China's Political Discourse in 2020: China Media Project

Full report now on Sinocism

The China Media Project (CMP) is a terrific resource for understanding PRC politics and how they are reflected in trends in CCP propaganda. Every year the CMP produces a report on the top trends of the previous year, and I am pleased to be able to publish the 2020 report on Sinocism. In 2021, Sinocism and the CMP will also cooperate on monthly reports for Sinocism subscribers looking at leading trends in Chinese official discourse. 

There are five sections to the report:

  1. China’s Political Discourse in 2020

  2. Looking Back on China’s “Early Warnings”

  3. The Tree Hollow of Li Wenliang

  4. Premier Li Struggles to Be Heard

  5. Wolf Warriors Tread a Sensitive Line


Chinese Political Discourse in 2020

China Media Project

One year ago, as the China Media Project (CMP) prepared its report on political discourse in 2019, no one could have predicted the dramatic turn events would take in China and across the world as the outbreak in Wuhan became a global pandemic. Not surprisingly, Covid-19 played a decisive role in shaping Chinese political discourse in 2020. 

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 defined as follows: 

According to the scale, those terms appearing 2,000 times or more during the year are defined as Tier 1 (沸). When comparing terms over long periods, such as from the Mao era to the present, we instead use ratios, as the number of pages in the People’s Daily has changed over the decades. Tier 1 terms and phrases tend to be very rare in the People’s Daily, and they can be considered to have significant value as an index. 

Since 2013, the first full year of Xi Jinping’s leadership as General Secretary of the CCP, the term “Xi Jinping” has remained a Tier 1 term. In 2017, other examples of Tier 1 terms included “Belt and Road” (一带一路), “19th National Congress” (十九大) and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色社会主义). In 2018, Tier 1 terms included “Belt and Road,” “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), “19th National Congress” and “reform and opening” (改革开放). In 2019, “reform and opening” and “Belt and Road” were again Tier 1 terms. 

In 2020, Tier 1 terms in the Chinese political discourse underwent a rather dramatic change. “Xi Jinping” continued strong, while both “Belt and Road” and “reform and opening” dropped down to Tier 2. Meanwhile, a new batch of Tier 1 terms emerged, including “Covid-19” (新冠肺炎), with 6,324 appearances, “epidemic prevention and control” (疫情防控), with 6,873 appearances, and “work resumption” (复工复产), which recorded 2,561 appearances. In fact, “Covid-19” and “epidemic prevention and control” surpassed “Xi Jinping,” which appeared 6,019 times for the full year 2020. 

While there is general consistency in the total number of published pages of the People’s Daily from year to year, it should be noted that there was a slightly higher article total for 2020 (27,735) than for 2019 (26,871), a difference of just over three percent. From January 1, 2019, the People’s Daily reduced the number of pages for its weekday editions from 24 to 20, while weekend editions remained at eight pages. 

Between 2019 and 2020, there were quite a number of CCP terminologies that saw a marked drop in frequency of use. For example, “Belt and Road” fell from 3,122 appearances in 2019 to 1,383 appearances in 2020, while “reform and opening” fell from 2,753 appearances to 1,509. “Chinese dream” (中国梦) fell from 1,231 appearances in 2019 to just 658 in 2020, a drop of almost 47 percent. “Supply-side” (供给侧), a term that made a strong showing in 2019 amidst talk of supply-side structural reforms, dropped from 935 appearances to 650. The “Two Upholds” (两个维护), a phrase referring to the demand to uphold the “core” leadership status of Xi Jinping and the centralized leadership of the CCP, dropped from 808 appearances to 606. The phrase “remaining true to the original aspiration, sticking to the mission” (不忘初心牢记使命), first raised by Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017 – the aspiration being to seek happiness and “revival” for the Chinese nation – dropped from 1,050 appearances in 2019 to just 487 in 2020. Finally, the “two centenary goals” (两个一百年), referring to the full realization of a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会) in 2021, by the time the CCP celebrates its centenary, and full “socialist modernization” (社会主义现代化) by 2049, when the PRC celebrates its 100th anniversary, dropped from 630 appearances in 2019 (Tier 2) to 468 in 2020 (Tier 3) – this despite the fact that the full realization of a “moderately prosperous society” had been defined as a major propaganda theme from the outset of 2020. 

Covid-19 Puts Propaganda Plans on Ice

That these phrases, all extremely important for the CCP, experienced declines across the board is a strong indicator of the powerful impact the emergence of Covid-19 had on the public opinion frames of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020. In February and March, the months during which the epidemic situation was most urgent and sensitive inside China, these phrases recorded the most obvious declines. In fact, our research showed a clear U-shaped curve for many key terms between January and May in the People’s Daily, with terms then recovering and experience higher frequencies from May onward.

To observe this pattern, we can look at the following graph, which plots appearances of three terms in particular relating to the power and position of China’s top leader. They are: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” (近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), Xi’s so-called “banner term” (旗帜语); “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心); and the previously mentioned “Two Upholds.” 

The terms “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core,” and the “Two Upholds” all show U-shaped drops in use in the People’s Daily newspaper in February and March 2020. 

Aside from a drop through May in the above-mentioned terms emphasizing the personal leadership of Xi Jinping, we can note that there was a greater instance in both March and April 2020 of first pages in the flagship People’s Daily including no headlines with “Xi Jinping,” “President Xi” (习主席) or “general secretary” (总书记). Needless to say for those accustomed to glancing at the People’s Daily, first-page headlines including “Xi Jinping” are generally par for the course, and the absence of the top leader can easily prompt speculation in international media

In both January and February, Xi Jinping appeared daily, without exception, on the front page of the People’s Daily. But in March and April there were a total of 24 editions of the paper for which Xi was had no front-page-headline mention whatsoever.

