China’s Political Discourse August 2022: Pelosi’s “Sneaky Visit” to Taiwan
By China Media Project
From late July to early August, speculation about whether US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would visit Taiwan captivated discussion on China’s internet, moderated by strict censorship of one of the country’s most sensitive topics. More radical nationalist voices on social media, some with official or quasi-official backgrounds, claimed that the Chinese military would act to prevent Pelosi from reaching Taiwan, even if it meant shooting down her plane.
Among the voices stirring up the sense of impending conflict in both Chinese and English was former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, who said in a July 27 tweet, ahead of Pelosi’s arrival, that “there’ll be an unprecedented crisis over the Taiwan Strait.” Two days later, as the moment drew closer, Hu wrote on Twitter that “[if] US fighter jets escort Pelosi's plane into Taiwan, it is invasion.” If this happened, he posted, the People’s Liberation Army would be within its rights to “forcibly dispel” the plane.
Tweets from former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin in late July and early August build up the sense of crisis over Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, and also use the preferred CCP media term “sneaky” to describe the House Speaker’s actions.
As Pelosi’s trip was cloaked in suspense, with commentators like Hu Xijin rattling their sabers through social media, many Chinese wondered whether the showdown might accelerate Taiwan’s return to Chinese sovereignty.
By comparison, the language in China’s official state media was firm but indefinite. A July 27 headline in the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily read: "If Pelosi Visits Taiwan, China's Military Will Not Sit Idly By.” But this statement, coming from the Ministry of Defense, was pushed down to page 12 of the paper. On August 3 and 4, the days of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the People’s Daily ran 14 articles addressing the issue, most of these official boilerplate “statements” (声明) or “discussions” (谈话) from the necessary nodes of action within the bureaucracy — the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the Taiwan Work Office of the Central Committee, and so on.
During Pelosi’s visit, just one related article made the front page of the People’s Daily. This was a commentary on August 3, the day of the US House Speaker’s arrival, attributed to “this paper’s commentary writer” (本报评论员), marking it as a piece written by the newspaper to reflect the central government consensus — though it was relegated to the bottom right corner of the page, behind four articles on domestic political and economic matters. The commentary was called, “The Determination of the Chinese Government and the Chinese People to Realize the Reunification of the Motherland is Rock-Solid.”
One of the most strongly worded responses to the Pelosi visit in the People’s Daily was an August 4 commentary by Zhong Sheng” (钟声), a pen name for pieces on international affairs that reflect the view of the top leadership. (For more on official pen names, read CMP’s related analysis from June). The commentary repeated the official line that Pelosi’s visit was a “serious violation of the one-China principle,” and of the Three Communiqués forming the foundation of US-China relations.
Noting that China was holding several days of military exercises around Taiwan in response to Pelosi’s visit, the “Zhong Sheng” commentary concluded: "China must be reunified, and will inevitably be reunited. This is an unstoppable historical trend that will not and cannot be changed by Pelosi's provocative visit.”
The tone of official coverage of the visit was conveyed most consistently through the specific Chinese term used in place of what otherwise might have been the word simply for “visit” (访问). In the above passage, and in every article in the official state media related to Pelosi, the term used instead was “sneaky visit,” or cuànfǎng (窜访), which suggested that Pelosi’s visit was vile and cunning — an act in the shadows that could not withstand the light of scrutiny. While the second character in this two-character pairing simply means “to visit” or “call on,” the first is composed of the character for “cave” along with the character for “rat“ — an association that becomes clearer in the traditional version, 竄訪.
The mouse has popularly been associated with cunning, deception, and greed in China. So the word cuàn suggests the scurrying of a rodent that is destructive and unwelcome. The word cuànfǎng appeared in 69 separate articles in the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper in August, as the paper vented its fury over the Pelosi visit. In the remarks of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in English-language coverage in state media outlets, meanwhile, Pelosi’s trip was a “sneaky visit.”
As Pelosi completed her visit to Taiwan, the People's Daily ramped up its open campaign of opposition, bringing the rapid upward climb of the phrase “external forces” (外部势力), which has long signaled more hardline Party opposition to perceived foreign meddling in China’s internal affairs. The phrase, which has remained in tiers 4 and 5 of the CMP scale for 2022, reached Tier 3 in August.
