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China’s Political Discourse March 2023: The People’s Choice for a Global Shared Destiny
By China Media Project
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On to this month’s report from China Media Project…
The major event in Chinese politics in March 2023 was the formal start of the third-term presidency of Xi Jinping — an event that was completely unsurprising, and yet still deeply significant. The Fourteenth National People's Congress (NPC), which completed the leadership transition outlined at the 20th National Congress in October last year, putting in place a government stacked with hand-picked Xi loyalists, was capped on March 10 with the rubber-stamping of Xi’s presidency. The margin: a resounding 2,952 to 0.
Given his decisive reappointment and his placement of personal acolytes in key government posts, one might assume Xi Jinping feels assured in his position as China’s top CCP leader and head of state. And yet, the state media, led by the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily, expended great effort in March to signal Xi’s unassailability, to emphasize the historical necessity of his continued service, and to manufacture a sense of popular legitimacy.
We deal in greater depth with the question of popular legitimacy and Xi’s role as the “people’s choice” in this report’s Focus Topic. In his closing speech to the NPC session on March 13, Xi Jinping alluded to the people as the source of his legitimacy. “This is my third time to hold the high office of president of the country,” he said. “The people's trust is my greatest motivation in moving forward and a heavy responsibility on my shoulders.” The speech was published on page two of the People’s Daily on March 14, and an article from Xinhua on the next page again referenced Xi’s quote, placing it under a subhead that read, “A strong core, to lead a magnificent voyage” (坚强核心, 引领壮阔航程) — suggesting Xi’s resolute leadership is essential to China’s continued progress. The same article, and others in this and other editions of the People’s Daily, included remarks from NPC delegates who signaled their loyalty to Xi.
Zhang Dadong (张大冬), the principal of a local elementary school in Huai'an, a prefectural-level city of over four million in Jiangsu province, gave the third-term president full credit for the glories of the nation: "The great achievements of the new era are the result of General Secretary Xi Jinping leading the whole nation to attempt, achieve and struggle together,” he said. “The general secretary's resounding speech today, and the never-ending applause, once again made me feel the people's heartfelt support and love for the general secretary.” Yang Xiaoxue (杨晓雪), an engineer from an ecological monitoring station in Yunnan province's Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, was quoted on the importance of "sticking to the original intention" (坚守初心), a phrase that has become synonymous with staying the course — which is to say, of course, Xi's course.
In state media coverage, the voices of delegates like Zhang and Yang were proxies for the people, meant to establish a human connection between the (lofty) center of power and its claimed origin at China’s social roots. In state propaganda, Xi Jinping’s humanity was often treated as a revelation — as though it should surprise and delight the public that the general secretary, as noted in coverage of his brief meeting with school principal Zhang Dadong, “smiled when he heard of the heartfelt words of the children.”
Confections like this in the state media discourse may seem almost comical at times, but they are important clues to the nature of power in China, particularly as the leadership touts the idea of “whole-process people’s democracy” (全过程人民民主) and its genuine representation of the popular will. The propaganda theme of “whole-process democracy,” which has played strongly in the state press over the past year and more, was also trumpeted during the NPC. But the abstracted and oddly amplified humanity of China’s top leader in the official discourse effectively lays bare the real gap between the people and those in power.
Another sign of Xi Jinping’s continued dominance in March could be glimpsed in front-page layouts in the People’s Daily. The differences from five years ago were most pronounced in the coverage announcing the appointment of the country’s premier, as Li Keqiang (李克强) passed the baton to former Shanghai CCP Secretary Li Qiang (李强).
When Li Keqiang was appointed as premier in 2013, the front page of the People’s Daily featured a photo of him shaking hands with Xi Jinping. Immediately to the right was an official portrait of Li, and directly below was further coverage of the transition, with an image of outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) shaking hands with his successor. The overall effect of the page was to emphasize collective leadership as well as the orderly transfer of authority.
In this year’s edition, the front-page announcement of Li Qiang’s appointment as China’s premier did not include his portrait at all, but only a photograph of Li Qiang shaking hands with Xi Jinping under the country’s official seal, which reduced Li’s size and pushed his image further down the page and away from the masthead.
