China’s Political Discourse December 2021: China’s Democracy
By China Media Project
The resolution on CCP history passed at the 6th Plenum of the 19th CCP Central Committee in November 2021 had an essential role in writing Xi and his banner term, “Xi Thought” (习思想) into the Party’s formal history, and discourse on the Plenum – a preparation for themes to dominate into 2022 – continued to dominate into December. But another keyword, “democracy” (民主), became an obvious focus in official CCP discourse in December as the Party both spoke out against the US-led Summit for Democracy, held on December 9-10, and turned up the volume on propaganda about the professed democratic aspects of China’s system. Just ahead of the US event, China released a white paper called “China’s Democracy” (中国的民主), its official English translation called “China: Democracy That Works.” The white paper was accompanied by a full-scale propaganda push, including a series of articles praising “the Chinese Communist Party [for] leading the people in achieving whole-process democracy.”
What is “whole-process democracy” (全过程人民民主)?
The major event in Chinese political discourse in December was a full-scale attack in the Party-state media around the issue of democracy, which in a seminal January 1919 essay in the magazine New Youth was famously personified as “Mr. Democracy” (德先生) by Chen Duxiu (陈独秀), who three years later would join others to form the Chinese Communist Party. On December 1, the phrase “democratic politics” (民主政治) appeared on the opinion page of the People’s Daily, the topic of a piece written by the newspaper’s commentary department and called “Developing Socialist Political Civilization” (发展社会主义政治文明).
The article dealt chiefly with the document emerging from the recent 6th Plenum, the Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议), and the “superior” (优越) system of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It essentially laid the foundation for the propaganda campaign that would unfold over the weeks that followed, as Party-state media amplified the claimed strengths of the CCP-led political system, and unleashed corresponding attacks on democracy in the United States. The terms “democratic politics” and “political civilization” (政治文明) have generally appeared in recent years when the issue of “democracy” is discussed within the Party, replacing the phrase “political system reforms” (政治体制改革), which has become far more sensitive since 2013 and the release that year of the so-called Document 9.
On December 5, the People’s Daily published in full the “China’s Democracy” white paper, which had been released one day earlier by the Information Office of the State Council, which has chief responsibility in China for the conduct of external propaganda (外宣). On December 6, the People’s Daily published China’s full report “The State of Democracy in the United States” (美国民主情况报告), a document running more than 15,000 characters that began: "Democracy is a common value of all of humanity, the right of the people of various nations, and is not something for which any particular country holds the patent." This report had been posted the previous day to the official website of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Published back-to-back, the two reports contrasted the Chinese and American systems, arguing for the superiority of an ostensibly Chinese form of democracy under the CCP. A December 8 article in the Guangming Daily, published by the Central Propaganda Department, made a point of the saying that the CCP was "born out of the New Culture Movement, which advocated 'Mr. Democracy' and "Mr. Science', and the widespread diffusion of Marxism that followed the October Revolution."
The white paper and the report on American democracy were two of China’s major salvos in a US-China tug-of-war over this important keyword: “democracy.” On one side was the US-led Summit for Democracy, announced by the Biden Administration in February 2021. The summit was attended by leaders and civil society organizations from 110 countries and regions, and Taiwan also sent a representative – a point of particular irritation for the CCP. On the other side was South-South Human Rights Forum hosted by the Information Office and MOFA, an event organized by Beijing that has taken place every other year since 2017. The forum, organized by the CCP’s International Liaison Department (对外联络部), plays a critical role in the “quiet diplomacy” of international party-to-party interactions. It was attended this year by representatives from political parties from Nepal, Pakistan, Iran and a number of other countries.
On December 16, the People’s Daily ran a companion propaganda piece about the South-South Human Rights Forum that gathered comments from foreign participants praising the CCP and China’s system. As is par for the course for Party-state media, these comments were not presented as direct quotes in quotation marks but rather were general sentiments “expressed” (表示). Among the comments, conveniently in perfect accord with the propaganda objectives of the CCP, was one from Irmohizam Ibrahim, the former secretary-general of Malaysia's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), who reportedly said that “China's important achievements in economic development and democracy building are admirable, these achievements are no accident, and China's autonomous development model and the leadership of the CCP have played a crucial role.”