For more on Pelosi’s visit in the context of reporting on foreign affairs in the People’s Daily, see the “Foreign Leaders” section at the end of this report.
On the domestic political front, August 2022 was marked by important inspection tours by General Secretary Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang on August 16. While Xi traveled to Liaoning province in China’s northeast, Li traveled to Guangdong province in the south. Both trips brought important signals.
According to the People’s Daily, Xi said during his trip to the northeast that new policy measures would have to be taken after the 20th National Congress of the CCP in October to revitalize the region, which has long lagged behind other areas and has seen poor economic performance and steep revenue declines over the past two years. Meanwhile, social media chatter inside China, as well as foreign media reports, noted that Premier Li said during his tour of the south that economic reforms in China would continue to move forward and that the Yellow River and Yangtze River “will not reverse course.” This particular phrasing, no doubt intended as a strong statement that China would remain open to the world, was not used in official state media.
Coastal provinces must submit financial revenues to the higher authorities
On August 16, Premier Li Keqiang hosted a conference of the government leaders of China’s most economically vibrant provinces (经济大省). The economies of the six provinces taking part — Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong, Henan, and Sichuan — together account for 45 percent of China’s total economic volume.
According to a release on the meeting, Li Keqiang emphasized that the four coastal provinces attending the conference (Henan and Sichuan being inland provinces) accounted for 60 percent of the total financial contributions to the central government and that they needed to complete their fiscal contribution tasks. Following on Li Keqiang’s unprecedented video teleconference on the economy back in May, this meeting of the six top provincial economies could be seen as a further sign that economic weakness is biting hard in China, impacting local finances.
The fiscal revenue the central government receives from more economically vibrant provinces is then distributed to the less developed central and western regions as well as the northeast in the form of transfer payments (转移支付), which benefits more coordinated development. If economically high-performing provinces turn over less money to the central treasury, this puts a drag on secondary distribution, and the less developed regions find it more difficult to develop as a result.
However, mirroring the downplaying of the premier’s official visits and statements that we have seen rather consistently in recent months, the official release about the premier’s conference with provincial leaders repeatedly used the phrase “Li Keqiang said” (李克强说) — avoiding stronger words like “pointed out” or “emphasized.” This was quite distinct from official reports on Xi Jinping’s visit to the northeast, which always had the general secretary “pointing out” or “emphasizing” various points of policy.
Li’s conference also seems to have been downplayed by provincial-level CCP media, which might have been expected to stress the meeting given that the premier, as the head of the national-level government, is the direct leader of the provincial governors. A search of provincial-level CCP newspapers for the period from August 16 to August 31 reveals that Henan province had just one article mentioning “Li Keqiang” and “economically vibrant provinces,” an August 25 report called “The Ninth Inspection Group of the State Council Holds a Work Interface Meeting.” Sichuan and Shandong each had two articles mentioning “Li Keqiang” and “economically vibrant provinces,” while Zhejiang and Jiangsu had 5 and 6 articles respectively.
In another symbolic act, Li Keqiang’s Shenzhen journey included a visit to Lianhuashan Park, a site closely associated with reform and opening. The official news release from Xinhua News Agency made only passing mention of this, however: “During the inspection visit, Li Keqiang made a special trip to Lianhuashan Park to admire the bronze of Deng Xiaoping, and lay a bouquet of flowers.”
In 1992, when Deng Xiaoping visited the south, this impelled the process of reform and opening across the country. During his trip, Deng planted a fig tree, also commonly known as a “council tree,” in Shenzhen Xianhu Botanical Garden, to the east of the city center. The six-meter-high statue of Deng, unveiled in Lianhuashan Park in November 2000, is a towering symbol of the changes brought about by the leaders tour to the south, and for more than two decades it has been a site of pilgrimage for top officials. It shows the leader striding forward, a reference to his famous words: “The steps toward reform and opening must be bigger” (改革开放的步子要大ー点).
A search of the People’s Daily reveals that Xi previously made two visits as China’s top leader to Lianhuashan Park, where he laid flowers at the feet of Deng’s statue. The first visit occurred within one month of the 18th National Congress of the CCP during which Xi rose to power, as he made Shenzhen his first destination for an official inspection tour. Standing at the foot of the statue on December 8, 2012, Xi Jinping said: “We come with admiration to Deng Xiaoping’s bronze statue in order to express our resolution in continuing to promote reform and opening, striving for new developments and new breakthroughs in advancing reform and opening and achieving modernization, stepping up to a new level."
