Scholars of Soviet discourse have noted that there is in fact no word in English that conveys its sense of both a social phenomenon and a theoretical principle, though the German word “Parteilichkeit” is a close cousin. “Partiinost” and “Parteilichkeit” both pointed to a postulate introduced by Russian revolutionary and political theorist Vladimir Lenin in his 1908 treatise Materialism and Empirio-criticism, written during his time in London and Paris. According to “Partiinost,” an objective and value-free observation and interpretation of reality was not possible. Rather, Lenin argued, within the framework of a Marxist interpretation of history and the world, a stand must always be taken strictly in the interests of the proletariat. Later, in the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), “Partiinost” and “Parteilichkeit” were understood to mean that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) or the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) had to be granted interpretive sovereignty over what was to be considered true. As the chorus went in the SED’s “Song of the Party,” composed by Louis Fürnberg in 1949: “The Party, the Party is always right.”
Under the CCP, the concept of “party spirit” derived from Marxism-Leninism but was further developed under Mao Zedong. During the 7th National Congress of the CCP, held in Yan’an from April to June of 1945, Mao Zedong delivered an address to the delegates on “raising party spirit” (提高党性) in which he encouraged his Party comrades to “strengthen their training in party spirit.” This was fundamentally about bringing the ideas of CCP members in line with the Party’s ideals and theoretical line. Mao was essentially applying Lenin’s idea that “the lack of party spirit is bourgeois thought” (非党性是资产阶级思想), and “party spirit is socialist thought” (党性是社会主义思想) – this being how the language appears in the Chinese translation of Lenin’s Collected Works , along with phrases like “a proletarian party must insist on a clear party spirit” (无产阶级政党必须坚持鲜明的党性) – to the indoctrination and training of the CCP as a political party.
As Mao explained the essential need for party spirit, he pointed out that while many people had joined the CCP and were willing to accept Marxist training, they had brought with them original ideas that were incompatible with the Marxist ideology or not quite in line with it. These members still harbored a desire to show their tenacity and share their ideas, transforming the Party in their own image. This, said Mao, was a dangerous trend that could lead to the demise of the Party. “The Party and the world can only be made to conform with the face of the proletarian vanguard,” Mao said (Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol. 3).
It should not be difficult to see how this process of indoctrination in the CCP orthodoxy, as formed in the crucible of Mao Zedong leadership, could also be used to target dissent and enforce political uniformity. And from the very beginning the notion of “party spirit” was utilized in this way to enforce discipline and adherence to the CCP and the top leadership. It could also be used to enforce the obedience of the media to the facts and truth as circumscribed by the Party. This can be seen in a “correction” issued in the People’s Daily on April 23, 1948, called “Impermissible Mistakes” (不容许的错误), which read that, “Due to carelessness in our editorial process, and lack of an attitude of seriousness and responsibility as a Party newspaper, errors that should not have happened occurred on page one of this paper on the 22nd.” The errors concerned embarrassing misspellings of several place names, but this prompted a mea culpa from the editors: “These mistakes are a concrete manifestation of impurity of party spirit, and we will pay more attention to them in our future editorial work and make efforts to correct them.”
Today, the “party spirit” remains a demand that CCP members and CCP institutions, as well as groups and individuals in Chinese society more broadly, see themselves as units within the Party’s control and subject to its mandates and priorities. The intent is that “party spirit” becomes both and attitude and a practice, helping to maintain discipline and obedience. At a meeting of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in 2021, Xi Jinping spoke of the “exercise and cultivation of Party spirit.” Wang Shilong (王士龙), of the CCP’s Central Party School, wrote:
As an inherent and essential attribute of the ruling party, party spirit not only represents and reflects the overall image of the Party, but also manifests itself in the specific characteristics of individual Party members and is reflected in the daily thoughts, words and actions of every CCP member.
According to “party spirit,” therefore, human nature is meant to be refined and elevated as a reflection of the will of the Party, which casts itself ideologically – in Lenin’s terms – as taking a stand strictly in the interests of the proletariat, though these class-related elements of the concept have faded. On August 19, 2013, the Study Times (学习时报), a newspaper run by the CCP’s Central Party School, published an article discussing the relationship between party spirit and human nature (人性). While the party spirit of the CCP is rooted in human nature, it said, it is the optimization, sublimation and crystallization (优化、升华和结晶) of human nature.
The Study Times article said that maintaining a balance between “party spirit” and human nature was a constant challenge for Party members, but that it was essential for them to struggle toward this objective in order to maintain the Party’s interests even when rules and responses are not crystal clear. “There are some behaviors in accordance with the Party’s clear rules and regulations that can simply be followed,” the article said, “while many other tasks within the organization can only be understood by unspoken rules.” A cultivated sense of “party spirit” can guide Party leaders in particular through such situations.
