China’s Political Discourse: February 2021: Staying Put for New Year

By China Media Project

The China Media Project (CMP) is a terrific resource for understanding PRC politics and how they are reflected in trends in CCP propaganda. Every month the CMP produces a report looking at leading trends in Chinese official discourse, and I am pleased to be able to publish these reports on Sinocism.

China’s Political Discourse: February 2021  

Staying Put for New Year

The defining event in February 2021 was the Lunar New Year holiday. As new virus outbreaks struck some areas, particularly in northern China, this brought new curbs on holiday travel. The phrase, “staying put for New Year” (就地过年), came to dominate familiar felicitations like “joy and peace” (欢乐祥和). In highlights for the month, we had a Chinese diplomat ask rhetorically why Chinese people could not use Facebook, and a Chinese journalist subjected to online violence because they appealed against engaging in the feudal cultural practice of “mass kowtowing” (集体磕头). 

In addition, a national conference was held in February to celebrate China’s announced victory in eliminating absolute poverty and to officially award individuals said to have made contributions to the cause. Xi Jinping declared at the event that China "has completed the arduous task of eliminating absolute poverty, generating another earthly miracle (人间奇迹) that will go down in the annals of history." Most ordinary Chinese probably have little intuitive sense about the making of history and so-called “earthly miracles,” but they may have some recollection of Premier Li Keqiang’s more cautious and down-to-earth assessment at last year’s NPC, reported on May 29, 2020, in the People’s Daily and other state media: 

China is a populous developing country, and our per capita annual income is 30,000 RMB. But there are 600 million low and middle-income people who earn an average monthly income of around 1,000 RMB. In a mid-sized city, 1,000 RMB would make it difficult even to pay rent, and now we are also facing an epidemic.

Li Keqiang's unvarnished assessment at the time was widely discussed, and a video clip of his remarks, posted to the government-run website, was played more than 22 million times. 

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 particularly 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:

With just 28 days in the month of February, there is some slight downward adjustment in frequency for the terms we routinely follow. Tier 1 terms for the month, those with the highest intensity, included “epidemic prevention and control” (疫情防控), “pneumonia” (肺炎) and “poverty alleviation” (脱贫攻坚).

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

The Litmus List    

We generally begin our monthly surveys of CCP discourse by looking at the table of terms above, determining their intensity in the discourse. We then look at a small set of nine keywords, what we refer to as our “litmus list.” Seven of these are political terms synonymous with past leadership generations, including banner terms, or qizhiyu (旗帜语), and two are terms generally indicating discussion of political reform. We would expect these 9 keywords not to make any obvious moves, for example being used suddenly with much greater frequency – and to see such changes would invite further study.   

In February, the banner terms of the past three generations of Chinese leaders –  sometimes referred to collectively in Chinese with the shorthand deng san ke (邓三科) – appeared together in four articles, registering Tier 5, unchanged from January. The term “political system reform” (政治体制改革), generally associated with more reform-minded discussion within the Party discourse, did not appear at all in February, maintaining the trend in January. The phrase has not appeared in the People’s Daily since its last showing in a single article in November 2020, and before that in July 2020.

The terms “political civilization” (政治文明) and “intra-party democracy” (党内民主) both registered Tier 6 intensities, the lowest on our scale. For the latter term, this was quite a substantial month-to-month drop, as “intra-party democracy” registered Tier 4 in our January survey. “People oriented” (以人为本), an important phrase from the Hu Jintao era, registered Tier 4 in February, while the Jiang Zemin era term “harmonious society” was an ice-cold Tier 6, with zero appearances. 


The Centrality Index

Next we tested our list of key leaders on the Politburo of the CCP Central Committee (25 members) to determine relative positions of prominence, or absence, in the People’s Daily for the month of January – a test of who is getting attention, and who is not.