Most notable, however, was the pushing off the front page of the customary image of the outgoing premier shaking hands with his successor. Li Qiang and Li Keqiang were shown together only on page two of the People’s Daily, alongside Li Qiang’s portrait and full bio, and announcements of other appointments to the Central Military Commission and National Supervisory Commission. The overall effect was to diminish the profile of the premier.
Another strong theme in the People’s Daily in March was China’s diplomatic prowess, much of the coverage serving to legitimize Xi Jinping’s leadership at home by portraying him as a competent and responsible leader globally. Though direct verbal attacks on the United States were down noticeably from February, when sanctions and spy balloons rankled, they continued to have a chiaroscuro effect in state media coverage, providing a dark backdrop to accentuate China’s (and Xi’s) much-touted victories on the world stage.
On March 21, 29, and 31, the People’s Daily dedicated an entire page to publishing three pieces: “The State of US Democracy 2022” (2022年美国民主情况), a report from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA); “2022 Report on Human Rights Violations in the US” (2022年美国侵犯人权报告), released by the Information Office of the State Council; and “The Truth About Human Rights Violations Against Refugees and Immigrants in the US” (美国侵犯难移民人权的事实真相), also released by MFA. The net intended effect, one of China’s most central external propaganda strategies in recent years, complementing objectives at home, was to portray the US as a nation of chaos without the practical or moral standing to criticize China and other countries, or to offer workable international solutions.
Meanwhile, China’s claim to offer a practical alternative to US leadership was supported in the March discourse by a news cycle punctuated with diplomatic victories and high-profile visits.
The month began as Iran and Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by China, which Foreign Affairs called “a great leap forward in [China’s] rivalry with Washington.” Leaders in Beijing clearly viewed the landmark agreement as a major victory for China as it sought to play a greater role in international affairs. On March 11, the People's Daily published an article called, "Wang Yi: Saudi-Iranian Dialogue in Beijing is a Victory for Peace” (王毅：沙伊北京对话是和平的胜利). The article said not only that the brokered agreement was “a victory for dialogue and a victory for peace,” but suggested that it was the concrete result of a broader Chinese vision under the so-called “Global Security Initiative” (全球安全倡议), first proposed by Xi Jinping at the annual Boao Forum in April 2022. “The dialogue has also become a successful exercise in the strong implementation of the Global Security Initiative,” said the March 11 article.
One week after the annual “Two Sessions,” Xi Jinping embarked on a three-day trip to Russia, his first official state visit following his formal appointment to a third presidential term. In a piece published on the front page of the People’s Daily on March 23, Foreign Minister Qin Gang (秦刚) characterized Xi’s visit as “a trip of friendship, cooperation and peace.” The trip was seen very differently by the US and many of its allies, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Xi Jinping for providing Putin with “diplomatic cover” as Russia continued its war against neighboring Ukraine.
For our focus topic in this report, we look more closely at the narrative in state media of Xi Jinping as a legitimate leader chosen by the people and then move on to show how the narrative was complemented by the portrayal of Xi as an inspirational leader on the global stage.
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Focus Topic: The People’s Choice for a Global Shared Destiny
When we compare the front pages in 2018 and 2023 announcing the “election” of Xi Jinping as the “national president” (国家主席) and head of the Central Military Commission (中央军委主席), we see that they are nearly identical. The main headlines in bright red differ only in the names of the newly-appointed chairmen of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress — Li Zhanshu (栗战书) in 2018, and Zhao Leji (赵乐际) this year. Both include pairs of photos below this headline; on the left, the airbrushed official portrait of Xi Jinping, and on the right images of the leader taking his oath of office, stunningly similar despite the five-year gap.
But it’s in the so-called “newspaper eye” (报眼), the important space to the right of the People’s Daily masthead, that we see a crucial difference. In 2018, the space carried a report of congratulatory messages from foreign leaders, with messages and phone calls from Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel included in the black headline. In contrast, this year’s “newspaper eye” featured a report with a bright red headline called, "People's Choice" (人民的选择).
