During the Maoist era often "enemies" were put through "self-criticisms" where they needed to note where they were in error and how they strayed from the party. I've seen multiple records of this in Chinese History books and read some on the practice in some of my sources but would like something in more detail. I'd like more detail in how these were put into practice, how they were done and what the process was like around it.

Are there any sources or books out there that go into how the self-criticisms worked in China? Were these recorded anywhere and maybe transcribed into larger works? If possible I'd like to see what one of these criticisms entailed, if its been recorded and published in any work.

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    This just seems like a nice-sounding rationalization for the practice of compelling a prisoner to testify against himself. My guess is the #1 self-reported fault was "Loving Mao too much".
    – T.E.D.
    May 2, 2012 at 15:14
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    @T.E.D. I'd be curious about that, but most of what I have seen on self-criticisms was more about being selfish, a "capialist roader" and an "anti-revolutionary" since the beginning. My old Chinese professor noted that many admittances were backdated so that anyone who might have been a revolutionary was pretending so that the Communists were always seen as pure. Anyone guilty was so from the beginning and a fake revolutionary, not sure if the Russians had the same idea but I thought the concept from the Chinese point of view was interesting.
    – MichaelF
    May 3, 2012 at 12:39
  • Then it is simply about confession. I doubt it is about self-criticism from the party program.
    – Anixx
    May 3, 2012 at 21:30
  • @Anixx I don't think so, the Chinese version of Communism under Mao was a different beast than the Soviet model. In many cases it might be confession for accused crimes, you were expected to confess to something you did not do. This is why I am looking for source material to sort of clarify the matter.
    – MichaelF
    May 4, 2012 at 11:25
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    @MichaelF in that case you possibly looking for something non-existent, nobody ever is required to confess something they did not do except when the interrogators consciously persecute a non-guilty under pretext that he or she hides his guilt.
    – Anixx
    Dec 30, 2012 at 12:30

4 Answers 4


It should be noted that this kind of self-criticism was not invented in China. In the USSR it worked the same way. The CPSU chater required the members to develop "criticism and self-criticism". The CPSU program said that self-criticism allows the nations of the USSR to spot problems and hardships and to find the best ways for Communist development.

Self-criticism was necessary in one-party states because it allowed for criticism without questioning the ideology. Without admitting mistakes the power would become highly inflexible. Admitting own mistakes also allows an authority to retain the position while changing the course and without looking random and unprincipled. If there are no mistakes, but there are hurdles it means all errors are in the ideology.

Self-criticism is an art in itself for a careerist. One had do be cautious which mistakes to admit. Those should be minor or even confirm the views of the admitter (such as admitting not enough zeal in implementing his own views). Self-criticism of a superior allowed the subordinates to more freely explain their concerns and criticise themselves.

Self-criticism is also instrumental in preventing inter-ethnic and inter-national conflicts. Suppose there are two peoples, say Armenians and Azeri who each claim that they are the right in any disputed questions. By requiring the both sides to self-criticize the central authority can shape the border line better for reconciliation: each side can admit mistakes in the weakest parts of their positions while keeping the most strong and important points.

Self-criticism can be used as an educational tool: in Vietnam army the soldiers were required to admit their mistakes at comrades meetings and this allowed to discuss what they should do better instead of what they did actually, how to behave next time and allowed to share the knowledge about mistakes so that the others also knew how to behave in such situation.

Sometimes criticism of the others can be presented in a form of "self-criticism", either by proposing for the collective to self-criticize themselves for something for which one person was known to be responsible (thus making hint at who was the guilty without pointing directly) or criticizing oneself for "not recognizing in time the mistakes made of the colleague".

A mistake confessed as a self-criticism usually was accepted milder that a mistake discovered by a chance or that lead to a disaster.

This principle is possibly rooted in the idea of "democratic centralism" and may be somewhat borrowed from a Christian concepts of confession and repentance but done not secretly but at public so that the mistakes could be discussed in collective..