During that visit, Xi even imitated Deng, planting a fig tree. His second visit to Lianhuashan Park came on October 14, 2020, after he led the commemoration ceremony for the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. Visiting the bronze statue of Deng, he laid flowers at its base.
Since the 18th National Congress, however, no other senior CCP leaders in the Central Committee aside from Xi and Li Keqiang have visited Deng’s bronze at Lianhuashan Park.
A kimono in Suzhou: clothing as crime
On August 10, Xiao Ya (小亚), a third-year college student, was taken away by local police along with a male companion, Xiao Nan (小楠), under the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事) as she photographed herself wearing a Japanese kimono on Huaihai Street in the historic city of Suzhou, an area that has often been called “Japanese street” for its strong Japanese design aesthetic.
Xiao Ya had only been trying to do a photoshoot of herself dressed as a well-known cosplay character from the Japanese manga series Summer Time Rendering. But officers approached her and accused her of acting in a way unbefitting Chinese. A video of Xiao Ya’s arrest later circulated widely on Weibo and other platforms showed an officer berating her on the street, shouting: “You are Chinese, aren’t you?”
Back at the police station, officers searched Xiao Ya’s mobile phone for images she had taken and photographed the phone and its image files. Xiao Nan (小楠), who had taken the photos of Xiao Ya with her mobile, also had his statement taken by the police. He was asked to write down his account of what had happened that day, including the so-called mistakes he had made and his “understanding of these errors.” Police confiscated Xiao Ya’s mobile phone as well as her kimono and shoes and socks, saying that these were tools used in her crime. “I said that there was no crime, but he said that whatever the case there was no way he could let me take them,” she later recalled. “He told me to call a friend and have them bring clothes for me.”
On August 12, Xiao Ya posted a full account of what she had experienced to QQ Space (QQ空间里), and this prompted a lively discussion among internet users in China. On August 18, the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper reported the story in its “Beijing Youth In-Depth” (北青深一度) section, but the article was quickly deleted from the internet inside China.
Chinese Academy of History: Pandemic lockdowns are not an objective description of Chinese foreign policy during the Ming and Qing dynasties
For its third edition of 2022, the journal Historical Review (历史研究), published by the Chinese Academy of History, ran an article signed by the academy called “A New Inquiry into the Question of 'Cutting the Country Off' During the Ming and Qing Dynasties." The article compared uses of the phrase 'cutting the country off from the world' (闭关锁国) and argued that the term was a product of the 'West-centrism' in a particular era, not an objective description of the foreign policy of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Released through the official Weibo account of the Chinese Academy of History, the article quickly made the rounds on social media, where readers viewed it as an apologist piece relating to recent lockdowns under China’s zero-Covid policy, which has effectively closed the country to the outside world. Many saw the article as a trial balloon to test a possible continued closed-door policy (封闭国门), and this immediately sparked questions and controversy over whether isolationism was the future for the country.
The Historical Review article invented a new term to characterize the closed-door policies of the Ming and Qing. ”We believe that what the central government during the Ming and Qing dynasties employed was instead a foreign policy of ‘self-restricted shutdown’ (自主限关),” the article read. “Seen from today’s perspective, the question of whether or not to open up, how to open up, and the scale of opening up falls within the scope of national sovereignty. It is totally untenable for certain scholars at home and abroad to simply denounce the notion as 'backward' and associate it with 'barbarism', or even consider it a violation of the so-called 'international law.'"
The Chinese Academy of History is co-located with the Department of History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and is a vice-ministerial-level unit headed by the vice-president of CASS.
Linshu County in Shandong Province: a PCR "Competition"
On August 9, Linshu County (临沭县), under the jurisdiction of Shandong’s prefectural-level Linyi City (临沂市), issued a “Notice on the City-wide PCR Testing ‘Competition’ Activities,” which said that PRC tests would be mandatory the next day for all residents in the county. The notice added that “one residential area and one village will be randomly selected as medium-risk areas,” and that lockdown exercises would be conducted. The notice said: "Some areas will be partially sealed, the sites cordoned off, and vehicles and personnel would assemble in these areas wearing medical protective equipment to disinfect the environment."
