China’s Political Discourse June 2022: Cave Dialogues and Potshots Against the Premier
By China Media Project
A shockingly violent attack on several women dining at a barbecue restaurant in Tangshan, a prefectural-level city in northeast Hebei province, became one of the key focal points in public opinion in China in June 2022. Owing to the graphic nature of video footage of the attack shared across social media, and poor official handling of the case, the incident gripped the public for several days on end.
On the domestic political front, there was a clear downturn in the number of reports in the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper mentioning the country’s premier, Li Keqiang (李克强) – this following premature speculation in international media in late May that Xi Jinping might be receiving less prominent coverage in the flagship newspaper. Contrary to such guesswork, by the second week of June, there seemed to be a clear rise in prominent acts of “loyalty signaling,” or biaotai (表态), by senior CCP officials, paving the way for the further elevation of Xi and his banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought,” ahead of the 20th National Congress of the CCP later this year.
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Additionally, there was prominent coverage in the People’s Daily in June of Xi Jinping’s remarks on the so-called “cave-dwelling dialogue” (窑洞对), the July 1945 exchange in which China Democratic League founder Huang Yanpei (黄炎培) visited Mao Zedong in a cave-dwelling in Yan’an, and mused to the communist leader that no one had yet found a way to break China out of the historical cycle of rises and falls that haunted every dynasty. Mao famously responded that the CCP had the solution: "We have found a new path to break free of the cycle, which is democracy. . . . As long as the people can supervise the government, the government dare not slacken in its effort."
Xi Jinping mentioned the famous exchange back in November 2021, in his speech to the Sixth Plenum, saying that the CCP has blazed a path through the conundrum raised by Huang Yanpei through the process of “self-revolution” (自我革命). This “second response” (第二个答案) to Huang’s question, which subordinated the process of democratic supervision to CCP rule and self-governance, received a small wave of coverage in the official state media back in January, as the CCP’s Seeking Truth journal ran the text of the general secretary’s Sixth Plenum speech. In June 2022, the People’s Daily ran three separate articles highlighting Xi Jinping’s remarks on the “cave-dwelling dialogue,” two of which ran over two pages.
A June 29 commentary attributed to “Ren Ping” (任平), a homophonous pen name meaning “People’s Daily commentary” (and thus written for the paper’s editorial team to represent the views of the central leadership), emphasized the importance of the Party’s “courage and determination” in carrying out “self-revolution” References to “democracy” in the commentary were limited to historical accounts of “people’s democracy.”
By the second week of June 2022, those reading the political tea leaves in China were turning their attention to whether Li Keqiang might be facing serious headwinds within the Party. Fevered speculation swirled around the publication on June 1 of the 11th 2022 edition of China Discipline Inspection and Supervision (中国纪检监察), the official journal of the CCP’s internal disciplinary body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). Beyond its usual high-minded language about the need to integrate “discipline work,” including anti-corruption, with other aspects of the Party’s business, the journal included a historical commentary that took a critical look at two grand chancellors, or chengxiang (丞相), serving during the Qin (221 to 206 BC) and Tang (618 to 907 AD) dynasties.
As it happened, both of these grand chancellors were surnamed “Li.” And while the title of grand chancellor in dynastic times is not equivalent to premier under the current Party-state system, comparisons between these two Li’s at the top of the ancient ministerial system invited comparisons to the current Premier Li as head of China’s government. Further on, we take a closer look at the China Discipline Inspection and Supervision commentary and the chatter that ensued on social media in China as a result.
Unspeakable Violence in a Tangshan Barbecue Restaurant
At around 2 AM on June 10, 2022, a man approached a young woman and her friends as they were dining at a barbecue restaurant on Airport Road in the city of Tangshan, in Hebei province. Feeling spurned by the woman, the man and several companions attacked the woman. Later that morning, footage from the security camera in the restaurant was leaked online, and the incredible level of violence shown in the video turned the incident into an instant national story.
On the afternoon of June 11, police in Tangshan announced that the last of nine suspects in the case had been apprehended. Despite the arrests, the incident was far from over. In the hours and days that followed news of the arrests, internet users their fury over several key points.
