China’s Political Discourse June 2021: Prelude to the Centennial

By China Media Project

In June 2021, as the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) approached and planned news and propaganda events went into full gear, there was a corresponding general rise in the intensity of mainstream official discourse as measured by per-article usage, so that 14 terms in our tiered table of terminologies joined the top three tiers of the CMP Discourse Scale (reflecting their increased usage), and 15 terms emerged from the bottom tier (Tier 6). 

One major highlight in official discourse for the month was the publication by the People’s Daily, just on the cusp of the anniversary, of an official chronicle of the Party’s history (党史大事记) running to close to 100,000 characters in length. The chronicle, published in successive editions of the paper, offered ample opportunity for comparison with the previous such account, released ten years ago for the CCP’s 90th anniversary. Generally speaking, the centennial edition of the chronicle was more grandiose in tone, and far more politically correct (政治正确), meaning in this context that extra special care was taken to ensure that it conformed with current political preferences, showcasing the greatness and correctness of the CCP and its actions. 

As CMP noted in a July 6 analysis, to cite just one example of the changes between editions of the chronicle, China’s signing on October 5, 1998, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a key part of the International Bill of Human Rights, was present in the 2011 chronicle but removed this year. This should be taken as a sign of the general sensitivity of human rights related language under the current political climate. 

We deal with the question of CCP history as this month’s Focus Topic. But first, on to our analysis. 

The Hot and the Cold

About the CMP Discourse Scale:

According to the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016, based on a historical analysis of keywords appearing in the China Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, we define a six-tier system of discourse intensity based on the total number of appearances of a given discourse term on a per article basis for the full year in the paper. The scale is as follows:

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

In June 2021, there was a general increase in the number of slogans in top-tier positions, with 4 slogans joining Tier 1, 2 slogans joining Tier 2, and 8 joining Tier 3. Meanwhile, 15 slogans previously in Tier 6, our “cold” category (with just 0-3 mentions for the month), rose into tiers 5 or higher. 

In Tier 1, the most intensely used political terms, terms that have been consistently at this level in 2021, including “pneumonia” (肺炎), “epidemic prevention and control” (疫情防控) and “poverty alleviation” (脱贫攻坚), were joined by previously Tier 2 slogans such as “comprehensively building a modern socialist nation” (全面建设社会主义现代化国家). 

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


The Litmus List

Among the nine keywords on our Litmus List, a group including seven terms synonymous with past leadership and two generally indicating discussion of political reform, the banner terms of the past three generations of Chinese leaders – sometimes referred to collectively in Chinese with the shorthand deng san ke (邓三科) – rose from Tier 5 in May to Tier 4 in June, primarily due to their increased use in the CCP’s commemoration of Party history through the abovementioned chronicle covering the period from July 1921 to June 2021. 

Particularly notable given the general rise in key discourse terms as previously noted is the fact that “inner-party democracy” (党内民主) and “political system reforms” (政治体制改革), both associated with interest in more consultative forms of governance, remained at the bottom in Tier 6. “Political system reforms,” now a relatively sensitive term associated with more earnest discussion of more democratic reforms in the 1980s and directed historically at the problem of abuse of power in China, did in fact appear in the 2011 chronicle of CCP history. An item for August 18, 1980, noted Deng Xiaoping’s speech to the Central Committee on reform of the leadership system, which “became a programmatic document guiding the reform of our political system.” The term “political system reform” was nowhere to be seen in June this year. 

Also remaining in the cold Tier 6 category was Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” (和谐社会). 

The Centrality Index

Not surprisingly, Xi Jinping maintain his commanding lead among official in the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee, being again the only leader in Tier 1, with a total of 642 articles in the People’s Daily in June mentioning his name. No leaders in the Central Committee appeared in Tier 2 once again, reinforcing the gap between Xi and the rest of the field. 

Standing Committee, with Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Chen and Hu Chunhua all in Tier 3. 


Regional Rankings

In June, driven by the news of personnel adjustments in Shanxi and Henan provinces, Lou Yangsheng (楼阳生) and Lin Wu (林武) jumped to the top of the regional leaders table based on People's Daily coverage. According to the People's Daily, Lou Yangsheng was appointed as CCP secretary of Henan province, and Lin Wu replaced him as CCP secretary of Shanxi province. Meanwhile, Wang Guosheng (王国生), replaced by Lou Yangsheng in Henan, was appointed deputy director of the Social Construction Committee of the NPC. 

