China’s Political Discourse August 2021: Learning to Live with The Virus

By China Media Project

In August 2021, following the celebration of the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary the previous month, there was a noticeable decline in the frequency of many key CCP slogans in the People’s Daily. As the Tokyo Olympics came to a close in August, Chinese also began paying greater attention to the private lives of China’s athletes. The “one jump to global fame” (一跳成名天下知) achieved by Chinese diver Quan Hongchan (全红婵) caused netizens to express both happiness and heartbreak for the 14-year-old athlete, who was showered with attention and gifts that proved disruptive to her and her family.  

At mid-month, remarks from Dr. Zhang Wenhong (张文宏), a top infectious disease specialist from Shanghai’s Fudan University, about the country learning to “co-exist with the virus” (和病毒共存) prompted “gravedigging style” (挖坟式) investigations online of his academic record and qualifications. “Gravedigging,” or wafen (挖坟), is an online neologism that refers to the practice of seeking out and re-posting or commenting on old online material, often around individuals who become the target of public outrage, so that this content (controversial comments made years ago, for example) becomes the focus of current attacks, which may also involve cyber-bullying and doxing. Before the online uproar finally settled down, “gravedigging” investigations by netizens prompted Fudan University to re-examine Zhang’s doctoral dissertation, submitted two decades ago, concluding that “it does not constitute academic misconduct.” 

Moving on to our analysis. 

The Hot and the Cold

About the CMP Discourse Scale:

According to the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016, based on a historical analysis of keywords appearing in the China Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, we define a six-tier system of discourse intensity based on the total number of appearances of a given discourse term on a per article basis for the full year in the paper. The scale is as follows:

For 2021, CMP will adjust its classification method for CCP discourse, determining the intensity (热度) of Party terminologies according to the absolute number of articles including those terms in the People's Daily newspaper. Previously, CMP used a proportional method, which looked at the number of articles including a particular catchphrase (提法) as a ratio of total articles in the newspaper over a given period. Our monthly classification standard, based on the six-level scale created in 2016, is as follows:

In August 2021 there was a general drop in the frequency of keywords monitored by CMP. Only the terms “pneumonia” (肺炎), “epidemic prevention and control” (疫情防控), “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心) and “reform and opening (改革开放), ranked in Tier 1 for the month. Most of the terms ranking in Tier one for July 2021 were in Tier 2 in August. Among these, we should note that the term “poverty alleviation” (脱贫攻坚) has dropped out of Tier 1 for the first time this year.

The only word rising in August from Tier 3 to Tier 2 was "innovation drive" (创新驱动). Words dropping from Tier 2 to Tier 3 included: "comprehensively deepening reform" (全面深化改革), "self-revolution" (自我革命), " the national governance system and the modernization of governing capacity" (国家治理体系和治理能力现代化), "law-based governance of the country" (依法治国) and "two centennial goals " (两个一百年).

The phrase "the dominant position of the people" (人民主体地位), which ranked at the bottom in Tier 6 in July 2021, rose two levels in August, reaching Tier 4. This was a result of the campaign around the notion of "common prosperity" (共同富裕), a phrase that again ranked in Tier 2 for the month. 

The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of August 2021 and how they rated on our scale:

One article in the People’s Daily in August 2021 that deserves a particular mention appeared on the 27th. The article, called "The Historical Mission and Action Values of the Chinese Communist Party" (中国共产党的历史使命与行动价值), was prepared by the Central Propaganda Department, and was organized into five sections. Of these, the fourth section, “Always Maintaining Vitality and Vigor” (始终保持旺盛生机和活力), included one section explaining how the CCP adheres to “intra-party democracy” (党内民主). 

The term “intra-party democracy,” which can often deal with quite superficial procedural actions generally regarded as more consultative (as opposed to more substantive and deep-cutting reform of governance), is naturally one that should invite great skepticism. But it is also a term to keep a critical eye on, associated as it has been in CCP history with "transition from a monolithic Party apparatus led by a single strong leader (Mao and then Deng) to a diverse system of collective leadership in which rival factions compete for power, influence, and policy sway." Discussion and use of “intra-party” democracy should be of particular interest now, in the Xi era, as this transition away from “a single strong leader” has arguably been reversed – as reflected to some degree in our monthly “Centrality Index” (below), in which Xi has consistently occupied the top tier, with not even remote rhetorical peers in terms of frequency within the official discourse. 

