China’s Political Discourse for April 2021: Nuclear Wastewater
By The China Media Project
Looking at the development of Chinese political discourse in April 2021, we can note a phenomenon that is quite typical within the annual discourse cycle – the falling off of many political slogans after peak performance through the month of March, corresponding with the “two sessions” of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
One of the hottest topics in April, our Focus Topic in this report, was Japan's announcement that it would discharge nuclear wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The announcement prompted an uproar from Chinese internet users and from state-run media outlets.
Another fascinating topic of discussion in April, worthy of brief note here, was generated by a post on April 1, dropping at about 6PM, by the WeChat public account “Basic Common Sense” (基本常识). The post, with bore the headline, "Just Now! An Investigation of Xinhua News Agency and the People's Daily" (刚刚！新华社和人民日报被查), studied the public accounts of major state-run media outlets such as Xinhua News Agency, the People's Daily and CCTV News, the cases showing that during the first quarter of this year, ending March 31, these outlets pushed at least one article per day – shared across multiple platforms – using eye-catching words like “Shocking Item” (震惊体), “Must Be Forwarded” (转发) and “To Be Diffused” (扩散).
The “Basic Common Sense” post offered an intriguing look at the way state media in China have sought to viralize their content on social media platforms through the use of “clickbait,” or biaotidang (标题党), designed to entice readers. Notably, most of the content being pushed by the Wechat accounts of state-run media, visible in this archived version of the “Basic Common Sense” post, are insipid reports of official Party-state business. Sinocism readers may have a chuckle as they consider whether the excited words “It’s set!” (定了!) would entice anyone to click into a report about a press conference of the CCP Central Committee.
Below is another image from the “Basic Common Sense” post that shows content from the official WeChat account of CCTV News reporting the successful launch of China’s second Gaofen 12 Earth observation satellite. The CCTV News post begins with the words, “Share it in congratulation!” The caption given by “Basic Common Sense” for the post says wryly: “Proud me must send a congratulatory message to my country every day.”
The “Basic Common Sense” post was declared in violation of regulations (违规) and removed about three hours after posting. But clickbait of course continues to dominate much of social media sharing activity, and state media no doubt remain determined not to be left out of the game.
It is “Basic Common Sense” to sign up for Sinocism if you want to get smarter about China.
Moving on to our analysis.
The Hot and the Cold
About the CMP Discourse Scale:
According to the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016, based on a historical analysis of keywords appearing in the China Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, we define a six-tier system of discourse intensity based on the total number of appearances of a given discourse term on a per article basis for the full year in the paper. The scale is as follows:
For 2021, CMP will adjust its classification method for CCP discourse, determining the intensity (热度) of Party terminologies according to the absolute number of articles including those terms in the People's Daily newspaper. Previously, CMP used a proportional method, which looked at the number of articles including a particular catchphrase (提法) as a ratio of total articles in the newspaper over a given period. Our monthly classification standard, based on the six-level scale created in 2016, is as follows:
Compared to March, there is a general phenomenon of cooling of key phrases in April 2021. Among the phrases to drop noticeably was “the three critical battles” (三大攻坚战), which fell from Tier 3 in March all the way down to Tier 6 in April. The phrase refers to three major challenges outlined by Xi Jinping in his report to the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017, when he said China needed to remain alert to the priority of resolving major risks (重大风险), carrying out targeted poverty relief (精准脱贫) and preventing environmental pollution (污染防治). The “three critical battles” were mentioned in the government work report to the NPC in March 2018, and the government work report at this year’s NPC declared the battles won: “We made decisive progress in the three critical battles against poverty, pollution and potential risk, achieving major targets and tasks as planned.”