The notice also instructed residents in Linshu County not to “illegally broadcast scenes of the event or take images or video.” Residents should avoid “freely posting” content about the event to WeChat, Weibo, and other social media platforms.
This “grand competition” (大比武) method has its origins in 1964, when the People’s Liberation Army held its own “grand competition” throughout its ranks with the thought that widespread training exercises would encourage the masses to love the army and military training, and would raise the combat readiness of the troops. But these simulation exercises for epidemic prevention and control under the guise of a "grand competition," complete with lockdowns and disinfection for the fictional "medium-risk area," were an unwarranted interruption of the lives of the people in the designated area — amounting to an unnecessary disaster with very real consequences.
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The Hot and the Cold
About the 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:
In 2021, CMP adjusted 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, just two phrases made the top of the CMP scale at Tier 1. These were “since the 18th National Congress of the CCP” (十八大以来) and “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心), both terms associated with the rule of General Secretary Xi Jinping. Both “Covid-19” (新冠肺炎) and “epidemic prevention and control” dropped below Tier 1 for the first time since March this year, landing in Tier 2. This almost certainly reflects the CCP’s interest in toning down emphasis on the pandemic and the official response in light of the approach of the 20th National Congress of the CCP.
The top three of key phrases signaling the power and prestige of Xi Jinping held steady for August. These included Xi’s so-called banner term (旗帜语), “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” the “Two Establishes” (两个确立), and the “Two Protections” (两个维护). All three remained in Tier 2, recording essentially the same level of usage as in July.
These phrases were joined in Tier 2 by the “Four Confidences” (四个自信) and the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), which in July were one level lower in Tier 3. Both of these phrases have been critical since 2018 to the consolidation of Xi Jinping’s personal power. The latter refers to the 1) need to maintain political integrity, 2) think in big-picture terms, 3) uphold the leadership core, which of course is Xi Jinping, and 4) keep in close in alignment with the CCP’s central leadership. The “Four Confidences” refers to the need for 1) confidence in the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, 2) confidence in the theories of the CCP, 3) confidence in the system (meaning the system of governance of the CCP), and 4) confidence in China’s unique civilization.
Also crucial to the assessment of Xi’s position within the CCP has been the performance of the five main permutations of his banner term for various key policy fields. Among these, the phrase used most frequently in August was “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (生态文明思想), the stand-in for Xi’s policies in the arena of environmental protection and sustainable development, which rose one level to Tier 3 in August. One level down in Tier 4 were Xi’s ideas on national defense (习近平强军思想), the economy (习近平经济思想), and rule of law (习近平法治思想). Coming in at the tail end was “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想), which remained down in Tier 5 for August.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of August 2022 and how they rated on our scale:
Monthly Hot Words:
The “Two Establishes”
First emerging in the wake of the six plenary session of the 19th National Congress last November, the “Two Establishes” (两个确立) is an important phrase to watch ahead of the CCP’s 20th National Congress — a signpost measuring Xi Jinping’s unassailability as the Party’s top leader. At base, the phrase is a claim to the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, and a challenge to any who might oppose him. Accordingly, the China Media Project has tracked the use of the phrase at the provincial and municipality level.
In August 2022, the top three provincial-level CCP newspapers in terms of the number of articles using the “Two Establishes” were Shanxi (106 articles), Tianjin (102 articles), and Jiangsu (86 articles). This was the first top-three appearance for Jiangsu province in 2022. For Shanxi and Tianjin, meanwhile, it was the fourth and fifth top-three appearance respectively.
The provincial CCP newspapers using the “Two Establishes” the least were from Zhejiang, which had 32 articles (putting it in the bottom three for the first time), and from Shanghai and Hainan, which each had 31. This was Shanghai’s fourth monthly showing in the bottom three, and Hainan’s third.
The Centrality Index
Owing to the summer vacation period as top leaders headed off during the first half of August to the seaside resort of Beidaihe (北戴河), there was a general and predictable fall in the overall number of mentions of officials in the Central Committee. On August 16, as the summer vacation period ended, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang went off on their respective visits, one to the north (Liaoning) and one to the south (Guangdong). This created the impression to the outside world that the leaders were evenly matched, with divergent and competing visions of the country’s future. However, there was a huge difference in how the official CCP media treated these two inspection tours.
