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China’s Political Discourse February 2023: A Balloon Comes to Symbolize High-Altitude Tensions; Chinese Modernization; TikTok
By China Media Project
Introduction: A Balloon Comes to Symbolize High-Altitude Tensions; Chinese Modernization
A series of events from late January into February 2023 rapidly increased tensions in the US-China relationship, and these tensions came to define much of the official discourse inside China over several weeks.
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One of the first points of tension came as the US Treasury Department announced sanctions on January 25, 2023, targeting the Wagner Group, the Russian paramilitary organization that has been at the center of fighting in Ukraine. Among the 16 entities on the list was the Luxembourg subsidiary of the Chinese satellite manufacturer Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Research Institute Co., Ltd. (长沙天仪空间科技研究院有限公司), also known as the Tianyi Research Institute (天仪研究院), or “Spacety” in English. According to the US Treasury Department, Spacety Luxembourg S.A. had supplied the Wagner Group with radar satellite imagery of Ukraine to support its combat operations by fulfilling “synthetic aperture radar satellite imagery orders” for the Russian company Terra Tech.
A notice issued by the US Department of Treasury detailing sanctions on Russia’s Wagner Group mentions China’s Spacety.
The initial response inside China to the sanctions came chiefly from Spacety and from commercial internet portals and private bloggers, and there was a notable silence from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and central state-run media — although a February 1 from “Zhong Sheng” that criticized the American obsession with China as a “strategic competitor” was no doubt related.
In an online response to the sanctions on January 29, Spacety said that it “expressed deep regret” over the actions taken by the US government. Speaking to the Global Times, a tabloid spin-off of the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, Spacety said that its subsidiaries had no business relationships with either Terra Tech or the Wagner Group. Spacety told the newspaper that it was “actively communicating with all parties, trying its best to ensure open, fair and just treatment and to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests through legal means.”
In an announcement through its official WeChat account on January 29, Spacety expresses “deep regret” at learning of US sanctions.
A number of user-generated posts on Netease and other platforms addressed the case, summing up the news (including with short video), accusing the United States of “abusing sanctions,” and even advocating that China “support friendly countries” and “effectively oppose the hegemonic acts of the US through an independent and autonomous satellite image sales policy.” But it was not until February 27 that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly responded, signaling the government’s displeasure by calling the action by the US Treasury Department “illegal,” and an example of “outright bullying and double standards.”
But there was another reason for the eclipse of the Spacety sanctions story in the official media and the official government response through February, and this was the flight of a high-altitude Chinese balloon over US airspace, which heightened American fears of Chinese government surveillance, and prompted continued and concerted denials and recriminations from China.
The balloon that captivated America first entered the country’s airspace on January 28th. Beginning on February 2, it dominated the news cycle in the US media, with Pentagon officials saying they had “very high confidence” that the balloon was Chinese and that it was flying over sensitive military sites to gather information. There was speculation that the discovery of the balloon might jeopardize a planned trip to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, regarded by some as a crucial opportunity to lower the temperature in the bilateral relationship. By February 4, the balloon had been shot down, amid denials from China that it was being used for surveillance, and Blinken’s trip had been canceled.
Together the spy balloon and sanctions incidents contributed to a dramatic increase in China-US tensions in February. China’s response to these tensions could be glimpsed in the February pages of the People's Daily.
In January, the “United States” (美国) was mentioned in 93 articles in the CCP’s flagship newspaper, of which just 11 could be considered negative or critical in tone. In February, 115 news articles and commentaries in the People’s Daily mentioned the US, of which 42 were direct criticisms of US foreign policy or sought to highlight social issues in the US in a critical way.
Much coverage of the US in the People’s Daily in February sought to portray the US as emblematic of hegemony and unilateralism, while China's contributions to world peace and development were given center stage in coverage — including its deployment of peacekeeping troops and medical aid in Africa, and its dispatching of rescue teams to Turkey to help the country grapple with a devastating series of earthquakes.
