China’s Political Discourse: January 2021: A Wartime State

By The China Media Project

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

A difficult 2020 has now passed, but it is difficult to say that 2021 promises a smooth road ahead. In January 2021, Covid-19 spread in a number of areas in China, and a number of local governments declared that they were in what they called a “wartime state,” or zhanshi zhuangtai (战时状态). In Henan, a public opinion storm was kicked up as the Party Secretary of one city slapped the local government’s secretary-general and the incident was reported by the secretary-general’s wife. As the Biden administration took office, a spate of articles appeared in the People’s Daily criticizing the Trump administration – resulting in a jump from cold to warm on the CMP discourse scale. 

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 defined as follows: 

As the New Year began, we surveyed the discourse landscape and made several adjustments to our discourse master list for monthly reports such as this one. In particular, we added several phrases related to the “new development concept” (新发展理念), including “new development stage” (新发展阶段) and “new development pattern” (新发展格局), both of which were included in Xi Jinping’s August 2020 “Speech to the Expert Symposium on Economic and Social Work” (在经济社会领域专家座谈会上的讲话).

We have added the terms “political judgment” (政治判断力), “political perception” (政治领悟力) and “political execution” (政治执行力), all of which first emerged at the Politburo’s Democratic Life Meeting (政治局民主生活会) held on December 24-25. Among these terms, “political perception” made what we refer to in our analysis as a “debut” (首秀), meaning that it appeared for the very first time in the People’s Daily.  

We also included several keywords that are closely related to the Fifth Plenum phrase “taking technological independence and self-reliance as a strategic support for national development” (把科技自立自强作为国家发展的战略支撑). These are: “5G,”, “quantum communications” (量子通信), “blockchain” (区块链), “microchips” (芯片), “driverless vehicles” (无人驾驶汽车) and “industrial robots” (工业机器人). 

We added “common prosperity” (共同富裕), “matter of national importance” (国之大者), and “external forces” (外部势力). We also added “comprehensively building a modern socialist nation” (全面建设社会主义现代化国家), a new term within the context of the so-called “Four Comprehensives” (四个全面) – having replaced “comprehensively building a well-off society,” as this was claimed as an achieved goal in 2020. 

And finally, we added the so-called “four rights of the citizen” (公民四权), which were first raised at the 17th National Congress of the CCP in October 2007. These are the “right to know” (知情权), the “right to supervise” (监督权), the “right to participate” (参与权) and the “right to express” (表达权). Of these four rights, the “right to know” was rated a Tier 4 term, the “right to supervise” Tier 5, and the “right to participate” and “right to express” both in the ice-cold Tier 6. In fact, the only appearance at all of the “right to express” in January occurred in an article called, “Strengthening and Innovating Social Governance” (加强和创新社会治理), written by Secretary-General of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission Chen Yixin (陈一新) and published in the People’s Daily on January 22, 2021. One passage in the article discussing a system of participation for the masses (人民群众) mentions “promoting the institutionalization, standardization and proceduralization of direct democracy at the grassroots level, ensuring the masses’ right to know, right to participate, right to express and right to supervise in accord with the law.” 

For 2021, CMP will adjust its classification method for CCP discourse, determining the intensity (热度) of Party terminologies according to the absolute number of articles including those terms in the People's Daily newspaper. Previously, CMP used a proportional method, which looked at the number of articles including a particularly catchphrase (提法) as a ratio of total articles in the newspaper over a given period. Our monthly classification standard, based on the six-level scale created in 2016, is as follows: 

In January 2021, Tier 1 terms included: 

  • “pneumonia” (肺炎)

  • “epidemic prevention and control” (疫情防控)

  • “poverty alleviation” (脱贫攻坚)

  • “new development pattern” 

  • “comprehensively building a modern socialist nation” (全面建设社会主义现代化国家)

  • “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心)

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

Data Source:People’s Daily.

Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016. 

The Litmus List

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

This month, we find that all terms on our Litmus List were maintained at Tier 4 or below.  The three banner terms, Deng Xiaoping Theory (邓小平理论), the Three Represents (三个代表) and the Scientific View of Development (科学发展观) –  sometimes referred to collectively in Chinese with the shorthand deng san ke (邓三科) – remained in alignment, all at the same level, and all appeared in the same set of articles looking back on Party history. The term “political system reforms” (政治体制改革), which is generally associated with more reform-minded discussion within the Party discourse, did not appear at all in January. The phrase has not appeared in the People’s Daily since its last showing in a single article in November 2020, and before that in July 2020

Data Source:People’s Daily.

Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016. 

The Centrality Index

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

Among Politburo members, Xi Jinping of course leads the pack, and by a long shot. Xi Jinping appeared in 571 articles in the People’s Daily in January, averaging 18.4 articles per edition of the paper, and was the only leader with a Tier 1 rating. In a visual illustration of the gap separating Xi form the pack, there were no leaders in Tier 2 for the month. Moving down the list, Tier 3 had five leaders: Li Keqiang (李克强), Li Zhanshu (栗战书), Han Zheng (韩正), Wang Yang (汪洋) and Hu Chunhua (胡春华). Li Keqiang registered 33 articles, and Li Zhanshu 26. Normally, as premier, we would expect Li Keqiang to be in Tier 2, a level lower than Xi Jinping. 

Data Source:People’s Daily.

Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016. 

Regional Rankings 

Looking at how provincial, municipal and autonomous region leaders (31) on the Central Committee were represented in the People’s Daily and in provincial-level Party newspapers, we can see that just under half, or 15 leaders did not appear at all in the People’s Daily in January. The People’s Daily list is topped by Cai Qi (蔡), the Party secretary of Beijing, who was mentioned in three articles dealing with preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics and his attendance of the January 28 collective study session of the Politburo. 

A number of provincial Party secretaries, including Fujian’s Yin Li (尹力), and Hebei’s Wang Dongfeng (王东峰), appeared in two People’s Daily articles for the month as they were elected as chairmen of their respective provincial people’s congress standing committees and were featured in “authoritative interviews.” 

Next, we looked at how each regional leader was reflected in terms of total articles for the month in the respective Party dailies under their jurisdiction. Each provincial-level administration, including autonomous regions, have their own official mouthpiece (喉舌), usually [X] Daily, where “X” is the name of that jurisdiction, and this paper is under the direction of the local CCP Committee. For example, Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi was mentioned in January in 76 articles in the Beijing Daily, the newspaper under the Beijing Committee of the CCP. A list of all provincial-level dailies and their affiliations and addresses can be found here

Data Source:People’s Daily and 31 official provincial-level Party newspapers. 

Foreign Leaders

On January 20, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, and Donald Trump, who remained in the cold on the CMP discourse scale from September through to the end of 2020 – appearing in no more than two articles per month in the People’s Daily, and remaining in Tier 6, jumped up to Tier 4, appearing in 15 articles in January 2021. The 15 related articles overwhelmingly mention Trump in the context of sharp criticism of his administration’s policies and practices toward China. An article on January 8, for example, said that “for a time recently a small number of anti-China politicians within the Trump government have persisted in their ‘final [acts of] madness,’ using the remainder of the term to deliberately undermine US-China relations by any means necessary to serve their personal political interests.”

Biden came in at Tier 5 for January, mentioned in 6 articles, the same level recorded for both Vladimir Putin of Russia and Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachith.

Data Source:People’s Daily.

Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016. 

But providing a sneak peak of foreign leaders in the People’s Daily for February 2021, we can see how the ranking shifts with the presidential change in the United States.

Data Source:People’s Daily.

Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016. 

Foreign Countries

From January 2020 all the way through September 2020, as tensions between China and the United States rankled, the US maintained a Tier 1 ranking on the CMP discourse scale. From October through the end of the year, the US cooled a bit, drawn down to Tier 2, where it joined the United Kingdom, Japan, France and Germany. This trend was carried through to January 2021. 

In terms of numbers of articles mentioning the country, the US was in first position with 108 mentions. Coverage of the US dealt with such issues as climate change policy and Trump’s “America First” agenda; the UK’s blocking of the extradition to the US of Julian Assange; the “’anti-China’ farce” in US policy on Taiwan and Hong Kong; and Xi Jinping’s Davos 2021 speech and China’s global leadership

The US was followed by the UK and Japan, tied for second with 70 mentions, and France and Germany, each with 62 mentions. Examples of coverage of Japan included a profile of a Japanese sinologist who according to the paper has witnessed how interest in China has grown “along with China's growing comprehensive national power and cultural influence”; mention of the “defeat of Japanese imperialism” in the context of discussion of the 100th anniversary of the CCP (done through several articles, including this one); and mention of a Zhejiang company busy manufacturing masks to export to “Japan and European countries.” Europe and Germany seemed to be mentioned often in the context of official CCP calls for “multilaterialism” (多变主义), and remarks from German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she shared Xi Jinping’s support of multilateralism made page three of the People’s Daily on January 29. 

