In understanding the so-called “Fengqiao experience,” there are two key points of background that must first be understood. The first is that in 1962, during the Tenth Plenary Session of the 8th CCP Central Committee, Mao Zedong again raised the prospect of “class struggle” (阶级斗争). It was at that meeting, in fact, that Xi Zhongxun (习仲勋), the father of General Secretary Xi Jinping, was purged after being falsely charged with leading an anti-Party clique. The second point is that it was in 1963 that Mao Zedong launched his Socialist Education Movement (社会主义教育运动), also known as the Four Cleanups Movement (四清运动). This was essentially a ploy to root out elements within the Party that Mao regarded as “reactionary.”
The phrase “Fengqiao experience” was not in fact featured in the People’s Daily in the 1960s, and through most of the 1970s. But here is how the top Party leader of Fengqiao District reflected back on the Four Cleanups in the official People’s Daily fourteen years later, on December 21, 1977:
In 1963, the seven communes in my district, under the leadership of the work team of the provincial Party committee of Zhejiang and the prefectural and county leaderships, carried out the first group of socialist education campaigns. During this movement, complying with Mao’s great injunction to “never forget the class struggle,” the masses were mobilized, enemies and friends distinguished, and four types of destructive activities perpetrated by reactionary elements (四类分子) were thoroughly exposed. At that time, some grassroots cadres and activists, full of revolutionary fervor, demanded that all reactionary elements involved in destructive activities be rounded up. Faced with this situation, we organized cadres and the masses to study a series of Mao’s guidelines and policies on struggling against the enemy. Through detailed ideological and political work, and a massive campaign of study and debate, awareness was substantially raised among cadres and the masses, who recognized that by relying on their own strength they could deal with an rehabilitate the enemy. This overcame the simple reliance . . . upon violent methods, relying instead on the masses classifying and listing the enemy, carrying out struggle through education, review and explanation, and relying also on the masses carrying out monitoring and rehabilitation locally. As a result, not one person was rounded up, and still the vast majority of enemies were dealt with.
These so-called “reactionary elements,” or silei fenzi (四类分子), referred to landlords, wealthy peasants, counterrevolutionaries and evildoers (坏分子). A subsequent investigation, done after the end of the Cultural Revolution and printed in the February 5, 1979, edition of the People’s Daily, showed that the population of Fengqiao was 130,000, of which some 3,000 had been identified as “reactionary elements.” That means that 1 in 50 people in Fengqiao were regarded as “enemies.” The persecution of people like this across the country was part of the awful political landscape of that era.
In 1963, the work team of the provincial Party committee of Zhejiang summarized the methods employed in Fengqiao in a document called, “Experiences in Struggling Against the Enemy During the Socialist Education Movement in Fengqiao District, Zhuji County” (诸暨县枫桥区社会主义教育运动中开展对敌斗争的经验). During the National People’s Congress in 1963, the minister of public security, Xie Fuzhi (谢富治), gave a speech called, “Relying on the Strength of the Masses, Strengthening the People’s Democratic Dictatorship, Transforming the Majority of ‘Reactionary Elements’ into New People” (依靠群众力量，加强人民民主专政，把绝大多数“四类分子”改造成新人). Xie’s speech made specific mention of the example provided by Fengqiao.
On November 20, 1963, Mao Zedong added his written instructions to the Xie Fuzhi speech, in which he said: “The example of Zhuji raised here is a good one — various regions should follow this example, expanding the work through pilot programs.” Two days later, on November 22, Mao Zedong spoke with the deputy minister of public security, Wang Dongxing (汪东兴): “Of all the work carried out by the ministry of public security, the most important was the question of how to work among the masses, how to educate and organize them so that they can take part in the general work of public security. Judging from the experience of Zhuji, once the masses have risen, they can do things as well as you and as strong as you. You must not forget to mobilize the masses.”