The “People’s Choice” headline could be seen as one of the clearest signs of the importance for the leadership, and for propaganda officials, of sending clear signals about the popular legitimacy of Xi’s third-term presidency — especially given the fact that the constitutional amendment five years ago left many Chinese, particularly elites, concerned.
The “People’s Choice” report began with grandiose false modesty — a choice line that established a bogus sense of popular power in which the people’s choice of Xi was rewarded with the glories he showered upon them. "All choices come from the people, and all glory returns to the people," it said.
When Xi Jinping was appointed in 2018 and the constitutional amendment made, a similar piece appeared in the People’s Daily called, “History’s Choice, People’s Choice” (历史的选择 人民的选择). This piece, however, was not emphasized in the same way, appearing on page four of the newspaper. It consisted largely of anecdotes from retired cadres, or laoganbu (老干部).
By contrast, this year’s front-page article on March 11 read like a lofty paean to Xi Jinping as a popular great man — at once god-like and astonishingly human. “Back in the gullies of the yellow earth,” the piece sang about Xi’s 2015 visit to Liangjiahe, where he spent time as a sent-down youth, “the villagers held General Secretary Xi Jinping's hand, very warmly, and the General Secretary was still able in one breath to call out their nicknames.”
Appearing on page five of the March 11 edition was another piece called, “History’s Choice, the Peoples’ Expectations, the Weight of the Times” (历史的选择 人民的期盼 时代的重托), which gathered together the voices of triumphant praise that had reportedly accompanied Xi’s appointment, including generalized expressions of support meant to speak for a wide range of offices and ministries, from the Supreme People's Court to the Ministry of Public Security, he Central Organization Department and the Central Propaganda Department. For Xi to once again be elected unanimously (全票当选) as president, said the article, was “a blessing for the people and the good fortune of the nation.”
Over several days following the rubber-stamp vote, other stories bore similar themes: "Vowing to Live up to the People" (誓言铮铮 不负人民); or “Gathering the Hearts and Minds of the People, Taking the Helm and Leading the Way to Rejuvenation," (众望所归聚民心 掌舵领航向复兴). One key difference in coverage of the 2023 “Two Sessions,” as compared to 2013 and 2018, was this decisive shift of focus to the popularity of Xi Jinping. In 2013, much coverage highlighted NPC delegates and policies being addressed during the meetings. In 2018, one prominent topic of coverage was China’s constitution, understandable given the important amendments then underway and the need to move public opinion in support of them.
One of the more obvious examples of the focus this year on Xi Jinping and his enthusiastic acceptance by the Party and the people was a special series of seven front-page feature stories under the title, “The General Secretary's Love for People” (总书记的人民情怀), which spanned the month of March in the People’s Daily. The articles dealt with various aspects of policy and social life, such as environmental protection and agriculture, but in each Xi Jinping was the main protagonist, the driving force behind every success and every promise.
The first line of each piece in the series was generally a humble or self-effacing quote from Xi Jinping, set apart from the main text, or alternatively, a florid line associating the leader with tender emotions. “I will have no self, and I will not fail the people," read the first line of the first article, highlighting the general secretary’s altruism. “I am a son of the yellow earth,” read the first line of the next article, stressing the general secretary as a man of the people. “Like a warm promise, it arrives every year as scheduled,” the third article began, before describing the video call Xi Jinping makes ahead of Spring Festival to grassroots cadres in six places across the country.
The seven articles in the series were as follows:
March 3, 2023 — “Selflessness and Commitment in the Heart of the General Secretary” (总书记心中的“无我”境界和担当)
March 4, 2023 — “Here is How the General Secretary Introduces Himself to the People” (在人民中间，总书记这样介绍自己)
March 8, 2023 — “Emerging from the People, Returning to the People” (从群众中来 到群众中去)
March 9, 2023 — “The General Secretary's View of ‘Big Things’ and ‘Small Things’” (总书记的”大事”小事”观)
March 10, 2023 — “From ‘Yearning’ to the ‘Seven Attainments,’ Understanding the General Secretary's Concern for the Livelihood of the People” (从“向往”到“七有”，读懂总书记的民生牵挂)
March 18, 2023 — "‘Benefiting Future Generations’ and Not ‘Exhausting the Pond’” (“泽被后人”而不“竭泽而渔”)
March 29, 2023 — “The General Secretary's Concern for the ‘Three Rural Issues’” (总书记的”三农”情怀)
Complementing the construction of the narrative of Xi Jinping as a glorious man of the people leading China warmly and resolutely into a great future, the state media also played up Xi’s strong international role, depicting him as a foreign policy mastermind who has reshaped the country’s reputation in the world.