Voices from foreign friends also included an article signed by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a Beijing-based corporate strategist and frequent state media commentator, who was introduced as an American awarded the Chinese Reform Friendship Medal (中国改革友谊奖章). China Radio and Television International (CGTN) also released through its YouTube channel a 10-minute video of Kuhn’s presentation on China's concept of "whole-process democracy," in which he heaped praise on Xi Jinping, calling “democratic” one of the “six aspirational adjectives” used by the general secretary of the CCP in his vision of China’s great rejuvenation.
“Whole-process democracy” was first raised by president Xi in 2019 during a consultation session on a draft law at the Gubei Civic Center in Shanghai’s Changning District. “We are following a path of socialist political development with Chinese characteristics,” Xi said during the meeting, “and the people’s democracy in China is a kind of whole-process democracy.” In March of last year, the term was written into the Organic Law of the National People’s Congress of the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国全国人民代表大会组织法), which governs the mechanics of the country’s national legislature under Party rule.
“Whole-process democracy” has since come to encompass the idea that China’s one-party political system is a unique “application of democratic principles” that is in fact more participatory than democratic systems in the West, which state media in the PRC now frequently insist focus only on electoral cycles and therefore fail to respond to the real needs of the people. The West, in fact, is routinely mentioned in coverage of “whole-process democracy,” appearing in nearly 25 percent of related articles in the People’s Daily, suggesting that the idea was introduced explicitly to make the case for the strength of China’s political system, particularly for domestic audiences – as well to deter criticism of China on human rights grounds internationally and express general confidence for China’s own application of principles.
As we will point out later in our analysis of key CCP terminologies in the People’s Daily for December 2021, the term “democratic politics” (民主政治) had the highest usage for the month among the nine terms we look at routinely as part of our Litmus List, a group including seven terms synonymous with past leadership and two generally indicating discussion of political reform. “Democratic politics” appeared in a number of articles for the month, including “The Comparative Advantages and Bright Prospects of Chinese Democracy,” “American Politicization of Human Rights Harms the Roots of Good Human Rights Governance,” and (with the award for most drawn-out headline) "Leaders of Political Parties in Many Countries and Well-Known Personalities Have High Praise for the Development Results of China's Democratic Politics."
One of the key passages of the “China’s Democracy” white paper released on December 5 sought to distract from core questions about what constitutes a democracy by encouraging the broad democratization (here used very loosely) of the debate itself – meaning essentially that the United States and the democratic countries of the West would no longer have a monopoly on the act of definition. The white paper read:
Whether a country is democratic should be judged by its people, not dictated by a handful of outsiders. Whether a country is democratic should be acknowledged by the international community, not arbitrarily decided by a few self-appointed judges. There is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests itself in many forms. Assessing the myriad political systems in the world against a single yardstick and examining diverse political structures in monochrome are in themselves undemocratic.
There was little question, of course, about who was meant by “a few self-appointed judges.” At the core here, too, is the notion, long a feature of China’s foreign policy, that it is the champion of the developing world and the bringer of a more inclusive form of multilateralism (with sovereignty on the altar at its core).
In the past, much of the CCP’s language regarding political systems in foreign policy has centered on the need for mutual respect for differences, as Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪) wrote in the People’s Daily last April (with nary a mention of democracy) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “ping-pong diplomacy.” The shift we can see now is to calls for mutual respect for differences in our democracies. This can also be seen a reflecting the shift in China’s diplomatic posture from Deng’s low-profile “conceal capacities and bide one’s time” (韬光养晦) to Xi’s more outspoken and even combative approach.
China’s report “The State of Democracy in the United States” essentially laid out the estrangement of American democracy from its core goals, and outlined what it called “three malaises” (三重弊害), namely that 1) “American-style democracy has become ‘a game of money politics,’” that 2) that while it is “’one person one vote’ in name,” it is “’rule of the minority elite’ in reality,” and that 3) “checks and balances have resulted in a ‘vetocracy’” (meaning that political paralysis is the prevailing state of affairs). “The self-styled American democracy is now gravely ill with money politics, elite rule, political polarization and a dysfunctional system,” the report said. “This makes many people in the US and other countries wonder if the US is still a democracy. The world needs to take a closer look at the current state of democracy in the US, and the US itself should also conduct some soul-searching.”