One of the month’s highlights was an attack piece from the official Xinhua News Agency called "America's Hegemonic Bullying and its Dangers" (美国的霸权霸道霸凌及其危害). The piece occupied two-thirds of page 17 of the February 21 edition of the People’s Daily, and was accompanied on the page by a commentary called “The Hegemonic and Bullying Acts of the US Seriously Endanger the World” (美国霸权霸道霸凌行径严重危害世界).
The latter piece was attributed to “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), an official pen name used routinely for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its view. Just below the “Zhong Sheng” commentary was a call on behalf of the international community for a full investigation into the bombing of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea, following a poorly-sourced investigative report by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh posted to his Substack account that alleged the US and its NATO allies were behind the act. The “Zhong Sheng” piece corresponded with a call by Russia for a United Nations-led inquiry into the September 2022 explosions.
Also in February, China’s state media communicated more vocally the leadership’s ambition for deeper involvement in international affairs, including the lifting of sanctions on Syria and the peaceful resolution of the war in Ukraine. Following the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, the People’s Daily published four articles directly conveying China’s stance on US sanctions against Syria, calling the US actions “illegal and unilateral sanctions.”
As tensions ran high with the US in February, China’s treatment of domestic affairs became noticeably intertwined with international politics. In an effort to shape global discourse, China’s Party-state media worked to build a narrative of domestic effectiveness and legitimacy that at the same time emphasized China’s role as a responsible global power with real solutions for the world, and for developing countries in particular. One of the CCP’s most important keywords in this intertwined approach was “Chinese modernization” (中国式现代化), also known as “Chinese-style modernization” or “Chinese path to modernization” (2022 political report official English translation). This was a phrase Xi Jinping stressed at the opening of a study session at the Party School of the CCP Central Committee held on February 7, 2023. In the week following the study session, the People's Daily ran six consecutive front-page commentaries, arguing from different angles for the advancements, and advantages, of Chinese modernization.
For our February focus topics, we take a closer look at how questions of domestic governance in China have become closely intertwined with its signals on international affairs, focusing on “Chinese modernization” and its purported victories over and against the failings of the US-led West.
Focus Topic: Chinese Modernization and American Failure
On February 8, 2023, the People’s Daily dedicated nearly the entire front page to Xi Jinping’s address to the opening the previous day of a study session on the “spirit” of the 20th National Congress of the CCP, which had been attended by newly-elected members and alternate members of the Central Committee, as well as principal officials at the provincial and ministerial levels. The People’s Daily summary of the session bore the title: “Correctly Understanding and Strongly Advancing Chinese Modernization” (正确理解和大力推进中国式现代化).
The notion of “Chinese-style modernization,” which has its earliest origins in the formulations of Deng Xiaoping at the start of the reform and opening period, was re-introduced by Xi Jinping in his speech to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the Party on July 1, 2021. The term first appeared consistently in the CCP discourse beginning in April 2021, when the People’s Daily newspaper launched a series of articles under the theme of “Dissecting Chinese-Style Modernization” (解析中国式现代化), with weekly installments throughout the month, and other Party-run media followed suit. According to the Editor’s Note for the first installment of the People’s Daily series:
Our modernization has features common to the modernizations of all countries but also has unique Chinese characteristics based on national conditions, a Chinese-style modernization. The modernization we want to achieve is a modernization with a huge population, a modernization with common prosperity for all people, a modernization with the coordination of material and spiritual civilization, a modernization with the harmonious coexistence of man and nature, and a modernization on the road of peaceful development.
This five-point elaboration of Chinese modernization — which around the 20th National Congress the following October would be codified as “five characteristics” (五个特征) and “nine basic demands” (九个本质要求) — came several weeks after the 2021 National People’s Congress, where a key theme had been the need for “common prosperity” (共同富裕).
The third section of Xi’s political report to the 20th National Congress, “The New Journey of the New Era: Missions and Tasks of the Communist Party of China,” opens with the idea of Chinese modernization, or the “Chinese path to modernization,” as being essential to national rejuvenation:
From this day forward, the central task of the Communist Party of China will be to lead the Chinese people of all ethnic groups in a concerted effort to realize the Second Centenary Goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects and to advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts through a Chinese path to modernization.