Xi Jinping once again, not at all surprisingly, led the pack in February 2021, with a total of 446 articles in the People’s Daily mentioning his name, solidly in Tier 1. As was the case in January, Tier 2 is absent any Central Committee members. Generally, as we said in the previous monthly report, we should expect Li Keqiang (李克强), as premier, to be one level below Xi Jinping, putting him in Tier 2. In fact, Premier Li maintained at Level 3, two levels below Xi. Li Zhanshu (栗战书), Han Zheng (韩正) and Wang Yang (汪洋) came in at Level 4, dropping one level from last month. These moderate shifts in level are not particularly significant in and of themselves. But the gap between Xi Jinping and the rest of the members of the Central Committee remains significant – a measure of his relative power as the “core” leader.


Regional Rankings

Looking at how provincial, municipal and autonomous region leaders (31) on the Central Committee were represented in the People’s Daily and in provincial-level Party newspapers, we find that just seven provincial-level secretaries were mentioned at all in the People’s Daily in February 2021. Top among these was Cai Qi (蔡奇), the Party secretary of Beijing, who appeared in three articles. The first two of these, appearing on February 2 and 5, dealt with preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The third, on February 25, reported a meeting of the Capital Planning and Construction Commission, responsible for city planning in Beijing, of which Cai is co-director. The remaining six secretaries were mentioned in the context of preparations for the 4th Session of the 13th National People’s Congress, which opened on March 5.


Foreign Leaders

In February, the leaders of the principle foreign countries mentioned in the People’s Daily were distributed across Tiers 4, 5 and 6, all registering in the bottom half of the CMP Discourse Scale. 

US President Joe Biden was the only foreign leader in Tier 4, with 10 mentions in February. The first was a commentary from “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), a pen name used in the paper since November 2008 for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its view. The piece was called, “The American People Are Still Waiting for ‘Racial Justice,’” and noted that “President Biden has made promoting racial equality one of his four priorities in office." The piece sought to speak from a position of principle, while underscoring US weaknesses on race: “In fact, racial discrimination in the United States has long been a universal and systematic in nature,” the commentary said. “The source of the chaos has been inexhaustible and the root of the chaos difficult to eliminate. The shocking incidents of racial discrimination in the United States that have drawn international attention are just the tip of the iceberg."

Another “Zhong Sheng” commentary on February 14 referred to the February 11 call between Xi Jinping and Biden, and called for “mutual efforts” on relations and trade this year, stressing that it marked the 50th anniversary of “ping-pong diplomacy.” 

Vladimir Putin of Russia, Emmanuel Macron of France, Boungnang Vorachitch of Laos, and Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, were in Tier 5 in February. Putin (5) was mentioned largely in the context of the Russian economy, with a focus on his economic recovery policies, coverage of the problem of labor shortages, and the resumption of work on the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline. Macron (4) was mentioned twice in the context of his February 25 call with Xi Jinping, once in an article reporting France’s passage of its controversial “separatism bill,” and once among foreign leaders expressing wishes for the Lunar New Year. 

Coverage of Boungnang Vorachitch (5) mentioned his visits to the countryside in Hunan and Fujian provinces, and came in the context of China’s declared victory in eliminating extreme poverty – called a “great miracle” (伟大奇迹). The coverage explicitly portrayed China as a model in anti-poverty efforts. Coverage of Nguyen Phu Trong (4) focused on his naming to a third term as head of Vietnam’s Communist Party. 

The remaining leaders shown below, all in the “cold” Tier 6 were mentioned in just one or two articles. For example, South Korean President Moon Jae-in was mentioned once in a February 3 article defending the concept of “multilateralism” (多边主义), which has been a regular topic in official Chinese discourse. Moon is quoted in the article as saying that “it is time to reclaim the spirit of multilateralism and inclusiveness.”

China’s definition and understanding of “multilateralism” deserves careful scrutiny, and a short explanation can be found in “The Decoding China Dictionary,” an ongoing endeavor in which CMP is a participating partner. 


