China’s Political Discourse May 2022: Stabilizing the Economic “Big Board”
By China Media Project
In May 2022, a video conference on boosting the economy attended by more than 170,000 officials sent a wave of surprise and concern through Chinese social media. The event prompted widespread speculation in China, and internationally, about the direction of the economy and possible shifts within the top leadership. Commentary pieces quickly appeared in the Party media in an effort to minimize anxieties stemming from the conference.
Media in different regions ultimately made different choices about how to handle the two seemingly contradictory messaging strands – one a more ideologically-driven call for calm, and the other the more pragmatic posture associated with Premier Li Keqiang, the host of the video conference. Below we look more closely at how various media approached these choices.
One key phrase used around the conference in May was a reference to the economic “big board” (大盘), referring in this case the macroeconomy. The Chinese name used to refer in the media to Li’s conference, in fact, literally translates “national video conference on the stabilizing of the economic big board (全国稳住经济大盘电视电话会议). While the term “big board” has been around for some time – referring generally to all shares in circulation on the stock market as a reflection of overall trading in securities – it has been used in more official contexts since around 2015 as a metaphor for the larger economic picture.
The term “big board” to refer to the macroeconomy might trace back, in fact, to Li Keqiang’s use of the term at a March 15, 2013, press conference with foreign journalists following the National People’s Congress that year. As the People’s Daily reported the next day, Li said: “I am confident that if we all work together, we will be able to maintain China’s economic big board and fundamentally improve.” It was nearly five and half years later, on August 4, 2020, that the full phrase “stabilizing the economic big board’ (稳住经济大盘) first appeared in the People’s Daily, in an article urging the need to “resolutely stabilize the economic big board” by implementing strategies to grow domestic demand.
Focus Topic: An Unprecedented Conference
Back on April 29, a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee demanded that “the epidemic must be prevented, the economy must be stabilized, and development must be secure” (疫情要防住, 经济要稳住, 发展要安全). The phrase did manage to encompass what the leadership wished to prioritize as the three basic elements influencing China’s course. But they were also clearly an impossible triangle, a trilemma, that left people imagining how it was possible all at once to pursue zero-covid, ensure stable economic growth, and control development risks.
Judging from the response by Party media, these three strands braided into a single phrase became the definition of CCP political correctness (政治正确) for the month of May 2022. The phrase is likely to remain important for months to come. Frequently trotted out to defend the government’s present combination of Covid prevention and economic policies, the phrase shot up to Tier 3 on the CMP scale in May, appearing alongside regulars like “China's Plan” (中国方案), and “new development stage” (新发展阶段).
On May 16, the National Bureau of Statistics released the economic figures for April, which showed that new downward pressures on the economy were intensifying. The Covid epidemic was clearly having a substantial impact on economic activity, and most major economic indicators were falling back. The value added of industries above the national scale fell 2.9 percent in April, and the national urban unemployment rate reached 6.1 percent. Meanwhile, the national consumer price index (CPI) rose 2.1 percent year-on-year, up 0.6 percentage points over March.
In a report on an executive meeting of the State Council on May 23, the official Xinhua News Agency said: “At present, downward pressure on the economy is continuing to grow, and many market players are having extreme difficulty. The meeting prepared a series of measures to stabilize the economy.”
Judging from what came next, these measures from the State Council apparently included the video and telephone conference with officials from the provincial down to the county level, as well as 12 special inspection teams (专项督查组) dispatched by the State Council to explore ways to achieve what is called "two stabilizations and one protection" (两稳一保) – meaning stabilizing growth and market players, and protecting employment.
The national video teleconference on stabilizing the economy (全国稳住经济大盘电视电话会议), held on May 25, was completely unprecedented. Separate conference venues were established at the provincial, city and county levels, and the event was attended or watched by government leaders and the heads of major government units at every level. At the provincial level, the highest-ranking leaders in attendance were deputy CCP secretaries.
Premier Li Keqiang said during the conference that since March, and especially since April, employment, industrial production, power and freight numbers and other indicators were clearly trending down. On certain aspects, he said, the difficulties were even greater than the hit taken in the midst of the pandemic in 2020. Work had to be done, said Li, to ensure that the economy achieved reasonable growth in the second quarter, and that the unemployment rate fell as quickly as possible to keep the economy “running within a reasonable range.”