The report then summarizes the five essential characteristics of Chinese modernization, as laid out the previous spring, the last of which is “peaceful development” (和平发展). While the political report did not single out the West in this reference to peaceful development, the West and its colonial history could be inferred, and Xi Jinping made the connection explicit in his February address to the study session, in which he said: “Chinese modernization dispels the myth that ‘modernization is equal to Westernization,’ and presents another picture of modernization, expands the channels by which developing countries can achieve modernization, and provides a Chinese solution to aid in the exploration of better social systems for humanity.”
In the wake of Xi’s February 7 address, the People's Daily ran six consecutive front-page commentaries to describe Chinese modernization from different perspectives. The commentaries were as follows:
February 9, 2023, "Chinese Modernization is a Major Achievement of the People's Long-Term Exploration and Practice Under the Party’s Leadership" (中国式现代化是党领导人民长期探索和实践的重大成果)
February 10, 2023, "Chinese Modernization is Socialist Modernization Led by the Chinese Communist Party" (中国式现代化是中国共产党领导的社会主义现代化)
February 11, 2023, "Chinese Modernization is the Path to Building a Strong Country and Rejuvenating the Nation" (中国式现代化是强国建设、民族复兴的康庄大道)
February 12, 2023, "Chinese Modernization Has Created a New Form of Human Civilization" (中国式现代化创造了人类文明新形态)
February 13, 2023, "A Number of Major Relationships Need to be Addressed to Advance Chinese Modernization" (推进中国式现代化需要处理好若干重大关系)
February 14, 2023, "A Great Struggle Must Be Waged to Advance Chinese Modernization” (推进中国式现代化必须进行伟大斗争)
The prevalence of coverage of “Chinese modernization” in February made clear that this was a concept core to the “spirit,” or jingshen (精神), of the 20th National Congress, framed as an effective response to the range of domestic and international challenges facing the country. In February 2023, the phrase “Chinese modernization” appeared in 139 articles in the People’s Daily, putting it at Tier 4 on the CMP scale (see “The Hot and the Cold” below).
The concept is now being used to connect different layers and aspects of domestic policy and development in China, codified as the previously mentioned “five characteristics,” or wuge tezheng (五个特征). The first of these is China’s massive population size, seen to distinguish the country’s development from previous historic modernizations as seen, for example, in Western countries. Next comes the characteristic of “common prosperity,” a concept with a deep CCP history that has been synonymous in the Xi era with efforts to curtail excessive wealth, crack down on monopoly behavior, address income inequality, and promote “people-centered development.” The next aspect is the “balanced development of material and spiritual civilization,” essentially about the need to prioritize social and cultural values alongside material improvements, which has been a perennial issue within the CCP since the political report to the 12th National Congress in 1982, delivered by Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) in the early days of reform.
The fourth characteristic of “Chinese modernization” as now formulated is the “harmonious coexistence of mankind and nature” (人与自然和谐共生), the claim that China’s particular brand of modernization prioritizes development alongside environmental sustainability, or what is often referred to in Party-speak as “ecological civilization” (生态文明). In this fourth aspect of “Chinese modernization” the international dimension becomes clearer, as China aspires to be a leader — or certainly to be perceived as one — in achieving global climate-related goals, with concrete pledges to achieve peak carbon by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2060, thereby “making positive contributions to all mankind.”
But it is the last of the so-called “Five Characteristics,” “peaceful development” (和平发展), that makes the boldest claims about the global appeal of “Chinese modernization.” The idea here is that China, unlike the nations of the West in particular, has been a committed partner in promoting world peace alongside its development journey. This key aspect of the “Chinese modernization” sales pitch clearly marks its claim as a political concept not just for domestic economic and social governance, but for international affairs.
Two People's Daily commentaries in February were aimed at communicating the “global significance of Chinese modernization” (中国式现代化的世界意义). Both were bylined “He Yin” (和音), an official pen name first launched in May 2019 for CCP commentaries on international affairs. The first of these commentaries, published on February 27, was called “Offering a New Model of Modernization for the World” (为全球提供了一种全新的现代化模式). It again laid out the “five aspects of Chinese characteristics” (5个方面的中国特色) — the above-mentioned wuge tezheng (五个特征). It noted that China had achieved in the space of a few decades what the West had managed to achieve over centuries, saying that this is “an important reason for the strong appeal of Chinese-style modernization,” which “will certainly provide more opportunities for the world, inject stronger momentum into international cooperation and make greater contributions to the progress of all mankind.”