Section four of the above-mentioned People’s Daily article listed out the various circumstances with respect to “intra-party democracy” at four stages – after the formation of the Chinese Communist Party, after the founding of the PRC, after the reform and opening policy, and since the 18th National Congress of the CCP in 2012. The account conveniently jumped past such historical episodes as the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution. The article used 141 characters to describes the first three of these four stages. It used 331 characters to describe “intra-party democracy” since the 18th National Congress, focusing chiefly on “soliciting feedback” (征求意见) and “discussion meetings” (开会讨论). Note how the language dwells on atmospherics:

Since the 18th National Congress of the CCP, the Party has energetically advanced the building of intra-party democracy, beginning from the Central Committee, and proceeding top-down, layer-by-layer. The favorable style and tradition (好作风好传统) of intra-party democracy [as practiced by the Central Committee] has been passed along and developed, and the atmosphere of intra-party democracy has grown denser and denser. . . . Various opinions within the Party leadership have, in policy and in work, been able to obtain coordination of views and understandings through normal discussions within the Party. Led by the CCP Central Committee, intra-party democracy has been promoted in Party organizations at all levels, intra-party life has become healthier and more active, and the democratic style of leading cadres has been enhanced.

Those hoping for specifics beyond this apparent bluffing and dissembling will be disappointed. But the term “intra-party democracy” remains one to be watched closely. 

The Litmus List

Among the nine keywords on our Litmus List, a group including seven terms synonymous with past leadership and two generally indicating discussion of political reform, there were no terms appearing in Tier 3 or higher. Terms ranking in Tier 3 in July uniformly dropped to Tier 4. The only term on the list to rise in frequency of use was “harmonious society” (和谐社会), which rose from the bottom at Tier 6 into Tier 5. 

It is worth mentioning that the phrase "political [system] reform" (政治体制改革) was used twice during this monthly observation period, both times in a single article appearing in the People’s Daily on August 27 called “Five-in-One: Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era (30).” In the context of this article, the term was used to refer to institutional reform (机构改革), which involves the restructuring of existing bureaucratic units rather than substantive reform to address the problem of abuse of power. As we have explained in previous reports, the term “political reform” is a relatively sensitive one in China’s political lexicon, and was frequently discussed in the mid to late 1980s, when Premier Zhao Ziyang spoke of the need for deeper change to the governing system. “Units of the central Party have undergone five reforms, and State Council institutions have carried out eight reforms,” the People’s Daily article said. The relevant passage of the article said: 

Following the development path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, we must actively and steadily promote the reform of the political system. The democracy of socialism with Chinese characteristics is a new thing, and also a good thing. Of course, this is not to say that our political system is flawless. and that it does not need to be improved and developed. Since the reform and opening, we have, on the foundation of adhering to the basic and fundamental political system, continued to deepen the reform of the political system and to promote the improvement and development of the system. The department of the CCP Central Committee alone have carried out five reforms, and State Council institutions have carried out eight reforms, providing important institutional mechanisms to safeguard adherence to and development of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

The Centrality Index

In August 2021, the frequency of Central Committee leaders in the People’s Daily generally declined, reflecting a drop in the number of official meetings and visits related to the centennial of the CCP. Once again, Xi Jinping was the only leader to appear in Tier 1, and Tier 2 remained entirely empty, a visual representation of the gap in status separating Xi from all other senior leaders. Premier Li Keqiang was the only leader in Tier 3, and of all other members of the Central Committee just eight were in Tier 5 or higher.  

Regional Rankings

Overall mentions of provincial officials in the People's Daily were down in August as compared to July. Due to the celebration in August of the 70th anniversary of what the CCP officially terms the "peaceful liberation of Tibet" (西藏和平解放), and related commemorative articles, Wu Yingjie (吴英杰), the Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, rose to the top position for the month, with a total of four mentions. And the recent release of the "Opinion of the CCP Central Committee and the State Council on the Promotion of High-Level Development in Central Regions" (中共中央国务院关于新时代推动中部地区高质量发展的意见) meant that Jiangxi province was showcased in August as representative of related development policies, and for this reason Jiangxi Party Secretary Liu Qi (刘奇) held the second position along with Henan’s top leader, Lou Yangsheng (楼阳生), who appeared in reports about reconstruction following disastrous floods in his province. 

Foreign Leaders

In August, US President Joe Biden, who appeared in 12 separate articles dealing with the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, was the only foreign leader to reach Tier 4 in the People’s Daily

On August 4, as US and Allied forces approached the end of their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the People’s Daily published an article called, “The ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ of the US Alliance System” (美国同盟体系“七宗罪”), which stated that “[the] seven deadly sins of the US alliance system must be made known to the world, so that hegemony and power politics will have no place to hide and the sun of peace and justice will shine on the world.” The article began by quoting George Washington on the question of entangling alliances

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.” In September 1796, [George] Washington, the first president of the United States, issued this warning to Americans in his farewell address. Two centuries later, the United States has long since left behind this exhortation of its 'Founding Father.'

