The major political events in China in March 2021 were the annual “two sessions” (两会) of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), held from March 5 to 11. As expected, these meetings drove up the occurrence of certain central and regional leaders in the official People’s Daily newspaper and provincial newspapers, as well as important banner phrases for leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, and other phrases in the mainstream CCP discourse.
Perhaps the most defining event in March, however, was the high-level exchange between China and the United States, held on the 18th and 19th in Anchorage, Alaska. The event proved to be highly contentious, and even in the run-up there were differences as toon how to characterize the nature of the exchange itself. While China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to the Anchorage meeting as a “strategic dialogue,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made clear that it was nothing of the kind: "This is not a strategic dialogue,” Blinken said. “There's no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements."
The opening remarks in the bilateral meetings were heated and ill-tempered – having, as Chinese say, a "strong smell of gunpowder" (火药味颇重). And the contentious tone of the dialogue exploded across Chinese social media, encouraged by provocative statements from Chinese officials. By the end of the month, the testy encounter between China and the US had escalated into a coordinated domestic campaign in China to counter criticism of China that centered on "Xinjiang cotton," arguably the month’s defining phrase.
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 defined 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 particularly 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 2021, "new development pattern" (新发展格局), "new development concept" (新发展理念) and "new development stage" (新发展阶段) became Tier 1 phrases words, all rising one level from February. Mentions of "new development pattern" rose higher than those for “new development stage” and “new development pattern.”
The phrase “new development pattern” refers to the “dual circulation” development pattern first raised by Xi Jinping in April 2020 at the 7th Meeting of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission, in which Xi said that “domestic circulation” (or the domestic economy and domestic technological development) would be the mainstay of development, while foreign and domestic markets would be complementary. Under this concept, China’s leadership has argued that international complexities and uncertainties, including “suppression from external forces,” means that China must become more self-sufficient, not relying on past patterns and supply chains.
Also rising from Tier 2 to Tier 1 were the phrases “comprehensively building a modern socialist nation” (全面建设社会主义现代化国家), “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心), “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), “reform and opening” (改革开放) and “sense of gain” (获得感). "Sense of gain," or huodegan, was first mentioned by Xi Jinping in February 2015 during the 10th meeting of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform, referring to the broader feeling of benefit among the people as the measure of the soundness of reform policies.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of March 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, there were just two phrases that cooled down in March. These were "people-oriented" (以人为本), which dropped from Tier 4 to Tier 5, and "inner-party democracy" (党内民主), which was mentioned just once during the "two sessions."
Generally, we expects terms on our Litmus List not to make dramatic changes month-to-month, and such changes, if they do occur, warrant further analysis. In March 2021, the most dramatic change, contrasting with the decline of the reform-related term “inner-party democracy,” was the strong performance of “democratic politics” (民主政治). With the opening of the NPC and CPPCC, the term "democratic politics" jumped from Tier 6 to Tier 3, up to 31 total articles in the People's Daily against just three in February.
Is that a sign of increasing interest in what readers outside of China would understand by the idea of “democracy.” No. Of course not.
In China’s political lexicon, the term “political reform”, or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革), is relatively sensitive, directed historically at the problem of abuse of power in China, and was frequently discussed in the mid to late 1980s. By contrast, “democratic politics,” which before 1949 was a weapon the Chinese Communist Party used in its ideological battle with the ruling Kuomintang Party, is more politically correct in the Chinese sense. In fact, it has become the preferred term used to extol the party’s democratic achievements, such as the national congress and CPPCC systems.
In the 1980s, when Premier Zhao Ziyang said that the goal of economic reforms was to create a commodity economy (商品经济), and the goal of political reforms was to build democratic politics, he was referring to deeper change to the governing system. Here is what he said, for example, in his report to the 13th National Congress in 1987:
The undertaking and deepening of economic structure reforms raises the need for more pressing political reforms. The course of developing a socialist commodity economy should also be a course of building socialist democratic politics. Without undertaking political reforms, reforms to the economic system cannot ultimately succeed.
Since the late 2000s, “democratic politics” has enjoyed a high and steady degree of use, as use of the phrase “political reform” has generally declined. The term “political reform” (政治体制改革), appeared in two articles in March 2021. One of these was a March 19 article on the front page called “Great Changes in a New Era” (新时代的伟大变革), in which the term appeared twice. The term was not elaborated in these contexts, but rather appeared in general assertions that “political reform has steadily advanced” (政治体制改革稳步推进).