Appearing in three articles for the month, Beijing CCP Secretary Cai Qi (蔡奇), Shanghai CCP Secretary Li Qiang (李强) and Shaanxi CCP Secretary Liu Guozhong (刘国中) appeared together in the second position on the roster owing to their mention as attending events related to the centennial. 

Among these leaders, Li Qiang appeared as he received and accompanied the heads of various democratic parties – the eight minor parties under the one-party state allowed to play a mostly ceremonial role – and representatives from non-party [organizations] as they visited Shanghai and Jiaxing in neighboring Zhejiang province for study tours. In particular, Li delivered a speech for the special dialogue session in Shanghai (as the founding place of the CCP) called "The Story of the Chinese Communist Party: Practicing Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era" (中国共产党的故事——习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想在上海的实践). The event clearly highlighted Xi Jinping's so-called banner term, or qizhiyu (旗帜语), the legacy phrase introduced in 2017 that has gotten a great deal of attention in early July 2021 with the establishment of several new study centers – a trend to watch between now and next month’s report as there may be increased moves to shorten Xi’s banner into the potent five-character phrase “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想). 

Cai Qi attended the opening ceremony of a historical exhibition in the capital called "Remaining True to Our Original Aspiration, Keeping Our Mission Firmly in Mind" (不忘初心、牢记使命), this being a phrase introduced around the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017 to promote education in the Party’s history and mission. The Beijing leader also accompanied Xi Jinping in attending the grandiose mass cultural performance called “The Great Journey” (伟大征程) on June 28 to commemorate the centennial. 

For those wondering why the CCP Secretary of Shaanxi would rank alongside the secretaries of Beijing and Shanghai at such a time, Liu Guozhong's relatively strong performance on the roster of leaders owes to a series of articles published by the People's Daily called "100-Year Road of Struggle, Setting Off on a New Journey" (奋斗百年路 启航新征程). One article in this series was written by Liu Guozhong himself, and another mentioned his name. In addition, the Central Propaganda Department held a press conference to introduce Shaanxi and promote the so-called "spirit of Yan'an" (延安精神), and in this context Liu Guozhong talked about the use of "red resources" (红色资源) to carry out education in CCP history. Liu said that Shaanxi would go further in telling the story of Xi Jinping in Liangjiahe, the “barren mountain village” in Shaanxi where Xi worked at the grassroots as a young Party chief and, according to the growing legend of the man, began his poverty alleviation work. This was an important act of biaotai (表态), or loyalty signaling, ahead of the anniversary, and possibly a preview of similar acts from regional leaders we can expect in the coming months, as leaders show their willingness to support Xi in the coming decades. 

Foreign Leaders

In June, only Russian President Vladimir Putin came in with a relatively strong Tier 4 rating. All other foreign heads of state, including US President Joe Biden, were down in Tier 6, in the “cold” zone. 

Putin appeared in a total of nine articles for the month, dealing with Sino-Russian cooperation on nuclear energy, on Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty of the Open Skies (OST), following the US, and a video meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping affirming the “unwavering strategic partnership” between China and Russia. 

The sole article in the People’s Daily mentioning President Biden in June was a page 16 article on June 4 relaying reports in international media alleging that Denmark's Defense Intelligence Service (FE) collaborated with the US National Security Agency (NSA) from 2012 to 2014 to collect information on European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both Macron and Merkel were mentioned in the same report, which concluded: “US President Joe Biden plans in mid-June to begin his first trip to Europe since his inauguration, and rebuilding transatlantic mutual trust and cooperation is one of his key objectives. Analysis in the European media suggests that the exposure of this ‘wiretapping scandal’ (监听门) casts a shadow over Biden's visit to Europe, and creates difficulties and uncertainties for ongoing negotiations between the two sides over a pact for transatlantic data transfers and other matters.” 

Foreign Countries

In June, the top countries in terms of per-article mentions in the People’s Daily were the United States, Great Britain, France, Japan and Germany, all ranking in Tier 2, the last two countries making a return to Tier 2 after Tier 3 performances in May. India dropped from Tier 3 to Tier 4, the pandemic situation in India figuring less strongly in coverage in June. 

The abovementioned chronicle of CCP history for the centennial accounted for a number of mentions of foreign countries in June, with mentions of the United States, for example, as Chinese delegates attended the signing of the UN charter in San Francisco in 1945, Zhou Enlai met with General Marshall with Chiang Kai-shek in 1946, and Mao Zedong penned his criticisms of American imperialism in 1949, and so on. But the United States was also singled out for attacks in the People’s Daily over issues such as the closure of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, as US criticisms prompted a rebuttal on June 27 from “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), a pen name used for important pieces on international affairs in the Party’s flagship newspaper on which the leadership wishes to register its view. The piece said: “The freedom to oppose morality and the law does not exist in the world. Certain politicians from a few Western countries repeatedly make remarks on the Apple Daily issue, revealing the essence of their double standards and their lack of accurate knowledge and basic grasp of reality and the general situation, and even more so their sinister intentions.”