Foreign Countries

Among foreign countries mentioned in the People’s Daily in February, the United States, Japan, France, the United Kingdom and Germany were in the lead, all in Tier 2. Mentions of the US covered a range of topics, including the bilateral relationship (mentioning the long history of relations since Nixon), cooperation to protect ocean diversity, and the “great miracle” of Chinese poverty alleviation (mentioned a 2017 meeting in Beijing with Bill and Melinda Gates). There were also reports directly critical of the US, including a February 24 report, “WHO Expert Criticizes Twisted Reports By Western Media,” that singled out the New York Times for criticism over its coverage of China’s refusal to hand over certain data to the visiting WHO team. While some members of the WHO team clearly were unsatisfied with China’s response to request and granting of access, others, including parasitologist Peter Daszak, expressed disappointment with coverage by the Times that they regarded as misleading. The People’s Daily and other Party-state media capitalized on this opportunity, sidestepping all nuance, to criticize “western media” more broadly. 

Coverage of Germany in the People’s Daily focused largely on economic matters in Germany and the EU, including the auto industry and cryptocurrency. Other topics included emissions policies and public transportation, Taiwan’s purchase of vaccine’s from Germany BNT (Chinese here) and allegations of Chinese pressure, and China’s supposed championing of shared values like “multilateralism” with European partners – also of course dropping in the Xi-era foreign policy phrase “community of shared destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体). Many of the above-mentioned articles overlapped with mention of France, though coverage of France also included, as mentioned previously, the “separatism bill” and well-wishes for the Lunar New Year.

The Cold Shoulder

This month among those countries receiving the highest tier of coverage in the People’s Daily, the cold shoulder went to the United Kingdom, which infuriated China with the decision by the broadcast regular Ofcom to withdraw the broadcast license for CGTN, China’s state-run satellite English news channel. A February 6 commentary, again from “Zhong Sheng,” called on leaders in the UK to “correct the error” of the Ofcom decision. The commentary said the action was “a brutal suppression of Chinese media” that had “fully exposed the falseness of the so-called press freedom flaunted by the UK.”

Full analysis of the Chinese reaction to the Ofcom decision can be found in “All This Talk of Independence” on the CMP website.

February Surprises

In each monthly analysis, CMP highlights one or two salient phrases in the emerging official discourse, utterances that are new, significant, colorful – or all of the above. This month there are three strong candidates. 

Why Can’t Chinese People Use Twitter or Facebook?

At a foreign ministry press conference on February 18, spokesperson Hua Chunying (华春莹) responded to a question from Hong Kong’s China Review News Agency (CRNTT) (香港中评社) asking if Hua had any comment about a recent study from the AP and the Atlantic Council showing that Chinese diplomatic accounts on Twitter had more than tripled since 2019 – the implication in the study being that China had launched a global disinformation campaign over Covid-19. Hua responded:

Turning to the number of Twitter users, I wonder if they have also looked into the number of foreign media and diplomats using WeChat or Weibo? Why can’t Chinese people use Twitter or Facebook when foreigners can use Chinese social media platforms? We are just adding an extra channel to share information and communicate with people in other countries.


This response -- Why can’t Chinese people use Twitter or Facebook when foreigners can use Chinese social media platforms?provides our first surprise phrase for February 2021. As soon as these words came out, many internet users in China were scandalized, because they exposed the raw fact that without resorting to the use of VPNs there is no way for Chinese to use platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Some voiced concern that because the foreign ministry press conference was aimed at overseas audiences, people outside China might naturally assume that the use of Twitter and Facebook is commonplace in China and thus accept Hua’s logic.

Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡锡进), who has an active Twitter account as well as 24.11 million followers on China's Weibo platform, defended Hua Chunying. He said that the game being played between China and the US was a matter of principle, and he called on the public to have a "popular strategic understanding" (民间战略悟性) – by which he meant that Chinese should suspend any concern over such issues as internet censorship and consciously obey and support the national strategic objective of opposing the US.

"Foreign ministry spokespeople must bear the brunt of the onslaught," Hu wrote. "Just look at how the US and other external forces (外部力量) are ripping at our spokespeople, and you'll see how our own court of public opinion must protect them, and must never direct poisoned arrows at them from behind. This is the popular strategic understanding that everyone should have.” 