First, none of the other male diners at the restaurant had raised a finger to help the women as they were attacked. Only other women had tried to step in. Second, the police had not responded quickly enought to the attack. The Public Security Bureau later revealed that the nearby police substation had received a report of the incident at 2:41 AM, but officers had arrived on the scene nearly half an hour later, at 3:09 AM. This despite the fact that the distance from the police substation to the scene of the attack was just two kilometers.
The third issue internet users centered in on was that one of the chief perpetrators of the attack was a wanted criminal who had escaped the grasp of Tangshan police. Related to this fact, at least 11 independent real-name informant reports (实名举报) on criminal gang activity in Tangshan were posted online in the wake of the attack, pointing to endemic law and order problems in the city. This was the fourth issue prompting widespread discussion online following the barbecue restaurant attack. What were Tangshan authorities doing to address what appeared to be serious and longstanding risks to public safety?
Concerns about the competence of local authorities were exacerbated on June 12, after the city government announced that it was launching a two-week-long “Thunderstorm” (雷霆风暴) action to clear away public security threats, relying in part on information from the public. The phone hotline announced by the government turned out to be unreachable, a further source of public anger and mockery.
As the nation turned its attention to this egregious case in Tangshan, internet users crowdsourced other recent cases pointing to negligence in the city under uncompromising anti-epidemic measures. The point was that the city’s single-minded determination to grapple with Covid-19 seemed at odds with its lax approach to law and order. There was a renewed focus, for example, on the case of an elderly farmer who, in a rush to return to his fields during a Covid lockdown, had been intercepted by Covid patrols and harshly criticized. The farmer apologized to his entire village with a megaphone. In another case, residents of one district had been forced to leave their house keys outside their apartment doors, after which they had been sealed into their homes with iron gratings.
Adding to all of the above concerns and criticisms surrounding the barbecue restaurant attack was the fact that there was a total lack of transparency regarding the well-being of the women attacked and the fact that journalists trying to report on the story in Tangshan were obstructed by local authorities. As the WeChat public account "Media Training Camp" reported on June 17: "Recently, the 'Tangshan barbecue restaurant beating' case continues to attract attention, and many media have dispatched their 'elite soldiers' to Tangshan to cover the investigation. Today, however, there is news that many media people in Tangshan have encountered obstruction during the interview process, and have even been detained without reason or subjected to violent law enforcement."
The final investigative findings in the barbecue restaurant attack case have not yet been released, and there are two curious points of interest in the treatment of the case in the media.
What’s Up at the Guangming Daily?
One point of interest was an article published on June 11 by the Guangming Daily news app that looked at how the city of Tangshan had topped online searches three times in a single month owing to attention to the restaurant attack and the above-mentioned stories about the farmer and the sealing of apartments. The post echoed dominant views online at the time, viewing these cases as particularly egregious examples of failings in society even after more than 40 years of reform and opening – and suggested they were even more unbelievable given much-touted police campaigns against criminality.
The Guangming Daily app post asked in particular:
Does Tangshan not have effective social governance? How is it that [the restaurant owner said] ‘A customer called the police at the time, and police are already handling it,’ but it was another 10 hours before the chief perpetrator was arrested? We must understand that this is amid regular epidemic prevention and control, and 10 hours already far and away surpasses the time allotted for the isolation of close [Covid] contacts.
The post’s comparison of the time required to isolate Covid contacts and apprehend suspects was hugely pertinent in the eyes of many Chinese responding online as it went right to the heart of public sentiment over Covid policies.
The Guangming Daily news app belongs to the Guangming Daily, a newspaper under the Central Propaganda Department that advertises itself as chiefly directed toward intellectuals in China, and which is, according to the paper’s website, an “important position in directing the ideological work of the CCP Central Committee.” Given the paper’s declared role and past discourse, the post from its news app on the Tangshan cases seems to be a standout exception in terms of tone.
Red Tape and Other Obstructions
The second point of interest was the situation awaiting media from outside Tangshan as they attempted to report on the Tangshan stories from the ground. When Zhang Weihan (张巍瀚), a reporter from “People’s Concern” (百姓关注), a program on Guizhou Satellite TV, arrived in Tangshan, he was first met with irrational enforcement of Covid restrictions by local transport authorities, and next detained without cause for nearly eight hours by local police close to the scene of the barbecue restaurant attack. The reporter shared these experiences in a video appearing on numerous online and social media channels.