As we noted earlier in this report, negative depictions of the United States in March were notable but less pronounced than was the case in February. One likely reason for this was that real estate on the page for foreign policy could focus instead on China’s diplomatic victories, the most notable of which were the brokering of the agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Xi’s high-profile state visit to Moscow, for which the People's Daily carried extensive coverage, and the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Honduras, which broke off relations with Taiwan.
But there was much more attention in the People’s Daily in March as well to the shaping of a narrative of Xi Jinping as a foreign policy mastermind, and the bearer of an inspirational Chinese vision of world values under key concepts such as the building a “community of common destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体), the “Belt and Road,” the Global Development Initiative (GDI), and the Global Security Initiative (GSI). The phrase “community of common destiny for mankind” appeared in 149 articles in the People’s Daily in March 2023, twice the frequency in February.
While the “common destiny” phrase first entered the official CCP discourse on November 8, 2012, included in Hu Jintao’s political report to the 18th National Congress of the CCP in reference to relations with Taiwan, Xi Jinping has since been associated with the concept’s full-fledged development as a central aspect of the broader notion of “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想). The “common destiny” phrase is one of the most important in coalescing Xi’s vision for the world — and just as important within the context of domestic politics, selling the idea that the general secretary is a world visionary who is gaining respect for China in the world.
In March 2019, the NPC amended China’s constitution to include the “common destiny” phrase in the preamble. Since 2017, Chinese diplomats have endeavored to insert the CCP language into international documents and resolutions, and in 2020 inclusion of the phrase in a draft of the Declaration of Commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations was prevented with objections from India and five other nations.
In a commentary published on March 24, Foreign Minister Qin Gang hailed the tenth anniversary of the “common destiny” concept. As Qin provided a kind of creation myth for the genesis of the term, placing Xi Jinping at the center, he noted Xi’s position not as general secretary but as “president” (主席), a reminder of the importance of foreign policy to his profile as China’s head of state:
Ten years ago, facing profound changes in the world, changes in the times, and changes in history, President Xi Jinping, with China as his base and the world as his heart, and with outstanding political wisdom, extraordinary theoretical courage, and the strong sense of mission of a Marxist statesman, thinker and strategist, ruminated deeply about such important issues as ‘what kind of world to build and how to build that world.’ He creatively proposed the building of a community of common destiny for mankind, which points the direction for world development at this turning point in history.
Several days later, on March 30, China’s newly-appointed premier, Li Qiang, gave a speech at the Boao Forum for Asia called, “Led by the Concept of a Community of Common Destiny for Mankind, Bringing Greater Certainty to World Peace and Development” (以人类命运共同体理念为引领 为世界和平与发展注入更多确定性). The speech again credited Xi Jinping for the creation of the “common destiny” concept, saying that its application over the past 10 years had enabled China to “achieve a series of significant practical results.”
In state media coverage, practical results such as the brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia were consistently tied to larger concepts, making the case that China — again, under Xi’s enlightened leadership — has workable solutions for global peace, security, and development. On March 13, one week after representatives from Iran and Saudi Arabia met in Beijing, the People's Daily ran an article called, "A Model for Peaceful Dispute Resolution" (为通过和平途径解决争端提供范本). This was a collection of positive comments on the dialogue from 13 politicians and scholars from around the world — from Cuba, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan, and other countries. Aside from the reference to the brokered resolution as a “model,” the article argued that it illustrated the success of China’s Global Security Initiative (全球安全倡议), or GCI, which was proposed by Xi Jinping at last year’s Boao Forum for Asia:
The dialogue became a successful exercise in the strong practice of the Global Security Initiative, and the international community welcomed the reconciliation of the two major powers in the Middle East, considering that China has played a constructive role in properly addressing the hot issues in the world today, demonstrating its role as a major power.