In nearly every aspect, from its basic form to its channels of communication, this State Council meeting was an unconventional operation. The number of participants, more than 100,000 from a conservative estimate of 2,844 county-level administrative regions, was staggering. An article on May 27 in the Study Times journal, published by the Central Party School, disclosed rather tactfully that the video conference had been attended by 170,000 cadres at the county level and above.
Likely owing to the large number of participants, there were also many outlets for information. Almost at the meeting was underway, live photos could be seen online. A transcript of the meeting was subsequently leaked, including speeches by the heads of the Development and Reform Commission (DRC), the Ministry of Finance and the People’s Bank of China, the contents of which had not yet been disclosed in official news releases by Xinhua or other central media.
For the State Council to take such an immense and unprecedented step to stabilize the economy suggesting unprecedented levels of economic concern. So later that evening efforts were also underway through the state media to neutralize the social impact such a conference was likely to have. On the night of May 25, the Economic Daily ran a commentary prepared by its editorial department that drummed away about the phrase Xi Jinping had used back on April 29, demanding that “the epidemic must be prevented, the economy must be stabilized, and development must be secure.”
The commentary, “Taking a Comprehensive Dialectical View of the Current Economic Situation (全面辩证看待当前经济形势), went to lengths to emphasize that the weakness experienced since March was short-term, owing to extrinsic “fluctuations.” “But in the face of downward pressure, and even more severe challenges, our country’s economy remains powerfully resilient,” it said.
At just before 10PM on May 25, Xinhua re-posted the Economic Daily commentary in full on its website. It appeared on page 11 of the People’s Daily newspaper the next morning, at the same time as Xinhua’s official news release on the 170,000-strong video conference.
As the Economic Daily website reveals, the newspaper is “a comprehensive central-level Party paper chiefly carrying out economic propaganda” under the State Council, “led and managed by the Central Propaganda Department.” It is an important public opinion position (舆论阵地) of the CCP Central Committee and the State Council in leading economic work. For such a paper under the State Council to raise viewpoints so clearly at odds with those of the State Council Premier, even demanding a comprehensive “dialectical view” of the economic situation, is very strange indeed, and seems to pull the rug right out from underneath the video conference agenda.
Understandably, this apparent conflict of approaches left editors at national newspapers and provincial-level Party papers at a loss as to how to treat the story.
The Liberation Army Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Central Military Commission, used what was perhaps the most definitive page treatment. It placed both the Economic Daily commentary and the Xinhua release on the videoconference on page three. But while the latter was simply a small brief placed in the upper right-hand corner of the page, just 68 characters in length, the Economic Daily commentary was splashed across the left-hand side, occupying three-fifths of the page.
The meager Xinhua news brief on Li Keqiang’s videoconference simply shrank under the weight of the call for a “comprehensive dialectical view.” The brief read:
At a national telephone and video conference on the stabilization of the economy on the 25th, Li Keqiang stressed that the effects of solid promotion of economic stabilization policies can be seen on the ground, protect market entities, employment and people's livelihoods, and ensuring that the economy is running in a reasonable range. [Vice-premier] Han Zheng presided.
The treatments of the story at provincial-level newspapers could be divided into four basic categories.
The first involved running both the Economic Daily commentary and the official Xinhua news brief on the videoconference (focusing, as above, on the activity of the premier alone). Eight provincial-level jurisdictions followed this option. The second option was to run neither piece, something six jurisdictions chose to do. These two options were clearly a form of self-protection. The provinces hoped to hedge their bets, and cause offense to no one.
Third, papers could run the Xinhua release but not the commentary, which can be considered the normal procedure as a release from Xinhua on the activities of country’s premier would generally in such a case be given preference. This was the option taken by most jurisdictions, 16 in all, including Tianjin, Chongqing and Guangdong.
Finally, papers could opt to run the commentary but not the Xinhua release. Just one province, Liaoning, made this choice.
The following table shows the four options taken by provincial-level media, where A represents the Xinhua News Agency release on Li’s conference, and B the Economic Daily commentary. In options 2 and 4, the media might have mentioned Li’s video conference in other reports, but did not run the Xinhua release.