The seven "sins" laid out in the lengthy piece were as follows: violence (暴力), plunder (掠夺), infringement (侵权), destruction (破坏), lying (撒谎), conniving (包庇), and [sowing] internal strife (内讧). Each “sin” was accompanied by a lengthy list of examples throughout US history. Regarding “conniving,” for example, the paper accused the US of “shielding and condoning the many bad acts of its allies, and even manipulating and exploiting the weaknesses of its allies to achieve its sinister geopolitical purposes.” It offered as one of several examples the accusation that the US “connived” with Japan in its discharge of nuclear-contaminated water into the sea, in “disregard of the interests of all mankind and [in the face of] opposition of the international community.” Japan announced back in May 2021 that it planned to begin the discharge of treated nuclear wastewater into the sea in 2023. Biden’s name appeared at several points in the article. 

The second-ranking foreign leader in the newspaper was Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who was mentioned in four articles relating to his country receiving Chinese aid for Covid-19 vaccines, and to the building of a bridge with the help of Chinese financing. This brought Duterte into Tier 4 territory from Tier 6 previously. Also rising from Tier 6 to Tier 4 was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. All other foreign leaders were in Tier 6 territory, with the exception of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who dropped from Tier 4 to Tier 5. 

Data Source: People’s Daily. Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016. Political leaders with no mentions for the month are not shown.    

Foreign Countries

In August, the US, Japan, Russia, Britain and France maintain their positions in Tier 2. Germany returned to Tier 2 after having dropped into Tier 3 in July. Turkey, the Philippines and Australia rose from Tier 4 to Tier 3, while Kazakhstan, Cambodia and North Korea dropped from Tier 3 to Tier 4. 

One interesting article on Australia in the People’s Daily in August, bearing the headline, “Concern for the Human Rights Situation of Australian Aboriginals” (澳大利亚原住民人权状况堪忧), criticizes the treatment of Australia’s aboriginal people on the basis of “Close the Gap,” a report released back in March 2021 by the Australian Human Rights Commission, an independent statutory organization established by the Australian government in 1986. “Over the years, the human rights situation of Australia's aboriginal people has not improved significantly, and in many ways has even worsened, making the overall situation worrying,” the article states in opening paragraph – before moving on to a series of facts and statistics covered in the “Close the Gap” report. 

While the article on human rights in Australia remains largely factual, it provides an excellent example of the way the People’s Daily, and Chinese Party-state media more generally, typically project concern over human rights in foreign countries, particularly the West, as a means of de-legitimizing the discourse about China’s own human rights problems. In other instances, the concept of human rights is itself questioned in the official discourse, as though it is an irrelevant fiction. 

In the August 27 article on the CCP’s “historical mission” that we previously mentioned, for example, the People’s Daily spoke of the “brutal interference of foreign forces in China's internal affairs on issues related to Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as so-called human rights.” 

Data Source: People’s Daily. Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016. Political leaders with no mentions for the month are not shown.    

August Surprises

Spicy Strip Freedom

During the final of the women's individual 10-metre platform event at the Tokyo Olympics on August 5, Chinese diver Quan Hongchan broke the world record with a total score of 466.20, receiving perfect scores for three of five jumps. After taking a gold medal in her first competition abroad, the 14-year-old said during a media interview that she would celebrate by "eating something delicious, spicy strips!" (吃点好吃的,辣条!). “Spicy strips,” or latiao (辣条), are a cheap snack originating from Hunan province, and made with wheat flour or tofu, that are a perennial favorite for Chinese schoolchildren (though low in nutritional value). Quan Hongchan’s remark was an instant hit with Chinese netizens, who pledged to help the young athlete achieve "spicy strip freedom.”

Within hours Chinese began purchasing spicy strips to send to Quan, expressing their pride and gratitude. On August 6, images appeared online of boxes of spicy strips stacked outside Quan’s home in Zhanjiang, in Guangdong province. 

The internet buzz around Quan Hongchan’s Olympic victory provided two surprise phrases for August 2021: "spicy strip freedom," or lajiao ziyou (辣条自由), and "eating something delicious, spicy strips!"

The outpouring of attention and support, which included also offers of free commercial properties and a flat worth around 30,000 US dollars, proved overwhelming for Quan's family, and on August 10 the athlete's father, Quan Wenmao, made a public plea that the family be left in peace. "I thank everyone for coming, but I did not take anything, not a cent," he said. "They can just send us their well-wishes, but there is no need to come. It is disruptive to their lives and to ours too."

“We Respect the Will and Choice of the Afghan People”

Scarcely a month goes by that Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying (华春莹) does not offer up a phrase that suprises and shocks. Her offering in August came on the 16th, during a regular MOFA press conference

Asked by a reporter from China Central Television how China evaluated the current situation in Afghanistan, which was “developing rapidly,” with the Taliban seizing the presidential palace in the capital of Kabul, Hua Chunying responded: 

The situation in Afghanistan has undergone major changes. We respect the will and choice of the Afghan people. The war in Afghanistan has been dragging on for over 40 years. To stop the war and realize peace is the shared aspiration of the more than 30 million Afghan people and the common expectation of the international community and countries in the region.