Dodging and Hiding in My Own Country

Our next surprise phrase concerns the scandal that ensued in February as Huang Zhijie (黄志杰), a self-publishing writer (自媒体人) who operates that WeChat public account "The Bleating Cry of the Deer” (呦呦鹿鸣), wrote a post in which he spoke out against so-called "mass kowtowing" (集体磕头), a relic of feudal times that is still practiced in rural areas in China as a way of forming and strengthening hierarchies. Huang was maliciously threatened in the wake of the post, even receiving material threats against his safety at home and at his office. Huang provided a report of his predicament to local police, saying that he and his family had lost all sense of security, and that he had made contingency plans to protect himself by going into hiding. Huang’s report included detailed information about many of the accounts directing personal threats at him and his family, including screenshots of relevant posts.

In the report, which Huang also made public, he offered a bitter self-assessment that becomes our second surprise phrase of February 2021: "So, I’ve finally turned my life into a joke, dodging and hiding in my own country,” he said. “But no matter, no matter. Life is meant to be a journey."

Before Huang Zhijie struck off on his own to run a WeChat public account, which for some can be a viable source of income though rewards (打赏) and ad sales for high-traffic accounts, he was a chief writer for Oriental Outlook (瞭望东方周刊), a magazine published by Xinhua News Agency, and executive editor-in-chief of New Media (网络传播). 

Earthly Miracles

On February 25, in his speech at a national conference to sum up and commemorate China's victories in eradicating poverty, Xi Jinping provided our third surprise phrase for February 2021 as his language of national self-praise became stratospheric: "Regional overall poverty has been resolved, and [China] has completed the arduous task of eliminating absolute poverty, generating another earthly miracle (人间奇迹) that will go down in the annals of history,” Xi said. “This is the great glory of the Chinese people, the great glory of the Communist Party of China, and the great glory of the Chinese nation!"

Focus Topic: 

New Year in Place

The Lunar New Year is a major event for Chinese people. It is customary for several generations of the family to gather on the last night of the Lunar New Year for a "reunion of the entire family" (阖家团圆). For decades this has meant an annual tidal wave of people on the move in China, as tens of millions of migrant workers in particular head back to their hometowns to join the celebrations. One of the most typical and iconic phrases anyone will hear at this time of year is “joy and peace,” huanle xianghe (欢乐祥和). But Covid-19 had a lingering impact on celebrations this year, and that impact could be glimpsed in the language used to evoke the spirit of the holiday. 

Beginning in early January, clusters of new virus outbreaks occurred in Hebei and other provinces. On January 25, the General Office of the CCP Central Committee released a notice in “staying put for the New Year,” or jiudi guonian (就地过年), demanding various levels of “staying put” policies for different areas depending on their level of Covid-19 risk. People in “high-risk areas” should mandate that people not travel or visit others, while “medium-risk areas” should “stay put for the New Year as a matter of principle” (原则上就地过年), and low-risk areas should “advocate for people to stay put for the New Year” (倡导群众就地过年).

Following the release of the notice, Party media at every administrative level sprang into action to advocate for staying put. As a result, the number of articles in the national press with the phrase "staying put for the New Year " significantly surpassed the phrase "joy and peace" in coverage of the Chinese New Year.

The following graph shows the total number of articles using “joy and peace” and “staying put for the New Year” in national newspapers in China in January-February 2021, covering the Lunar New Year season, compared to the same holiday period in 2020. 

Comparing coverage in provincial party newspapers, we can see that Hunan Daily (湖南日报), the official mouthpiece of the Hunan provincial CCP Committee, had the highest use of "staying put for the New Year" in February. Tianjin Daily had the highest use, meanwhile, of "joy and peace." In Hebei, which experienced a resurgence of Covid hotspots, and which rushed to build a new quarantine center in late January, leaders seemed to take a balanced approach, with mid-range mentions of “staying put for the New Year” and the third-strongest showing of “joy and peace” among provincial Party papers. Call it cautious joy.