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China’s Political Discourse July 2023: Ideologizing Traditional Chinese Culture
Edited by Chu Yang and David L. Bandurski
Since the start of the year, as China has emerged from its extended COVID lockdown, the country has made strenuous efforts to restore diplomatic relations disrupted by the pandemic. July was therefore another eventful month of diplomatic engagements for China, and diplomacy had a central role in the political discourse of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Besides receiving foreign leaders and delegations, China hosted several major international events. The month kicked off in Qingdao with the International Forum for Trilateral Cooperation (IFTC) 2023, an event promoting cooperation between China, Korea, and Japan. The event was co-hosted — fun fact — by the Qingdao city government and the China Public Diplomacy Association (中国公共外交协会), which describes itself as a non-profit social organization but is actually a front for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). This sort of double-dealing, whereby the Party-state creates ostensible civil society organizations to serve as trusted channels for what it calls “people-to-people” relations (see last month’s report), is typical of how China handles events below the national level.
Attending the opening ceremony IFTC 2023, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi (王毅), delivered an address on the forum’s theme: "Revitalizing Trilateral Cooperation in the Post-COVID Era: Communication, Connectivity, and Community.” Wang told those gathered that “Asia's revitalization needs to be fought for by all three parties.” Revitalization, however, was about more than just the trilateral relationship. It spoke to the most urgent agenda of the moment for Chinese diplomacy, which is to get relations back on track.
Beginning With “Old Friends”
One notable trend in the Party-state media in July was the return of the international “old friends,” or laopengyou (老朋友), a designation that has been central to China’s foreign relations since Mao Zedong began in the 1950s labeling certain individuals — those who were not just amiable toward China but solicitous of the Party’s interests — “old friends of the Chinese people” (中国人民的老朋友).
One of the most prominent of China’s “old friends” to return in July was North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, who has been absent from coverage in the People’s Daily for much of 2023. July 11 marked the 62nd anniversary of signing the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation, and Mutual Assistance. Commemorating the occasion, the People’s Daily published a commentary emphasizing “good-neighborliness” that traced the history of the friendship between the two countries and stressed the importance of maintaining friendly relations. It quoted Xi Jinping on the need to “strengthen and develop” bilateral relations, and Kim Jong Un on “the unswerving position of the Party and Government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in handing down the DPRK-China friendship from generation to generation.”
Towards the end of July, CCP Politburo member Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠) led a delegation to Pyongyang to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, the nation’s first guests since the end of the pandemic. Kim pledged, according to Xinhua, to elevate the DPRK-China relations to a "new high." The enthusiastic reporting inside China of the strength of the bilateral relationship came amid deepening tensions between the United States and North Korea, following the regime’s launch in early July of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Security in Focus
Another “old friend” returning to the fold in July was Russia. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, coming right on the heels of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin announcing a “friendship without limits,” China has officially remained mostly muted on the war it refuses to call a war — struggling to avoid the appearance of entanglement and the sanctions that can result. As Yevgeny Prigozhin led his short-lived rebellion back in mid-June, China’s official response was quite cold. Rather than signal support for Putin, a statement from the MFA seemed to turn its back, saying only that the incident was "Russia's internal affair," and blandly emphasizing that China "supports Russia in maintaining national stability."
The apparently cool relations between China and Russia warmed right back up in July, however, as Putin attended the 23rd Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Council of Heads of State, his first multilateral summit since the Prigozhin affair. A series of high-level meetings took place in Beijing, including between Vice-Premier Zhang Guoqing (张国清) and his Russian counterpart, Denis Manturov; between Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu (李尚服) and the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, Nikolai Yevmenov; between Zhao Leji (赵乐际), chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, and Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of Russia’s Federation Council; and between Russian Prosecutor-General Igor Krasnov and Chen Wenqing (陈文清), secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (and former minister of state security). In the breadth of the issues these exchanges covered, dealing with everything from defense to law enforcement, they seemed to send a clear signal about the continued desire for what both sides have called a “friendship without limits.” As China is the only major economy that has maintained a close partnership with Russia, we might anticipate that the two sides will continue to deepen cooperation in critical areas, particularly security and defense.