A journalist for “New Yellow River” (新黄河), a new media channel run by Jinan Times, a commercial paper under the official Jinan Daily, reported on June 11 that they had been stopped when attempting to exit the Tangshan Railway Station. An employee at the station informed the journalist that those not from Tangshan would need to fill out a form with specific information including about the sub-district where they intended to stay, otherwise, they could not enter the city.
Those planning to stay in a hotel, the employee said, would need to submit this form 48 hours prior to their intended stay. Locals and non-locals alike would need to register with the community in which they intended to stay. Moreover, shared transport vehicles had to be arranged for those visiting Tangshan, and photos taken of the passengers with their transport vehicles and drivers – otherwise, they could not leave the station. This was a metered taxi service, and all passengers were required to split the fee evenly.
The “New Yellow River” report of these absurdly draconian measures, which could not be rationally defended as anti-Covid procedures, raised suspicions that Tangshan authorities were actively trying to thwart media coverage by journalists from outside the city.
The treatment of journalists like Zhang Weihan in Tangshan prompted open expressions of support from others in the media. And when scholars and others online took the opposite position, voicing support for the tactics employed by the Tangshan authorities, their remarks quickly met with denunciation.
On the issue of journalists facing obstruction in Tangshan, Liu Qianyue (柳倩月), a professor of culture and media at Hubei Minzu University, posted to Weibo: “Under such special circumstances in which China Central Television reporters haven’t even appeared [on the scene], how is it that you local TV reporters feel aggrieved when you’re detained going to a sensitive area to report undercover? Shouldn’t you reflect on your own problems?”
Responding to this knee-jerk response parroting the notion that central Party media should have priority – even if they are clearly remiss in their reporting, as the case on the Tangshan story – one post savaged Professor Liu as “an oddball who deserves to be written into the contemporary history of journalistic shame.”
Former Southern Weekly journalist Chu Chaoxin (褚朝新) threw oil on Professor Liu’s dumpster fire with a backhanded clarification in a WeChat post. Liu, he wrote, had not lost face for journalism, because although she was a professor in a department of culture and media, her specialization was literature studies.
Touch him and that’s assault
On June 21, a woman in Dandong, a city in Liaoning province, was driving her sick father to pick up medicine when she was stopped by a police officer because her health code had turned yellow. The woman explained to the officer that authorities in her residential community had issued her a certificate, and that she had taken a PCR test that same day. However, the officer insisted that her yellow code meant she could not leave.
A video posted to Weibo, and later shared across the internet clearly shows the woman engaged in an altercation with the officer, who stands in the open door of her vehicle, preventing her from getting back inside. When her elderly father tries to intervene, the woman shouts: “Don’t touch him. If you touch him that’s assault.” In the tussle that follows the officer shoves the woman to the ground. The father steps forward and tries to slap the officer, but misses. The officer then exploits this opportunity to feign a fall to the ground, holding the side of his face as though actually struck. “Did you film that?” he asks another officer filming in the foreground. “I got it. I got it,” he answers.
An internet user’s illustration of the Liaoning police officer, his vest reading “Best Actor,” and the words above: “Did you film that?”
For internet users, the Liaoning incident underscored the ills of Covid policies in China. Many refused to believe that the woman’s health code was actually yellow. Moreover, at the time of the incident, the city of Dandong had been under lockdown for nearly two months already. The lockdown ended shortly after the incident.
On June 22, police in Dandong’s Zhenxing Substation issued a notice saying that “Hao X Li” (郝某莉) – the name of the woman involved in the incident, with the middle character of her name elided – had been given 10 days of administrative detention for obstructing police in performing their duties. Her elderly father, identified as “Hao X Cheng,” was facing criminal compulsory measures for the alleged assault of a police officer.