Number of front pages of the People’s Daily newspaper form January-December 2020 not including “Xi Jinping” in at least one headline. 

When we contrast Xi’s front-page absences, as graphed above, with the appearance of the phrase “epidemic prevention and control” – one of the top Tier 1 terms in 2020 – we can see this effect inverted. The peak for mentions of “epidemic prevention and control,” an indication in the discourse that combatting the epidemic across China has become the overriding priority, correspond to more absences on the front-page headlines for Xi Jinping.

“Epidemic prevention and control” in the People’s Daily newspaper, January-December 2020. 

The inverted U-shaped curve for “epidemic control and prevention” corresponds to the development of the anti-epidemic effort in China in 2020, which began at the end of January, peaked in March and tapered off as a focus in May, with the holding of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and a declaration of “decisive victory” by Party leaders.  

Keyword groupings (关键词群组) in the Party media in China provide us with a macroscopic image of priorities and agendas. From January 21 to December 25, 2020, there were a total of 6,828 articles in the People’s Daily including "epidemic prevention and control.” But within this field, what were the particular areas of focus and prioritization? To help answer this question, CMP conducted secondary searches in this “text pool’ (文本池) combining "epidemic prevention and control” with other terms, such as the “Six Protections,” “community,” “cadres,” “economic and social development,” “Covid-19,” and so on. 

Using this search method, we identified 27 associated phrases with a high frequency within the text pool, all with 400+ mentions, as shown in the graph below. 

The 27 high-frequency terms, in order of frequency, are: 

Covid-19 (新冠肺炎) = 3,710

Work resumption (复工复产) = 1,965

Economic and social development (经济社会发展) = 1,959

Life (生命) = 1,719

Wuhan (武汉) = 1,639

Community (社区) = 1,630

CCP Central Committee (党中央) = 1,595

Virus (病毒) = 1,499

Cadres (干部) = 1,476

Battle (阻击战) = 1,461

Hubei (湖北) = 1,326

Infection (感染) = 1,287

Normalization (常态化) = 1,187

Detection (检测) = 1,167

Quarantine (隔离) = 1,165

State Council (国务院) = 1,136

Poverty alleviation (脱贫攻坚) = 1,074

Party member (党员) = 1,036

Volunteer (志愿者) = 683

Vaccine (疫苗) = 562

Six Stabilities (六稳) = 559

Shortcomings (短板) = 541

Hero (英雄) = 505

People’s war (人民战争) = 493

World Health Organization (世界卫生组织) = 475

Six Guarantees (六保) = 472 

Targeted policies (精准施策) = 425

Employing this method of pairing terms co-occurring with "epidemic prevention and control" can aid recognition of patterns. In some cases, these co-occurring terms may serve overt Party propaganda – terms such as “hero,” for example. In other cases, they may be terms that advance ideas of collective memory, such as “Hubei” and “quarantine.” There can also be terms that are not formally part of the dominant CCP discourse, often emerging online, that are nevertheless an indispensable part of the narrative, which we will deal with in a later section. 

Propaganda Coalesces Around Covid-19

Power controls and determines discourse, and its concentrated expression comes through the control of the narrative. As the epidemic was brought under control, those in control of public opinion – or who see this control as their obligation – have done their utmost to “tell the Chinese [anti-epidemic] story,” drawing on Xi Jinping’s propaganda notion, introduced in August 2013, that Chinese media, officials, diplomats, scholars and so on must all work to “tell the Chinese story well.” 

From the numerous press conferences held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in April and May 2020, to the State Council Information Office (SCIO) white paper released on June 7, and Xi Jinping’s September 8 speech in the Great Hall of the People, we can trace the emergence of a complete and regularized pattern of discourse related to the Covid-19 response. The essential aspects of this narrative are: 1) that China was open in its handling of information, notifying the world of the epidemic at the first opportunity; 2) that Xi Jinping personally instituted the response plan, and personally led the effort against the epidemic; 3) that Chinese heroes played an outstanding role in the fight; 4) and that the recovery of social and economic development in China, contrasting with the apparent loss of control of the pandemic in the United States and other Western countries, demonstrates the advantages of the Chinese system – revealing, to use another phrase that has now become standard, the “China’s spirit, China’s power and China’s [sense of] responsibility” (中国精神、中国力量、中国担当). 

At the Central Economic Work Conference held on December 16, 2020, it was stated, to sum up China’s handling of the crisis, that the country’s anti-epidemic efforts had "provided a report card that was satisfactory to the people, drawn world attention and is to be recorded in the annals of history.” Here we were witnessing the inauguration of a new official catchphrase (首秀语), a flourish to finish the beautiful ending, so far as the CCP is concerned, to the narrative of Covid-19 in 2020. 

Coming Up Short on “Shortcomings”

Going back briefly to the list of term pairings with “epidemic prevention and control,” however, there is one term we should not ignore: “shortcomings,” or duanban (短板). This term, which originates with Xi Jinping, refers to insufficiencies, shortcomings and lessons emerging from the crisis.   

On March 10, Xi Jinping visited the city of Wuhan after it had endured 47 days under lockdown. At this point, coming just weeks after the serious outbreak of the epidemic and the mobilization of the “battle” (阻击战), Xi said something important: “The prevention and control of the Covid-19 epidemic is a major test of our governance system and governance capacities. There are both [positive] experiences and [informative] lessons. We must take a long-term perspective, summing up the lessons from our experiences, and speeding remedies to shortcomings in the governance system.” 