Data Source:People’s Daily.

Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016. 

January Surprises

In each monthly analysis in 2021, CMP will try to highlight one or two salient phrases in the emerging official discourse, utterances that are new, significant, colorful – or all of the above. This month our first candidate – “let oversight grow teeth, and let violating subjects grow long-term memories” (让监管长牙齿,让违规主体长记性)– is ominously colorful, underscoring the resolve of the Party to bring to heel unwanted, critical views on social media platforms. 

On January 29, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top internet control body, held a video conference during which the agenda was to make deployments (部署) in order to more effectively regulate and control internet and social media platforms. Zhuang Rongwen (庄荣文), director of the CAC and a deputy minister at the Central Propaganda Department, told those in attendance that it was essential to implement Xi Jinping’s instructions from the 12th collective study session of the 19th CCP Central Committee in July 2019  – that “positive energy is the general requirement, control is the absolute principle, clever use is the true skill” (正能量是总要求,管得住是硬道理,用得好是真本事 ). This three-part phrase, which has been shortened also to the nine-character formula “positive energy, control and skillfulness” (正能量/管得住/用得好), points to the need to 1) avoid negative perspectives or criticism in reporting, 2) strictly maintain control over content, and 3) find new ways to make propaganda effective through innovation. 

Zhuang spoke of resolutely controlling the “foundation” of the content or article source (稿源) and closing the “backdoor” (后门), referring to content generated by so-called “self-media” (自媒体) on platforms like WeChat without the license to report or publish news. Zhuang said the Party needed to “strictly manage the outstanding problems of illegal independent interviewing (违规自采) and illegal reposting” (违规转载), and at the same time “open the ‘front door’ wide to expand capacity and improve the quality of “compliant article sources” (合规稿源) and “further enrich the supply of online information content” (进一步丰富网上信息内容供给). To break this language down, Zhuang is essentially saying here that China needs to tighten the supply of unauthorized and critical content now finding space on new media platforms, and to open up space for the distribution of “mainstream,” or CCP compliant, messaging. 

So, for this month’s first surprise phrase. As Zhuang discussed these priorities, he said there was a need to focus on the regulation and control of “self-media,” to increase the intensity of discipline actions against non-complying accounts and the platforms hosting them, to “let oversight grow teeth, and let violating subjects grow long-term memories.”

On January 31, 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China releases the summary of a video conference on control of social media platforms. 

The second surprise in January – actually a group of colorful utterances -- came as a post emerged online on January 16 called “The City Party Secretary Slaps the Government Secretary General: Informing on Henan Jiyuan City Secretary Zhang Zhanwei Openly and With [My] Real Name” (市委书记掌掴政府秘书长——实名公开举报河南济源市委书记张战伟), and it immediately drew attention across China. The post was attributed to Shang Juan (尚娟), the wife of the government secretary general of the city of Jiyuan, Zhai Weidong (翟伟栋). It alleged that on November 11, 2020, Zhang Zhanwei (张战伟), Jiyuan’s top official, had berated Zhai Weidong in the dining hall of a government building. As Zhai attempted to explain himself, Zhang struck him across the ear. 

Zhang Zhanwei (left) and Zhai Weidong (right). 

The secretary general is a secretary in the city’s government, serving within the office of the mayor (the number two), and about two levels in ranking below the Party Secretary of the city. The rumor in this case is that Zhang slapped Zhai to express his anger at the mayor. 