Security and defense were also two areas in focus as China met with leaders from several other nations in July. These included Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who signed a joint statement on security and defense with China during a visit to Beijing. Related language was also included in a comprehensive strategic partnership signed between China and the Solomon Islands as the country’s prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, visited China. As China and the Solomon Islands signed a cooperation pact on policing back in April this year, language in the pact about security cooperation was a clear point of concern for Australia and New Zealand. The July partnership agreement again prompted concern, pledging that both sides would “deepen law enforcement cooperation.” Sogavare was in fact the most mentioned foreign leader in the People’s Daily in July. For more, see the “Foreign Leaders” section further down.
Central to China’s developing concept of security over the past year has been the so-called Global Security Initiative (GSI), which Xi Jinping first mentioned in April 2022. China finally released its concept paper on the GSI back in February this year, which claimed that the GSI "aims to eliminate the root causes of international conflicts, [and] improve global security governance,” and which doubled down on familiar mainstays of Chinese foreign policy, including the insistence on non-interference in internal affairs as the surest means of “respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.”
Official CCP commentators have referred to the GSI as “a new conceptual framework to understand global security.” Beyond the conceptual smoke screens, the initiative speaks directly to China’s ambition to create a diplomatic and security architecture that provides an alternative to the US-led system. While the GSI remains ill-defined, China clearly views the initiative as the foundation for two complementary initiatives: the Global Development Initiative (GDI), which Xi Jinping proposed during a speech at the UN in September 2021, and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI), announced only in March this year. In July, Xi Jinping used the Heads of State Council Meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — the Eurasian international security and defense organization established jointly by China and Russia in 2001 — to promote all three of these initiatives, likely to remain centerpieces of his third term in office. Emphasizing the foundational role of security, the People’s Daily said in a commentary ahead of the meeting: “Security is a prerequisite for development, and peace and stability are the will of the people.”
The same piece made clear how the SCO is part of China’s vision of how the new global security architecture it imagines can be realized in practice. During last year’s meeting in Uzbekistan, the paper said:
President Xi Jinping profoundly elaborated on the significance of the Global Security Initiative, advocated that all countries uphold a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable concept of security, and [he] promoted the construction of a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture, thus clarifying his thinking on the maintenance of long-term peace and stability in the region and the expansion of security cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Held virtually, this year’s SCO meeting received strong coverage from the People’s Daily, appearing in 32 articles for the month. Apart from summaries of the event, there were three official commentaries attributed to “He Yin” (和音), a penname used since November 2019 for commentaries that express an authoritative central leadership view on international affairs. The “He Yin” commentaries on the SCO included: “Strengthening Solidarity and Cooperation for Peaceful Development” (巩固团结合作 促进和平发展), “Promoting the Development of SCO in the Broader Context of Shared Human Development” (在人类共同发展宏大格局中推进上合组织发展), and “Striving to Fulfil the Aspirations of All Peoples for a Better Life” (努力实现各国人民对美好生活的向往).
While hard power issues of defense and security were front and center in July, the question of soft power was always close behind. For our focus topic in this report, we look in particular at China’s efforts to manufacture soft power and legitimacy through an emphasis on traditional Chinese culture in Xi Jinping’s third term that even surpasses related language from the start of his first term.
Focus Topic: “Chinese Culture” and “Chinese Civilization”
In recent months, the use of the terms “Chinese culture” (中华文化) and “Chinese civilization” (中华文明), as well as related terms such as “relics” and “archaeology,” has increased significantly in the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily — a clear reflection of how the leadership is turning to the past as a source of legitimacy in the present. In June, ahead of the CCP’s July 1 anniversary, articles referencing “Chinese culture” rocketed to 112, while those mentioning “Chinese civilization” reached 115. In July, the numbers remained high, with 85 articles for “Chinese culture” and 109 for “Chinese civilization,” putting both in Tier 2 of the CMP discourse scale alongside typically strong terms like “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心). Numbers for both terms this summer have been roughly double what they were during the first five months of the year.
On July 1, 2021, in his speech at the ceremony marking the centenary of the CCP, Xi Jinping first introduced the idea that the direction of China’s development of culture, or civilization, was toward a combination of Sinicized Marxism and time-honored tradition: “We must continue to adapt the basic tenets of Marxism to China’s concrete realities and its fine traditional culture,” he said. This was later summarized as “Two Adaptations” (两个结合), giving birth to yet another specialized CCP terminology. Finally, in his political report to the 20th National Congress of the CCP in November last year, Xi more systematically addressed the compatibility of Marxism and traditional Chinese culture, which he elaborated into the idea of a unique new civilizational form — an act of creation for which the CCP in the New Era, and of course, Xi himself, were to get full credit.