The term "political civilization" (政治文明), which is similar to “democratic politics” in referencing consultative decision-making without the reform-minded sense of “political reform” as directed at abuse of power, rose from Tier 6 to Tier 5. The banner terms of the past three generations of Chinese leaders – what is sometimes informally referred to collectively in Chinese with the shorthand deng san ke (邓三科) – rose to Tier 4 in March, appearing together in standardized references.
The Centrality Index
With the convening of the "two sessions," the number of appearances of Politburo members in the People's Daily increased by varying degrees. Only Xi Jinping, however, reached Tier 1, leading the field with 695 related reports. This was a continuation of his strong performance in previous months and years. Two officials in March appeared in Tier 2: State Council Premier Li Keqiang (李克强), and Li Zhanshu (栗战书), chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, who recorded 65 and 52 mentions respectively.
"two sessions" all provincial CCP secretaries were mentioned at least once in the People's Daily in March, compared to just seven provincial secretaries reported in the People's Daily in February. The exposure of top officials at the provincial level also increased by varying degrees, with the Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi (蔡奇) appearing in 13 articles, continuing to top the list. Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang (李强) was tied for second place with Chen Quanguo (陈全国), the CCP secretary of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
There were few mentions at all of foreign leaders in the People's Daily in March aside from the leaders of the United States and Russia. US President Joe Biden maintained his Tier 4 status, appearing in 11 articles and gaining a higher level of exposure in the paper.
Vladimir Putin followed with mention in four articles, roughly the same level as the previous two months, putting him again in Tier 5. In the same tier with the same number of mentions was former US President Donald Trump. Two of these mentions came in reports about Li Keqiang and Wang Yi (王毅) in separate press conferences with foreign journalists. For example, during his March 7 NPC press conference, Wang Yi was asked by a journalist from Phoenix Television: “The Trump administration lifted restrictions on US-Taiwan engagement. Some think tanks have ranked the outbreak of a crisis between the US and China over Taiwan as the highest potential conflict in the world. How does China view US policy toward Taiwan?” Wang Yi responded by stating that “the one-China principle is the political foundation of US-China relations and is a red line that cannot be crossed.” Trump emerged in Li Keqiang’s March 11 press conference as a reporter from CNN said in a question to Li that US-China relations had reached a “low point,” and said that "Chinese officials have repeatedly said this is due to the extremely wrong anti-China policies implemented by the Trump administration."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared in three articles in the People’s Daily in March. The first, on March 18, was a report on what the paper called Turkey’s “comprehensive economic reform plan” – referring to Erdogan’s pledge to address high inflation, currency depreciation and financial instability. There were also reports on March 27 about Erdogan’s meeting with Wang Yi, and on March 31 touting China as a “long-term, stable strategic partner with the Middle East.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (文在寅) appeared in two articles in March. A March 31 article noted that Moon said in October 2020 that his country would aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, "becoming the third Asian country after China and Japan to announce a carbon neutrality goal." A report the previous day quoted Moon in support of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), reporting that "Moon noted that RCEP has demonstrated to the world the importance of free trade." North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (金正恩) appeared in one article in March, reporting that Xi Jinping had congratulated Kim on holding the Eighth Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea.
For the month of March there was a change in the lineup of top countries mentioned in the People's Daily. Aside from the United States, which as a general rule has lead in terms of frequency in the newspaper, Japan, Russia, Britain, Germany and Italy also reached Tier 2 for the month. Among these countries, Russia and Italy experienced significant increases, rising from Tier 3 to Tier 2. France experienced a slight decline in mentions, taking it down from Tier 2 the previous month.
Headlines on Russia in the People’s Daily in March included the announcement of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to China, and coverage of his meeting with Wang Yi, as well as the arrival in St. Petersburg of the city of Chengdu's first China-European train and reporting on a Russian opinion poll suggesting that “75 percent of Russians surveyed have a positive attitude toward China.”
Headline coverage of Italy in the People’s Daily dealt in March with the country’s tightening of Covid-19 restrictions, and with the setup of a “specially adapted medical train” in Italy with medical carriages that can accommodate 21 critically ill Covid-19 patients, which might be used if necessary to transfer such patients to towns (or even other countries) with facilities that can accommodate them. Many of the other articles mentioning Italy deal with foreign trade between China and the European Union (such as this one voicing confidence in Chinese brands), and with cultural exchange and public diplomacy (such as this one focusing on China’s work internationally in heritage protection).