“Imperial” use of the health code system
In April this year, a number of clients with at least four rural banks in Henan province found that they could not withdraw funds owing to a cash crisis. Some banks suspended cash withdrawal services altogether, prompting bank clients to travel to the capital city of Zhengzhou to lodge a protest with the provincial government. Chinese media reported that when these petitioners used their health apps to scan at Zhengzhou access points, they found their codes suddenly changed to red (designating confirmed Covid cases and asymptomatic infected persons as well as close contacts of confirmed cases). This meant that the petitioners were subjected to forced quarantine measures.
In addition to the bank petitioners, a number of petitioners in property-related cases also found that their health codes had changed from green to red.
Discipline inspection officials in Zhengzhou revealed that 1,317 customers of rural banks in Henan had their codes switched to red. Among these, 446 found they had red codes after scanning codes at local access points in Zhengzhou, and 871 others received red codes while outside the capital after scanning access point codes sent to them by others.
Some internet users gave this process of abuse of the health code system the nickname “Yu” (豫), the shortened name for Henan province, and also a homophone of the word “imperial” (御).
The use of epidemic prevention QR codes by authorities in Henan to restrict legitimate acts of petitioning by depositors was for many Chinese a revealing and distressing illustration of the immense political and social implications of the health code system beyond real concerns of control and prevention.
“Greater Benevolence” and “Dynamic Zero”
Since early May, when Xi Jinping said during a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) that China must “persist” in its “dynamic zero” (动态清零) policy toward the containment of Covid-19, the message has remained clear: “dynamic zero” is here to stay.
State media have argued that the policy not only cuts Covid transmission in the shortest time possible, but also that it has “brought tangible benefits to the whole world.” This despite the fact that lockdowns have persisted in waves in cities like Shanghai, with a profound impact on local businesses and government finances.
On June 15, as the Party stretched for justifications for an increasingly unpopular policy, a commentary by “CAC China” (网信中国), the official WeChat public account of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), dredged up a term from China’s Maoist past: “policy of greater benevolence” (大仁政).
The “policy of greater benevolence” notion was first raised by Mao Zedong in September 1953 during a speech about China’s “victory” in the Korea War that also addressed the war’s human and financial costs. Apparently, there was unhappiness inside China about hefty taxes on agricultural production used to pay for China’s involvement in the conflict. Mao explained to his fellow Party leaders that these “certain friends” had spoken of the need to implement benevolent policies (施仁政) – “as though,” he said snidely, “they represent the interests of the peasants.” On the question of benevolent policies, he explained, this was already being done, but when it came to policies benevolence could be divided into greater and lesser. Achieving longer-term strategic goals required sacrifice, and sometimes that sacrifice was painful. This focus on longer-term goals was what Mao meant by “greater benevolence.”
Just as Mao’s talk of “greater benevolence” was a sledgehammer used in 1953 to pulverize all dissent over the pain caused by China’s involvement in the war on the Korean peninsula, the CAC commentary seemed intended to stave off all dissent on the issue of “dynamic zero.” The commentary was attributed to “Wang Xingping” (王兴平), a pen name that pointed to its origin with writers for the cyberspace control body (See CMP’s analysis of pen names and power politics).
Two Grand Chancellors, Both Named Li
As we mentioned at the outset, there was renewed chatter during the first two weeks of June that Premier Li Keqiang might be facing efforts in the senior leadership to sideline his views and actions on the economy, and perhaps on Covid policies. This attention to Li’s perceived vulnerability was a seesaw change coming on the heels of speculation in international media in late May that Xi Jinping was facing internal CCP pressure, and as a result was receiving less prominent coverage in the flagship People’s Daily.
It is a fact of China’s political cycle that speculation about shifts in the senior leadership tends to reach boiling point in the months ahead of CCP congresses. And against this backdrop, it only makes sense that an article strongly criticizing two senior officials named Li in the country’s history superheated the speculation game.