“What makes our socialism different? Why can it be vibrant and dynamic?” Xi asked. “The key lies in Chinese characteristics, and the key to Chinese characteristics lies in the 'two adaptations.'” He then laid out a series of values from traditional Chinese culture that he said had “a high degree of compatibility with scientific socialism.” These were:
"the people as the foundation of the state" (民为邦本)
"governance based on virtue" (为政以德)
"reforming the old and introducing the new" (革故鼎新)
"appointing people on the basis of merit" (任人唯贤)
"unity of nature and mankind" (天人合一)
"continuous self-improvement" (自强不息)
"bearing great responsibilities with virtue" (厚德载物)
"preaching faith and cultivating friendship" (讲信修睦)
"being kind to one's neighbors" (亲仁善邻)
“It is only through mutual compatibility that [these values] can be organically adapted,” Xi said, suggesting that these traditional Chinese values were echoed in the tenets of socialism. All of these values were pushed strongly in June at a CCP colloquium on cultural inheritance and development, with a headline in the People’s Daily emphasizing that the Party was “undertaking a new cultural mission, working toward the building of a modern civilization of the Chinese nation.”
The rise in occurrence of both “Chinese culture” and “Chinese civilization” in June continued into July. Together, they are part of an intentional push by the CCP since the 20th National Congress to capitalize on traditional Chinese culture as a source of renewed legitimacy, fusing traditions (or at least a selective notion of them) with a glorified sense of Sinicized Marxism. The result is what is now being sold to the Chinese as an inspirational and — for the purposes of foreign policy — globally inspiring “new form of human civilization” (人类文明新形势).
It is interesting to note how this effort has also driven a rise in the use of the word “archaeology" in the state-run media. The word, which has risen over successive months in the People’s Daily, appeared in a total of 55 articles in July. This included a front-page story in the July 31 edition called, “The Story of General Secretary Xi Jinping's Concern for Archaeology” (习近平总书记关心考古的故事). In this article as well as in earlier ones, archaeology as a discipline serves to unearth a deeper human and cultural history that becomes a rhetorical resource for civilizational greatness. Visiting the Yuncheng Museum in Shanxi back in May, Xi Jinping said as much as he marveled at the treasures on display. “The museum has a lot of valuable cultural relics and even ‘national treasures,’ which confirm our country's human history of millions of years, its cultural history of 10,000 years, and its civilization of more than 5,000 years,” said Xi. “We must engage profoundly in the project of exploring Chinese civilization, and take the study of the history of China's civilization to a deeper level.”
The front page of the July 8 edition of the People’s Daily dedicated an entire page to Xi Jinping’s inspection trip to Jiangsu, with an image from his tour of Suzhou’s Pingjiang Historical and Cultural District. Strikingly similar, the paper’s July 30 edition reported on Xi’s trip to Sichuan, where again the emphasis was on culture. The photo at left showed the general secretary visiting the Cuiyun Corridor in the city of Guangyuan, an ancient scenic area, while the photo at right showed him visiting the city’s Sanxingdui Museum of Cultural Relic Protection and Restoration.
Also in July, the People's Daily ran a special five-article series called “International Perspectives on Distinctive Features of Chinese Civilization.” The articles handpicked quotes from foreign politicians, experts, and scholars that seemed to endorse Xi Jinping’s statements about Chinese civilization:
July 17, 2023, "Understanding China from the Perspective of a Long Historical Continuity " (从源远流长的历史连续性来认识中国)
July 18, 2023, "Continuously Forging New Splendor for Chinese Culture " (不断铸就中华文化新辉煌)
July 21, 2023, "Gathering the Magnificent Power of the Community of the Chinese Nation " (汇聚起中华民族共同体的磅礴伟力)
July 22, 2023, “Chinese Civilization Has Always Been Reinvigorated By Eclecticism.” (中华文明始终在兼收并蓄中历久弥新)
July 25, 2023, " Unswervingly Pursuing the Path of Peaceful Development " (坚定不移走和平发展道路)
These articles were essentially laundry lists of fawning quotes from foreign experts, betraying a long-held obsession in the Party-state media with the authority of foreign voices. In the July 17 article, for example, Canadian scholar Roger T. Ames was quoted as saying, in what seemed an unmistakable consecration of Xi Jinping as the inheritor of a continued line: “There is a continuity between ancient China and contemporary China. The values, lifestyles, and ways of thinking embedded in the excellent traditional Chinese culture are still vibrant in modern China.”