Xi Jinping appeared in a total of 602 reports in the People’s Daily in August, the lowest number of mentions for the “core” leader so far in 2022. (Again, the summer vacation period is a factor not to be overlooked). But this was still 435 articles above the threshold needed to make Tier 1 of the CMP scale (167).
Premier Li Keqiang was together with Hu Chunhua (胡春华) in the second field of top leaders. But consider again the immense gap between these two and Xi Jinping. Premier Li appeared in a total of just 16 articles in the People’s Daily in August, putting him on the threshold of Tier 3 but keeping him down in Tier 4. Hu Chunhua appeared in just 10 articles. Premier Li has mostly bobbed between tiers 3 and 4 this year, and only once has he made Tier 2. This was in March, corresponding to the National People’s Congress.
Despite repeated speculation that there have been challenges to Xi Jinping’s dominance in light of unpopular Covid-19 policies and deep economic uncertainty — including in May this year when Premier Li led a video conference on boosting the economy attended by more than 170,000 officials — the discourse in the official state media does not reflect any notable change in terms of Xi’s overwhelming dominance.
In fact, if we look at the varying visual treatments given to Xi and other Politburo Standing Committee members, we can glimpse the priority gap yet again. Reports on Premier Li’s visit to Guangdong appeared on the front pages of both the August 17 and August 18 editions of the People’s Daily. The reports appeared not in the prized positions below and to the right of the newspaper’s masthead, however. Rather, they appeared in the middle of the pages, without accompanying images of Li on tour.
By contrast, official reports in the People’s Daily on Xi Jinping’s inspection tour to Liaoning dominate the front page on August 19, accompanied by large images that took up most of the space.
On August 20, the People’s Daily published an official Xinhua News Agency release called, “’We are Full of Confidence About the Revitalization of the Northeast’: General Secretary Xi Jinping's Inspection Tour of Liaoning.” The opening of the article was a direct quote from Xi:
The Central Committee of the CCP places great priority on the revitalization of the northeast, and since the 18th National Congress the Party has made a series of strategic deployments that have had clear results, with new deployments to be made after the 20th National Congress. Although the northeast has met with certain practical issues and difficulties, the prospects are very good. We are full of confidence about the revitalization of the northeast, and full of expectations.
Xi’s talk of deployments “after” the 20th National Congress was an indication again of what most have come to expect — that Xi will remain as top leader for at least the next five years.
It is also interesting to note of appearances by Central Committee members in the People’s Daily in August that the two members who are also top leaders of China’s municipalities — Shanghai’s Li Qiang (李强), Chongqing’s Chen Min’er (陈敏尔) — appeared 0 times in August, just as in July. It is difficult to know how to read these absences in the context of Chinese politics. Given the chaotic nature of the lockdown in Shanghai in the spring, some might suppose that Li, for example, is being put on ice. But in this pre-Congress season, it is also very possible that one or both of these officials are being given low-key treatment because promotions are in the offing.
At the start of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin was trending strongly in the pages of the People’s Daily newspaper in terms of article mentions. In January, he narrowly shared the top spot with US President Joe Biden. In February, as Putin attended the Winter Olympics and China and Russia declared a “no limits” partnership, the Russian president completely dominated the field.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February shoved Putin to the back of the line in the CCP’s official newspaper, behind France’s Emmanuel Macron and the UK’s Boris Johnson — behind even South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa. With the exception of June, when a series of diplomatic exchanges between China and Russia brought Putin briefly out of the cold in the People’s Daily, Joe Biden has been solidly out front, leading for March, April, May, and July.
But in August the tables were turned by a dark and, for China, unwelcome, horse. Enter US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In August, Pelosi was far and away the most mentioned foreign leader in the People’s Daily, appearing in a staggering 71 articles. For perspective, consider that in July Joe Biden topped the tables with just nine articles. From January to July this year, Pelosi appeared in a total of four articles in the Party’s flagship newspaper. An article on April 7 was the earliest official protest against Pelosi’s planned visit, quoting foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) as saying at a press conference that the US “must immediately cancel related plans to visit Taiwan.”
Among the foreign leaders receiving zero coverage in August were North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, India’s Narendra Modi, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Germany’s Olaf Scholz, Chile’s Sebastián Piñera, and Bounnhang Vorachith of Laos. But the most conspicuous absence in the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily was again Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has not appeared in a single article since January 5, 2022.