In 2019, the CCP abandoned the term "political [system] reform" (政治体制改革), replacing it with another phrase that substantially downplayed the priority of systemic reform, “modernization of the national governance system and governance capabilities" (国家治理体系和治理能力现代化). The mention of “shortcomings” in the context of China’s epidemic  response should be understood as referring to shortcomings in the national governance system, referencing more particularly any changes necessary within the existing system under the leadership of the CCP. This can refer also to personnel changes, and an example of this could be seen in the weeks ahead of Xi’s visit to Wuhan. On February 13, less than a month before Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan, both Jiang Zhaoliang (蒋超良), Hubei’s Party secretary, and Wuhan’s top leader, Ma Guoqiang (马国强), were removed from their posts. 

But among the 541 articles within the “epidemic prevention and control” pool that deal with “shortcomings,” we can the vast majority refer to three distinct meanings. The first is about shortcomings in terms of public health (areas, for example, where better preparations can be made in terms of equipment and human resources). The second is about shortcomings in the global governance system, such as problems in the international response, insufficient cooperation and so on. The third is about shortcomings in the context of economic recovery. Only 15 of the 541 articles use the same sense of “shortcomings” we find in Xi Jinping’s March 10 speech. But none of these 15 articles provide any concrete indication of what these shortcomings in the governance system might be. As to the real substance of the major errors made by Jiang Chaoliang and Ma Guoqiang, China’s media have remained utterly silent throughout 2020. 


Looking Back on China’s “Early Warnings”

“China’s Actions in Fighting Covid-19” (抗击新冠肺炎疫情的中国行动), the white paper from the State Council Information Office (SCIO) in June 2020, characterized the 24-day period from December 27, 2019, to January 19, 2020, as the “first phase,” which a section title that read: “The First Phase: Swiftly Responding to a Sudden Outbreak” (第一阶段:迅即应对突发疫情), and suggesting that during this period China had already sounded the alarm and responded to the emergency. 

In China, the media is regarded as a keen weapon (利器) by which the CCP can maintain power and govern. Any “swift response” would necessitate action from the Chinese media. But note the pattern in the following graph, which plots occurrences of the phrase “epidemic prevention and control,” one of the key Tier 1 phrases in our 2020 report on CCP political discourse. 

Looking at the official discourse in the People’s Daily, the newspaper meant to set the pace for all “mainstream” public opinion (meaning in China specifically that led by the Party according to its prerogatives), it is patently clear that the phrase “epidemic prevention and control” was not in evidence, much less prominent, during the first three weeks of this first phase, as defined by the SCIO report. Appearances of the phrase, in fact, only rose after January 20, 2020, after Xi Jinping, according to the official Xinhua News Agency, “ordered resolute efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.” 

During this three week period, in fact, just four articles in the People’s Daily mentioned the term “epidemic.” One of these articles discussed a measles epidemic in Africa, while another talked about efforts to control African swine fever (ASF). The third article, published on January 20 and again unrelated to Covid-19, talked about the customs supervision system. The fourth, again published on January 20, discussed Hong Kong’s 2003 fight against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). By this time, Wuhan was already scurrying to response to an increasingly desperate situation, but the People’s Daily had not a word to say. 

During this so-called “first phase,” there were also 14 articles in the People’s Daily that used the phrase “preventing and resolving major risks” (防范化解重大风险). 

“Preventing and resolving major risks” is one of the so-called “three major battles” (三大攻坚战) defined by the CCP during the 19th National Congress in 2017. The other two are “targeted poverty alleviation” (精准脱贫) and “pollution prevention” (污染防治). On January 6, Li Zhongjie (李忠杰), head of the CCP’s Central Party School, the chief institution of higher education for Party cadres, published a piece in the People’s Daily in which he wrote that the Party “must always maintain a high level of vigilance.” In reference to surprise events with a major impact, and also predictable but neglected risks, he said: “We must be vigilant over not only black swan incidents, but also over gray rhino incidents . . . . In the event a risk emerges, we should be able to quickly determine the level of risk, and issue early warnings.” 

Were there early warnings during the first days of the epidemic? The white paper from the State Council specifies three critical facts, and these raise further suspicions upon closer inspection: 

  1. The white paper states: “On December 27, 2019, the Hubei Hospital of Integrated Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine reported cases of unexplained pneumonia to the Wuhan Jianghan District Center for Disease Prevention and Control.” The doctor who discovered this case was Zhang Jixian (张继先), who was later hailed as "the first person to make a report of the epidemic.” She treated a family of three patients, and in a subsequent interview with Xinhua, run on April 20, 2020, she said: "The symptoms of all the family members were essentially the same, and could be determined as human-to-human transmission.”

This information would have been crucial to early warning of the epidemic. And yet, the report by the Wuhan Municipal Party Committee issued on January 1, 2020, through Changjiang Daily, the city’s official Party newspaper, announced that human-to-human transmission had not yet been detected in the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic. How is this explained? 

  1. The white paper states: “On January 7, when Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CCP, presided over the meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP, he raised his demands for prevention and control work concerning the pneumonia of unknown origin.” What exactly did Xi Jinping say at the time? What were these specific demands? No information has ever been forthcoming about this. According to this timeline, China’s most senior leader had by this point already made remarks on the epidemic, but not a whiff of such news could be seen in the Party media. From the time of Xi's request as explained in the white paper to January 21, a period of two weeks, the phrase "epidemic prevention and control" did not appear at all in the People's Daily. We should also note the fact that Xi’s so called "1.7 speech" – the source of the instructions in question here – was not even disclosed through the People's Daily until February 24. Why?