Given Xi Jinping’s repeated mention of the need for “cultural confidence,” or wenhua zixin (文化自信), this reliance on foreign voices to validate the CCP’s ambition to root its legitimacy in “Chinese civilization” might to some come across as deeply ironic.
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July Surprises: “Asians Can Never Become Westerners”
On July 3rd, as Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, sought to get diplomacy back on track at the International Forum for Trilateral Cooperation (IFTC) 2023, he raised eyebrows by appealing to the shared Asianness of China, Korea, and Japan. During a speech explaining the need for joint efforts to protect, promote and achieve Asia's peace, prosperity and revitalization, Wang said:
Americans take all visitors from China, South Korea, and Japan as Asians. They cannot tell the differences and it’s the same in Europe. No matter how yellow you dye your hair, or how sharp you make your nose, you’ll never turn into a European or American, you’ll never turn into a Westerner. One needs to know where the root is. China, Japan, Korea — if we can join hands and cooperate, it would not only suit the interests of our three countries but also the wishes of our peoples, and together we can prosper, revitalize East Asia, and enrich the world.”
Wang’s racially tinged remarks in particular were shared by state media across video platforms in China. The most popular quotes shared and emphasized in visual representations of the speech, like that below, were the lines about yellow hair and pointy noses, and about the need to recognize Asian roots.
For some experts on East Asian history, Wang Yi’s remarks were uncomfortably reminiscent of Japan’s 20th-century notion of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” the concept during World War II by which the empire envisioned a unified bloc under its own hegemonic control, and for which the slogan was “Asia for Asians.”
For Chinese high school students who sat for their college entrance exams earlier in the summer, late June and early July was crunch time for preparing college applications — and also a time for hopeful students to reflect on the regional inequalities present in China’s higher education system. One topic that caught fire on June 27, blazing into July, was the high proportion of stellar testers from four provinces: Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, and Hebei, which have been referred to collectively as the “four provinces of Shan and He” (山河四省).
High populations of top testers in these provinces, combined with the problem of insufficient resources and places in higher education, have resulted in quotas limiting college admissions from these areas. One post to Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok, responded to this problem with a tongue-in-cheek proposal. If the 3.43 million high school graduates from the “four provinces of Shan and He” were to join forces, each student contributing just 1,000 yuan, it might be possible to construct an entirely new university as the juncture of all four provinces, with an initial capital of more than 30 billion yuan.
The post pointed out that this new super university would be conveniently located for all, and of course, it would have its pick of top students. “Let’s strive to surpass Tsinghua and Peking U within one year,” said the post, referring to China’s top-ranked universities.
By July 2, the novel idea had gone viral, and thousands made their own creative contributions. The new institution was dubbed “Shanhe University” (山河大学), and it spawned the creation of numerous related chat groups. Meanwhile, university logos, mottos, campus maps, and even a website were created.
According to a report from the Beijing Youth Daily, a paper published by the Beijing chapter of the Chinese Communist Youth League, one “Shanhe University” chat group had around 2,000 members, and a related video account run by the group’s founder had gathered more than 45,000 followers by July 7.
During the first week of July, the authorities seemed keen to restrain the organic development of the topic online and on social media. Topics including "Shanhe University," for example, were removed from Zhihu (知乎), a question-and-answer forum similar to Quora. Related chat groups were forcibly shut down, and the hashtag “#Shanhe University#” was also suspended.
But this did not mean that the topic was to be entirely suppressed. In fact, quite the opposite, state media widely reported the “Shanhe University” phenomenon. They included the People’s Daily, China Daily, and the nationalist tabloid the Global Times. On July 6, the country’s minister of education, Wu Yan (吴岩), officially responded during a press conference that his ministry had noted public concerns and would continue to optimize (优化) the distribution of higher education resources.
The suppression of social media chatter on the one hand, and the active promotion of official state responses on the other, including that of the Ministry of Education, is a classic example of the CCP media control approach called “public opinion channeling,” or yulun yindao (舆论引导), first emphasized at the highest levels 15 years ago during then-president Hu Jintao’s first major policy speech on the media and public opinion.