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Brother Hao has the eye of heaven
One of the most bizarre surprises in online discourse in December came early in the month as web users gleefully shared an article appearing on the WeChat public account of Shanghai Wenfeng Group (上海文峰集团), a cosmetics enterprise, that glorified the company’s chairman, Chen Hao (陈浩). The article, “Wenfeng Cosmetics Chairman Chen Hao in the Eyes of His Secretary,” referred to Chen as “Brother Hao” (浩哥), and praised the man’s mastery of all things, giving rise to the trending phrase: “Brother Hao has the eye of heaven, and only the thoughts of Brother Hao can help us succeed.”
After appearing on the “Wenfeng Today” (今日文峰) account, the paean prompted a feverish search through the Wenfeng Group culture, and a flurry of questions about the company's pathological corporate culture, which seemed to engage in mind control and invite a cult of personality around the corporate leadership. In one video widely shared, Chen can be seen dancing before rapt employees, all dressed in white, as they applaud in rhythm. Internet users turned to the group’s official website, where they found an enterprise anthem called “Ten Odes to Brother Hao” (十颂浩哥), with lyrics praising the boss for his “understanding of yin and yang” (懂阴阳) and his “mania for learning (学习狂). “Beauty and health rely on Brother Hao,” read another line.
Before long, Shanghai Wenfeng Group, which has been fined in the past by market supervision authorities for consumer disputes, was called in for a chat with the Shanghai Consumer Council (上海消保委), a semi-government organization responsible for providing consumers with consumer information and advice. The organization warned consumers that the company’s pre-paid card model, which commits customers to sizable deposits for future product purchases, could pose significant risks. On the evening of December 12, the Wenfeng Group issued a public statement of apology, saying that it "feels a deep sense of guilt" and expressing its sincerest apologies. It pledged to "undergo immediate rectification" and said that it "accepts the supervision of the public and the media, and of relevant government departments." In an interview with local media in Shanghai, Chen Hao professed to be puzzled when asked about the spiritual control of his employees: “What control? I’ve never, ever even considered what this means, control.”
Celebrating Mao Christmas
In conjunction with the Central Economic Work Conference (中央经济工作会议), an annual meeting that sets the national agenda for China’s economy as well as its financial and banking sectors, a report appearing in the People's Daily on December 23 mentioned that toy factories in Jinjiang, a county-level city in Fujian province, had delivered Christmas toys to the shelves of American superstores. This detail was used to open a discussion of supply chain problems now plaguing the world, not as a discussion of the Christmas holiday per se, which as a general rule does not appear as a religious holiday in official CCP media discourse.
Unrelated to this tiptoeing around the Christmas holiday in the CCP’s flagship newspaper, from Christmas Eve onward images were shared across China’s internet of a vacation notice from one of the country’s leading microchip manufacturers, Loongson Technology Corporation. The title of the notice read: “Notice Concerning Taking Vacation the ‘Mao Birthday Holiday’” (关于“毛诞节”放假的通知). “In order to commemorate the birth anniversary of our great mentor Chairman Mao,” the body of the notice said, “the company will designate December 26th each year as 'Mao's Birthday' (or 'People's Day') and take a day off with reference to the company's holiday regulations.” The notice bore the stamp of the company.
Loongson Technology, a leader in domestic chip production, submitted an IPO filing to the Science and Technology Innovation Board of the Shanghai Stock Exchange back in June 2021. According to the company's official website, the company’s chairman, Hu Weiwu (胡伟武), is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology, and was also a delegate to the 18th and 19th National Congresses of the CCP. Images on the company’s official website show Hu sporting a Zhongshan suit, the same kind famously worn by Mao. This December discourse wave, and its odd concept of a Maoist Christmas, can be seen as a reflective of rising nationalism, which Xi Jinping has also encouraged through such notions as “cultural confidence” (文化自信), essentially a morale-boosting self-assuredness that places the CCP at the apex of 5,000 years of civilizational development.
Moving on to our analysis of the hot and cold buzzwords in CCP official discourse in December 2021, we apply our CMP Discourse Scale.
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:
For 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 December, the terms and phrases “pneumonia,” “since the 18th National Congress,” “Comrade Xi Jinping as the core,” “Belt and Road,” and the general secretary’s banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” all maintained their positions in Tier 1, at the top of the CMP Discourse Scale. For the corresponding Chinese, please refer to our list of monitored terms below. Five terms, “Marx,” “new development pattern,” “reform and opening,” “epidemic prevention and control” and “sense of gain,” rose from Tier 2 to Tier 1 for the month.