The second of the “He Yin” commentaries, published on February 28, bore the headline, “[China] Will Completely Rewrite the World Map of Modernization” (将彻底改写现代化的世界版图). It again hailed modernization in China as “both the most difficult and the greatest” in the world, and as “a great undertaking that will make history.” The key message behind the exemplary triumph of “Chinese modernization” was to demonstrate, the commentary argued, that there is no single model for modernization, and that it is possible for other developing countries to “find a development path that is consistent with national conditions and the laws of human social development.”
The implication was that China’s experience could now point to a new model of development, and that developing countries could achieve modernization without adopting the systems and values of the West. The criticism became explicit further down in the commentary:
China's success in promoting and expanding Chinese modernization has fully proved that every country can develop a modernization path that is in line with its own national conditions. Some developing countries, when exploring their own modernization paths, have copied the Western model wholesale and fallen into economic stagnation and social and political turmoil. Today, the Chinese experience of ‘starting from national conditions’ is being taken seriously by more and more countries, providing an important reference for developing countries to independently explore their own modernization paths and advance modernization construction.
Baked into China’s formulation of “Chinese modernization” as offering a distinct path to development without reference to the developed nations of the abstracted “West” is a critique of so-called “universal values,” including human rights and freedom of speech, which are seen in the CCP view of modernization as conditional and exclusive, the product of a pattern of exploitative behavior by Western capitalist countries.
On February 10, National Governance Weekly (国家治理 ), a journal founded under the People’s Daily in 1992, published an article elaborating the idea that “Chinese modernization” is in the process of creating a “new form of civilization” (人类文明新形态) that eliminates Western dominance and hegemonism, including what it described as the tyranny of Western “universal values” that “are not universal values in the true sense.”
For a long time, the value-neutral concept of universal values has taken on an obvious ideological tendency, and in the Western-dominated discourse system, ‘universal values are equivalent to the liberal democratic value of Western capitalism. One of the limitations of Western ‘universal values’ is that it emphasizes politics but not economics. It sees only the political attributes of human societies, but ignores the economic attributes of human societies, and democracy and freedom cannot be separated from the prerequisite of economic development.
Once you have accepted the premise that the current predominant form of global civilization is a corrupt and exploitative system that can offer only false universal values in a purely Western-centric mold (以西方为中心), the appeal of breaking Western centrality is clear. Xi Jinping is essentially offering China’s entire historical development experience since the Opium Wars in the 19th century as evidence that there is another way — the Chinese way. While the CCP fulminates in its official press against those in the West who are encouraging another Cold War (another line of attack seen in February after remarks by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a visit to South Korea), it has drawn the lines of a new ideological confrontation mirroring that between capitalism and communism during the Cold War of the last century. It is a rivalry between a purportedly new and inspirational “Chinese modernization,” and a Western experience of modernization that has ossified into a corrupt, hypocritical and impractical mold that must be broken for the economic fate of the world.
As the notion of “Chinese modernization” dominated the official headlines in February, and as tensions with the United States deepened, American failures became the case studies used to further support China’s domestic and international solutions, and to undermine US credibility.
In the pages of the People’s Daily in February, the US was a country beset with domestic crises and social issues that went unaddressed by an ineffectual government. A special column called “In-Depth Look” (深度观察) ran six articles on domestic extremism, the proliferation of firearms, loopholes in the handling of pandemic relief funds, the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in Ohio, environmental racism (环境种族主义), and the rise in the numbers of homeless. These and other reports relied almost exclusively on reports from mainstream American media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, as well as on reports and public statements from independent organizations such as the Center for American Progress and the Climate Justice Alliance.
