20 February 2019
Jiang Zemin (left) revived the Dagger Theory after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, but Wen Jiabao (right)  pushed for reform of the law enforcement and judicial branch instead. Photo: Reuters
Jiang Zemin (left) revived the Dagger Theory after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, but Wen Jiabao (right) pushed for reform of the law enforcement and judicial branch instead. Photo: Reuters

Dagger Theory threatens freedom of Chinese people

The mainland’s official media has been promoting the “important instruction by Secretary Xi” that “the party must make sure it has a firm grip on the dagger”.

Commentaries published by official mouthpieces elaborated on this order from Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping and reiterated the importance of safeguarding the “proletarian dictatorship” and maintaining stability.

The “Dagger Theory” has been revived to become a national sensation, symbolizing the beginning of an era of “sub-Cultural Revolution”.

The “dagger” refers to the law enforcement and judicial bodies controlled by the party. Their duty is to put into effect the “proletarian dictatorship” together with other branches of the state.

The Dagger Theory may remind people of a well-known ancient Chinese epic, in which a brave hero named Jingke was sent to assassinate the notoriously cruel dictator Qinshihuang with a dagger hidden in a map.

When the emperor discovered the plot, he pulled out his sword to fight back.

People usually associate the dagger with political risk-taking, power struggles, retaliation and bloodshed.

Under China’s system of one-party leadership, there are four branches that share the executive powers to carry out the “proletarian dictatorship”.

They are the party organisations (often dubbed the “printing press”), the military and the armed police (the “rifle”), the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary (the “dagger”) and the party propaganda machines (the “pen”).

The law enforcement and judicial branch include the police, courts at the local and central levels and the Ministry of National Security, together with the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, all of which are under the supervision of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party.

After the party’s 18th national congress in November 2012, at which Xi was elected general secretary, a Politburo member was appointed to head the commission. Xi himself directly oversees the commission.

The Dagger Theory first circulated in China during the 1920s and ’30s. It originated in the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, particularly Lenin’s Nation and Revolution, in which he referred to the state as an organization to suppress a particular social class.

Chairman Mao Zedong said the party must have a firm grip on the “dagger”. After 1949, when Mao reigned supreme across China, senior officials often brought up the term.

During the Cultural Revolution, China’s fanatical masses embraced the Dagger Theory.

Repeatedly advocating class struggle, Mao said “the revolution must continue under the proletarian dictatorship” and ordered the law enforcement and judicial system to serve the party’s political interests, to strengthen the “power of the revolution” against class enemies.

A slogan that circulated among the Red Guards said: “White daggers go in and red daggers come out”, exemplifying the “red terror” at that time.

Then came the ’80s, when the Dagger Theory died down.

After the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Jiang Zemin, who succeeded Zhao Ziyang as party secretary general, brought the theory back to life.

In a speech he delivered on July 1, 1991, Jiang once again stressed the importance of class struggle and the threat posed by hostile forces. He also opposed a policy of liberalization and emphasized “stability above everything else”.

A year before he gave that speech, Jiang had signed a document ordering party leaders at various levels to grasp the “dagger” and the “rifle” firmly.

Then, in a speech in July 1998, he referred to the military as a “strong pillar for dictatorship”, while the law enforcement and judicial branches were the agencies “specializing in dictatorship”.

When Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao came to power in 2003, the Dagger Theory was mothballed again. General secretary Hu rarely mentioned the dagger, while Wen, the premier, instead tried to push for political reform.

Among Wen’s many revitalizing measures was his decision to redefine the role of the law enforcement and judicial branches, requiring them to act in accordance with the law to maintain social stability and provide public services like any other government department.

Wen’s reform could have succeeded had it not been for interference by his opponents Zhou Yongkang, who was the head of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and Bo Xilai, the high-profile party boss in Chongqing, between 2009 and 2012.

Both those men were convicted of graft last year.

The notorious Zhou turned the commission into his own private kingdom. During his reign, he ordered that “the law enforcement and judicial branches must serve as the dagger of the party”.

In the wake of the party’s 18th national congress, Xi has sought to re-establish the authority of Maoist thought. 

The Dagger Theory once again prevails and has become a guiding principle for the country’s law enforcement agencies and the judiciary in carrying out their duties.

The biggest problem with the Dagger Theory is that it uses the police and the courts as a political tool to consolidate the party’s rule instead of securing law and order and protecting civil rights.

It also stands in the way of China’s path toward establishing the true rule of law.

The Dagger Theory allows the police and the courts to label or even fabricate class enemies and hostile forces according to political needs.

As long as this dagger continues to exist, social justice and legal equality on Chinese soil will remain an unreachable dream.

The result of Stalin and Mao’s advocacy of the Dagger Theory, as Friedrich Hayek said in his book The Road to Serfdom, will undoubtedly lead to the enslavement of the people and the loss of freedom and human rights.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 29.

Translation by Alan Lee

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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