China’s Political Discourse July 2022: Setting the Tone for the 20th National Congress
By China Media Project
Toward the end of July, a meeting was convened in Beijing for top provincial CCP leaders from across the country. The “spirit” of the “important speech” delivered at the gathering by General Secretary Xi Jinping was advertised as “welcoming the Party’s 20th National Congress.” The discussion seminar of provincial leaders that accompanied the event — referred to in shorthand as the “provincial-ministerial seminar” (省部班) — was regarded within the CCP as setting the tone for this major political event, which will chart China’s course for the coming five years.
This meeting and related reporting in the Party-state media pushed the phrase “Two Establishes” (两个确立), a core terminology signaling the power and authority of Xi Jinping, into Tier 2 for the fourth month this year, a notable rise from the Tier 3 performance recorded for the phrase in June. This will be a term to watch closely for August, as there are signs already that it has not performed strongly since top leaders emerged from the “summer summit” at the seaside resort of Beidaihe (北戴河).
Two key phrases for China’s Covid-19 response, “epidemic prevention and control” (疫情防控) and “Covid-19” (新冠肺炎), remained at the top of the CMP discourse scale for July, marking the continued political importance of the CCP’s Covid policies, which continue to focus on “dynamic zero.” However, both phrases slipped slightly in terms of the total number of articles, suggesting reports related to the pandemic might be cooling in preparation for the 20th National Congress.
Focus Topic: The Provincial-Ministerial Seminar
The July gathering of provincial leaders in Beijing focused on one “important speech” from Xi Jinping to “welcome the 20th National Congress,” and a second “important speech” meant, like a pre-class address from the teacher, to open a seminar for the discussion of the first speech. Understandably, this kicked off a “study Xi” (学习) wave in the official Party-state media.
The other six members of the Politburo Standing Committee (Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leiji, Han Zheng) all attended the opening ceremony of the study seminar, as did CCP vice-chairman Wang Qishan. The seminar, which was directed at the most senior leaders from each province and municipality in China, was a crucial meeting to set the tone for the 20th National Congress of the CCP before leaders switched to summer work mode and gathered at Beidaihe.
As for the tone, the session’s major note was of course an emphasis on the “Two Establishes,” and on the core status of Xi Jinping.
This emphasis on the signaling of loyalty to Xi Jinping and firming up his position within the Party could be seen through at least four discourse trends:
“Maintaining the latest fruits of the Sinicization and modernization of Marxism as our guide” (坚持以马克思主义中国化时代化最新成果为指导). This reference to the supposed reinvention of Marxism under Xi Jinping, which appeared in a special People’s Daily commentary on July 30, was intended to build up Xi’s banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” which could possibly be shortened to the potent “Xi Jinping Thought” later this year — drawing Xi even with Mao Zedong in theoretical importance within CCP history.
"The great changes of the New Era over the past 10 years have milestone significance within the history of the Party, the history of the New China, the history of reform and opening, the history of socialist development, and the history of the development of the Chinese nation" (新时代10年的伟大变革，在党史、新中国史、改革开放史、社会主义发展史、中华民族发展史上具有里程碑意义). This line, which was highlighted in red at the start of the piece, and appeared in state media reporting of the study seminar, was a grandiose assessment of Xi Jinping’s historical significance. Consider that the history of the CCP is 101 years; the history of the New China, counting from the founding of the PRC, is 73 years; the history of reform and opening is 44 years; the history of socialism is 500 years according to the CCP’s reckoning; and the history of Chinese development is several thousand years. This line suggests that the past 10 years have been immensely significant in the context not just of CCP history but of human history — a claim with obvious benefits for Xi himself.
Both Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) and Wang Huning (王沪宁) gave addresses at the opening or close of the July seminar in which they pledged a deep understanding of the significance of the "Two Establishes." First emerging in the wake of the six plenary session of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, held in November 2021, this new four-character phrase essentially 1) establishes Xi Jinping as the unquestionable “core” leader of the CCP, and 2) establishes Xi Jinping’s ideas as the bedrock of the future under what the CCP has termed the “New Era,” a CCP historiography that envisions China as being in the midst of a grand new period of development marking its restoration as a full-fledged global power.
The purpose of the “Two Establishes” is to emphasize the core status of Xi. But what does this language about “deep understanding” mean for the officials taking part in the seminar as the 20th National Congress approaches? We should take note of the fact that the news release on the study seminar bore the topic heading: “Raising high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (高举中国特色社会主义伟大旗帜). Xi Jinping’s speech itself used this phrase as well. But we did not see the appearance in the People’s Daily of the phrase that might further elevate Xi’s status: “Raising high the great banner of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (高举习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想伟大旗帜). Was this, perhaps, a way of managing expectations? Some certainly might read this as a sign that the country’s top three leadership positions — general secretary, president and head of the Central Military Commission — might not be in the hands of a single leader when the smoke clears this fall.