For one five-day stretch in February, reports by Xinhua News Agency detailing American failings on a range of issues including US “long-arm jurisdiction” (also addressed in a Ministry of Foreign Affairs report early in the month), drug abuse, gun violence, hegemonic bullying and a yawning wealth gap, were paired in the People's Daily with commentaries from the official pen name “Zhong Sheng” (钟声).
The clear goal of these and other reports in the state media was to undermine the credibility of the US as a defender of democracy and human rights — and as a critic of China’s record. And as Chinese state media systematically disqualified the US, they actively promoted “Chinese solutions” to international issues. “China has not only put forward a series of proposals and initiatives, but also demonstrated its role as a responsible power with concrete actions,” said an article on February 24, noting that China has deployed the largest number of UN peacekeeping personnel, that it had been active in promoting South-South cooperation, and so on.
After a devastating series of earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria on February 6, the People's Daily published news of Xi Jinping's condolence calls to the leaders of both countries on the front page. Through the rest of the month, Turkey and Syria were continuously raised as examples of China’s constructive role in the international community [See “Foreign Leaders”].
But China's boldest claim to international leadership came on February 24 as it released "China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis," in which it proposed what it called “a crisis solution that addresses both the symptoms and the root causes” of the war in Ukraine. Not once in the document did China use the word “war” in reference to what is happening in Ukraine, nor did it acknowledge Russia’s clear aggression. Nevertheless, state media insisted that the proposal was “objective” and “fair,” and lined up quotes ostensibly from international scholars and experts, many unattributed, to support the idea that this view was widely shared. One Brazilian scholar was quoted as saying in the China Daily that presenting to the world a “Chinese solution” (中国方案) to key problems like Ukraine showed that “security must be guaranteed through development, and development must be guaranteed through security, not war and hegemony, as the US and Western countries are attempting to achieve."
February Surprises: Kang Hui Economics (康辉经济学)
Toward the end of February, as Chinese state media were widely disseminating the previously mentioned Xinhua News Agency attack piece called "America's Hegemonic Bullying and its Dangers," Kang Hui (康辉), one of the country’s most visible anchors for CCTV News, sought to put to piece into perspective for his audience. In a short video posted to Weibo, Kang laid out concrete examples for the five hegemonic powers with which the US harmed the world — political, military, economic, technological, cultural.
As he spoke about "economic hegemony," Kang Hui offered the following example, to the puzzlement of millions: “The United States gets other countries to supply it with 100 dollars worth of goods and services for a hundred-dollar bill that costs just 17 cents.”
“If this isn’t naked predatory behavior,” Kang added, “I don’t know what is.”
In fact, Kang Hui was trying to explain the concept of “seigniorage,” which refers to the difference between the face value of money and the cost to produce it, and to the accusation that the US has exploited the major reserve currency status of the dollar to collect "seigniorage" from around the world. But by bumbling the accusation, which was mentioned in the Xinhua piece as a “seigniorage tax,” Kang exposed himself to widespread ridicule.
"What kind of primitive speaker is this?" one internet user asked in a post archived by China Digital Times. In a slightly more daring underhanded reference to Xi Jinping, who has been accused by some of being simple-minded and having a poor understanding of policies, another posted in comment: “I’m afraid this draft must have been written by Mr. Steamed Dumpling.”
The case led to the creation of the term “Kang Hui economics” (康辉经济学) to refer to unsophisticated or plainly incorrect economic thinking.
Such a Lack of Confidence (太不自信了)
On February 27, the White House issued a memorandum instructing all federal agencies in the US to delete the video-sharing app TikTok from federal information technology devices and systems within 30 days, citing national security concerns. The order followed the passage last year of bills in both the House and Senate banning TikTok from government devices, with fears that the app’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, might provide the Chinese government access to user data.
At a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) press conference the day after the release of the White house memo, spokeswoman Mao Ning (毛宁) sought to frame the US response to TikTok as petty and a sign of weakness. "For America as the world’s most powerful country to be so afraid of an app beloved by young people, this shows such a lack of confidence,” Mao said.