Certain foreign voices, such artists on a junket to Xinjiang, were used to counter criticism of China’s human rights record. Here, for example, is a quote in the paper from an artist identified only by her first name: “Rachel, an American artist, said, ‘It was a wonderful experience to visit the homes of the local residents and to be treated with such hospitality."

A number of Western countries, including the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland, were mentioned in this June 25 article praising China’s actions on human rights over the past century, and mentioning the country’s engagement through human rights dialogues. It is worth noting, however, the one of the most conspicuous omissions from the 2021 chronicle of CCP history was the 2004 inclusion of the language “the state respects and protects human rights” in China’s Constitution, part of the CCP’s historical timeline in 2011. 

Focus Topic:  Party History Must Be Surnamed Party

The compilation of an official chronicle of the Party’s history (大事记) has become an important part of the commemoration of CCP anniversaries. On June 29, the WeChat public account "Political Matters" (“政知事”) published a post called "The Centennial of the CCP's Founding: Major Revisions to the Historical Chronology" (建党百年|党史大事记大幅修改). The post compared the text of the chronicles for the 90th and 100th anniversaries, noting substantial revisions dealing with such events as the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The 2021 version, for example, omits the statement that the May 16 Notice was formulated under the auspices of Mao Zedong and that the Cultural Revolution lasted for 10 years and caused the most serious setback and loss to the Party, the country and the people since the founding of New China. The public account article is guarded in its analysis, presenting only several points of difference and leaving it up to the reader to interpret and make up their own mind as to the reasons and implications of such changes.

Worthy of note, however, is that fact that a number of once familiar keywords have completely disappeared from the 2021 chronicle of CCP history. For example, the phrase “political system reforms” (政治体制改革) is entirely gone from the chronicle, while other important reforms after the start of economic reform and opening, including “economic system reforms” (经济体制改革), “science and technology system reforms” (科学技术体制改革), “educational system reforms” (教育体制改革), “financial system reforms” (教育体制改革), “foreign trade system reforms” (外贸易体制改革) and so on remain in the 2021 version.

From this disappearance we can glean not just that the agenda of "political system reform," mentioned by various leaders through the years, including for example former Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) with some prominence in 2009-2010, has reached its end, but that the very concept of political reform has been nullified historically. The disappearance of terminologies like "inner-party democracy" (党内民主), "constitution-based governance" (依宪治国) and “ruling according to the constitution” (依宪执政) suggest a much deeper aversion in the drafting of the 2021 chronicle to any concepts that suggest the necessity of change to the political system that limits in any way the power of the Party, and particularly of the central leadership.  

“Constitution-based governance” and “ruling according to the constitution” are two expressions coined by Xi Jinping when he first came to power in 2012. Commemorating the 30th anniversary of China’s constitution on December 4, 2012, Xi stated: “Governing according to the law first means constitution-based governance; and the crux of governing according to the law is governing in accord with the constitution” (依法治国,首先是依宪治国;依法执政,关键是依宪执政). These phrases have had an up-and-down history ever since. In the first half of 2014, they were removed from a Central Propaganda Department compilation called Collection of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Important Speeches. Finally, in September 2014, as Xi commemorated the 60th anniversary of the National People’s Congress, he used the two slogans again. Through to the 19th National Congress in October 2017, however, the slogans rarely appeared in the People’s Daily. Xi’s political report to the congress referred to “constitutional supremacy,” and even referred to the promotion of “constitutional review.” But there was no mention of “constitution-based governance.” 

CCP leaders apparently hope to put to rest the expectations some might have, both inside and outside the Party, that talk of “constitution-based governance” might translate into moves toward real “constitutionalism” in China. The goal, very possibly, is to cool off expectations for political reform, and hinder any limitation on political power or checks and balances. This is in direct opposition to the principle that guided Deng’s notion of political reform in the 1980s, the need to avoid “over-centralization of authority.”