The implication in Mao’s remarks was that public security officials should not focus on simply arresting “reactionary elements,” but must organize the masses to “re-educate” and reform them. Before the Cultural Revolution, the ministry of public security released materials about Fengqiao, but the People’s Daily never reported on these. On December 21, 1977, the People’s Daily published the piece from the top Party leader of Fengqiao District quoted above. That piece was called, “Raising High the Red Flag of Fengqiao Erected by Mao Zedong, Relying on the Masses to Strengthen Dictatorship” (高举毛主席树立的枫桥红旗 依靠群众加强专政). It was the first introduction to what would be called the “Fengqiao experience,” or fengqiao jingyan (枫桥经验):
In the struggle against the enemy, arrest is necessary and proper for a small number of class enemies; as for those you can choose to arrest or not, none should be arrested; you must mobilize the masses to carry out a struggle of reason, to deal with the enemies, carrying out on-site monitoring and rehabilitation, without the need to submit issues to higher authorities. This experience was affirmed and praised by the greater leader and teacher Mao Zedong.
On September 5, 1978, the People’s Daily published an official editorial called, “Rectifying and Strengthening Public Security Work” (整顿和加强社会治安工作). It talked about how “Fengqiao District in Zhejiang’s Zhuji County relied on the masses to carry out on-site rectification of reactionary elements, reforming the vast majority of them into self-supporting laborers for the law.” “Their successful experience,” the article said, “was praised by Mao Zedong, and was known as a red flag on the front lines of public security.”
Until recently, no top Chinese leader since Mao Zedong had ever been quoted publicly in the People’s Daily or other state media making remarks on the “Fengqiao experience.” Not Deng Xiaoping. Not Jiang Zemin. Not Hu Jintao. But in 2013, marking the 50th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s written instructions, Xi Jinping broke this pattern by issuing “important instructions on the development of the ‘Fengqiao experience’.”
Ever since the 2013 anniversary, China’s Party-state media have emphasized that “the vitality of the Fengqiao experience lies in its following of the mass line.” The concept was only ever about class struggle, and never about, as Party-state media have reported, “employing legal thinking and legal methods to resolve problems and tensions concerning the vital interests of the masses.” And Mao Zedong’s mass line was always about organizing the masses to control evildoers, about the exercise of a “dictatorship of the masses” (群众专政). These ideas are poles apart from modern ideas of rule of law. So why is Xi so interested in renewing them and showcasing them? Why is there talk of a “Fengqiao experience for the New Era” (新时代”枫桥经验”)?
Much of the CCP’s language about public security and social management in the Xi era now emphasizes the “mass line,” propagating the idea, essentially, that the masses, or the public, must be involved in the process of being governed by the Party. This is not about involving the public in governance, an idea that is anathema to a ruling Party that spurns a robust civil society or more independent media. Rather, it is about mobilizing the public – including through new digital tools – in order to better achieve the Party’s governance objectives, including public security.
One example of technology enabled “mass line” governance that might illustrate the contemporary conception of the “Fengqiao experience” can be seen in the hotline created in April 2021 by the Cyberspace Administration of China, with encouraged members of the public to report those online and on social media who criticized the CCP and its history, the latter referred to disparagingly as “historical nihilism” (历史虚无主义).
But the “Fengqiao experience” has been applied as well to the local granular application of social and political control through neighborhood committees, companies and other units as the grassroots level. On November 26, Chen Yufan (陈羽凡), a member of the celebrity rock duo Yu Quan (羽泉), was arrested in Beijing along with his girlfriend on charges of drug use and possession. According to a post made to the official WeChat account of police in the city’s western district of Shijingshan (石景山), Chen was arrested in “a local residence” after police received “a community tip” (群众举报). The community members providing the tip off were apparently from a “community group,” or qunzhong zuzhi (群众组织) known as the “Old Neighbours of Shijingshan” (石景山老街坊). In Beijing, this is one of a number of fairly well-known and well-documented community groups. Others include the likes of the “Chaoyang Masses” (朝阳群众), the “Haiding Internet Users” (海淀网友), the “Xicheng Aunties” (西城大妈) and the “Fengtai Advising Squad” (丰台劝导队). These groups point to the application of the “Fengqiao experience” as part of China’s emerging regime of “innovated” social management.