With the help of state media accounts on Weibo, including that of the Global Times newspaper, the US lacking confidence meme was quickly pushed to the top of discussions. But the topic, contrary to expectations, did not encourage a shared contempt for the United States and its cowardice on internet security. The MOFA response puzzled many readers, who noted the obvious fact that China has blocked foreign internet services since the dawn of the internet. “What about Google? Twitter?” one comment asked. “You are so confident on this topic that you’re not even afraid of overturning the cart,” said another, referencing a popular term, fanche (翻车), that refers to acts that completely backfire.
In a hilarious illustration of the meaning of fanche, or “overturning the cart,” the comments under the Global Times post careened into criticism of Mao Ning’s hypocrisy. Soon after, in what might certainly be called an unfortunate lack of confidence, the Global Times disabled its comment section and ghosted all 1,834 comments under the Mao Ning post.
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 February 2023, “20th National Congress” (二十大) and “high-quality development” (高质量发展) were the only phrases that made to the top of the CMP scale in Tier 1. In the run up to the Two Sessions, February was still a month focused on studying the “spirit” of 20th National Congress and setting the tone for the next five years.
One phrase advancing in February in the People’s Daily was "major changes not seen in a century" (百年未有之大变局), which moved up to Tier 2 from Tier 3. The phrase, which first emerged in the months ahead of the 19th National Congress in 2017, has routinely been used to allude to the decline of the West and the rising power of China, paired with the notion that “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is at a critical period.”
This sense of the phrase was conveyed clearly in a front-page piece published in the People’s Daily on September 27, 2021, called “Why We Are Capable of Success” (我们为什么能够成功). The article portrayed the West as envious of China’s capacity for forward thinking and planning. “Many people in Western countries are envious of our Five-Year Plan, and believe the Chinese Communist Party is able to think and plan the country's future development path and goals in a phased and step-by-step manner, both sustained and forward-looking, and something unimaginable and unattainable in Western countries,” the article said.
The phrase “major changes not seen in a century” has warmed in the official CCP discourse as a response to international circumstances, including tensions between China and the US, and as a reflection of China’s ambition to play a more important role in international affairs.
A number of terms related to changing international dynamics, and in particular to China’s criticism of the US, have also appeared with greater intensity. “Hegemonism” (霸权主义) soared from Tier 6 into Tier 3 in February, while "decoupling" (脱钩) rose from Tier 5 to Tier 3. “Unilateralism" (单边主义) and “protectionism” (保护主义) both rose one level, from Tier 4 to Tier 3, and “external forces” (外部势力), a term generally associated with accusations of foreign meddling in China’s internal affairs, rose from Tier 5 to Tier 4. The term “external forces” appeared in both China’s joint statement with Iran and its joint statement with Cambodia.
The various permutations of Xi Jinping’s banner phrase for specific policy areas continued to underperform in February. “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), Xi’s catchphrase for environmental policy and sustainable development, dropped for a second consecutive month, falling from Tier 3 to Tier 5. “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” (习近平强军思想), the general secretary’s signature national security phrase, dropped again from Tier 4 to Tier 5. “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想), which has historically led the pack, remained in Tier 5. “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” (习近平经济思想) dropped further from January, joining “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想) at the bottom of the CMP scale in Tier 6.
The “Two Establishes” (两个确立), a crucial phrase over the past year in signaling the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, remained in Tier 2. The phrase, which refers to 1) the establishment of Xi as the “core” of the CCP leadership, and 2) the establishment of Xi’s ideas (his banner phrase, in other words) as the leading thought of the Party, was joined in Tier 2 by the similar-sounding “Two Safeguards” (两个维护), which is about protecting 1) Xi’s “core” status and 2) the authority and centralized leadership of the Party.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of February 2023 and how they rated on our scale:
The Centrality Index
Just as in our January 2023 report, tallies of central leaders in the People’s Daily include both those from the 19th Central Committee and the 20th Central Committee. Keeping with practice throughout 2022, Xi Jinping was far and away the most mentioned leader in the CCP’s Central Committee. He remained at the white-hot top of the CMP scale in Tier 1, with a mention in 500 articles, a slight increase compared to January, despite the shorter month. This was likely the result of both preparations for the March “Two Sessions” and an increase in coverage of international affairs, including visits from foreign leaders.