The phrase “Two Establishes” appeared in a total of 42 articles in the People’s Daily in July 2022, of which one-third (14 articles) appeared during the last four days of the month owing to the provincial leaders’ meeting. Aside from these four trends, the July conference of provincial leaders passed positive judgement on China’s Covid-19 response over the past two years, affirming that “integrating economic development and epidemic prevention and control,” has “yielded the best results in the world." This was a resounding affirmation of Xi’s leadership on Covid, which has been the subject of some controversy this year, particularly given the impact on the domestic economy.
July Surprises: Frictional unemployment
On July 15, a spokesperson from China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Fu Linghui (付凌晖), held a press conference about the country’s domestic economy during the first half of the year and said that at the moment the pressures on youth employment remained substantial — and that youth faced the predicament of “frictional unemployment” (摩擦性失业). According to bureau statistics, the level of unemployment among youth aged 16-24 in China’s cities in June was 19.3 percent, a new high from 2018 levels.
“Frictional unemployment” refers to cases in which employees leave a current job to seek new employment and find themselves temporarily without work. However, the idea that one out of five young people in China were unable to find work simply because they were overly discerning and holding out for better opportunities did not compute for many Chinese commenting on the NBS explanation.
The economic downturn over the past three years has led to losses and contraction in tourism, catering, foreign trade, transportation, education, and other industries. Moreover, internet companies, which previously absorbed many of China's younger workers, have been reducing staff. As employment positions have become scarce, many young people have flocked to civil service examinations, hoping to find positions as civil servants in government-run institutions. The rhetoric of frictional unemployment cannot cover up the real dilemma of structural unemployment.
Seek out the epidemic; fight it till it perishes
Also on July 15, Weibo user “Raist,” a writer with well over one million followers, posted that he was in the middle of the Gobi Desert when he came across a propaganda sign that read: “Seek out the epidemic; fight it till it perishes” (疫情就是命令，防控就是责任).
It was back on January 25, 2020, just as China was preparing to more actively address the outbreak in Wuhan, that Xi Jinping said during a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee: “Seek out the epidemic; fight it till it perishes.” Since that time, China’s policy of zero tolerance toward Covid has continued unchanged. On May 5 this year Xi Jinping said at a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee that the policy of “dynamic zero” (动态清零) was to be followed without compromise.
To the cicada, who can but sing summer songs with its ass
On July 15, Xuan Kejiong (宣克炅), a reporter for Shanghai Media Group (SMG), one of China’s largest state-owned media and cultural conglomerates, posted a poem on Weibo called, “To the Cicada” (致知了). At one point the poem mentioned the fact that the cicada emerged from the “nether world” every five years, which some interpreted as a reference to the upcoming National Party Congress.
It’s only every more than five years,
That you emerge from the nether world
And all you can do is use your ass
To sing a song of praise in the summer.
To many, the poem seemed to criticize the propaganda department, and the cyclical nature of campaigns to promote Party leaders. Xuan responded within 30 minutes by deleting the poem from his account, but this did not prevent punishment. The political damage had already been done, and his Weibo account was swiftly suspended.
The Hot and the Cold
About the Scale: According to the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016, based on a historical analysis of keywords appearing in the China Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, we define a six-tier system of discourse intensity based on the total number of appearances of a given discourse term on a per article basis for the full year in the paper. The scale is as follows:
In 2021, CMP adjusted its classification method for CCP discourse, determining the intensity (热度) of Party terminologies according to the absolute number of articles including those terms in the People's Daily newspaper. Previously, CMP used a proportional method, which looked at the number of articles including a particular catchphrase (提法) as a ratio of total articles in the newspaper over a given period. Our monthly classification standard, based on the six-level scale created in 2016, is as follows:
In July, terms in Tier 1 remained unchanged from June, though the number of articles using the term “Covid-19” dropped substantially, reaching a new low for the year. In terms of the number of Covid-19 cases, new local confirmed cases have remained low since late May.
From May to July, “Covid-19” and “epidemic prevention and control” declined in use in the People’s Daily as newly reported cases declined. Whether or not the central Party media have de-emphasized discussion of “epidemic prevention and control” to improve the public opinion environment for the approach of the 20th National Congress will be tested by numbers from August through October.
Two key terms signaling the power of the CCP’s general secretary, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) and “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心) maintained the same Tier 2 level as in June.
