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China’s Political Discourse May 2023: Multilateralism, Tang Dynasty Style
Edited by Chu Yang and David L. Bandurski of the China Media Project
Multilateralism, Tang Dynasty Style
The highlight of official state media discourse in May 2023 was the inaugural China-Central Asia Summit, during which Xi Jinping hosted leaders from five Central Asian nations, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The summit formally opened in the city of Xi’an on May 18 with a grand event hosted at Tang Paradise, a theme park featuring monumental new constructions inspired by the architectural forms of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), when Xi’an, then Chang’an (长安), was an imperial capital.
The summit was kicked off as the visiting leaders were treated to a lavish Tang-style ceremony complete with performers in brightly colored Tang costumes. As each leader arrived in Red Flag sedan cars, they were escorted down a red carpet by a pair of women in Tang gowns, each bearing a lantern with the Chinese character for “Tang” (唐).
Like the Macron visit in April, the pageantry of the China-Central Asia Summit conveyed a sense of imperial greatness. While on the one hand, the ceremony conveyed a message of respect for visiting leaders, it worked at the same time to create a sense that they were arriving at Emperor Xi Jinping’s court (万邦来朝). A further aspect of the symbolism was to emphasize Xi’an and the ancient Silk Road as a channel of longstanding connection between China and Central Asia.
China has successfully pushed in recent years to gain UNESCO World Heritage status for the so-called Chang’an-Tian Shan Silk Road Corridor, one of the major land routes of the Silk Road. While the fact that trade moved in two directions over this route should be obvious to everyone, China has promoted the notion that Xi’an was “the starting point of the Silk Road,” which again seems to place it at the center of an ancient network of global trade and supports Xi Jinping’s current civilizational narrative of returning to greatness — the Tang being for many Chinese synonymous with past cultural glories.
Accordingly, Xi Jinping took the opportunity in his speech to quote a line from the revered Tang dynasty poet Li Bai: “In Chang’an we traveled hand-in-hand; Meeting again worth more than one thousand pieces of gold.” In the state media, the Li Bai line from Xi Jinping’s speech was repeated again and again, interpreted as a reference to the longstanding friendship between China and Central Asia.
The front page of the May 21 edition of the People’s Daily included two reports about the summit. The first of these was called, “Continuing a Thousand Years of Friendship, Opening Up a New Future” (续写千年友谊 开辟崭新未来). The second, which took the Li Bai couplet as its headline (长安复携手，再顾重千金), again emphasized the historical depth of the connection between China and Central Asia: “The China-Central Asia Summit, held in physical form for the first time since the establishment of diplomatic relations 31 years ago, marks the official start of the China-Central Asia Heads of State Meeting mechanism, and it has written a colorful chapter in the history of friendly relations between China and Central Asia stretching back over 2,000 years.”
Central Asia was mentioned in 120 articles in the People’s Daily in May, placing the region in Tier 2 of the CMP scale. The People’s Daily ran six commentaries through May bylined “He Yin” (和音), marking them as pieces representing the view of the central leadership on foreign relations:
May 9, 2023, "Jointly Drawing Up a New Blueprint for China-Central Asia Relations" (共同擘画中国中亚关系新蓝图)
May 15, 2023, "Continuing to Be Pioneers in Building the ‘Belt and Road’" (继续做共建“一带一路”的先行者)
May 18, 2023, "Hand-in-Hand on the Road to State Development and Revitalization" (在国家发展振兴的道路上携手前行)
May 21, 2023, "Building a New Historical Monument in the History of China-Central Asia Relations)" (在中国—中亚关系史上树立起新的历史丰碑)
May 22, 2023, "Upholding Mutual Assistance, Common Development, Universal Security and Generational Friendship" (坚持守望相助、共同发展、普遍安全、世代友好)
May 23, 2023, "The Road to Good Neighbourliness and Win-Win Cooperation Is Bound to Get Wider and Wider)" (睦邻友好、合作共赢之路必定越走越宽广)
Beyond the signaling of imperial greatness and the power of Xi Jinping’s New Era vision, the pomp of the China-Central Asia Summit was about creating another international focal point as the major democracies of the G7 met in Hiroshima, Japan, to discuss the coordination of global economic policy.