Three phrases denoting broad concerns for maintaining stability, the “Six Stabilities” (六稳), the “Six Guarantees (六保) and “seeking improvement in stability” (稳中求进), all dropped two levels from Tier 2 to Tier 4. The “Six Stabilities” and the “Six Guarantees,” which were discussed as “hot terms” in the Party-state media in 2020, refer to maintaining various aspects of health in the economy and society, including stabilizing expectations (稳预期) – meaning to let the public know what to expect – stabilizing foreign trade and investment, employment, industrial chains and supply chains, food security and so on.
The phrase “seeking improvement in stability,” which was first raised back in 2012 to define the priority of advancing China’s economy in a regular and stable manner in order to encourage domestic and global economic development, was closely associated with the “Six Stabilities” and the “Six Guarantees” in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, signaling a sense of urgency about maintaining the economy, trade and employment in the face of a pandemic-driven slowdown and tensions with the United States.
Several other terms, including “public opinion supervision” (舆论监督) and “right to monitor” (监督权), both associated with popular and media monitoring of power (a complicated proposition in China), “judicial system reforms” (司法体制改革), “judicial justice” (司法公正) and “constitution review” (合宪性审查), all dropped two levels from Tier 4 to Tier 6., having risen in March due to reports related to opinions from the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate, as well as reports on the 14th Five-Year Plan.
“Stabilizing expectations” (稳预期), closely associated with the above-mentioned terms on the economy and stability, also dropped from Tier 4 to Tier 6. “Quantum communication” (量子通信) dropped two levels as well, a reflection again of the general receding of certain language about economic priorities increasing during the NPC.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of April 2021 and how they rated on our scale:
The Litmus List
One major priority in CCP news and propaganda in 2021 is the promotion and commemoration of the centennial of the Party. In mid-April, the Central Office of the CCP issued a propaganda blueprint for the promotion of the 100th anniversary of the Party this year. The blueprint included a list of 80 approved slogans to be used in promotion efforts.
There was a marked increase in the number of articles anticipating the CCP’s centennial by looking back on the Party’s history, policies and achievements, and in the run-up and immediate wake of the April 22 climate summit hosted by US President Joe Biden, a number of slogans signaling claimed CCP achievements in this arena saw notable increases. In the context of official explanations of the sustainability related phrase “a community of life for man and nature” (人与自然生命共同体) – a phrase redolent of Xi Jinping’s talk in foreign policy of a “community of common destiny for mankind” – the term “people-oriented” (以人为本), which was originally at the heart of former President Hu Jintao’s sustainability oriented banner term “Scientific View of Development” (科学发展观), rose from Tier 5 to Tier 3 in April. The phrase, which had just 6 mentions in March, logged 24 in April.
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) – continued with their upward movement in light of the centennial and the push for the study of the Party’s past. The only exception was Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” (三个代表), which held steady at Tier 4. Both “Scientific View of the Development” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory” rose from Tier 4 to Tier 3 in April.
Also this month, the phrase "democratic politics," which we discussed at greater length in the March discourse report, noting its use since 1989 to extol the Party’s supposed democratic achievements rather than discuss substantive democratic processes, dropped from Tier 3 back down to Tier 5. This reflected the end of the bump the term received from the National People’s Congress. The related term “political civilization,” which we also reviewed in March, dropped from Tier 5 to Tier 6, entering “cold” territory.
The Centrality Index
What can we see in terms of the relative visibility of leaders within the CCP’s Central Committee on the basis of People’s Daily coverage in April? Not surprisingly, Xi remained far in the lead, the only leader in Tier 1. Visualizing the gap, and Xi’s substantial profile, Tier 2 remained empty, while both Premier Li Keqiang and NPC Standing Committee Chairman Li Zhanshu remained in Tier 3. The close last month of the “two sessions” brought a general downward trend in April for other leaders in the Central Committee, the only exception being Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua, who remained in Tier 4, just below Li Keqiang and Li Zhanshu. Three leaders, including Zhao Leji, Wang Huning and Huang Kunming, experienced notable falls, dropping three levels from Tier 3 to Tier 6.