Continuing with a pattern that was consistent on a monthly basis through 2021 and 2022, all other central leaders were arrayed across Tiers 3, 4 and 5 in February 2023. Wang Yi (王毅), China’s top diplomat as director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, topped the list of central leaders who were not Xi Jinping. Wang was solidly in Tier 3 thanks to foreign visits to four European countries in February, which included attending the 59th Munich Security Conference, where he delivered a speech called “Making the World a Safer Place.”
Li Keqiang (李克强), in his last full month as China’s premier, managed to remain in Tier 3 in February, but only just. Li very nearly dropped down to Tier 4, where new Politburo member He Lifeng (何立峰) — not a member of the Standing Committee — made a strong showing thanks to a busy schedule of diplomatic engagements, including visits with Xi Jinping to Iran and Cambodia, an industry forum with countries from Central Asia, and the 16th Japan-China Energy Conservation and Environment Forum.
Li Xi (李希), head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the seventh-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), was mentioned in just four articles in the People’s Daily in February, placing him in Tier 5. However, it should be noted that content related to Li Xi was more substantial in other ways than that for other PSC members. On February 24, the People's Daily published a full-text version of Li Xi’s report to the Second Plenary Session of the 20th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The following day, the newspaper published a readout of Li’s speech to a separate “mobilization” meeting of supervision officials, in which he spoke about resolutely dealing with the problem of the “two-faced” (两面人) — referring to corrupt officials who pay lip service to Party principles but secretly act against them.
As was the case in January, foreign leaders in the People’s Daily were arrayed across Tiers 4-6 in February 2023, with none appearing in Tiers 1-3.
Cambodian President Hun Sen and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who both made official visits to China during the first half of February, led the pack. Coverage of their visits offered an occasion for the leadership to promote the further expansion of China’s “friendship circle” through the “Belt and Road” initiative. On February 13, ahead of Raisi’s visit, the People’s Daily ran a page-two commentary by the Iranian leader under the title “Old Friends Are the Best Partners for Future Cooperation'' (老朋友是未来合作的最好伙伴). The commentary praised the “Belt and Road” concept as a return to China’s ancient centrality. “China is famous for its ancient Silk Road, and the benefits of the Silk Road have for ages passed to humanity through Iran,” Raisi wrote. “Today, China's ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, which revives the ancient Silk Road, links the destinies of our two peoples.”
Mirroring China’s criticisms of the United States and the West, and its calls for the remaking of the international order, Raisi praised what he called “true multilateralism” (真正的多边主义).
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was mentioned in the context of the surveillance balloon incident, the bombing of the Nord Stream pipeline, and the war in Ukraine, joined US President Joe Biden in Tier 5. Biden’s name was also mentioned in connection with the Nord Stream pipeline sabotage, and he notably also appeared in two “Zhong Sheng” commentaries: “China and US Must Find the Right Way to Work Together” (中美必须找到正确相处之道) and “Democracy Should not Be a Tool for Hegemonic Bullying by the US” (民主不应是美国搞霸权霸道霸凌的工具). Both of these commentaries could be seen as responding to US sanctions on the Chinese firm Spacety for supplying satellite images to Russia's Wagner Group, though neither mentioned the company directly.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared in Tier 5 in February as the People’s Daily reported China’s response to the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck both countries on February 6. Also appearing in Tier 5 were Olafz Scholz and Emmanuel Macron, who met with Wang Yi during his trip to Europe. Both leaders were also mentioned in People’s Daily commentaries criticizing the US Inflation Reduction Act for its impact on Europe.
Following his visit to China in January, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. remained in Tier 5, mentioned in coverage of the “Belt and Road” initiative. With just three mentions for the month, Russian President Vladimir Putin languished at the bottom in Tier 6 in February, drawing even with Belarusian President Dmitry Lukashenko (whose March visit to China was reported). Ukraine continued as a hot word in the People’s Daily in February, mentioned in a total of 31 articles. But this did nothing to bolster Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who continued his zero streak, having been mentioned in just one article since January 2022.
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