The basic objective of “public opinion channeling,” then as now, is to combine active controls with active promotion of sanctioned Party-state narratives, seeking to direct conversation in ways favorable to the leadership. The policy was born out of the CCP’s recognition that it was no longer possible in the internet age to simply suppress breaking news stories and trending topics, which would result in information vacuums that further fed public appetites. Within two years of Hu’s 2008 speech, as a new generation of microblogs including Weibo became popular, this was truer than ever.
The culmination of the state process of re-directing the agenda on “Shanhe University” came on July 7, as People’s Daily Online, the site affiliated with the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily, posted a commentary called
“The Fictional ‘Shanhe University’ Reflects Real Problems” (虚构的“山河大学”反映的问题真真切切). The piece agreed that more university spaces were necessary, but took issue with the solution afforded by the fictional university: “Obviously, promoting the emergence of more distinctive higher education institutions in each of the four provinces . . . . would be a far better approach than a single comprehensive ’Shanhe University,’ and only this [solution] would truly satisfy the people’s expectation for attending university,” it said.
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:
The key terms appearing at the top of the CMP scale remained largely unchanged in July compared to the previous month. All June terms remained in Tier 1 in July with the exception of “since the 18th CCP National Congress” (十八大以来), which dropped to Tier 2. References to the 18th Congress are likely to continue falling back against the newcomer on the block, the “20th CCP National Congress” (二十大), which marks the start of Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term. Also remaining at the top of the CMP scale in Tier 1 in July was “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), Xi’s lengthy banner phrase (旗帜语) meant to define his political legacy.
One term to note in Tier 2 for July was “national security” (国家安全), which dropped down one level in our June report. The term shot right back up in July with twice as many mentions as in the previous month. This was likely due to two factors: 1) coverage of military, anti-espionage, and cyber security policies undertaken by the leadership; and 2) accusations from China that the United States is using national security justifications to erect barriers to bilateral trade. New additions to Tier 2 in July included “matters of national importance” (国之大者) and the “Four Confidences” (四个自信). These seemed to rise on the back of greater emphasis during the month on so-called “party building” (党的建设) — which refers broadly to various activities and initiatives within the CCP aimed at self-improvement, including political education and anti-corruption.
The phrase “common prosperity” (共同富裕), whose use soared back in 2021 when Xi Jinping made it the center of a new campaign to curtail excessive wealth, crack down on monopoly behavior, and address income inequality, dropped down to Tier 3 in July. The phrase might be expected to slip in the current climate of economic uncertainty and sagging confidence, as questions of economic fairness fade in relation to the urgency of economic recovery.
In other discourse moves on the economic front, “new development stage” (新发展阶段), one of Xi Jinping’s key catchphrases for economic policy, was boosted significantly in July, with triple the number of mentions from June — moving it up one level to Tier 4. The phrase, which is more about political salesmanship than substantive economic policies or measures, has long been used to suggest that Xi Jinping has a uniquely strategic grasp of domestic and international affairs that informs his work plotting China’s course forward. “Since the 18th National Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping has highly prioritized maintaining strategic resolve,” said a related official commentary in May 2021 penned by the theory and propaganda department of the People’s Daily.
The sharp rise in the use of the term in July suggested an interest in signaling economic policymaking resolve within the Party. However, it is interesting to note that other economic phrases dealing more directly with substance eased up only marginally, despite the growing urgency of China’s economic situation. For example, “downward pressure” (下行压力), the term used to describe the move from a growth trend to a declining economic trend in terms of such measures as GDP and CPI — which could hardly be more appropriate during an economically lackluster July — rose out of the ice cold of Tier 6 into an only slightly warmer Tier 5. Several of the key terms dealing with strategic responses also underperformed, including “deepening reform and opening” (深化改革开放), “financial risk” (金融风险), and “stabilizing expectations” (稳预期), all of which fell down into Tier 6 from June’s Tier 5.
As was the case in June, the various permutations of Xi Jinping’s banner phrase for specific policy areas continued to underperform in July. Not surprisingly, “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” (习近平经济思想) languished down at the bottom in Tier 6, with just three mentions for the month. This is undeniably not the time for the general secretary to hitch his political star to the wagon of economic performance. The weakest of the Xi banner permutations in July, however, remained “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想). The phrase was not mentioned even once, and while it has rarely performed strongly among the others, it is impossible not to think of the turmoil brewing within China’s foreign policy establishment in July, as the foreign minister, Qin Gang (秦刚), remained unaccountably absent until his replacement late in the month by his predecessor, Wang Yi.