  2. The white paper states: “On January 13, State Council Premier Li Keqiang, presiding over the plenary session of the State Council, put forward requirements for epidemic prevention and control." This meeting is extremely important. And yet the People's Daily delayed mention of the meeting for an entire day, not reporting on it until January 15. Moreover, the report, which bore the title, "Li Keqiang Presides Over Plenary Session of the State Council to Discuss the ‘Government Work Report (Draft for Comment)’,” did not mention the epidemic at all. The report focused instead on issues such as ‘building an all-round moderately prosperous society,” monetary policy, promoting employment, and so on. Again, why? 

Any situation in which we see zero information can be regarded, in and of itself, as crucial information. Quite obviously, a great deal of inside information about the determinations being made at the highest levels during the first half of January, and the forming of related policy responses, remain undisclosed. The aphasia suffered by the Party-state media demonstrates quite clearly that there were no early warnings at the start of the epidemic.  

The white paper mentions that the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued a notice to medical institutions in its jurisdiction on December 30, 2019, and that it issues further “situation reports” (情况通报) on December 31, January 3, January 5, and January 12. In fact, this cluster of briefings downgraded the severity of the pneumonia cases, and cannot be regarded as constituting early warnings. Large-scale gatherings planned in the city of Wuhan went ahead as planned, suggesting everything was business as usual. These included the highly-touted sessions of the annual “two meetings” of the local people’s congress and political consultative conference in the city. 

The front pages of Wuhan’s official Changjiang Daily on January 5-7, 2020, make no mention of pneumonia or an epidemic, but loudly proclaim the busy sessions of the people’s congress and political consultative conference. 

Quite contrary to the early warnings suggested in the June white paper, on December 30, the very day that the first – and remember, trivial – notice was sent out by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, Doctor Ai Fen (艾芬), director of the emergency department of Wuhan Central Hospital, saw her first diagnostic report on a Covid-19 patient and used a red pen to circle the words “SARS coronavirus.” This report, which she photographed and shared privately with classmates, exposed the situation to the wider medical community. But this was seen as a breach, and Doctor Ai was called in for reprimand by her hospital superior for “spreading rumors” (造谣). Another doctor at Ai’s hospital, Li Wenliang (李文亮), shared Ai’s image of the report on WeChat, urging colleagues to remain alert. A few days later, Li was called in by local police and sternly reprimanded. On January 1, in fact, eight people in Wuhan were subjected to questioning and reprimand by the police for “spreading false information” about the epidemic. 

This was reported prominently through official media outlets across the country, including China Central Television, seen in the image below. All of these reports focused on “rumormongers” (造谣者). On January 2, 2020, this “rumor” story was one of China’s top-ranking news stories online, according to CMP’s internal newspaper database. The Beijing Youth Daily newspaper published a commentary, shared across numerous portals the next day, called, “Rumors of Pneumonia are a Public Opinion Virus to Guard Against” (“肺炎谣言”是更须防范的舆论病毒). This wave of reports on police actions against these eight “rumormongers” sounded like a stern warning against the sharing of epidemic-related information by ordinary people. Meanwhile, the information released by official media – essentially rumors to refute (serious) rumors – offered a false sense of security, doing great damage during the crucial window of early warning. 

The truth cannot be tampered with. In the first three weeks of January, Wuhan missed its golden opportunity for prevention and control, and the “pneumonia of unknown cause” that would become Covid-19 spread rapidly.

It was on January 21, 2020, as the People's Daily finally reported on Xi Jinping's directives on the epidemic – on the front page, but still not in the top headlines – that the term "epidemic prevention and control" appeared for the first time. On that day, the People’s Daily said: “The reporter learned from the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention that this new type of coronavirus is not SARS or MERS. The current preliminary investigations show that human-to-human transmission and infectiousness of this virus is weaker than SARS. Therefore, there is no reason to panic.”

Over the next four days, the headlines of the People's Daily had nothing at all to do with the fight against the epidemic. It was not until January 26 that news was reported of the Politburo Standing Committee meeting to study the fight against the epidemic. By this time, Wuhan was under its fourth day of lockdown.

Chinese leaders moved to shut Wuhan down entirely, but the government expressed adamant opposition as foreign countries sought to prevent the spread of the epidemic from China. On January 31, as the U.S. State Department announced that it had elevated its China travel advisory to Level 4 (“Do Not Travel”), Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying sharply criticized the move, calling it “unfriendly”: "Many countries have offered China support in various means. In sharp contrast, certain US officials' words and actions are neither factual nor appropriate. Just as the WHO recommended against travel restrictions, the US rushed to go in the opposite way. Certainly not a gesture of goodwill.”

Is the US travel advisory not exactly the policy of “guarding against imported cases” (外防输入) that China enforced strictly from April and through to the end of 2020? 

There are simply too many lessons from January 2020 that could be explored and elaborated. The “shortcomings in the governance system” – to appropriate the phrase from Xi’s March speech in Wuhan – cannot be concealed by its achievements in fighting the epidemic at immense cost and sacrifice. Nor can these shortcomings be expunged from the history books simply because other countries have acted with tragic incompetence. The suggestion that China’s actions are beyond reproach simply does not accord with the facts.  


The Tree Hollow of Li Wenliang

There was one word in particular in 2020 that we can say was undoubtedly a “hot” term in Chinese discourse for the year, but which rated a chilly Tier 6 according to CMP’s scale for intensity of use, appearing in just 27 articles in the official People's Daily. That word is “Li Wenliang” (李文亮). 

Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital who played a key role in exposing the epidemic in his city, and who succumbed to Covid-19 on February 7, 2020, is a name the authorities would rather play down, as the facts of his story further complicate the narrative of faultless and resolute leadership. It was Li Wenliang who issued a warning through an online chat group about the virus in late December 2019, only to be called in and sternly questioned by local police three days later, and forced to sign a statement confessing to his “illegal behavior”. His tragedy was a clear confirmation of the failure of early warning about the epidemic in Wuhan. 

On January 30, Li Wenliang was interviewed by the media for the first time, using his real name. On February 8, the day after Li’s death from Covid-19, a total of 245 reports appeared in newspapers across China included the term “Li Wenliang,” based on our internal database. Readers can see from the graph below that February 8 was an instant peak in coverage of “Li Wenliang,” and reports diminished rapidly afterward, mostly disappearing after February 14. 

A February 8 commentary published in Jiefang Daily, the official Party newspaper in the Shanghai municipality, said: “Remembering Li Wenliang means responding to the most direct and urgent concerns of the public, and uncovering the truth in the fog, through a thorough and detailed investigation.” Another, this time in Shanghai’s government-run Wenhui Daily, said that “the deeds of the 'whistleblower' are admirable, and his experience also reflects obvious shortcomings in the prevention and control of the epidemic." 

But there were also commentators warning against deviation from the Party’s official guidance, saying that out-of-control online public opinion risked becoming “an avalanche phenomenon” (雪后打滑现象), and warning of a “viral spread” of critical views. 

The authorities quickly went into all-out crisis management mode – announcing an investigation into police conduct in Wuhan, issuing a formal apology, and characterizing Li as a hero in the fight against the epidemic (bringing him solidly into the fold of official propaganda). Meanwhile, there were stringent controls on media reporting and online discussion. 

The following graph plots articles in newspapers across China mentioning the term “Li Wenliang” for the full year 2020. 

From February to April, there were reports in the Chinese media focusing on Li Wenliang’s death, on the official investigation, on the investigation results, and on Li’s designation as a “martyr” by the Hubei provincial government (along with 13 others). By May, Chinese officials were actively refuting remarks from officials in the United States that Li had been arrested for blowing the whistle on the Wuhan epidemic, and a letter ostensibly written by Li’s widow rejecting these remarks and affirming that Li was a Party member and loved his country was posted to Weibo, becoming a news focus. 

From June to the end of the year, reports mentioning Li Wenliang were rare, except for a September peak corresponding to Xinhua News Agency reports of a high-profile “commendation ceremony” held for Zhong Nanshan and three other recipients of national honors. These reports mentioned Li Wenliang and others who had died during the epidemic. 

As officials doubled-down on their insistence that China had been open and transparent in its handling of information at the start of the epidemic, Li Wenliang became a political no-go zone. Li’s name was mentioned in neither the June white paper from the State Council nor Xi Jinping's September 8 speech to the commendation ceremony. As Wuhan respiratory specialist Zhang Jixian (张继先) was lionized as the first doctor to warn the medical system of the new coronavirus, reports emphasized that she had reported the situation to her superiors according to procedure – language that worked to sideline and delegitimize Li’s role. 

But the curve seen in traditional media coverage, with a clear peak in February and March, was not mirrored on social media platforms, where the term "Li Wenliang" remained hot throughout the year. 

In recent years, the term “tree hollow” (树洞) has gone viral as a standard reference to a place where one can tell one’s secrets. The reference comes from a version of the fairy tale “The King With Donkey Ears,” in which a barber pledged to secrecy about his sovereign’s embarrassingly large ears can hardly resist revealing the secret, and so finds relief by shouting the secret into a tree hollow (or in some versions, into a hole he digs in the earth). On China’s internet, the “tree hollow” this year has been Li Wenliang's account on Weibo, where even after the doctor’s death people have continued to post messages.

Below are two Weibo posts, made by Li Wenliang on January 31 and February 1, 2020. In the first post, Li explains how he shared information on a SARS case in Wuhan on December 30, and was called in by local police on January 3 and asked to sign a letter of reprimand. In the second post, Li shares the fact that he has tested positive for the virus. Both posts have been reposted more than 200,000 times, and by February 1, 2020, each had gathered more than one million comments.

On January 1, 2021, a large number of internet users visited Li Wenliang’s account to wish him a happy New Year. We observed the account activity for 10 minutes, during which time 43 new messages appeared.

A netizen called "LouSha 5871" wrote: "Wenliang, another year has passed. I’ve shared a lot of troubling things with you over the past year. Thank you for silently listening and giving me so much comfort. Chatting with you has become a regular thing, and I thank you for your company. If we have a chance to meet one day, what should I bring you? Cigarettes? Decent wine? A game console?”

In the message area of the account, many netizens seemed to regard Li Wenliang as their close confidant, as someone they can talk to about their studies, about work, about the stock market, about the joys and frustrations of dating, about family matters, and even about purchases like new ski equipment or mobile phones. The following is a snapshot of a few messages posted between December 15, 2020 and January 1, 2021:

Ruoruo Loewe: It's been almost a year now. How are you doing? 

Alice2590: I've been thinking, all along I've been thinking, that if it wasn't for the information you provided, how long would the epidemic in Wuhan have gone on last year? 

One True Jacolyn: It's really ironic to see that letter of reprimand [they made you sign]. 

Only I Am Called SuMaoNi: When I saw this I got all choked up. I suppose on that side you don’t have to follow the commands of the organization. 

Bnsi_so: Doctor Li, I’ve come to visit you. Chengdu has recently had an outbreak. This is the closest I’ve been to the epidemic. Since mid-terms up to now I’ve had two nucleic acid tests already. I really feel powerless. I hope everything improves soon. I really want to get home for Spring Festival. 

Shenyang Lin Zhengying: You sacrificed yourself to shed light on a coldly indifferent society.  