But this was apparently just the beginning of the incident. After the assault, Zhang Zhanwei mentioned the incident himself when presiding over an official meeting at the city government. His is reported to have said such things as, “Even the Kuomintang knew how to respect their commanding officers” (国民党还知道尊敬长官), “When you play cards you need to know some kings are bigger than others” (打牌还知道有大小王 MEANING), “Your conscience is broken” (良心大大的坏了), and the direct threat, “If I’d had a gun I would have killed you right there” (我要有枪当时就毙了你).  The “conscience is broken” remark is in fact drawn from a classic line in many anti-Japanese war dramas on Chinese television, mimicking the way the Japanese invaders spoke Chinese. The remark is generally levelled by Japanese officers against Chinese who oppose them – but was apparently used by Zhang to ridicule Zhai. 

Secretary Zhang was removed from his post on January 21, and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection issued a statement on the incident. But Zhang did leave us with a collection of surprise phrases for January 2021 that have prompted some discussion and epitomized bullying within the halls of power. As one post reflected: “Ultimately, a bullying attitude means something has gone wrong in the cultivation of the Party spirit.” 

The original post made online by Shang Juan, the wife of the government secretary general of the city of Jiyuan, Zhai Weidong.

Focus Topic:

The Discourse of the “Wartime State”

In January 2021, Covid lockdowns returned to some areas in China and mass virus tests were rolled out on fears the virus was rebounding. In the official discourse – for example, in local government press conferences – these measures came with increased use of the phrase “wartime state,” or zhan shi zhuangtai (战时状态), as though warning flares were lighting up the sky. 

The following table shows those areas in China reported to be in a “wartime state” in January 2021. 

As we discuss below, “wartime state” was a phrase figuring quite strongly in the official discourse in 2020. But its use in January 2021 prompted some internal discussion about its continuing role. The official Xinhua News Agency, Renmin Zhengxie Bao (人民政协报), the official publication of the CPPCC, and other media published commentaries suggesting that the phrase “wartime state” was being used carelessly, and that it was not suited to current efforts to contain the virus. “Wartime state,” they said, should only be used in the most serious and urgent situations required broad mobilization of people and resources to contain the spread of the virus. There seemed to be agreement that the outbreak last year in Wuhan and Hubei province did merit the use of “wartime state.” 

Looking back on the history of the phrase, the WeChat public account “Cook Ding Butchers the News” (庖丁解news) – the account’s name being a clever reference to the Zhuang Zi (庄子) parable of Cook Ding – explored the People’s Daily full-text database to determine that from 1949 through to the end of 2019 there were a total of 248 articles in the paper using the phrase “wartime state,” the vast majority dealing with foreign places like Poland or the Korean Peninsula, and just three of these dealt with “wartime states” in places within China. These were as follows: 

  1. May 14, 1949 – a report on bandits creating chaos in Hankou, Changsha and Nanchang

  2. March 6, 1963 – a page-one report on a high-level Party meeting to push political indoctrination and loyalty within the PLA, so that the “whole army raises high the great red banner of Mao Zedong Thought.” 

  3. April 1, 1963 – a page-two report again like the above, on indoctrination through political ideas in the army in order to “consolidate and improve the combat effectiveness of the force.”

After 1949, China was no longer in a real state of war such as that during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 or the Chinese Civil War. But while the term “wartime state” was rarely used to refer to China’s domestic situation, the general idea of wartime mobilization was skillfully deployed by leaders, with references to "preparing for war" (备战), "war preparations" (战备), "supporting Vietnam and resisting the United States" (援越抗美), "grasping revolution, promoting production, promoting work, and promoting war preparations" (抓革命,促生产,促工作,促战备), and "digging deep, accumulating grain, and not claiming hegemony" (深挖洞、广积粮、不称霸).

In 1962, as war broke out on the Sino-Indian border, the term "preparation for war" (备战) was used in 298 articles in the People’s Daily, making it one of the defining terms that year. In his speech on the Third Five-Year Plan in 1965, Mao Zedong called on the nation to "prepare for war and prepare for famine on behalf of the people" (备战、备荒、为人民). Later that same year, as the United States rapidly increased its forces in South Vietnam, the Central Committee of the CCP issued a directive on strengthening war preparations. US imperialist, the directive said, were taking steps to expand their aggression in Vietnam, seriously threatening China’s security, and “under the present situation, preparations for war must be strengthened.” The phrase "preparing for war" (备战) appeared in 103 articles in the People's Daily in 1965, and the phrase "war preparations" (战备) in 113 articles. 