Party-state media used the two summits — China’s opening just one day earlier — to contrast global leadership styles, suggesting that while the G7 Summit was closed and exclusive, the China-Central Asia Summit was “open, inclusive, and mutually respectful.” In an editorial on May 18, the Global Times newspaper, a spin-off of the People’s Daily, suggested that China’s summit was an example of “true multilateralism” (真多边主义), as opposed to the “pseudo multilateralism” (伪多边主义) of the G7. Criticizing discussions in Japan of the Ukraine war and of China’s actions in the East and South China Seas, the editorial called the G7 Summit an “exclusive, closed cabal that whips up confrontation geopolitically.”
The state media in May emphasized again and again that while the G7 stood for a model of multilateralism that was confrontational, China’s alternative was all about cooperation and consensus.
But the Xi’an Declaration, the supposed consensus document emerging at the end of the China-Central Asia Summit, clearly showed the pitfalls of China’s Tang-style multilateralism for anyone willing to look closely at the text. The statement bore all the tell-tale marks of official CCP discourse, stacked full of China’s own political concepts and priorities — with not a touch to suggest that visited leaders had any part in its preparation.
In a nod to Xi Jinping’s notion of a “community of common destiny for mankind,” for example, the document spoke of building a “China-Central Asia Community of Common Destiny” (中国—中亚命运共同体). Mirroring the CCP’s obsession with undermining the credibility of the US and its allies as defenders of democratic values, the statement also stated that “democracy is a common aspiration and value of mankind,” and affirmed the right of each country to choose its own development path as a matter of national sovereignty.
But the most egregious example of self-dealing praise in what was ostensibly a joint statement was the inclusion of a line saying that ‘the Central Asian countries [in attendance] highly valued the precious experience of the Chinese Communist Party in governing the country, and affirmed the importance of the Chinese-style modernization path for world development.”
Focus Topic: Xi’s Visions for New Development Zones
In May, the phrase “coordinated development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region” (京津冀协同发展), which can also be called “BTH coordinated development,” appeared in 12 articles in the People’s Daily. While this may not seem significant in terms of frequency of use, ranking only in Tier 4 on the CMP scale, half of these articles appeared on the front page of the paper — suggesting a high level of priority.
During the four-day stretch from May 12 to 15, discussion of “BTH coordinated development” dominated the front page of the paper.
Since 2014, China's central government has considered relocating a number of Beijing's administrative functions to Baoding, a prefecture-level city in central Hebei province about 150 kilometers southwest of the capital. The goal is to relieve congestion in the capital and improve the economy in surrounding areas. BTH coordinated development has been designated as a national strategy.
In his memoir Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower, former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson revealed that Xi Jinping regarded BTH coordinated development, as a regional approach to solving urbanization issues, as one of his signature legacies. According to Paulson, Xi Jinping told him personally in July 2014 that the idea was his "own personal initiative."
As part of the initiative, the Xiong’an New Area in Baoding was established in 2017. So far, opinions on the initiative, which has been slow in getting off the ground, have been mixed. But given that the project is a pet priority of Xi’s, the government is certainly working hard to make it a success — or at least seems to be. In one of this month's front-page articles, the objective of building Xiong‘an was included in the bold headline: “Striving to become a pioneering demonstration zone for Chinese modernization.” This suggests that aside from its possible value as an urban area relieving congestion in Beijing, BTH coordinated development is about highlighting Xi Jinping’s visionary leadership, offering a physical demonstration of the concept of “Chinese-style modernization.”
In this vein, state media coverage around the China-Central Asia Summit revealed Xi Jinping’s possible future designs for similar new area development in Shaanxi province. In coverage dominating the May 18 edition of the People’s Daily, the paper reported on Xi Jinping’s remarks to Shaanxi officials on the province’s development on the eve of the summit, in which he outlined several directions. Emphasizing that Shaanxi could have a “model role” in Western China in demonstrating “Chinese-style modernization,” Xi said that the province should promote a “pilot free trade zone,” and should “actively participate in the construction of new land and sea channels in the west,” which might “accelerate the formation of an important opening corridor for Central Asia, South Asia, and West Asia.” By new land and sea channels, Xi refers in this case to the transport of goods from the city of Nanning in the south, and from the South China Sea, up north to Chongqing, with the route through Xi’an then connecting to Central Asia.