With the waning of “two meetings” driven coverage in March, which focused more attention on regional leaders as they attended events in Beijing, April saw a slight drop across the board in mentions of provincial CCP secretaries in the People’s Daily. Among them, three leaders who had received more prominent coverage in March, Xinjiang secretary Chen Quanguo, Tianjin secretary Li Hongzhong and Chongqing secretary Chen Miner, did not appear at all in the People’s Daily in April.
Hainan secretary Shen Xiaoming and Hubei secretary Ying Yong topped the list of top provincial leaders in April, with 4 and 6 mentions respectively. On March 31, the deputy secretary and governor of Henan province, Yin Hong, was appointed secretary of Gansu province, which brought the leader two mentions for April in the People’s Daily.
In April, US President Joe Biden held steady in Tier 4, remaining the most frequently mentioned foreign leader, as was the case in March. In April, however, Biden was joined in Tier 4 by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, roughly on par with Biden, owing to trilateral discussions on climate change and other bilateral exchanges.
Front page coverage on April 29 in the People’s Daily highlighted bilateral talks between China and Germany, the headline reporting that both sides had emphasized “open cooperation” (开放合作) and “mutual benefit” (互利共赢). While coverage outside of China mentioned Merkel’s call for a return to discussions on human rights issues, Chinese coverage lingered on cooperation generally – calling it a “super-engine” (超级发动机) – and trade and climate issues specifically.
Coverage of the trilateral talks in the People’s Daily emphasized the importance of China as a market for Germany and France, and on the need to uphold “multilateralism” (which can mean something very different in China) and to build a “new order of global governance” (全球治理新格局). Several articles quoted liberally from foreign voices, including this one that mentioned human rights in terms typical to the CCP, portraying the issue as being fundamentally not about individual rights but about broader development that raises all:
China practices the concept of the community of human destiny and works hand in hand with developing countries, [said a Kenyan expert on international relations], "whether by sharing its experience in fighting the epidemic, or by cooperating in vaccine research and development and promoting fair distribution of vaccines, it has demonstrated the greatest respect for life and health and the greatest protection of human rights."
In April, the United States, Japan, Germany, Russia and the UK remained the top countries in terms of exposure in the People’s Daily, all in Tier 2. They were joined in Tier 2 by South Korea and France, both of which had lagged in March. Italy moved in the opposite direction, dropping from Tier 2 in March to Tier 3 in April. India dropped even more sharply, from Tier 3 to Tier 5.
The Cold Shoulder
A number of countries received the cold shoulder in the People’s Daily in April, attacked and criticized for actions that upset the leadership. Anger lingered generally on the issues of Xinjiang and Hong Kong, with fingers pointing at “the West” and using the familiar phrase “hostile forces” (敌对势力). One article sharply criticized “certain hostile forces internationally” that “use Xinjiang to restrain China.” Another fulminated:
In recent years, certain chaotic elements opposed to the Central Government and radical local separatists have, with the support and incitement of anti-China forces in the US and the West, exploited loopholes in the current electoral system to enter the governance structure of the SAR and unscrupulously carry out anti-China and chaotic activities in Hong Kong, spreading the idea of ‘Hong Kong independence.’
But one country singled out in particular for criticism in April was Australia, which announced on April 22 that it would scrap its agreement for participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The announcement from Australia drew a harsh rebuttal on April 25 in the form of a commentary from “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), a pen name used in the People’s Daily for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its view. The commentary, “Australia's Move to Reverse History Cannot Win Hearts,” said that Australia’s “unreasonable behavior” had done “serious damage” to the bilateral relationship. “The Australian side's capriciousness cannot go unpunished,” said the commentary, “and China has made stern representations and stressed that it reserves the right to respond with further action.”
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 we look at a phrase no one could ever have predicted.