Of the terms rising to Tier 1 in December, readers may be less familiar with “sense of gain” (获得感), which first rose to prominence in the official CCP discourse back in February 2015, following Xi Jinping’s speech to the 10th Meeting of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms formed at the outset of the Xi era. The term essentially refers to the feeling among the people that they have shared in the fruits of reform. In the current climate, this mind bring to mind the lately ascending CCP phrase “common prosperity,” and indeed “sense of gain” appears in around one-third of articles mentioning “common prosperity.” Both terms also appear in the “China’s Democracy” white paper, where there is a reference to how the “Chinese people’s sense of gain, sense of happiness and sense of security have steadily increased” under the rule of the CCP.
As we mentioned, Xi Jinping’s 16-character banner term remained in Tier 1 for December – not exactly a surprise. One development to watch in 2022 will be the possible shortening of this lengthy phrase as “Xi Jinping Thought” as we edge closer to the 20th National Congress of the CCP this fall. And one trend to follow in this process is the use of various permutations of Xi’s banner as applied to concrete policy areas.
Of the five main permutations, only “Xi Jinping Thought on the Economy” warmed up in December, rising up from the bottom in Tier 6 to enter Tier 5 (with a total of 8 articles). This was due chiefly to the appearance of the phrase in a series of articles in the People’s Daily called “Review of the Vivid Practice of Xi Jinping Thought on the Economy.” Published over five days, the series praised Xi’s economic policies along five concepts, including: "beauty” (美), "reality" (实), "effectiveness" (效), "cooperation" (协), and "community" (共). The somewhat related term “seeking improvement in stability,” which essentially means that stability is the first order of business and the condition of economic development, rose from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in December. CCP theorists have referred to “seeking improvement in stability” as the “methodology” (方法论) by which economic work is to be done effectively in China.
The phrase “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” dropped from Tier 4 to Tier 3, owing in part to the end of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow in November, which prompted more talk in official media of Xi’s ostensible contributions. “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” maintained its position in Tier 3, while “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” held steady in Tier 4. “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,” the banner permutation for which Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) formally opened a study center in July 2020, dropped from Tier 4 to Tier 5.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of December 2021 and how they rated on our scale:
The Litmus List
Among the nine keywords on our Litmus List, a group including seven phrases, including banner terms, synonymous with past leadership and two generally indicating discussion of political reform, the only term to make Tier 2 was “democratic politics,” a reflection of the intensity of CCP discourse on democracy as discussed at the outset of this monthly report. All other terms were in Tiers 3, 4 and 6.
“Political civilization” and “people oriented” were both in Tier 3. The three banner terms marking the legacies of previous leaders in the reform era, including “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” the “Three Represents” and the “Scientific View of Development” were all in Tier 4. The rest of the terms, including “political system reforms” and “inner-party democracy,” those most closely indicating more substantive discussion of political reform, were down in Tier 6.
"Democratic politics" appeared in 42 articles for December, while “political civilization" appeared in 30 articles. Both marked a significant increase from the previous month, and both were high points for these terms in 2021.
The Centrality Index
In December, Xi Jinping far and away led the pack of CCP officials in the Central Committee, with a total of 730 articles mentioning his name, making him yet again the only Party leader in Tier 1. Appearances of “Xi Jinping” were 30 times those of the leader in second place, Premier Li Keqiang (李克强), who made Tier 3, leaving Tier 2 again as a visual illustration of the extreme attention gap at the top of the Party. Li Keqiang was joined in Tier 3 by Wang Yang and Han Zheng. The leaders in Tier 4 included Huang Kunming (黄坤明), Wang Chen (王晨), Sun Chunlan (孙春兰), Hu Chunhua (胡春华), Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪), Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥), Wang Huning (王沪宁), Guo Shengkun (郭声琨) and Liu He (刘鹤).
Toward the bottom in Tier 5 this month were Chen Xi (陈希), head of the CCP’s Organization Department, and Yang Xiaodu (杨晓渡), director of the National Supervisory Commission.
The rankings of regional officials in the People’s Daily was shaken up in December by the appointment of seven new top leaders at the provincial level, including Yi Lianhong (易炼红) in Jiangxi, Zhang Qingwei (张庆伟) in Hunan, Li Ganjie (李干杰) in Shandong, Liu Ning (刘宁) in Guangxi, Wang Ning (王宁) in Yunnan, Wang Junzheng (王君正) in Tibet and Xu Qin (许勤) in Heilongjiang.