Other references or official terminologies (提法) that have disappeared from the chronicle include: "revisionism" (修正主义), "anti-revisionism" (反修), "natural disasters" (自然灾害), "Wang Hongwen" (王洪文), "Zhang Chunqiao" (张春桥), "Jiang Qing" (江青), "Yao Wenyuan" (姚文元), and so on. These last four are of course the members of the infamous Gang of Four (四人帮), the political faction that rose to power during the Cultural Revolution. It is not exactly clear why the creators of the 2021 chronicle chose to remove the actual names of the Gang of Four members, but none appear at any point in the history. Jiang Qing and Wang Hongwen were both mentioned four times in the 2011 chronicle of CCP history in relation to the Gang of Four for the period from 1975 to 1977, while Zhang Chunqiao was mentioned three times and Yao Wenyuan twice. 

The terms “revisionism” and “anti-revisionism” once reflected tensions between China and the Soviet Union in the 1960s, which were likely deemed not so appropriate to mention under the current international climate in 2021, when Russia is once again China’s closest partner. 

In the 2011 version of the chronicle, the reference to “natural disaster” appeared in the context of the Great Famine of 1959-1961. The removal of the term in this year’s version is in all likelihood part of the general effort to beautify the past of the CCP, so that this history speaks primarily to the correctness and legitimacy of the Party. 

And who were the big names in the 2021 chronicle? Though Xi Jinping’s time as the country’s top leader accounts for just 8.5 percent of the entire century covered in the official record, his name tops all, which a total of 186 mentions. There is obvious significance here to the fact that Xi surpasses even Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, who has 141 mentions. Among the rest of the field, only Deng Xiaoping (78) and Zhou Enlai (57) have above 50 mentions, and Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao get 41 and 33 mentions respectively. Marx also comes in strong, though this of course is due to his mention in the context of Marxism. 

In preparing histories of the CCP, the demand under the current political environment is that “Party history must be surnamed Party” (党史姓党). Back April 23, the Study Times (学习时报), a publication of the Central Party School, published an article called “The Important Principles that Must Be Grasped to Establish a Correct View of Party History" (树立正确党史观应当把握的重要原则). The article said: “We must research Party history, propagate Party history and apply Party history from [the standpoint of] politics, and from the lofty position of the overall situation of the Party's cause, and all Party history research and propaganda should reflect the will of the party, reflect the Party's ideas and safeguard the fundamental interests of the Party and the people."

Introducing the phrase “Party history must be surnamed Party,” the article added:

To practice 'Party history surnamed Party,' the thing of first importance is to strictly comply with the Party's political discipline and political rules, and to maintain the Party's political principles, political direction and political line, resolutely upholding General Secretary Xi Jinping as the core of the CCP Central Committee and his core position for the entire Party, and resolutely upholding the authority of the CCP Central Committee and its centralized and unified leadership.

Two months later, on June 25, the Guangming Daily newspaper, published by the Party’s Central Propaganda Department, ran an article called “Drawing Wisdom from Party History to Write a New Chapter for the Development of Civil Affairs in the New Era” (从党史中汲取智慧 谱写新时代民政事业发展新篇章), which commented on a collection of Xi Jinping reflections released back in February called “On the History of the Chinese Communist Party” (论中国共产党历史). The article called for an “accurate grasp” of the fundamental concept of “Party history surnamed Party,” and urged in particular a full grasp and implementation of the “principle of Party spirit” (党性原则) as evinced in Xi’s collection. The idea was that Party history – its study, presentation and implementation – must reflect the Party’s will (党的意志) and propositions, and must above all preserve the fundamental interests of the Party and the people. 

The campaign for learning and education around the history of the CCP has now been fully transformed into a process of biaotai (表态), or loyalty signaling. As the predominance of Xi Jinping himself in the 2021 chronicle suggests, history in the moment is fundamentally about the priorities of the top leadership, and about securing the position of the top leadership, in the run-up to the 20th National Congress of the CCP, to be held in 2022.

On June 28, Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠), the CCP secretary of Tianjin municipality, gave a special report on the study of Party history. Reports from the Tianjin Daily (天津日报), the official mouthpiece of the Tianjin Party leadership, were unmistakable as to Li's expressions of loyalty toward Xi in his speech at the event. He reportedly said:

It is the good fortune of our Party, our country and the Chinese nation to have had General Secretary Xi Jinping at the helm and steering the ship on the new journey to realize the Chinese nation’s rise to strength. We have closely followed General Secretary Xi Jinping in seizing our great victory in struggling toward the first centenary goal, and now we will continue to unswervingly follow him as we strive toward the realization of the second century goal and the great leap to realize the strengthening of the Chinese nation.

How the Party continues to treat its history in the coming months, emphasizing the centrality of the “Party spirit,” and Xi Jinping’s centrality in defining the will and interests of the Party, should tell us a great deal about China’s plans for the near future. For today’s top CCP leaders, history is always out front.