The concept of “party spirit” has also been emphasized in modern times as the CCP has sought to reassert control over the media and information. One of the most famous debates over the proper role of the media occurred in the late 1970s, as the liberal editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily newspaper, Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟) insisted that in doing journalism the “people’s spirit” (人民性) of the media should be primary, meaning essentially that the media should report truthfully because it represented the interests of the people. This idea of the role of the media was firmly rejected by the hardline Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木), the former personal secretary of Mao Zedong (and an early opponent of reforms) who in the 1980s was a speechwriter and propagandist for Deng Xiaoping. Hu Qiaomu argued for the primacy of the “party spirit” in media and journalism.
In 1979, Hu Jiwei first argued in speeches at the CCP’s Central Party School that the “party spirit” should be consistent with human nature and that Party-state media, as the mouthpieces of CCP, should be independent from the Party. Hu emphasized that state media should not only be Party mouthpieces, but also should serve as “the eyes and ears of CCP” so that the Party can clearly understand the actual situation in the country and listen to the people’s voices. Although Hu Jiwei’s view was endorsed by Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), China’s reform-minded general secretary, Hu Qiaomu was resolutely against. He argued that Hu Jiwei opposed the Party’s leadership of the press. Even though Hu Jiwei resigned as head of the People’s Daily in 1983, Hu Qiaomu continued to insist that his ideas poisoned the Party-state media. This meant that the debate between the two Hus on “party spirit” and “people spirit” reverberated through the 1980s.
In the immediate aftermath of the brutal crackdown on democracy demonstrations on June 4, 1989, Hu Qiaomu’s critique of Hu Jiwei returned with a vengeance, as hardliners in the CCP made the case that the failure to properly control the press in the lead up to the crackdown (People’s Daily reporters had even marched through Beijing in support of the students) has “guided matters in the direction of chaos.” It was from this notion of society misguided that the next generation of CCP press controls came into play, under the notion of “correct guidance of public opinion.”
The language of “party spirit” and the media has crept back toward the center of information controls in China under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Back in September 2013, shortly after Xi’s first major speech on propaganda and ideology, in which he emphasized the hardline notion that the CCP was in the midst of a “public opinion struggle” (after two decades of media development), Xinhua News Agency chief Li Congjun (李从军) wrote a piece in the People’s Daily called, “Firmly Grasping the Initiative in Public Opinion Work” (牢牢掌握舆论工作主动权). The principal viewpoint in this piece, that “[the Party must be] confidence and courageous in its positive propaganda, [carrying out] the public opinion struggle with a clear banner,” became the headline on many of the websites that re-posted it.
Li Congjun’s piece also made it clear that new media were a priority battlefield in the struggle. “Newly emerging public opinion positions,” he wrote, referring to new information platforms, “have already become the chief battleground in the public opinion struggle, and their importance and status in the overall news and propaganda framework is ever more obvious.” Two weeks later, on September 16, Zhang Yannong (张研农), the head of the People’s Daily, contributed a piece called, “Maintaining the Unity of the Popular Spirit and Party Spirit” (坚持党性与人民性相统一), in which he emphasized in the course of discussing the issue of “party spirit” and “popular spirit” that “not even the slightest passivity can be shown in carrying out the public opinion struggle with the hostile forces.” Zhang even reiterated criticisms made back in the 1980s against then chief of the People’s Daily Hu Jiwei. The article happened to be published on the one-year anniversary of Hu Jiwei’s death.
All in the Family
But the most prominent invocation of the “party spirit” came in February 2016 as Xi Jinping visited the People’s Daily and China Central Television and delivered a speech on media and propaganda in which he emphasized that “the media operated by the Party and the government are propaganda positions of the Party and the government, and must be surnamed Party” (必须姓党) – in other words, that they must behave as part of the CCP family, abiding by its dictates. A readout of Xi’s speech repeatedly used the term “party spirit,” as in this key passage on the need to “adhere to the Party’s leadership of news and propaganda work”:
Most fundamental to adhering to the principal of party spirit in the Party’s news and public opinion work is adhering to the Party’s leadership of news and public opinion work. The media operated by the Party and the government are propaganda positions of the Party and the government, and must be surnamed Party. All of the work of the Party’s news and public opinion media must evince the Party’s will, reflect the Party’s positions, protect the authority of the Party’s Central Committee, protect the unity of the Party, and achieve love for the Party, protection of the Party and service of the Party.
It’s difficult to know how ordinary Chinese feel about the concept of “party spirit,” or whether they are even aware of its meaning and application. However, in the comment section of the above-mentioned article from the Study Times journal as it was shared by The Beijing News on Weibo, many netizens expressed criticism. “I don’t see either party spirit or human nature,” one comment read, “but I do see the animal side of the party, all the time.”
“Why do you want to let party spirit and human nature play against each other?” another comment asked. “How can there be party spirit without basic humanity? Just for the sake of party spirit, are you supposed to abandon your family and children, betray your class, abandon ethics and ignore life? How can you form a good party if party members fail to be a decent human being?”