Meanwhile, of the five related permutations of Xi’s banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” (习近平强军思想) rose one level to Tier 4, owing to the approach of August 1, the day to celebrate the anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (“PLA Day”), corresponding to the army’s founding during the 1927 Nanchang Uprising. There was also a rise in reporting on various military honors and awards, which became an occasion to promote Xi’s ideas on national defense.
“Xi Jinping Economic Thought,” which has generally lagged the other “Xi Jinping Thought” related phrases, rose two levels in July, leaving the cold to reach the relative warmth of Tier 4. The reason for this was the publication of the official Study Outline for Xi Jinping Economic Thought (习近平经济思想学习纲要), which also occasioned a special commentary series in the People’s Daily advertising Xi’s ideas as “a powerful ideological weapon to lead China's economic development in the new era” (引领新时代中国经济发展的强大思想武器).
The remaining three banner permutations, “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想) and “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想) all held at the same level as June — tiers 3, 4 and tier 5 respectively.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of July 2022 and how they rated on our scale:
Monthly Hot Words: The “Two Establishes”
As mentioned previously, the “Two Establishes” (两个确立), which first emerged in the wake of the six plenary session of the 19th National Congress last November, is an important phrase to watch ahead of the CCP’s 20th National Congress — a signpost measuring Xi Jinping’s unassailability as the Party’s top leader. At base, the phrase is a claim to the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, and a challenge to any who might oppose him. Accordingly, the China Media Project has tracked the use of the phrase at the provincial and municipality level.
In July 2022, the top three provincial-level CCP newspapers in terms of the number of articles using the “Two Establishes” were Tianjin (120 articles), Jiangxi (96 articles), and Fujian (93 articles). For Jiangxi, this was the first top-three appearance in 2022, while for Tianjin it was the fourth time, and for Fujian the second.
The provinces and municipalities using the “Two Establishes” the least in July were Hainan (30 articles), Henan (28 articles), and Shanghai (25 articles). The following map shows the frequency of articles including the phrase “Two Establishes” in provincial-level Party newspapers in July 2022.
The Centrality Index
In July, Xi Jinping appeared in a total of 683 articles in the People’s Daily. This was slightly down for the 713 articles the general secretary recorded in June. But it was still far above his May level of 600, and once again sent him soaring into the upper reaches of Tier 1 (measured as 167 and above), far above the heads of the remaining members of the Politburo Standing Committee.
Premier Li Keqiang came in a very distant second, reaching Tier 3 with a paltry 32 articles. Li has moved between tiers 2, 3 and 4 this year, but has generally stayed in Tier 3 territory, remaining well below Xi.
The three members of the CCP Central Committee who are also serving as Party secretaries of China’s municipalities all logged 0 appearances in the People’s Daily in July. These were Tianjin’s Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠), Shanghai’s Li Qiang (李强), and Chongqing’s Chen Miner (陈敏尔). Another Central Committee member with 0 appearances was Chen Guanguo (陈全国), who in December 2021 was transferred out of his position as the top leader in Xinjiang.
US President Joe Biden appeared in nine articles in the People’s Daily in July 2022, leading the table of foreign leaders in the CCP’s flagship newspaper. During the call between Xi Jinping and Biden on July 28, the focus was on Taiwan. Coverage centered on the key objective of the CCP leadership at the time, which was to prevent the visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as visits to Taiwan by other foreign political figures.
Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, appeared in five articles in July as he expressed his congratulations to Xi Jinping for the hosting of the CCP and World Marxist Political Parties Forum on July 28. Another focus was the 14th meeting of the Steering Committee for Sino-Vietnamese Bilateral Cooperation. The World Marxist Political Parties Forum in particular was an opportunity for the CCP to compile soundbites praising itself for its progressive policies and its leadership of world socialism. Without a single direct quote, one tribute in the China Daily, called "Leaders Laud China's Progress," included gushing comments from several leaders of political parties around the world, from France to Senegal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared in just three articles in July 2022, leaving in the cold the man who back in early February signed a sweeping long-term agreement with China. One of these appearances came in a July 28 report alleging the “illegal plunder of Syria’s oil resources” by the United States, which mentioned three-party talks by Iran, Russia, and Turkey in Tehran. During the first 25 days of August, up to the time this report was compiled, there was just one mention of Putin in the People’s Daily, in an article citing him (and others) for his comments on Pelosi’s Taiwan visit.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been entirely ignored in the People’s Daily through 2022, again had zero appearances for July 2022. Other People’s Daily no-shows included Germany’s Olaf Scholz, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, the UK’s Boris Johnson, outgoing Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
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