Hua said that China had noted that the Afghan Taliban had said the previous day that the war in Afghanistan had come to an end, and that they would negotiate for the establishment of an open and inclusive Islamic government, taking responsible actions to ensure the security of Afghan citizens and foreign missions in the country. China, Hua said, expects that these statements will be carried out, ensuring a smooth transition, curbing criminal acts and acts of terrorism, and allowing the Afghan people to "stay away from war and can rebuild their homeland."

Focus Topic: 

Learning to Live With the Virus 

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic in China, Shanghai doctor Zhang Wenhong (张文宏), head of the infectious diseases department at Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital (华山医院), a teaching hospital affiliated with Fudan University’s Shanghai Medical College, was long the subject of praise from the public for his bold and honest way of speaking about the epidemic response. Zhang, for example, was praised for saying publicly that members of the CCP within the medical profession should rush to the front lines of the anti-epidemic effort (共产党员先上). 

On July 29, Dr. Zhang took to the Weibo platform to offer his analysis of the Covid-19 outbreak in the city of Nanjing. Zhang called the outbreak in Nanjing a "stress test" (压力测试), and said: "What we've been through thus far is not the toughest thing; the toughest thing will demand of us the intelligence to live with the virus over the long term."

Dr. Zhang’s post prompted criticism from many quarters, and was a trending topic on social media. On August 7, China’s former health minister, Gao Qiang (高强), added to the debate by publishing a post on a health-related news app of the People’s Daily called, “Is It Possible to 'Live With the Virus'?" (“与病毒共存”可行吗?). In his post (an early version also available here), Gao criticized – without directly naming Zhang Wenhong – the idea of living with the virus. Humanity’s relationship with infectious diseases, Gao argued, was one of “where there is you, there is no me” (有你无我,你死我活). He wrote: 

Is it possible to ‘live with the virus’? This writer believes that this will never work. The “living with the virus” practiced in the UK, the United States and other countries has already had serious consequences for the health of the rest of the world, and we must not repeat such mistakes. 

Though Gao Qiang’s post in fact appeared on a health app released by the People’s Daily, and not in the People’s Daily itself, opportunistic opponents of Dr. Zhang’s remarks used the post to lend authority to more direct attack on the infectious diseases expert. A number of websites and public accounts shared the post with the suggestion that it had been published by the CCP’s flagship newspaper, which falsely indicated high-level support within the leadership for criticism of Zhang Wenhong’s views – even though, again, Gao’s post had never explicitly mentioned Zhang. 

In some cases, posts reporting on Gao Qiang’s health app post and rehashing Dr. Zhang’s comments blatantly misrepresented the latter’s words. At one point, Dr. Zhang’s recommendations back in April this year, in which he urged Chinese to remain healthy by “definitely eating high-nutrition foods high in protein . . . . and not eating porridge in the morning” (一定要吃高营养高蛋白食物 . . . . 早上不许吃粥), were trotted out as evidence that the expert has “a servile attitude toward Western things,” or chong yang mei wai (崇洋媚外). 

In the image below, a post made to the Netease platform, with the headline, “People’s Daily Runs Article By Former Health Minister Gao Qiang Harshly Criticizing Zhang Wenhong’s Twisted Theory About Living With the Virus” (人民日报发原卫生部长高强雄文, 痛批张文宏与病毒和谐共处论), alleges that “a few people linked to Western medical interest groups are still lording it over the media in our country.”

An August 9 post to Netease erroneously attributes Gao Qiang’s article to the People’s Daily, and alleges a foreign conspiracy to put pro-Western medical experts in the media. 

Finally, on August 14, a netizen called "Dasheng Speaks" (大盛说) took to Weibo to accuse Zhang Wenhong of being undeserving of his status as an academic authority. The blogger shared Dr. Zhang’s doctoral dissertation from more than twenty years ago and accused him of plagiarism. 

In response, the Graduate School of Fudan University publicly announced one day later that it had launched an investigation into the allegations.

Fudan University announces on August 15 that it is launching an investigation into allegations of plagiarism against Dr. Zhang Wenhong. 

On August 23, the official Weibo of People’s Daily posted the results of Fudan University’s investigation into allegations of plagiarism against Dr. Zhang, reporting that Zhang’s conduct “does not constitute academic misconduct.” For those in support of Dr. Zhang, this post amounted to an “official determination” (官方定性), and therefore meant that the storm of expert commentary in the wake of the Nanjing outbreak had finally reached its end.