A rare article in a party-run publication has voiced caution about the "mass line" campaign of President Xi Jinping, saying that the leader's latest initiative to strengthen ties with the people could not be a substitute for real democratic institutions and reform.
"The mass line is not an effective substitute that can realise the function of democracy," Li Haiqing said in an article published yesterday in the Study Times, a newspaper run by the Central Party School.
Li is a Communist Party historian, also with the Central Party School.
The "mass line" is party jargon coined by late leader Mao Zedong to describe the need to stay in touch with the people.
Under Mao's doctrine, the Communist Party's founding father didn't want citizens to have the right to vote, but he did think that it was crucial for party leaders to understand their views.
The party leadership under Xi officially launched a year-long "mass line" campaign after a three-day Politburo meet last month.
The party said that the initiative also focused on anti-corruption and on improving the party's work styles.
The campaign is seen as an attempt by leaders to curb persistent problems such as excessive red tape, corruption and alienation between part officials and the public.
But the article said the term "mass" was a political concept that should be transformed into a constitutional concept of "citizenship" in modern times, defining the rights and duties of a member in a society.
The article called for strengthening the construction of democratic institutions and striving to promote citizens' participation in public affairs, as a means to helping "understand the opinions of the masses and their aspirations", rather than relying on the "mass line" campaign.
Analysts such as Chen Zeming, a political affairs commentator, said: "The article reflects the increasingly widespread suspicion among intellectuals about the new leadership's sincerity in pushing forward political restructuring" of one-party-ruled institutions.
And Zhang Lifan, a political affairs analyst formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: "The article is a challenge to the mass line campaign launched by the party leadership under Xi Jinping and might reflect the views of some leaders within the party."
Zhang criticised the campaign as using language that harked back to Mao's rectification campaigns during the civil war in the 1940s.
But Zhang said he doubted that today's leadership could succeed in achieving anything in term of improving governance and improving relations between the party and the masses through Maoist political campaigns.
"That is kind of like the old-fashioned political campaigns that Mao and other party elders used to mobilise people to support them," Zhang said.
"But such tactics won't work in an increasingly sophisticated society in modern times."