Taking the Edge Off in Troubled Times: Healthy Habits for Conscientious Cadres

By Austin Dean

It can’t be much fun to be a Chinese Communist Party official these days. On the one hand, pressures from the job just keep growing, since their main charge is to maintain economic growth and social stability and this has been especially challenging of late. On the other, they don’t have as many privileges as they once did, thanks to the anti-corruption campaign waged over the past year and a half by Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan, the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection: no more personal use of government cars, no more fancy dinners out on the public dime, and, apparently, no more mahjong, a popular game akin to gin rummy. Party cadres now carouse and cavort at their own risk; each week brings news of another official carried off on corruption charges.

With so much pressure, one wonders how Chinese leaders can relax, let alone sleep. But no one can work all the time. For the stressed out cadre looking to take the edge off, a recent book, Healthy Hobbies for Leadership Cadres (Lingdao ganbu jiankang qingqu), points out all the worthwhile activities that don’t involve money, real estate, mistresses, or luxury products, seemingly the four vices behind the downfall of every Chinese official. The cover claims that it is the first book to address such a topic and surely that must be correct. Produced by Red Flag Publishing House, a unit with ties to the very top echelons of the Party, it is easy to tell the book has support in key places: the inside jacket even has a quotation from head honcho Xi Jinping on the importance of cadres developing healthy hobbies.

The text begins by trying to show why picking the right leisure time activities is important. Hobbies can be good or bad, and because a cadre is in a leadership position, these interests are not private or trivial matters. A leader’s hobbies and interests shape the work style of the department and reflect on the Party and the government. They are a big deal. With so much at stake, cadres need to make sure their personal interests tend to the “elegant” (gaoya) and not the vulgar. Also, certain hobbies can help purify the spirit and ward off temptations: money, real estate, mistresses, and luxury products.

So what are the approved activities? The first two, not surprisingly, are reading books and writing essays. Reading not only helps leaders relax, the book argues, but makes them better at their day jobs by increasing their knowledge, sharpening their analytical skills, and helping them develop a way with words. The same goes for writing essays in their spare time, which, the book assures, will help leaders in one of their most important duties: speechmaking.

The rest of the approved hobbies generally fall into three categories: physical ones like swimming, ping pong, badminton, tennis and getting out into nature; intellectual ones like chess, Go, and bridge; and aesthetic ones like music, dancing, painting, and calligraphy.

The actual structure of the book is quite formulaic. Each chapter on a certain hobby begins with a two-page anecdote about a famous Communist Party leader who particularly enjoyed that activity. A revolution might not be a dinner party, as Mao said, but even at the Communist Party’s revolutionary base of Yan’an in the 1930s, there were regular dance parties and lots of card playing. These form one of the most interesting part of the books because they provide glimpses of the private lives of Communist officials that usually remain shrouded in mystery. While you may have known that Mao Zedong never missed a chance to go swimming, that Zhou Enlai was an enthusiastic dancer, and that Deng Xiaoping was a mean bridge player, there are interesting nuggets about the hobbies of other leaders. Former premier Zhu Rongji developed his love of music from learning to play the erhu, an instrument similar to a violin, at an early age. The tough-as-nails General Zhu De was an orchid lover who gave a lot of attention to the development of parks.

The rest of the each chapter reads like the introduction of any book about why you should start swimming, hiking, playing bridge, or painting. The book explains the history of the activity, why it is beneficial, and provides a basic overview of how to get started. In this way, the book reads like the introductory section of ten other books sandwiched together. Perhaps to make up for the book’s scattershot nature, important takeaway points are bolded—as is anything following the phrase “Xi Jinping says” or “Xi Jinping writes.”

There is also a warning. No matter what activity a cadre chooses it is vital that he or she (though, in China, usually he) doesn’t become addicted. Chinese history, the book tells us, is replete with examples of government maladies caused by lowly officials and even the emperor himself ignoring government affairs in favor of their own personal interests.

Of course, it is also important to think about what isn’t included in the list of healthy hobbies. As Dan Washburn recently lays out in The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, there is perhaps no more controversial sport in China today than golf because it brings together an unholy alliance of forces: elitism, waste, and, as with any Chinese venture involving land, corruption. Mahjong, a more recent enemy, due to its links to gambling, also does not make the cut. Surprisingly, watching sports on television, supposedly a favorite pastime of Xi Jinping, is not included in the book. Apparently following the NBA is not quite refined enough to warrant inclusion.

There are a number of ways to read this book. Besides a few historical nuggets, the content itself is not that interesting. A cadre might read it as a way to determine the guideposts for officially sanctioned activities. A younger official on the make might take it as a kind of “how to” guide to developing a habit that will help him or her (though, again, really mainly him) in his or her later career. For outsiders, the book is simply a strange artifact of the current era in Chinese history, a symbol of the campaign against corruption and a reminder that all aspects of an official’s life fall within the purview of the Party.

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