Toward Night in the Mist: Mr. Li, I am going to write out my application to join the Party today, even though I know I’m just running after a prize I won’t win, but I just wanted to try and see. My roommate didn’t fill one out and I was mocked by him. Aye!

Ha ha ha ya ya ya: 2021 will arrive soon, Doctor Li. Don’t worry, things are getting better and better in China. I believe that China can defeat the virus, and the world can work together. There will come a day when we can all take off our masks. 

Junzi Sanxi: [Your] humble words [of warning], [were like] the sparks of a firefly. I know, you are already in the Spring breeze. Happy New Year, Doctor Li! 

Danran Ninghan: Happy New Year, Doctor Li. This is the first time I’ve come here, my first time to visit you. I want to tell you that China will get better and better, and we will not forget you. I read an article about your whole situation just now, and I was crying just like a three-year-old. There are still many warm and kind people in this world. I hope that the motherland can grow stronger and stronger, and that the tragedy that befell you can never happen again. Finally, I wish health for your family and your baby. 

Detective Akai: I hope time will not obliterate your spirit. 

Just a Fool: Hero, I won’t forget you. 

Visionsofgideonn: We miss you, Doctor Li. 

Kiss at the End of War: If the disease is not cured, it will ultimately attack the heart of the system. 

The so-called “Tree Hollow of Li Wenliang” (李文亮树洞) was a defining discourse phenomenon in China in 2020. The “tree hollow” is a secret place where the Chinese people can whisper an insistent message: Do not hide from the diseases that ail you.  


Premier Li Struggles to Be Heard

In 2020, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was under immense pressure. On January 25, he was appointed as the head of the Central Leading Group on Responding to Novel Coronavirus Disease Outbreak, and the next day he arrived in Wuhan for an inspection tour. Li was on the front lines directing both the epidemic response and the effort to get the economy running again by early summer, and yet none of the reports about Li’s efforts in the midst of Covid-19 – including the 50 or so meetings of the Central Leading Group that he chaired – ever made the headline of front page of the People’s Daily in 2020. 

Even the full-text of the annual government work report that Li delivered to the National People’s Congress (NPC) in May 2020 was given a secondary position on the newspaper’s front page, placed at the bottom, while top billing was given to news of Xi Jinping’s speech to a collective study session of the Politburo. This was the first time during Li’s eight years as premier that his work report to the NPC was side-lined in this fashion. 

After the 2020 NPC, Li made two statements in particular that caught media attention. The first was that 600 million Chinese people still had monthly incomes of around 1,000 yuan. The second was to say that the "small shop economy" (小店经济) and "street stall economy" (地摊经济) are a source of economic vitality and an essential source of income for Chinese. Both statements received substantial coverage, but also fluctuated rapidly. 

The first Li Keqiang statement was made during the NPC press conference, as Li fielded a question from a People’s Daily reporter: “This year is the year for decisive victory in the war against poverty [in China], but the incomes of many families have been impacted by Covid-19, and some even facing poverty again. In this situation can the goal of winning the war on poverty this year really be smoothy achieved? How will the government ensure the basic livelihood of the people?”   

Li Keqiang’s response, reported on May 29 in the People’s Daily and other state media, was as follows: 

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. With the epidemic behind us, the focus will be on livelihoods. We have to put a strong priority on how to ensure the basic livelihood of people in need and people newly impacted by the epidemic. A considerable part of our financial relief policy is devoted to the protection of the basic livelihood of the people. To complete our poverty alleviation task as scheduled this year is a solemn commitment made to the whole society by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core. According to original estimates, there are more than five million poor [in our country], and under the impact of this epidemic some people may return to poverty, making the task of poverty alleviation more difficult. We will take multiple measures, particularly measures to hold the bottom line of poverty alleviation, and we are sure to complete the task of decisively winning a decisive victory in poverty alleviation this year.

In the triumphant atmosphere generated by the state media, Li Keqiang's slightly more cautious words were a dose of sober reality, and they received widespread attention from the public. The following video clip of Li’s remarks, posted to the government-run website, was played more than 22 million times. 

Our search of newspapers, online sites, mobile apps, WeChat and Weibo in China shows the following trend for the phrase “600 million people 1,000 RMB” (6亿人, 1000元) from May 28, 2020, to June 30, 2020. 

Discussion of “600 million people 1,000 RMB” was hot on all platform types during the last four days of May and the first week of June. The topic then cooled down. The bulk of newspaper articles came on May 29, immediately after Li’s remarks, but for the entire month of June, there were just 40 articles in newspapers across the country, and in July there were just five articles. In the People’s Daily, the May 29 report of Li’s remarks was the only mention they received, and the phrase “600 million people 1,000 RMB” was not addressed again. Provincial-level CCP newspapers were almost as quiet about the phrase. Among all such papers, only Dazhong Daily, the official CCP organ in Shandong, and Hunan Daily followed up with reports in June, both on June 1. The phrase was again mentioned on September 1 in the official Liaoning Daily, but there was no additional reporting or elaboration by other media after that. By comparison, there was greater mention of Li’s remark on “600 million people 1,000 RMB” online and on WeChat. 

As Li Keqiang visited other places in China for inspection tours after the NPC, employment was his primary focus.

A report on, the official website of the Chinese government, on June 1 shows Premier Li on a visit in Shandong. Headline: “Li Keqiang Praises the Street Stall Economy.”

While on an inspection tour in Shandong province, Premier Li praised the “street stall economy” and the “small shop economy,” calling them “stove fire of the world [economy], and China’s source of vitality” (是人间的烟火, 是中国的生机). 