In each monthly analysis, CMP highlights one or two salient phrases in the emerging official discourse, utterances that are new, significant, colorful – or all of the above. For March 2021, there were many strong candidates. We focus on two.
The first comes from Politburo member Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪), Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, who said as press were asked to leave following unexpectedly long opening remarks from China and a brief unplanned rebuttal from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 18: “Why are you afraid of having journalists here? There’s no reason to fear having journalists here, is there?”
In fact, under an agreement that each side would first be given 2 minutes for an opening statement before a joint photo, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had begun the exchange by delivering a blunt but brief opening statement expressing “deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber-attacks on the United States, economic coercion of our allies." As the full video of the conference clearly shows, Yang responded by launching into lengthy lecture in which he sharply criticized the US for “interference in China’s internal affairs” and hypocrisy on human rights, saying he hoped the US “will do better.” Translation of Yang’s remarks alone took 17 minutes, followed by additional remarks by Wang Yi, so that China’s remarks lasted nearly 52 minutes in all. Blinken’s rebuttal and brief additional remarks from US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan were an attempt to address the disproportionate time given to China. But as press were asked to leave so that negotiations could continue, China voiced its objection, one official in the foreground complaining in English (1:35): “This is not fair. You have two rounds and we have one.”
It was at this point that Yang Jiechi sought to turn the tables on the US side, suggesting they were hustling out the media when China wished them present to continue coverage.
Why are you afraid of having journalists here? There’s no reason to fear having journalists here, is there?”
In fact, this sentence, though in our view a top March surprise candidate, was not widely disseminated within China, and did not become the focus of feverish social media activity – perhaps because it could not be heard so readily on video from Phoenix TV and other media that was subsequently broadcast.
One Yang Jiechi remark that did receive widespread attention in China came in his initial lengthy response to Blinken’s brief opening remarks countered a statement the Secretary of State had initially made in his speech on American foreign policy on March 3. Blinken had said: “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be. The common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength.” This was not meant to suggest superiority or condescension, but rather the conviction that the US would reengage with its allies and would not, like the previous administration, pull back from international commitments.
Yang Jiechi’s furious rebuttal to Blinken in Alaska clearly understood this in the context of the bilateral relationship, as a claim to privileged status. "You are not qualified to say before China that you speak to China from a position of strength,” Yang said.
This statement was quicky shared across official state media and official social media accounts, as well as on short video platforms. Chinese netizens were thrilled by the strong and resounding rebuttal to US criticisms offered by Chinese officials, and the topic remained hot in China for many days after.
Yang’s rebuttal of what seemed to Chinese to be a claim to superiority of position played directly to the sense of historical wrongs and humiliations. Some Chinese made comparisons between 1901 and 2021, both referred to as “Xinchou Years” (辛丑年) according to the Chinese zodiac. It was in September of 1901 that the Boxer Protocol, regarded as one of several unequal treaties in the 19th and 20th centuries, was signed between the Qing Empire and the Eight-Nation Alliance.
There have been frequent attacks in China’s state-run media in recent months on media from the US and other Western countries, part of a broader attempt to discredit criticisms of policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. An official commentary in the People’s Daily back in February, as the UK was roundly criticized for the decision by its broadcast regulator to deny a license to China’s CGTN, heaped scorn on the BBC, and said: “It is alarming that the makers of lies always claim ‘freedom of the press.’” After stating that “truth is the life of journalism,” the commentary said on the BBC’s coverage of Xinjiang:
[The] BBC, ignoring the fundamental fact that so-called "re-education camps" do not exist in Xinjiang and that China has made unprecedented achievements in the cause of women's liberation and development since the founding of New China, maliciously fabricated a story, without fact-checking or verification, claiming that women were being sexually abused and mistreated in so-called "re-education camps" in Xinjiang.
Yang Jiechi’s challenge to Antony Blinken – “Why are you afraid of having journalists here?” – was surely an attempt to turn the criticism around, suggesting the US does not live up to what China frequently rejects in official discourse as “so-called freedom of the press” (所谓的新闻自由).