On December 25, it was announced that Chen Quanguo (陈全国), who has overseen the security crackdown on the Uyghur population and the establishment of a network of “red-education camps,” had left his post as Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where he had served for more than five years. The top post in Xinjiang was filled by Ma Xingrui (马兴瑞), formerly deputy secretary and governor of Guangdong Province. It is not yet clear what, if any, change this reshuffling will bring. Nor is it clear what Chen Quanguo's next post will be, the Central Committee revealing only that he will receive "another appointment" (另有任用). Despite Chen’s departure from Xinjiang, our table this month reflects only uses of Chen’s name, and not coverage of Ma Xingrui.
In other news on the appointments front, it was decided through a selection on December 18 that Zhang Guoqing (张国清) would continue to serve as secretary in Liaoning province.
In December, the People’s Daily published the speeches of Gansu’s Yin Hong (尹弘), Jiangsu’s Wu Zhenglong (吴政隆) and Anhui’s Zheng Jiejie (郑栅洁) at provincial meetings as commentaries with the respective secretaries’ bylines. Jilin’s Jing Junhai (景俊海) also appeared with a byline in the newspaper, with an article called “Comprehensively Strengthening the Political Construction of the Party in the New Era and on a New Journey” (在新时代新征程全面加强党的政治建设). Part of a series of articles meant to study the “spirit” of the 6th Plenum back in November, Jing’s piece contained many specialized phrases that are worthy of note as they signal an atmosphere of discipline and obedience to Xi in the run-up to the 20th National Congress, including: "two-faced people" (两面人), a reference to Party officials who talk the talk but who are insufficiently loyal; and "promoted with illness" (帶病提拔), referring to officials who advance in ranking through corrupt means, sickening the integrity of the entire system; the “Seven Presences” (七个有之), referring to seven types of conduct, such as forming cliques and gangsterism within the Party, spreading rumors internally and so on, that are serious violations of discipline a set out by Xi Jinping. “The chief task of the Party’s political construction,” Jing wrote, “is ensuring that the entire Party obeys the Central Committee, adhering to the authority of the Central Committee and its centralized and unified leadership.” The article also mentioned Xi’s phrase about the continuing revolutionary nature of the CCP: “not changing our nature, changing our color, or changing our flavor” (不变质、不变色、不变味).
Putin and Biden led mentions of foreign leaders in the People’s Daily in December, both holding steady in Tier 4.
One article mentioning Biden was a commentary bearing the byline “Guo Jiping” (国纪平), not an individual but a shortened form of “important commentary on international affairs,” or you guan guoji de zhongyao pinglun (有关国际的重要评论). Published on December 29, the commentary described 2021 as a “milestone year” for the Party and the nation, and noted among Xi’s achievements for the year his two calls with Biden. Biden was also singled out in criticism in the paper for a bill passing in the US that required companies to prove that products manufactured in Xinjiang were not produced with forced labor. "Over the past year, the Biden administration has said it has no intention of starting a 'new Cold War' with China," read one December 25 commentary. "But the US has recklessly provoked new conflicts and created new crises on a series of issues related to China's core interests, including Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and the [South China] Sea."
Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was mentioned three times in the People’s Daily in December. As mentioned in the previous monthly report, Scholz’ name has given rise to two separate renderings in Chinese. The People’s Daily has preferred “朔尔茨,” which seems to predominate in Chinese media coverage. But it seems the question has not been entirely settled. The official Economic Times newspaper ran a piece in December rendering the chancellor’s name as “舒尔茨.”
The United States, Russia and the United Kingdom led mentions of individual countries in the People’s Daily for December, all appearing in Tier 2. Among the three, the US appeared in 150 articles, slightly more than double the number of articles for Russia. With the exception of Turkey and Myanmar, which were down in Tier 5, and Palestine, which scraped the bottom in Tier 6, the majority of countries were in Tier 3 and Tier 4.
Coverage of Russia in December included both a video call on December 15 between Xi Jinping and Putin, which brought a lengthy page-one summary of the call praising the health of the relationship, and a video call between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, held on November 30. Reporting Russia's formal withdrawal from the 2002 Open Skies Treaty, the People's Daily said the treaty had "ultimately become a casualty of domestic political struggles in the US."