The article in question, published on June 1 in the 11th 2022 edition of China Discipline Inspection and Supervision (中国纪检监察), the official journal of the CCP’s internal disciplinary body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), took a critical look at two grand chancellors, or chengxiang (丞相), serving during the Qin (221 to 206 BC) and Tang (618 to 907 AD) dynasties. It focused on their “egoism,” or liyi zhuyi (利己主义). Both of these grand chancellors were surnamed Li, a fact that quickly drove speculation that the article was intended as a veiled criticism of Premier Li Keqiang from the publication that is essentially the voice of the country’s highest discipline inspection body. The article began:
Refined egoism refers to when a person is adept at making use of superb and convincing acting skills, high-minded reasoning, high polish, and cleverness to conceal his or her selfish and greedy nature. Professor Qian Liqun (钱理群) of the Chinese Department of Peking University once offered this portrait of the refined egoist: possessing wisdom, worldly and sophisticated, good at acting, knowing how to cooperate, and even more adept at using the system to achieve their own purposes. [He] further pointed out that once such people hold power, they are more harmful than ordinary corrupt officials.
The article went on to discuss Li Si (李斯), a Chinese politician, calligrapher, and man of learning from the Qin dynasty, as a man “keen on pursuing fame and profit who excelled at presentation.” The commentary related the story of how Li, as a young official, was reported to have seen two types of rats. The first lived rich and proud in the rice story, where it grew fat and white. The other, haggard and timid, eked out an existence in the outhouse. Li Si determined from that point, according to the tale, to be the rat in the rice store. “When we look at Li Si's life,” the commentary read, “we see that what Li Si's excellent political skills concealed was his greedy and selfish nature.”
The second Li in the journal piece was Li Linfu (李林甫), a politician, historian and musician of the Tang dynasty, who served Emperor Xuanzong for nearly two decades. The corruption that set in toward the end of Xuanzong’s reign, the longest of the dynasty, has often been blamed for the emperor’s misplaced trust in the power-hungry Li Linfu, a friend of the family of a favored consort, Wu Huifei (武惠妃). According to the retelling in the China Discipline Inspection and Supervision commentary, it was Li Linfu who bore primary responsibility for “the Tang dynasty’s turn from prosperity to decline.” The article even referenced his “femininity” (阴柔) alongside his “cunning” (奸狡), and spoke of his “honeyed and murderous” words (口蜜腹剑).
After quickly running through a record of Li’s machinations, the authors related them directly to the An Lushan Rebellion, an uprising against the Tang led by a prominent army commander. "This practice of pruning away those who dissented for the sake of power provided [general] An Lushan, Gao Xianzhi (高仙芝), Geshu Han (哥舒翰), and others with the opportunity to assemble their own forces, thus paving the way for the outbreak of the An Lushan Rebellion."
Coming as it did in the weeks after Li Keqiang’s unprecedented video teleconference on the economy, which occasioned some apparent rifts in official media coverage that we reviewed in last month’s report, the commentary invited a wave of online speculation. Was this commentary about two treacherous Li’s in China’s dynastic past really a shot across the bow of Premier Li?
In the second week of June, self-media accounts in China seemed to further invite such speculation with a version of the China Discipline Inspection and Supervision commentary bearing the headline, “CCDI Magazine: Greedy and Selfish, Senior Minister Li is Skillful at Packaging” (中国纪检杂志：贪婪自私、擅长包装的李丞相).
Finally, on June 14, the original China Discipline Inspection and Supervision commentary was removed from the publication’s website, and other versions were scrubbed from the internet.
The original link for a commentary on two dynastic officials named Li in the official China Discipline Inspection and Supervision journal goes dead on June 14.
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 June 2022, the number of terms in Tier 1 of the CMP scale decreased from the previous month. The phrase “with comrade Xi Jinping as the core,” a form commonly signaling Xi’s leadership of the Party, dropped into Tier 2, but remained reasonably strong.
Six terms were added to Tier 2, which included the “Two Upholds” (两个维护), or “Two Protections,” and the “Four Confidences” (四个自信). The former, which stresses the need to 1) protect the “core” status of Xi Jinping within the CCP, and 2) to protect the centralized authority of the Party, held steady from May levels. Both the “Two Establishes” (两个确立), dropping down one level from May, and the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识) were in Tier 3 for June. The “Four Consciousnesses” is the first term in what has been called the “442 formula,” a collection of terms that denote Xi’s power and dominance that also includes the “Four Confidences” and the “Two Upholds.”