Xi’s catchphrase for environmental policy and sustainable development, “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), remained in Tier 3 with 31 mentions, nearly level with June. “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想) was also largely unchanged in Tier 4. “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” (习近平强军思想), the general secretary’s signature national security phrase, was boosted notably in July after a weak showing in June. This was due to the increase in coverage of military and national security on the eve of “PLA Day” on August 1. The phrase moved up two levels to Tier 4.
The “Two Establishes” (两个确立), since late 2021 a crucial phrase signaling the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, remained in Tier 2 in July, as did the “Two Safeguards” (两个维护), which is similar in meaning. The first phrase refers to 1) the establishment of Xi as the “core” of the CCP leadership, and 2) the establishment of Xi’s ideas (his banner phrase, in other words) as the leading thought of the Party. The second phrase refers to the need to protect 1) Xi’s “core” status and 2) the authority and centralized leadership of the Party.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of June 2023 and how they rated on our scale:
The Centrality Index
Xi Jinping was mentioned in 690 articles in the People’s Daily in July 2023, a slight increase from the previous month. This placed him at the top of the CMP scale in Tier 1, where he has held strong for well over two years. He was far and away the most mentioned leader in the CCP’s Central Committee. Generally, over the past two years, Tier 2 has remained vacant, a visual expression of the huge gap separating Xi Jinping from the remaining members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). This principle held fast for July, but Wang Yi (王毅), China’s top diplomat as director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, fell only slightly short of Tier 2, with 40 mentions in total for the month.
Two of Wang Yi’s mentions were related to his appointment on July 25 to replace Qin Gang as foreign minister, the official Xinhua News Agency release (通稿) explaining nothing about the circumstances of Wang’s reappointment or Qin’s removal. The vast majority of Wang’s other mentions dealt with the
twelve diplomatic engagements for which he accompanied Xi Jinping, and six events he attended on his own. He made official visits to five countries during the month and spoke with leaders and delegations from ten countries as well as the United Nations.
Wang’s strong performance in the People’s Daily in July, which makes for a fifth consecutive month of prominence in the newspaper, could be seen to reflect the central importance for the CCP leadership of getting diplomatic relations back on track in the post-pandemic era. Among the events on his July calendar, Wang attended the 13th Meeting of BRICS National Security Advisers and High Representatives on National Security, where he emphasized (ahead of Xi's August Johannesburg visit) that BRICS remained "an important platform for emerging markets and developing countries to seek strength through solidarity.” The theme of the BRICS security meeting was cybersecurity, which Wang said in his speech was “becoming a challenge for developing countries." In a thinly-veiled remark directed at the United States, Wang said in a bewildering mix of metaphors that cyberspace should be a "grand stage" for the blossoming of all kinds of flowers, rather than a "new battlefield" for a “Digital Iron Curtain.” Wang used the Johannesburg occasion also for visits to Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Turkey.
Premier Li Qiang (李强) followed Wang Yi’s lead in Tier 3 with 34 mentions. Li’s solid presence was due to a busy run of engagements in domestic affairs as well as diplomacy. On top of routine government matters, Li hosted a meeting with experts on the domestic economy, which was reported on the front page of the People’s Daily on July 7. The general assessment emerging from Li’s meeting was that "under the complicated and severe external environment, China's economy has continued to rebound and improve, showing great growth resilience." One week later, on July 12, the premier hosted another meeting with leaders of digital platforms. The meeting was given front-page positioning in the People’s Daily the next day, with emphasis on technology innovation as a driver of growth in the real economy. Li Qiang was also quoted as saying that platforms should fulfill their “social responsibilities,” playing an active role in tackling unemployment, improving social well-being, and engaging in international competition.
Vice-Premier Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥), and Cai Qi (蔡奇), secretary of the CCP Secretariat, both made the bottom end of Tier 3, with 19 and 17 mentions respectively, just barely making it out of Tier 4. They were mentioned mostly as accompanying Xi Jinping in attending various state meetings and diplomatic events.