In 1969, as the Sino-Soviet border conflict brought the two countries to the brink of war, war-related expressions were on the rise, including the phrase “PLA,” which appeared in 385 headlines in the People's Daily, a historic peak. SOURCE:资料仓库

In the pre-reform period, terms associated with war preparation could often be about the contest of ideologies and political systems, serving to build a sense of moral and political solidarity that protected the regime. On September 19, 1969, the People's Daily published a fascinating article signed by the workers of a Beijing textile mill. It did not, once again, explicitly mention a “wartime state,” but it was full to the brim with warlike language against the Soviets and the Americans, and it characterized the daily work of production as an act of war against China’s enemies:

At present, the revolutionary struggle of the people of the world is in full swing. Beset with internal and external difficulties, the revisionist social imperialist Soviet Union, without a road ahead and in order to avoid the fate of death, has engaged hand in glove in fulsome anti-China activities with the American imperialists, and along our frontier has stacked up debts of blood one after another. On these matters, we textile workers express our great indignation. Under Chairman Mao's great call to “grasp the revolution, promote production, promote work, and promote war preparation,” we are determined to turn hatred into strength. . . . using the workshop as a battlefield, use our machines as weapons, and regard each inch of yarn spun and each inch of cloth woven as a heavy artillery shell fired at the imperialists, revisionists and rebels! 

Such implicit wartime language dissipated following Kissinger's visit to China in 1971, Nixon’s visit in 1972, and the long process leading up to the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. It is interesting to note that while the phrase “wartime state” has been used in the People’s Daily to refer to serious natural disasters and other emergencies outside China, such as the 2001 Gujarat earthquake in India, it was never applied to domestic disasters like the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, or the 2003 SARS epidemic.  This makes the widespread deployment of “wartime state” in 2020 all the more pronounced, with 75 articles using the phrase for the year, accounting for 23 percent of all uses per article in the paper’s entire history.

The use of the “wartime state” in 2020 hearkened back in some aspects to the implicit wartime language of the pre-reform period, like that seen in the above passage from the Beijing textile workers. On one level, the “wartime state” in 2020 referred to the immensity and urgency of the challenge facing the country – namely, the containment of the virus. On another deeply important level, is also referenced the contest of national responses, reflecting a sense of moral and political strength. 

The very first article in the People’s Daily to use the phrase in 2020 appeared on January 29. It reported the arrival of Sun Chunlan (孙春兰) in Wuhan to lead Covid-19 response work, carrying out the instructions of Xi Jinping. The article said that the actions undertaken would “truly implement a response to epidemic prevention and control as a wartime state.” An article in the paper the next day reported the formation of an “expert team” led by Dr. Zhong Nanshan (钟南山), that would “promote research and development according to [a] ‘wartime state’ [mindset].” 

But by June, as the immediacy of China’s response and this “wartime state” faded,” and as the official narrative matured through the April-May press conferences of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the State Council Information Office (SCIO) white paper released on June 7, the “wartime state” rhetoric was also about the successes of the regime, arguing the advantages of the Chinese system. 

In a page-three commentary on June 10 attributed to “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), a pen name used for important pieces on international affairs, the People’s Daily wrote that “in a wartime state making every second count, China has carried out its [prevention and control] work, strongly controlling the epidemic. According to the World Health Organization, China has taken the most courageous, flexible and aggressive preventive and control measures in history.” One week later, a commentary on page nine made the case that China’s aggressive mobilization was made possible by its centralized approach: 

At the beginning of the epidemic, there was a shortage of medical supplies such as masks and protective clothing. Under the unified coordination of the central government, medical supplies production enterprises were fully activated to resume work and production, and central enterprises gave full play to the role of the national team to speed up the conversion and expansion of production and multi-production in a wartime state.

Moreover, this “national team” approach under a “wartime state” demonstrated the superiority of China’s system: “At the same time, the epidemic in some Western countries, especially the United States, continues to spread, with the number of confirmed cases and deaths climbing daily. The contrast between China and some Western countries, especially the United States, in fighting the epidemic is stark and huge.”

The January 2021 discussion in the Party-state media about the applicability of “wartime state” to the current situation in China may signal that the phrase will soon exit the stage. But there is no denying that it played an important role in the framing of Covid-19 in 2020.