Returning Cooked Eggs to Life
At the end of April, a scholarly paper published in Pictorial Geography (写真地理), a journal registered in Jilin province, came to the attention of the public as it was reported by Shanghai’s The Paper and shared widely on social media. The paper made the audacious claim that an experiment at a vocational school had managed to turn hardboiled eggs into viable eggs – which had then been hatched into chicks. An image of the incredible paper is below.
Co-authored by Guo Ping (郭萍) and Bai Weiyun (白卫云) of the Chunlin Vocational Training School in the city of Zhengzhou, the paper contained this incredible claim: “[Our] students transformed hard-boiled eggs back into raw eggs and hatched the reborn eggs into chicks through the use of parapsychological energy consciousness methods, resulting already in the successful rebirth of 40 chicks.”
Vouching for the rigor of its methodology, the paper suggested that “this experiment was very strict and serious in all aspects.” Two professors, seven students and six parents had all participated in every step of the experiment, the paper claimed, and had “witnessed the experiment’s authenticity, confirming its truth.”
Naturally, the story caused a great deal of amusement and anger in society. How could such a paper be published in any journal? Even the state-run Xinhua News Agency waded in: “Anyone with a little scientific common sense will know that this is pseudoscience, and truly absurd to boot. It tries blatantly to fool people under the banner of scientific experimentation.”
As the clearly not-so-scholarly paper became a nationwide sensation, one of the co-authors, Chunlin Vocational Training School Principal Guo Ping (郭萍), defended the work in a way that only added to the confusion. First, she revealed that she had not in fact personally authored the paper, but that a friend had written it for her. Next, she apologized for the confusion that the whole incident had caused. And finally, she expressed the wish that everyone just move on. “Regardless of whether it is true or false, this thing of mine has had an impact on everyone,” she said. “I think, as I’m a hobbyist and not an expert, that I’d rather not argue any further about this matter. Nor do I wish to try this again. And I don’t want to cause trouble for everyone, or cause trouble for society. This is truly what I think.”
Guo Ping also revealed that she had originally not intended to publish the paper. But when she was told by the journal that they would just need 600-700 yuan to publish it, she felt that this was reasonable. In China’s commercialized media environment, a robust pay-to-publish market has emerged, and this has been cited as an important factor driving corruption within the media and certain academic disciplines.
This amusing story gives us this month’s unlikely surprise, the phrase: “Returning cooked eggs to life” (熟鸡蛋变生鸡蛋). The phrase has become, within a matter of weeks, synonymous with shameless and audacious lying. As a result of the controversy, which did spark a debate on ethics in publishing, the journal Pictorial Geography has now been shuttered and is undergoing “rectification” (停刊整顿).
On the morning of April 13, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that Japan would begin discharging nuclear wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea in 2022. Soon after the announcement, the official WeChat account of the People’s Daily made a clickbait post called, “Official Decision of the Japanese Government” (日本政府正式决定). The post, seen below, showed People’s Liberation Army warships undergoing training exercises, a threatening message.
The same day, 10 of the 32 posts made by the People’s Daily to its official account on the Weibo platform dealt with Japan’s decision to discharge the nuclear wastewater. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by saying that “this method [of Japan’s] is extremely irresponsible.”
China’s official position on Japan’s decision having already been made clear, the People’s Daily followed up with a post to Weibo alleging Western media bias through “collective silence” on Japan’s decision. "This time Western media are silent,” read the first of two hashtags on the People’s Daily Weibo post. The body of the post read: "South Korea says it feels ‘extremely regretful,’ and that it will not accept it! China says no discharge of waste can happen before consultation with nations affected and with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This time, just look at the homepages of the websites of major Western media – surprisingly little has been reported, and they’ve all chosen silence.”
In fact, numerous international media, including the BBC, the New York Times, NPR, the Economist and Deutsche Welle, all reported on Japan’s decision.
At a briefing on April 13, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian objected to Japan's decision to dump Fukushima nuclear wastewater into the sea. Responding to a statement by Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso to the effect that it would be safe even to drink the treated water in question, Zhao Lijian said: "I invite him to drink it first.” At the same time, Zhao goaded the United States, saying: “I hope that the American side can act on real environmental issues.”