This is his second golden phrase in 2020. As soon as this statement came out, reports on the street stall economy as a source of basic economic vitality abounded, and a headline in the 21st Century Business Herald announced: “Night Market Stalls are the Stove Fire of the Economy, Rules on Stalls in Hubei, Sichuan, Jiangsu and Other Places Relaxed.”  

The emphasis in the People's Daily, however, was entirely different. Though reports from other media included Premier Li’s “stove fire” remark while reporting on the premier’s tour, the Party’s flagship newspaper treated his trip more cautiously, as Li’s way of describing the economy – his “caliber,” or koujing (口径) – was at odds with Xi Jinping’s statements. On June 3, the People’s Daily reported that , "Li Keqiang Stresses During Shandong Inspection Tour, Emphasis is on Financial Relief and Market Stimulus, Ensuring the ‘Six Stabilities’ and Implementing the ‘Six Guarantees’”. Here, the emphasis was on a new set of CCP catchphrases introduced at the NPC – the former stressing the importance of stable employment (稳就业), stable finance (稳金融), stable foreign trade (稳外贸), stable foreign investment (稳外资), stable investment (稳投资) and stable expectations (稳预期) – and there was no mention at all of the “street stall economy” or its importance. There was no stove fire.  

On June 7, the Beijing Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Beijing municipal committee of the CCP, stated its position even more clearly, rejecting the folksy notion of the “street stall economy” as a source of vitality. The headline of a commentary attributed to “Jing Ping” (京平), possibly a penname used by the opinion desk of the newspaper, read: “The Street Stall Economy Does Not Suit Beijing.”

Li Keqiang's pair of catchy remarks both have the same backdrop – the serious unemployment situation facing China in 2020. Unemployment had already been an urgent priority in 2019, the sense of urgency conveyed by the consistent appearance that year of the phrase “stabilizing employment” (稳就业), and related policy measures. The phrase was used in 170 articles in People's Daily in 2019, and in 2020 that number doubled to 366. 

When we look at all six aspects of the so-called “Six Stabilities,” as outlined above, to determine their relative proportions of coverage in 2020 in the A People’s Daily, here is what we find:

Clearly, among these various priorities, including foreign trade and investment, employment is the strongest priority. 

Averaged Out

In the summer and autumn of 2020, another term related to the question of economic livelihoods and poverty suddenly rose to prominence in the Chinese media and internet space: "bulk sanitary napkins" (散装卫生巾). A number of media reported that many women in China could afford to buy only non-branded sanitary pads sold in bulk, without outer packaging, what seemed to fall into the category of what are generally referred to as “three-nots products” (三无产品), or those of unclear origin that do not have use-by dates or product certification. 

The Economic Observer, a commercial newspaper based in Beijing, remarked in one commentary on September 3, 2020, drawing out the implications of the sanitary napkin issue and relating it to Li’s words at the NPC press conference: "There are 600 million people in China with an average monthly income below 1,000 RMB – these words from Premier Li Keqiang at the ‘two sessions’ [of the NPC and CPPCC] this year still ring in our ears. The 'bulk sanitary napkins' issue reveals the contours of a truer picture of life behind the statistics, and allows us to see the silent, hidden aspects of financial hardship in our huge country, to see the income gap between different groups in our society, and the class divide generated by this gap.” 

On September 1, Xin Ming (辛鸣), a professor at the Central Party School, the educational institution that trains CCP officials, commented in Liaoning Daily, the province’s official CCP paper: 

Averages can explain many issues, but they may also cover up all manner of problems. In our society, against a lingering gap between the rich and the poor, the one-sided use of averages can be misleading. In 2019, for example, our average national per capita disposable income reached 30,733 yuan. Behind this figure, the per capita disposable income of urban residents was 42,359 yuan, while the per capita disposable income of rural residents was 16,021 yuan. But when fielding questions from journalists after the 3rd Plenary Session of the 13th National People’s Congress on May 28, 2020, Premier Li Keqiang clearly pointed out that there are still 600 million people in China whose monthly income is around 1,000 yuan. This means that at least half of our population is below the average. Therefore, when we talk about achieving a well-off society as a whole, we must figure out whether it is a large part of the whole or a small part of the whole.

By the end of 2019, China's economy already faced serious challenges. In 2020, efforts were redoubled to push economic recovery after the additional shock of the global pandemic. But the situation has undoubtedly been more difficult than in 2019. By referring to the other half in his NPC remarks, Premier Li was touching on two fundamental truths. But truths are not easy to tell given the imperatives of the propaganda system and the need to signal stability. 


Wolf Warriors Tread a Sensitive Line

China's international relations were fraught and complicated in 2020. Not surprisingly, the foreign country receiving the most attention in the CCP’s official People's Daily in 2020, and registering the highest temperature according to the CMP Discourse Scale, was the United States. 

The term “America,” or meiguo (美国), was the only country name to reach Tier 1 in 2020, mentioned in more than 2,000 articles. In the graph below, dark red represents Tier 2 , while orange is Tier 3 and light red is Tier 4. 

Countries in Tier 2 in the People’s Daily, trailing the United States, include Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Russia, South Korea, Spain, South Africa, Thailand, Egypt and Belgium. 

The three most often mentioned names of foreign leaders were, in descending order, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and US President Donald Trump: 

NOTE:Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe resigned for health reasons in August 2020, and so is less represented. 

Soon after China began its fight against Covid-19 in earnest, the combative tone from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) became increasingly obvious. Spokespersons for the ministry constantly responded to perceived “attacks” from the United States and other countries over its handling of the epidemic, as well as over trade, technology and human rights. 