China’s supposed advancements on “hot issues in the world today” through concepts like “common destiny” were often associated in People’s Daily coverage with sound governance and policy-making back home, making the case that the effective rule of Xi Jinping and the CCP in China has drawn the attention of the world, and provided an alternative example to that offered by the West.
The day after the above-mentioned article ran in the People’s Daily, the newspaper published a commentary attributed to “He Yin” (和音), an official byline that is a homonym for “voice of harmony,” that made the case, taking the example of Iran and Saudi Arabia, that China is a force for peace and mutual development in the world precisely because its domestic successes have pointed the way forward. The commentary said that the path of “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化), a concept first introduced by Xi in 2021 (though it has a deeper history), had "resolved many problems of human social development, and broken the myth that modernization equals westernization, thereby creating a new form of human civilization." “China hopes and believes that more and more countries in the world will embark on the path of modernization, which will make the dream of a community of common destiny for mankind a reality,” it said.
When we look closely at the official CCP discourse, we can see how the relentless layering of concepts and claims works all at once to elevate the stature of Xi Jinping and his leadership domestically, and to support China’s bid for global leadership — which in turn reinforces Xi’s domestic standing. In a sense, we can say the entire world is now entangled in the wires of a complex CCP political discourse that is ultimately plugged into very basic domestic claims to power and legitimacy. The language above about “creating a new form of human civilization” through “Chinese-style modernization” is a prime case in point.
In a keynote speech at a summit with political parties from around the world on March 15, Xi Jinping announced yet another foreign policy program, the Global Civilization Initiative (全球文明倡议). He spoke of how the CCP had advanced "the progress of human civilization," which was about the creation of "Chinese-style modernization as a new form of human civilization." In turn, this would contribute to a process of global civilizational exchange that would "make the garden of world civilizations more abundant." In the wake of Xi’s announcement of the Global Civilization Initiative, there came a flood of coverage from state media and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The initiative, they said, would “inject fresh energy into human development,” and “advocate the common values of humanity.”
But what did any of this actually mean?
In the simplest terms, the call for the GCI is an effort to cohere with other states and parties around a self-serving concept of “civilization” whose core is the legitimation of China’s leadership and the CCP-led political system, and an outright rejection of Western values as being destructive to peace and mutual development. These points were made repeatedly in March coverage in the People’s Daily. A March 17 piece, for example, spoke of the world “painting together . . . . a new picture of modernization” that differed from the picture painted by the West:
Modernization is the common dream of all people. Looking back at history, when the Western powers took the lead in modernization along with foreign expansion and plunder, while the majority of developing countries struggled and encountered setbacks on the road to modernization. The myth that modernization = Westernization once shrouded the world.
China, through the concepts and contributions of its inspirational civilization creator, Xi Jinping, is now throwing off the shroud, unveiling a new canvas for the world. The metaphors of beauty and abundance proliferated in the pages of the People’s Daily and across state media. The Global Civilization Initiative would mean “a hundred flowers blooming” in the garden of civilization, and so on.
China’s political culture and media system often employ such exaggerated and overwrought language that it is difficult for the rest of the world to tell the difference between hype and real initiative, between expanded language and expanded ambition. But it is clear the official discourse in March drew a clear line between Xi Jinping as the head of state chosen by the people of China, and Xi Jinping as the global leader offering new promise for human civilization. At its base, this was about Xi’s legitimacy as the core leader of the CCP. As Xi was quoted as saying in a People’s Daily piece on March 24 that lavished praise on the Party as having the world’s best interests at heart: “The Communist Party of China is the party that works for the happiness of the Chinese people and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, as well as the party that works for the progress of mankind and the commonwealth of the world.”
March Surprises: Shielding the Capitalists
China’s leaders have pushed local governments in recent months to do their utmost to jumpstart economic activity and get the domestic economy humming again after many successive months of pandemic slump. On March 25, the provincial government in Hainan responded by issuing a notice outlining measures to “support private economy development.”