It is worth noting that just five select Chinese media outlets, including CGTN and Phoenix TV, were extended the privilege (a decision entirely up to Chinese officials) of reporting on the Anchorage meeting from Alaska. For Chinese journalists, in fact, it is entirely familiar to be ushered away from the scene of any story for which they should be present. Yang Jiechi’s words would surely, for many, seem bitterly ironic.
China's nationwide vaccination campaign for Covid-19 continued to roll out in March, and local governments across the country as well as official media joined in on the campaign to raise awareness of vaccines. One vaccination slogan in particular captured the imagination of internet users, and gives us our second March surprise. Inspired by an online song hit that that repeatedly uses a cat’s meow, the sound identical to the second Chinese character in the Chinese word for vaccine, yimiao (疫苗), the slogan, spotted along a street in Shenzhen, was dubbed the country's "most brainwashing" (最洗脑). The slogan is virtually impossible to do justice in translation, but here is our poor approximation: "Let’s get vaccinations now, together meow-meow-meow-meow-meow” (我们一起打疫苗，一起苗苗苗苗苗).
Hoping to persuade the public to set aside any doubts about getting vaccinated, some local authorities have tried to find clever and infectious slogans instead of resorting to threats and preachiness. People in China, where slogans are now a part of life, are never short of inspiration. And a number of Covid-19 vaccination slogans have been adapted from song lyrics.
The slogan below, inspired by a popular song called “Good Days” (好日子), translates roughly: “Today is a good day; open your door and get the jab.”
And here is another inspired by the song “A Thousand Years Later” (一千年以后), which roughly translates: “Don’t wait for a thousand years later, before you get the jab.”
Following the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan more than a year ago, slogans across the country were similarly creative, many urging people to remain masked and maintain their distance, even at Spring Festival when visits with friends and family are tradition. The following slogan, for example, translates roughly: “This year visit another’s door; next year, you’ll be here no more.”
The following slogan reads: “A face mask or a breathing tube; Make a choice, it’s up to you.”
The most defining event in Chinese public opinion in March 2021 was undoubtedly the wave of public anger over criticisms of China on the issue of Xinjiang – a popular mirroring of the anger over this issue voiced in Anchorage by Yang Jiechi. Anger was galvanized in particular at the end of March by the issue of Xinjiang cotton, an issue that took shape first around the Swedish clothing brand H&M and then expanded like wildfire.
On the evening of March 24, H&M stores and products were suddenly removed from several e-commerce platforms.
The summary removals followed the discovery by Chinese internet users of a statement previously released in English on the official website of the H&M Group. The statement said that H&M was deeply concerned about reports from civil society organizations and media reports, including allegations of forced labor and religious discrimination against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In the statement, H&M said that it did not work with garment manufacturers located in Xinjiang and did not source cotton from the region. The statement received widespread attention in China, and gathering interest soon crested into a full-fledged crusade, leading to the widespread removal of related products from Chinese e-commerce platforms.
Chinese internet users subsequently discovered that many other foreign companies had made statements in recent years concerning the boycott of cotton from Xinjiang. Companies facing Chinese online rage included Adidas, Nike, Uniqlo, ZARA and others. On Chinese social media platforms, the topic "Support Xinjiang Cotton" (支持新疆棉花) was one of the most searched topics on Weibo. Celebrity artists quickly terminated their business partnerships with the above-mentioned brands, drawing a line in the sand. That line was about China's national interests and their overriding importance (国家利益高于一切). Soon, share prices plummeted for brands like Adidas and Nike.
The statement from H&M that precipitated online outrage in China in fact dated back almost six months to September 2020. During a regular press conference of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) on September 16, a foreign correspondent had asked MOFA spokesperson Wang Wenbin whether China had a comment on H&M’s termination of its partnership with a Chinese supplier. Wang had responded simply: “Under the pretext of forced labor, the relevant country took restrictive measures against Chinese companies, which we firmly oppose. This is a political maneuver that violates international trade rules and sabotages global industrial, supply and value chains.”
But the decision by H&M had not resulted in an outpouring of rage in China. So why had this outpouring come in late March 2021?
The spark had come in another MOFA press conference, in response to news that EU foreign ministers were considering sanctions over China’s actions in Xinjiang. On March 18, MOFA spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that accusations of human rights violations such as forced labor and forced sterilization in Xinjiang were “monstrous lies deliberately fabricated and spread by a few ‘academics’ and institutions with ulterior motives.” Citing French writer Maxime Vivas, who claims in his book Uyghurs to expose false research and reporting on Xinjiang by Western scholars and journalists, Zhao said that others were “conspiring to cook up fake news.”