As MOFA went on the attack, the most salient feature of the rhetoric coming out of the ministry through its spokespersons was the concentrated use of colorful idioms and phrases to condemn the words and actions of China’s critics. 

Though perhaps less obvious to foreign audiences, the idioms employed at MOFA often to Chinese signalled a clear sense of defiance and indignation. One of many such examples, “naked and unabashed” (赤裸裸), was used by spokesperson Zhao Lijian on March 3, 2020, to criticize the designation of journalists for Chinese state media in the US as operatives of the Chinese state, to be treated as government functionaries. Zhao said the action “exposed the falsehood of American’s so-called ‘freedom of speech,’” and was a “naked and unabashed double standard and an act of hegemonic bullying.” 

Another idiomatic phrase was “replaying an old tune” (老调重弹), used by the ministry in February 2020 to gainsay accusations from the US that the Chinese Consulate in Houston had been used for Chinese spying operations. MOFA declared on February 14: “This latest remark by [US Secretary of State] Pompeo is just replaying an old tune. He continues to completely ignore the history and reality of China-US relations. His remarks are filled with a Cold War mentality and political prejudice, and China is firmly opposed.”

These colorful idiomatic phrases are the linguistic fabric of what has outside China been disparagingly called “wolf warrior diplomacy,” or zhanlang waijiao (战狼外交). For its part, China has rejected the label, insisting that China’s more offense approach to diplomacy is merely defensive.  

On December 10, 2020, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying again responded to the accusation that China was practicing "wolf warrior diplomacy”: 

China is not the China of a hundred years ago. Chinese diplomacy represents and defends 1.4 billion Chinese who account for one-fifth of the world’s population. If people don’t offend me, I have no cause to offend. But if anyone offends me, I will offend back. Why not be a wolf warrior – in order to safeguard China’s legitimate rights and interests, to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development, to safeguard national interests and dignity, and to maintain international fairness and justice?

Aside from these fresh phrasings that signal China’s diplomatic indignation, there is an older term in the CCP discourse that can be seen to reflect the degree of tension or relaxation in Chinas’ foreign relations. That term is “anti-China,” or fanhua (反华). Since Xi Jinping took office in 2012, the term "anti-China" has been used consistently in the People’s Daily. But the change in 2019 and 2020 is unmistakable, as you can see in the following graph, which shows the number of articles using “anti-China” in the People’s Daily since 2013. 

When we look back on the People’s Daily throughout its history, we find a clear relationship between highs in the occurrence of the term "anti-China" and periods of real tension in China’s international relations. 

The graph above suggests that 2020 was the tensest year for China’s international relations since the 18th National Congress of the CCP was held in 2012. The primary cause of this tension has been the state of US-China relations, but tensions have arisen with other countries and regions as well. A survey of 14 countries in Europe, Asia and North America released in October 2020 by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think tank in the US, showed that negative perceptions of China had reached their highest point in a decade. “Today, a majority in each of the surveyed countries has an unfavorable opinion of China,” the survey concluded. 

Judging from the monthly distribution of the term "anti-China" in the People's Daily, articles appeared at their highest frequency in May, July, August, and September 2020. But in the fourth quarter of 2020, the number of articles decreased significantly. This was despite the fact that Xi Jinping took a rather tough attitude toward the United States at an event in late October to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Korean War – with talk, for example, of “resisting imperialist aggression and expansion.” This downturn in defensive rhetoric around the term “anti-China” likely had some connection to the presidential election in the US and the prospect of a new administration, with still unknown implications for the US-China relationship.  

The frequency of "anti-China" in the People’s Daily can serve as an indicator as it has a clear correlation with historical events. Looking back over the history, we can gain an approximate understanding of how fluctuations in the frequency of articles using “anti-China” in the People’s Daily correspond to sensitive periods. 

Fifty articles including “anti-China” in a given year seems to be an approximate line of sensitivity (敏感线), meaning that those years with 50 or fewer “anti-China” articles in the People’s Daily, foreign relations seem to be more or less favorable, and the domestic situation more or less stable. This milder atmosphere is what we observe for most of the 1980s, for example, as China’s economy was opening to the world. More than 50 “anti-China” articles in the CCP’s flagship newspaper reflects a more tense and complicated external environment. 

The 100 line for “anti-China” articles in the People’s Daily is what we can consider the “danger line” (危险线), Numbers of 100 and over can signal an environment of major crisis. One example of this can be found in the period from 1999 to 2001 in the Jiang Zemin era, which corresponded with the crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement, the US bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade, and the 2001 collision of a Chinese fighter jet with a US spy plane near Hainan. 

The 200 line for “anti-China” articles in the People’s Daily is what we can call the “high-risk line” (高危线). If references to “anti-China” approach or surpass 200, this would suggest there had already been state-to-state armed conflict. We can note this correspondence in 1962-1963, during the Sino-Indian War, and again in 1979, during the China-Vietnam War.  

Moving up the intensity scale, we can mark 500 as the line of chaos, seen in moments of national calamity that are more about internal political strife and not necessarily about foreign relations or external threats. This is the level of occurrence of “anti-China” articles we find in the People’s Daily during the period of the Cultural Revolution. 

If we view the deployment of the term “anti-China” in 2020 through this historical lens, we can say that 2020 is similar to what we saw in 2008, as China endured strong international criticism for its crackdown on unrest in Tibet, and of its human rights record ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games. The number in 2020 was 79; in 2008, it was 82. The line of sensitivity has been crossed, but we are still below the “danger line” recorded in the late Jiang Zemin era. 

This suggests that China’s leaders still would wish to sustain the struggle against external criticism without encouraging what could be destructive situations, breaking key relationships with western countries in particular.