Zhao followed on April 26 by sharing a satirical work by a Chinese illustrator riffing on the famous woodblock print by 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai, "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" (神奈川冲浪裏). In the recreated version, the distant silhouette of Mount Fuji is replaced by a nuclear cooling tower, and a cloud in the sky above the famous mountain takes the shape of a cross. The spoof painting is named, “The Tritium 3H Wave Off Kanagawa” (神奈氚冲浪里), in which the character chuān (川), for “river,” is replaced with the homophone chuān (氚), a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.
Zhao commented: “A Chinese illustrator has recreated the Japanese painting ‘The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.’ If the original artist, Katsushika Hokusai, were alive now, he too would be very concerned about the issue of nuclear contaminated water in Japan."
For a brief time, domestic online public opinion was overwhelmed by the issue of nuclear wastewater discharge from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Aside from prompting an outcry over Japan’s “irresponsible” behavior, the reaction expanded to concerns over the safety of Japanese cosmetics and food products. The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the People’s Daily, wrote that “Japan's moral bankruptcy could have a far-reaching impact on its exports and tourism,” and that its efforts to reassure neighbors could fail.
Though Japan’s plans initially drew criticism from neighboring countries, notably China, South Korea and Russia, those criticisms had moderated by the end of April, at least officially, with less outrage and more calls for greater transparency.
Meanwhile, the view from many industry experts and scientists following Japan’s announcement was that the approach was safe and unavoidable, an “unfortunate necessity.” During a visit to Fukushima in February last year, International Atomic Energy Agency Director Rafael Grossi had said that the IAEA "considers the disposal options as technically feasible and in line with international practice." Nigel Marks of Curtin University said in April that while "the optics are terrible" for Japan, "the Japanese government is actually doing the right thing in releasing treated wastewater from the Fukushima plant into the ocean."
But while researchers internationally may say that the danger is low, voicing such expert opinions inside China seems politically untenable. On April 14, a staff member from the Qinshan Nuclear Power Plant in Zhejiang province wrote an online post on the Zhihu (知乎) platform called, “Fukushima Wastewater Will Have a Negligible Impact on Our Country” (福岛废水不会对我国造成太大影响). The post was reported by users, with one comment reading: “As an employee at a state-sponsored institution, you should have political consciousness, and should not be at odds with mainstream opinion.” The post from the expert was subsequently deleted.
In a Chinese context, the word “mainstream,” or zhuliu (主流), refers not just to generally accepted views but to the consensus political view as determined by the CCP and by Party-state media.
Of the 61 articles including “Japan” in the People’s Daily in April 2021, giving the second highest profile in the paper after the United States, 11 articles dealt with the country’s plans to discharge nuclear wastewater. Of these, four of these were responses from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as outlined above, four were reactions from international society in opposition to Japan’s decision, two voiced expert opposition, and the last was a commentary from “Zhong Sheng” registering China’s official anger.
The “Zhong Sheng” commentary said that Japan had, by its decision, “renounced the most basic international morality,” acting against “the international community's widespread questions and objections.” It called on the Japanese government to “recognize your responsibility, take a scientific approach, fulfill your international obligations and withdraw your wrong decision.”
Interestingly, despite the fact that Japan’s planned nuclear wastewater discharge was announced by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the prime minister appeared just once in the above-mentioned 61 articles. This came in an official news release announcing a phone call between Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimichi Mogi and China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. Predating the wastewater controversy, the release mentioned that Wang Yi had stressed the importance of the Sino-Japanese relationship in the midst of “a complex international situation.” Wang urged Japan to take an “objective and rational view of China’s development,” and to avoid involving itself in issues of Chinese sovereignty, including Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Both sides, said the release, should “cherish and maintain hard-won improvements in the development of Sino-Japanese relations.”