Eagle-eyed internet users in China soon discovered that the measures included a line about “implementing a criminal justice policy of fewer arrests and cautious prosecution and detention” (少捕慎诉慎押刑事司法政策). “For those private entrepreneurs involved in cases,” the notice read, “if arrest can be avoided it should be avoided, and if prosecution can be avoided it should be avoided.”
The policy, which obviously suggested treating law violators leniently if they were in some way contributing to local economic growth, quickly sparked a huge controversy online. In the comments section of a report on the incident from Shanghai’s Guancha.cn, readers voiced their dissatisfaction. “Whether people are capitalists or ordinary citizens, they should be treated equally before the law," one user posted. Hinting at a political culture of case meddling that is rarely addressed openly, another asked: “How is a local government coming out with regulations that deal with the judiciary?”
The vast majority of users responding on Weibo seemed to view the regulations as providing protection for unscrupulous entrepreneurs. But there were also rare contrarian voices, including “IT Observer Ape” (IT 观察猿), a blogger with 3.43 million followers. They responded that Hainan’s response showed a necessary level of openness and tolerance toward the private economy. “One the question of whether the law can include tolerance, society should have a certain level of tolerance,” they wrote.
As a result of this major backlash, the Hainan Provincial Government soon quietly removed the language about avoiding arrest and prosecution.
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 March 2023, a total of 14 political catchphrases shot to the top of the CMP scale in Tier 1, the majority of these directly related to Xi Jinping’s policies and his position within the CCP. These included “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化), which can also be translated as “the Chinese path of modernization.” As we explained in the Focus Topic above, the phrase had not just domestic resonance, pointing to policies inside China to develop the economy, protect the environment, and so on — but was also used to support the idea that China, under the leadership of Xi and the CCP, has arrived at a “new form of civilization” distinct from that of the West, with broad global appeal.
A related foreign policy phrase that we dealt with in our Focus Topic analysis, “community of common destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体), which is meant to encapsulate Xi Jinping’s vision for humanity, narrowly missed inclusion in Tier 1 in March, with a total of 149 unique articles.
Also making the top of the scale was the general secretary’s banner term, “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). Additionally, the phrase appeared in nine headlines in March, roughly even with the seven recorded for February. According to our preliminary count, the banner phrase has appeared at least 20 times in the People’s Daily as of April 27, so its frequency will be something to watch closely in coming months — bearing in mind the much-anticipated shortening to “Xi Jinping Thought” that has still not come to pass.
Likely appearing in Tier 1 in March as a result of their close relation to domestic and international development priorities — and therefore their inclusion in official speeches and state media commentaries — were the phrases “new development pattern” (新发展格局), “poverty alleviation” (脱贫), “Belt and Road” (一带一路), and “new development concept” (新发展理念). Among these, the “new development pattern” and “new development concept” are about the pursuit of what China has called “high-quality development” — essentially about innovation, raising product quality, developing new and high-tech industries, and so on.
Other terms closely associated with signaling the position of Xi Jinping as the “core” of the CCP leadership performed strongly in March, appearing in Tier 1, including “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心) and the “Two Establishes” (两个确立). The “Two Establishes” (两个确立) remains a crucial phrase signaling the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, and 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.
Several other phrases performing strongly in Tier 2 during the March “Two Sessions” period offered a glimpse of likely governing priorities for the next five years. Notable examples include “seeking progress in stability” (稳中求进), a phrase that denotes some level of wariness about possible challenges and headwinds even as it affirms the need for economic development; “national security” (国家安全), which the leadership has prioritized as a society-wide concern in recent years as part of what researchers at MERICS rightly called an “all-encompassing national security mindset”; and “independent innovation” (自主创新), signaling the science and technology advancement Xi Jinping has stressed strongly since 2021.