Of the five key permutations of Xi Jinping’s banner term for various key policy areas, “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), encompassing environmental policies, rose two levels to Tier 3, following a drop in May. The performance brought the phrase back in line with levels in March and April. “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想) maintained its position in Tier 4, while “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” (习近平强军思想) and “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想) both dropped one level from May to Tier 5. “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” (习近平经济思想) dropped one level into cold Tier 6 territory.
As we have stressed previously, changes in the performance of the above-mentioned permutations of Xi’s 16-character banner term could indicate moves toward the shortening of the banner term to the coveted “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想), putting Xi’s leadership philosophy on par with that of Mao Zedong. Changes to these terms in June, however, do not seem to be significant.
Nevertheless, there were two signs in particular in June that could point to the push to shorten from 16 characters to five. These were two high-profile examples of “loyalty signaling,” or biaotai (表态), from senior officials.
In a speech on June 10 to a forum in Jiangxi province on the study and implementation of “Xi Jinping Thought” (the 16-character version), Huang Kunming (黄坤明), director of the Central Propaganda Department, suggested that Xi’s concept “has put forward a series of landmark new ideas, new perspectives and new assertions, leading the Party and the state in making historic achievements and changes.” Huang lionized Xi’s contributions as “a new leap in the Sinicization of Marxism.”
Huang’s remarks were followed by an event held on June 14 in Shanghai, in which the top leadership in the municipality studied two books released this year, Xi Jinping in Shanghai (习近平在上海), and At the Front Lines of Reform and Opening: Xi Jinping’s Footprints in Shanghai (当好改革开放的排头兵——习近平上海足迹). The event was an occasion for top CCP leaders in Shanghai, including Party Secretary Li Qiang (李强), to signal their loyalty to Xi Jinping as the "core," and to express uniformity "in thought, politics and actions" with the top leader.
The term “self-revolution” (自我革命), mentioned at the outset of this report as a term of importance since November 2021, made Tier 3 for the third consecutive month in June 2022, appearing in a total of 29 articles. “Self-revolution” appeared together with the phrase “second response” (第二个答案) – referring to the question posed to Mao in 1945 by Huang Yanpei – in a total of five articles, all dealing with the “cave-dwelling dialogue” (窑洞对) as an important episode in CCP history.
On June 29, the People’s Daily ran the commentary attributed with the pen name “Ren Ping” (任平), which contained the following passage:
On the occasion of the adoption of the Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle, General Secretary Xi Jinping spoke at length about the "cave-dwelling dialogue,” saying: "Comrade Mao Zedong gave the first answer in the cave-dwelling dialogue in Yan'an, which was that ‘only by letting the people supervise the government can the government never slacken.’ After a century of struggle, particularly with our new experiences since the 18th National Congress, our Party has provided a second answer, which is self-revolution."
As we mentioned at the outset of this report, Mao’s famous answer to Huang Yanpei was about how China could break through the dilemma that had faced every dynasty in its history, the cycle of rises and falls as periods of prosperity gave way to corruption and misery. Mao answered Huang by referring to democracy as the “new path,” emphasizing the need for the people to supervise the government to keep it honest and functioning.
Mao Zedong’s answer to Huang has often been viewed as a pledge that China would enact a democratic political system. But Xi Jinping’s “second response” to Huang’s famous question in the “cave-dwelling dialogue” serves two purposes, at once elevating Xi Jinping to a role equal to that of Mao (as a leader in a unique position to offer such historic answers), and suggesting “self-revolution,” essentially meaning the Party supervising itself, as an alternative to supervision by the people.
Recent public unhappiness in China over the direction of the economy, the abuse of the anti-Covid measures ostensibly in place to keep the public safe, and woes in the property sector such as mortgage payments for stalled developments, all point to rising pressures on the political system, begging the crucial question: Is “self-revolution” really the way forward, and out of China’s problems?
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of June 2022 and how they rated on our scale:
Monthly Hot Words:
The “Two Establishes”
Ahead of the CCP’s 20th National Congress, to be held in the fall of this year, the China Media Project is tracking the use at the provincial level of the phrase “Two Establishes” (两个确立). 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 global power.