All foreign leaders in July 2023 were arrayed across Tiers 4-6. Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, led the pack with 14 mentions in the People’s Daily related to his visit to China from July 9-15. While in Beijing, Sogavare met with Xi Jinping, Li Qiang, and Zhao Leji, all three exchanges making the front page of the newspaper the following day. Coverage of Sogavare made of point of mentioning his decision in September 2019, at the start of his fourth term as prime minister of the Solomon Islands, to switch the country’s diplomatic relations to the PRC from Taiwan — a victory for China’s efforts to establish a stronger presence in the South Pacific.
Among nine pacts signed during Sogavare’s visit was a policing deal that prompted concern in Australia, which has a longstanding police presence in the Solomon Islands. On July 11, Australia voiced its concerns over China’s growing police presence in the country, and urged both countries to “provide transparency of their intentions to Australia and the region.” Sogavare responded to this fallout by accusing Australia of pulling budget support, leading to his decision to turn to China, accusations Australia flatly denied. In state media coverage, China clearly treated Sogavare’s comments as a diplomatic victory, an opportunity to highlight what one of two related official “He Yin” (和音) commentaries in the People’s Daily called China’s “full respect for the sovereignty and independence of the island countries and adherence to the equality of all countries, large and small.”
Typical of China’s narrative construction in such cases is the depiction of itself as a proponent of “friendly policies” (友好政策), as opposed to the supposedly interventionist and disrespectful approaches of Western countries. Australia has since responded to China’s growing engagement in the region by bolstering its police presence in the Solomon Islands.
Also noteworthy in July, the performance of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the People’s Daily was boosted significantly, moving up two levels to Tier 4. At the beginning of the month, Putin delivered a virtual address to the 23rd Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Council of Heads of State, his first multilateral summit since Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin's short-lived rebellion in late June. In his address, Putin assured his Asian partners that Russia remained strong and unified. About half of Putin’s 10 per-article mentions in July were associated with visits to Beijing by Russian Prosecutor-General Igor Krasnov and Valentina Matviyenko, Chairwoman of the Federation Council — with discussions centering on bilateral cooperation on law enforcement and legislative matters.
Joining Putin in Tier 4 was Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, also with 10 mentions. Mentions of the former military commander dealt mostly with his party’s declared victory in Cambodia’s 2023 general elections, which took place on July 23. Xi Jinping sent Hun Sen a congratulatory message that made the front page of the People’s Daily on July 26. July also marked the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Cambodia, which resulted in three mentions of Hun Sen.
Just inching into Tier 4 in July, each with 8 mentions, were Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Sharif was mentioned for his attendance at the SCO meeting and the Forum on Global Action for Shared Development, while Widodo met with Xi Jinping ahead of his attendance at the Summer World University Games. For the Algerian president, July brought his first state visit to China since entering office in December 2019, just weeks before the pandemic struck. During his visit, Tebboune met with Xi Jinping and several other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, and the two sides signed a joint statement in which they “emphasized the importance of close political and security cooperation,” and pledged to deepen the economic partnership. Security, national defense and counter-terrorism were areas of particular focus, showing China's ambition to have greater influence in Africa and the Middle East. In the statement, China also pledged to support Algeria in its bid to become a member of BRICS.
French President Emmanuel Macron was mentioned in 6 articles, placing him in Tier 5. Two of these touched on riots triggered in late June by the fatal shooting by police of a 17-year-old youth in a Paris suburb. Also reported in the People’s Daily, and widely mentioned in other state media, was Macron’s blocking of a planned NATO outpost in Japan on the grounds of maintaining Europe’s “strategic autonomy,” which followed China’s strong objections. “Macron has repeatedly emphasized that building strategic autonomy is essential to prevent European countries from becoming vassals,” one People’s Daily commentary said.
US President Joe Biden was mentioned 4 times in July — though his appearances were not, as typical in recent months, in purely negative contexts. All of Biden’s mentions were neutral or indifferent. He was only briefly mentioned in coverage of visits to Beijing by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visits with various Chinese leaders, including Wang Yi in Jakarta.
All other world leaders appearing in July in the People’s Daily were mentioned 3 or fewer times, including North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who appeared late in the month in commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. To mark the occasion, Politburo member Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠) made an official visit to Pyongyang, the first guest from any country received by the reclusive state since the pandemic began in early 2020.
In keeping with its generally understated treatment of the war in Ukraine — which it still calls a “special military operation” after Putin’s rhetorical preference, or otherwise a “crisis” — the CCP’s flagship newspaper once again left out any mention of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
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