Vivas, in fact, had already been widely profiled by the Global Times and other state media, and the author had been mentioned also by Wang Yi on the sidelines of the NPC on March 7, after which he expressed his gratitude: "I did not expect that the high-ranking (official) in the Chinese government would know me, so I would also like to thank the Chinese foreign minister for mentioning me and my book at the press conference." While CGTN referred to Vivas as “a renowned French writer, political critic, and journalist,” a profile by The Times said he was “almost unknown in his homeland outside a small group of hard-left activists,” and that his book Uyghurs had sold less than 600 copies.
EU sanctions over Xinjiang, the first of their kind since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, put China and the bloc on a collision course. The same day as Zhao Lijian’s strong remarks, China’s ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, said: “If some insist on confrontation, we will not back down.” It was against this backdrop that anger rose among Chinese online, encouraged by continued provocations from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state media, over what they were being told were deliberately fabricated lies about Xinjiang. Beginning on March 21, a large number of netizens started leaving messages on H&M's official Chinese microblog account, demanding that the brand withdraw from China.
On March 24, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League made two posts from its official account on Weibo criticizing H&M by name, accusing it of "breaking porcelain” over Xinjiang cotton. The term “breaking porcelain,” or pengci (碰瓷), is a reference to a staged crash or other scam accident, orchestrated to create a distraction. CMP’s David Bandurski wrote in 2018 about how “breaking porcelain” seems to have been applied by Chinese officials as a tactic in Europe and beyond to distract from criticisms.
As the Communist Youth League sought to rally young Chinese over foreign criticisms of China over Xinjiang, it also borrowed a phrases Yang Jiechi had used in Anchorage: "We won’t accept this [fuss] over Xinjiang cotton!” (新疆棉花不吃这一套!). The second Youth League post below repeats this phrase, with a bright red graphic that urges a stop to “cross-border porcelain breaking” (越界碰瓷).
Foreign governments and foreign brands had crossed the line. The national campaign over Xinjiang cotton gathered pace as the official social media accounts of CCTV, the People's Daily and other Party-state media followed suit.
At a press conference on March 25, MOFA spokesperson Hua Chunying said, when asked about the boycott of H&M and other brands by Chinese netizens that “the accusations against Xinjiang made by some Western countries, including the US, are totally based on lies.” Continuing the attack on journalists and scholars, Hua said: “Those lies are cooked up by some so-called scholars and the media, and then fanned by some anti-China forces. It is extremely wrong to spread rumors and slander China.”
Hua defended Xinjiang cotton as “one of the best in the world,” and said she knew that statements against Xinjiang cotton had “provoked a strong reaction from Chinese netizens.” Then, seeking to turn to tables, Hua held up a black-and-white photograph of a cotton pickers working in the United States more than 100 years ago: “Here is a picture of black slaves being forced to work in cotton fields in the US,” she said.
By the end of March, the phrase "Xinjiang cotton" had peaked in Chinese public opinion. According to Baidu, the phrase reached its highest point on March 25, leveling off after that.
The incident around "Xinjiang cotton" can be seen as a classic case of cresting online nationalism in response to perceived slights against China, what the New York Times has called China’s “outrage machine.” The dynamic has played out repeatedly in recent years, with sometimes dramatic consequences for foreign brands. In August 2019, the fashion house Versace issued a public apology after a wave of fury arose on Chinese social media over a t-shirt that seemed to suggest Hong Kong was a separate country. The very next day, the French luxury brand Givenchy faced similar outrage over a clothing item that offended nationalist notions of China’s territorial integrity – and issued a public apology on Weibo. Next came the Austrian jewelry company Swarovski. The examples abound, and are likely to continue and perhaps intensify.
Many cases like those mentioned above have arisen through the zeal of online nationalists in China as a form of collective activism, and have seemed spontaneous in origin. In the "Xinjiang cotton" case, however, it is difficult to determine what role the government might have had in encouraging online outrage in order to push back against criticisms of its human rights record and send a strong message to Western companies. The Youth League sent a warning against H&M for “breaking porcelain.” The fact is, however, that the matter had been quiet for many months after the company’s statement. The Chinese response, encouraged by Party-state media through social media platforms, looks very much like a staged crash that was intended to drown out criticisms from the US and the EU.