During the last week of May, following the videoconference, various provinces revealed their concrete plans to respond to the call to “stabilize the economy.” In terms of the number of articles dealing with related economic responses, Henan, Hebei and Hunan were on top, each running 10 or more articles over the six-day period. Meanwhile, Beijing, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang trailed at the back, with at most two articles each.
Will last month's unprecedented economic conference enable Li Keqiang to stabilize the "big board" of China's economy?
The May event reminded some of another unconventional meeting in China's past that became a historical turning point – namely the 7,000 Cadres Conference held in 1962. As China faced with the tragic consequences of the woefully misguided Great Leap Forward, which led to famine conditions that claimed the lives of up to 45 million Chinese. At the 7,000 Cadres Conference, Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇), then vice chairman of the CCP Central Committee and president of the country, more openly criticized Mao Zedong and Peng Dehuai, saying that the Great Leap Forward had been "three parts natural disaster and seven parts man-made disaster." The central government, he said, bore chief responsibility for the calamity.
The 1962 conference ultimately failed to correct the serious political errors that had led to tragedy during the Great Leap Forward. Quite the contrary, it allowed Mao Zedong to see clearly those who dared to voice criticism as well as those that could be relied upon to support his grasp on power. Comparison of this year’s videoconference and the 1962 7,000 Cadres Conference should perhaps not be taken too far. But the results of the conference, political and economic, could become clearer by year’s end.
May Surprises: Nucleic acid testing for the dead
Chinese internet users discovered in May that one section of the Shenzhen government service app “iShezhen” (i深圳) dealing with “Smart Funerals” (智慧殡葬) included a “warm reminder” to users that: “In the midst of the epidemic, mourners for the deceased within sealed control and prevention areas require not only a death certificate or remains transfer certificate, but also must, according to PCR testing demands in that area, provide proof of PCR testing for the deceased.”
A fact-checking report by Cover (封面), a new media outlet launched by the official Sichuan Daily, confirmed the procedure, and quoted staff at a Shenzhen funeral home as saying the policy had been in place since 2022, as ordered by the city’s healthcare commission, the Civil Affairs Bureau and the Public Security Bureau. “For deceased during the epidemic in sealed control and prevention areas, a PCR test within 24 hours is generally required,” the staff member told Cover. “And in cases where there is no way to present one, the PCR test results of the family may be provided.”
The coldness of these policies and procedures angered many internet users. Some joked bitterly that in the future film and television dramas set during the Covid epidemic would possibly need to include scenes in which doctors pull aside the family members of dying patients to quietly say, “The situation doesn’t look good, and you need to be prepared – go quickly and get your PCR tests.”
On May 8, “Sheng Ming Yuan” (生命缘), a program on Beijing Television 1 (BTV-1), reported that a transfer operation called “Crucifix” (十字花) was underway in Courtyard No. 3 on Guangtai West Road (广泰西路) in Chaoyang District's Nanmufang Township (南磨房). One resident in a single residential building there had tested positive for Covid, and according to control and prevention policies, a specificied number of residents in the building would need to be urgently transferred to quarantine facilities.
The report explained that it was necessary only to quarantine some residents within the building because prevention teams had determined that infection was most likely to have occurred through direct interaction with residents on the same floor, and through vertical infection across units on different floors through connected sewage and ventilation systems. The combined surgical removal of residents along horizontal and vertical planes resulted in a cruciform shape, and hence the operation had been dubbed “Crucifix.”
Within less than two hours, 13 families in this residential area, 29 people in all, had been transferred successfully to quarantine.
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 May 2022, one term was added to Tier 1 of the CMP scale. This was “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心), a phrase that points clearly to registering in the official discourse of the preeminent status of General Secretary Xi Jinping. The phrase rose from Tier 2 in April.
The “Two Upholds” (两个维护), or “Two Protections,” which codifies the need to 1) protect the “core” status of Xi Jinping within the CCP, and 2) to protect the centralized authority of the Party, rose one level to Tier 2 in May, as did the “Two Establishes” (两个确立). Both of these phrases play an important role in signaling loyalty to Xi, and their rise along with the “core” language could be seen as part of the same upward trend in pro-Xi language.