The various permutations of Xi Jinping’s banner phrase for specific policy areas performed slightly better in March. “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想) rose to Tier 3 from Tier 5. Both “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), Xi’s catchphrase for environmental policy and sustainable development, and “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” (习近平强军思想), the general secretary’s signature national security phrase, rebounded to Tier 4 after weak performances in February. “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” (习近平经济思想) also advanced one tier, joining “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想) in Tier 5.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of March 2023 and how they rated on our scale:
The Centrality Index
Just as in our February 2023 report, tallies of central leaders in the People’s Daily include both those from the 19th Central Committee and the 20th Central Committee. Keeping with practice throughout 2022, Xi Jinping was far and away the most mentioned leader in the CCP’s Central Committee. He remained at the white-hot top of the CMP scale in Tier 1, with a mention in 818 articles, reaching a record high since June 2022. His strong presence was not surprising due to his super-strong coverage during the Two Sessions.
But the March political season also boosted other central leaders in the CCP’s flagship newspaper, including three that advanced to Tier 2. Li Qiang (李强), the newly-appointed premier, led the pack, with Zhao Leji (赵乐际), the newly-elected chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, and Wang Huning (王沪宁), the newly-appointed chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, close behind. This line-up closely follows the ranking of the members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). The remaining members of the PSC, past and present, were arrayed across Tiers 3, 4 and 5.
Li Qiang debuted as China’s new premier at a press conference on March 13, and a quick succession of appointments followed, including his attendance of the Boao Forum for Asia and the receiving of several foreign leaders. Li Keqiang (李克强), who concluded his term as China’s premier in March, remained in Tier 3 for the month but like other members of the 19th Central Committee received only roughly half the number of mentions as those leaders in Tier 2. We can expect that for April Li Keqiang will be out in the cold, and it is possible that he and other former members will disappear entirely from the People’s Daily.
As might be expected given Xi Jinping’s state visit to Moscow and the strong emphasis on Sino-Russian relations in China’s state media, Russian President Vladimir Putin led the pack among foreign leaders in March 2023. He was the only leader to reach Tier 3, and in terms of mentions left others in the dust.
Before and after Xi's Moscow visit, the People's Daily published commentaries elaborating on the state of Sino-Russian relations, and affirming the importance of the strategic partnership given the state of international relations. On March 19, a commentary attributed to “He Yin” (和音), stated, “The more turbulent the world is, the more China-Russia relations must steadily move forward.” Five days later, in the wake of Xi’s visit, another “He Yin” commentary praised Sino-Russian relations as “a bright and open friendship among gentlemen.” This was contrasted with “the closed and exclusive, selfish and narrow-minded bloc politics” — a reference, no doubt, to the United States and its allies.
US leaders languished in Tier 5 in March, President Joe Biden and former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mentioned only in China’s release of reports on the state of democracy and human rights in the US. Pelosi was also mentioned in a work report released by the Standing Committee of the CPPCC National Committee, which condemned her for visiting Taiwan back in August 2022.
Belarusian President Dmitry Lukashenko stood out in Tier 4. Lukashenko was mentioned for his visit to Beijing on March 1. In a joint statement (full text in Chinese), the two countries announced a series of measures for economic and trade cooperation. They also made clear that the cornerstone of the relationship between the two countries is "mutual firm support on issues of mutual core interest." For China, this was about Belarus respecting the status of Taiwan as "an inalienable part of China's territory,” as well as voicing public support for key Chinese foreign policy concepts such as the Global Security Initiative and Global Development Initiative, while for Belarus it was about securing China's support for its efforts to maintain political stability and economic development.
As Xi was appointed to a third term as president, congratulatory messages to Xi from the leaders of 93 countries and international organizations were published in the People’s Daily. In some cases, the congratulatory statements of leaders were directly quoted, while in others leaders were mentioned by name only. Notably, the former included Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and his message that he was confident that under Xi’s leadership, “China will make a significant contribution to strengthening the world security architecture and consolidating the world order based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”
Such a passing reference slipped in among other mentions of global leaders might seem a matter of relative insignificance. But it must be noted that Zelensky has been on ice in the People's Daily ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year. Zelensky was mentioned just once after the invasion in 2022, in an October 7 report that listed out the congratulations extended to the PRC on the occasion of its 73rd anniversary. China, which in late February released a formal position on the political settlement of what it insists still on calling the “Ukraine crisis” rather than a war, had offered a number of indications that it wishes to pursue a peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine, and Zelensky, of course, is someone China cannot leave out in the cold if it has such ambitions.
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