At base, the phrase is a claim to the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, and a challenge to any who might oppose him.
In June 2022, the top three provincial-level administrations using the phrase “Two Establishes” were Tianjin (third time in the top three in 2022, with 130 articles), Hebei (first time in the top three, with 87 articles), and Guangdong (third time in top three with 87 articles). The following map shows the frequency of articles including the phrase “Two Establishes” in provincial-level Party newspapers in June 2022.
The Centrality Index
In looking at the appearance of China’s top leaders in the People’s Daily in June 2022, we should once again bear in mind the premature speculation in late May that Xi Jinping was suffering a downturn in coverage that perhaps reflected an internal power struggle. Despite this speculation, our report last month showed that Xi remained strong, with a commanding lead in terms of total articles in the newspaper (600). For the month of June, with one less edition to count, the “core” leader appeared in 713 separate articles, a new high for the year and putting him up in the stratosphere of Tier 1.
Both Tier 2 and Tier 3 were empty of central CCP leaders, illustrating even more plainly the extreme gap between Xi Jinping and his peers. The sum total of all other articles in the People’s Daily mentioning other members of the CCP’s Politburo was 104, which would in some cases include articles appearing twice in the newspaper database – meaning that they were separated across pages. This means that General Secretary appeared in nearly seven times as many articles in June as all of the over Politburo members combined.
If there is displeasure with Xi over the economy and rigid Covid policies, that unhappiness is not reflected in the pages of the CCP’s flagship newspaper.
Also notable in June was the fact that Li Keqiang was not the CCP official with the second-highest number of articles, which has been the case in previous months. This honor went to Li Zhanshu (栗战书), Wang Yang (汪洋) and Wang Zhen (王晨), each of whom logged 12 articles for the month. There were clear moves in the state media to muzzle Li Keqiang in the wake of the May video conference on the economy, and in June he appeared in just 10 articles. This marks only the second time since the 18th National Congress of the CCP in 2012 that Li has fallen to Tier 4 on the CMP scale (8-16 articles for the month).
That previous time was in February this year, when Li logged just nine articles.
In June 2022, diplomatic exchanges between China and Russia were on the rise. On June 15, Xi Jinping has a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and on June 17 Xi Jinping attended the 25th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum by video, delivering a speech. From June 22-24, Xi Jinping hosted the 14th BRICS Leaders' Meeting, the High-level Dialogue on Global Development, and the BRICS Business Forum, all by video in Beijing. On the back of related coverage, Putin, who languished in Tier 6 from March through May, made Tier 4 in June, appearing in 12 articles in the People’s Daily.
US President Joe Biden, who from January through May this year moved between Tiers 4 and 5, dropped to Tier 6 in June, mentioned in just two reports. One of these reports, “America Has Been at War for Oil for Generations” (美国几代人都在为石油而打仗), criticized the United States for being quick to expropriate the assets of other countries in the name of sanctions (a reference to recent actions against Russia). "In February,” the paper added, “President Joe Biden officially signed an executive order to 'set aside' 3.5 billion of 7 billion dollars in frozen US assets in Afghanistan to compensate the families of the victims of 911.”
The second article "Yang Jiechi Meets with US National Security Adviser Sullivan" (杨洁篪同美国总统国家安全事务助理沙利文举行会晤), said that Biden has repeatedly assured Xi Jinping that the US does not seek to fight a "new Cold War," does not seek to change the Chinese system, does not seek to oppose China by strengthening alliances, does not support Taiwan independence, and has no intention of entering into conflict with China. "The US side should correct its strategic perception of China, make the right choice, and translate President Biden's 'four no's and one no intention' statement into practical action, moving in the same direction as China and effectively implementing the important consensus between the two heads of state," the paper said.
As shown in the chart above, another national leader who performed reasonably well in June was South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, who attended the BRICS Leaders’ Summit and obligingly echoed official CCP discourse by referring to a “new era for global development” as he met with both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Leaders who did not appear at all in the People’s Daily in June included the UK’s Boris Johnson, Nguyen Phu Trong of Vietnam, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Justin Trudeau of Canada – and last, but certainly not least when it comes to China’s consistent downplaying of the war in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky.
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