Another term rising one level (to Tier 3) was the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), which refers to the 1) need to maintain political integrity, 2) think in big-picture terms, 3) uphold the leadership core (again, Xi Jinping), and 4) keep in alignment with the CCP’s central leadership.
As we have said previously, we should also pay close attention this year to the various policy-related permutations of Xi Jinping’s banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” Of the five major permutations, there were substantial shifts in just two. The big winner in May was “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想), which rose from Tier 6 to Tier 4. The big loser was “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), which dropped two levels of Tier 5.
It is interesting to note that “Xi Jinping Thought on the Economy” actually rose one level in May, reaching Tier 5, after being at the bottom in Tier 6 in April. So that in a month during which economic policy was a matter of some concern and confusion, as covered at the outset of this report, the Xi-related phrase for economic policy actually saw some moderate improvement.
“Xi Jinping Thought on the Economy” appeared in just two articles in April, but made six articles in total in May, just below the threshold to make Tier 4. This apparently resulted from a People’s Daily commentary following the April 29 Politburo meeting on the proper conduct of “economic work,” which emphasized the need to unite behind Xi Jinping, and from the newspaper’s hosting along with the Zhejiang provincial leadership of the “Summit for the Steady Promotion of Common Prosperity” (扎实推动共同富裕高峰论坛), held on May 20.
“Xi Jinping Though on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想) and “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” (习近平强军思想) remained steady in May, ending in Tier 4 just as in April.
The phrase “downward pressure” (下行压力), another reflecting concerns of economic weakness, appeared in 30 articles in May, rising from 22 in April.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of May 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 this year, the China Media Project is tracking 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 May 2022, the top three provincial-level administrations using the phrase “Two Establishes” were Guangdong (for its second top-three showing of the year), Qinghai (first time in top three) and Tibet (fourth month in the top three). The following map shows the frequency of articles including the phrase “Two Establishes” in provincial-level Party newspapers in May 2022.
Comparing the number of articles using the "Two Establishes" on a monthly basis since the start of the year, we can note that notwithstanding a March exception owing to the National People’s Congress, use of the phrase remains down from the level in January this year. The “Two Establishes” remained at a relatively low level in May, just two articles higher than in April.
The same trend can be observed whether we look at the official People’s Daily, or at all newspapers in China.
When we look at newspapers generally across China, the trend is in fact even slightly more pronounced, likely because the Covid epidemic has rebounded across the country, resulting in repeated local lockdowns. The weak trend for the “Two Establishes” is likely an indication that uncertainly over the spread of Omicron variant has somewhat interfered with propaganda plans ahead of the 20th National Congress of the CCP.
The Centrality Index
There were no major shifts in the relative attention paid to CCP leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee in May 2022, despite widespread speculation, much of it based on insufficient context in analysis of the People's Daily, that Xi Jinping's leadership was being tested. CMP dealt in-depth with this question on May 19 in "Politics on Page One."
Xi held steady in Tier 1, at the very top of the CMP scale, logging more than 600 articles. Meanwhile, Li Keqiang appeared in just six more stories than his April level, with the tone of these stories remaining much the same as in the previous month. All other Politburo members were distributed across Tier 4, 5 and 6.
In May 2022, US President Joe Biden remained the most-mentioned foreign leader in the People’s Daily, appearing in 11 reports in total and rising from Tier 5 to Tier 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who consistently appeared in Tier 4 and Tier 3 in January and February, was in cold Tier 6 territory for the third consecutive month. In May, Putin appeared in just one report in the People’s Daily. The article’s headline, “’NATO Poses a Threat to Global Peace and Cooperation,’” was drawn from a quote from Serbian diplomat and politician Živadin Jovanović, who formerly served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. "The expansion of NATO over the past 10 years is the reason for the crisis in Ukraine," the paper quoted him as saying. "Not only that, NATO poses a threat to global peace and cooperation.”
As South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, assumed office on May 10, Vice-President Wang Qishan (王岐山) was invited to attend the inauguration in Seoul on behalf of Xi Jinping. Related coverage moved President Yoon into Tier 5 for May. Wang’s visit to South Korea was the first from a senior Chinese official since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.