  • Yes, very true I found a lot on the process of samokritika when I was looking this up but I was trying to find more on the specific Chinese version. Thanks for more info on how the process worked at the high level, I wasn't clear on this being from the Party charter or not at first.
    – MichaelF
    May 2, 2012 at 10:54
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    Downvote: Interesting theories but they have little relation to the practice, which was that self-criticism was just one more technique of totalitarianism. Dec 23, 2012 at 1:51
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    @Felix Goldberg I explain what was in practice. Do you know better?
    – Anixx
    Dec 24, 2012 at 10:47
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    @Felix Goldberg A quote from Azerbaijani author from his 1996 book about the role of intelligentsia in ethnic conflicts: "Problems and conflict nodes both from the past and connected to modernity rise the role of national self-criticism, the sharpness of the reaction of national intelligentsia against those who advocate ideas of national superiority and cultivates hatred and suspicion towards other ethnicities" Here we see the intoleration of racist ideas by the national intelligentsia is viewed as an example of national self-criticism ebooks.preslib.az/pdfbooks/rubooks/mejotprob.pdf
    – Anixx
    Dec 24, 2012 at 11:58
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    @Anixx: You are conflating self-criticism as a psychological category (a very useful and important thing) with a certian political and cultural ritual that was employed in Communist countries. Your quote refers to the first, obviously. Dec 24, 2012 at 12:07

I posit that in practice self-criticism was just another technique for totalitarian control. Here's just one, relatively tame, example from the USSR. It is well-known that Stalin (officially known as "master of all sciences") actively persecuted psychoanalysts and geneticists. I have very recently found out that he also persecuted mathematical logicians. This is an excerpt (from p. 12) from a paper that deals with this:

There is a striking passage in Philipov where he cites details of the career of Asmus to illustrate the unbearable and humiliating character of the conditions under which Soviet logic was expected to develop. Asmus graduated from Kiev before the Revolution and was retained by Professor A.N.Gilyarov, author of a monograph on the Greek sophists, for training as a professor in the department of Philosophy. After the Soviet regime came into power, professor Gilyarov thoroughly understood the impossibility of continuing his work in philosophy under the Bolsheviks and, although he retained his membership in the Ukrainian Academy of sciences, occupied himself not with philosophy but with the preparation of perfumes. Asmus, however, entered into Soviet philosophy, and, since dialectic was completely in the ascendancy at the time, he began to attack and revile formal logic. Since he had been retained by the University in pre-Soviet days, he certainly understood the absurdity and injustice of his charges. When logic was finally introduced in the Soviet union, he completely forgot his earlier condemnation of logic and, just as if nothing had happened, wrote a textbook on formal logic. All went very smoothly at the beginning: the State Publishing House for Political Literature published his book in an edition of 100,000 copies. But then it turned out that logic was to be \partisan", \political" etc., and since these features were nowhere to be found in his Logic, Asmus forthwith \admitted his errors" and \promised to rectify them," recognizing that logic was a \partisan" and \political" science. Then with Stalin's revelations on language, it again appeared that logic was \non-partisan" and \non-political", and Asmus was compelled to retract his earlier retraction.

China was worse. I recall an episode from Wild Swans where the narrtor's mother had to confess her sins before revolutionary students during the Cultural Revolution. This was done while standing on her knees for half an hour - while the floor was strewn with shard of broken glass.

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    How mathematical logic is related to self-criticism? Garbage.
    – Anixx
    Dec 30, 2012 at 12:26
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    @Anixx: How? Very simple. The connection is that mathematicians working on logic were forced to align their scientific positions with the ever-changing line of the party. Failure to do so promptly and fully led to dire consequences. Capish? Dec 30, 2012 at 14:07
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    I would agree with Felix Goldberg here. As you can see in the paragraph, the writer admitted that he had made an error (where there was none), every time someone higher up the hierarchy changed his views. Sounds to me exactly like self-criticism.
    – fraglord
    Nov 18, 2016 at 5:28

You can read about self-criticism during the Cultural Revolution in "Fanshen" by William Howard Hinton. - 1966, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village


It’s worth looking at Robert Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism which describes how criticism/self-criticism worked in communist China as well as its origins and shared uses.

Very simply it is a form of indoctrination that trains you to see any individual thought or decision as morally wrong. Usually presented in a double-bind format so no matter which way you think you will always be confused, ashamed and wrong. A way out of this bind is then given - the party line, the doctrine. Works exactly the same way in religious, ufo, mlms and yoga totalist groups as well.

Discussion groups, study groups, self-improvement sessions, audits can all use the same mechanism.

For examples of how these criticism/self-criticisms have been used in more recent political groups see Janja Lalich and Alexandra Stein and lots of online testimonies.

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