revolution — known as the “Four Cleanups” because they targeted the four so-called “reactionary elements,” or silei fenzi (四类分子), referred to landlords, wealthy peasants, counterrevolutionaries and evildoers (坏分子).

According to official coverage in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of the “Fengqiao experience,” Mao Zedong approved the nationalization of this governance experiment in 1963.

While the socialist education movement meant violent purging of “reactionary elements” in many areas of China at the time, the approach in Fengqiao was different, as described in several articles in the official People’s Daily at the end of the 1970s.