Xi’s statements suggest it might be foreseeable that Shaanxi becomes the next Xiong’an-style project, with the idea that it helps form the backbone of his flagship “Belt and Road” Initiative.
In the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping initiated the establishment of special economic zones (SEZs), which sought to create a favorable investment environment through special economic policies and incentives, thus attracting foreign investment and developing labor-intensive manufacturing and exports. These SEZs became the foundation of a development model that drove China's rapid economic growth for decades.
It is possible that Xi Jinping, with projects like Xiong’an and a new Shaanxi corridor, has his eye on similarly building his political legacy around his own distinctive push for special zone development. Beyond legacy, of course, there are likely practical considerations, particularly as China’s economy lags and its trade relations with the US and Europe grow tense. One of China’s key responses to this challenge has been to encourage technological self-reliance, a strong theme in state media coverage in recent months. In May, the phrase “technology self-reliance and self-improvement” (科技自立自强) appeared in 90 articles in the People’s Daily, placing it in Tier 2 of the CMP scale. Self-reliance in technology is also an important part of the blueprints of the new areas mentioned above — both in Baoding and Shaanxi — which have emphasized their role in “high-quality development,” and their high concentration of top-tier institutions and research talent.
China’s visions for these development zones will be an important topic to pay attention to over the next few years.
May Surprises: “Winning Battles, with Excellent Conduct”
On May 13, 2023, Chinese stand-up comedian Li Haoshi (李昊石), who goes by the stage name “House,” invoked the ire of China’s state-run media when he seemed to make light of an official People’s Liberation Army (PLA) slogan during a live performance in Beijing. The slogan, “Winning battles, with excellent conduct” (能打胜仗，作风优良), has been used frequently by the PLA and Chinese state media since 2013 to signal Xi Jinping’s resolve in reaching “the goal of a powerful military” (强军目标).
Li Haoshi quipped to his audience that he had adopted two stray dogs that showed great determination whenever a squirrel crossed their path. “When these two dogs chase a squirrel, they launch after it like artillery shells,” Li said. “Usually, you see dogs and you think how cute they are, and your heart melts . . . . When I see these two dogs, my heart flashes with the words: ‘Winning battles, with excellent conduct.’”
Once a video of the performance had gone viral on Weibo, accusations were hurled not just at Li, but also at the company that hired him, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media (上海笑果文化傳媒有限公司), which was fined close to two million dollars. The hashtag, “XiaoGuo suspected of insulting PLA in stand-up shows” became a trending topic on Weibo. Li Haoshi has been banned indefinitely from future performances and could face prison time. On May 17, police in Beijing announced that they had opened an investigation into Li’s performance, suggesting a criminal case could follow.
While Li’s punishment was hailed by online nationalists, other voices offered context suggesting his non-serious use of the phrase was not at all unusual. Some netizens, for example, dug out a social media post made in 2020 by Henan Business Daily, a commercial spin-off of the flagship CCP newspaper in Henan province, that praised police dogs using the PLA slogan, accompanied by a video of a dog training on a treadmill.
Commenting on several posts like this one, some internet users employed the popular phrase, “Officials can set fire to the city, while ordinary people are not allowed to light their lamps” (只需州官放火，不许百姓点灯). Other sharp-eyed netizens did their homework and noticed that "ideological talk shows" (思政脱口秀), onstage comedy events designed to instill Party ideology through comedy, have been promoted on official social media channels on a regular basis across the country for several years (Read more on “Ideological and Political Education” in the CMP Dictionary).
Some users online speculated, perhaps prematurely, that the authorities hoped to take advantage of the Li Haoshi incident to wipe out private stand-up acts in favor of state-backed events for purely propaganda purposes. It is also important to note that Chinese authorities, in acting against Li Haoshi and the company representing him, made use of an ostensibly independent professional association, the China Association of Performing Arts. In “Comedy, Under the Watchful Eye of the State,” CMP took a more in-depth look at how China uses professional associations as proxies through which to exercise political and ideological control.
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:
While the key terms appearing at the top of the CMP scale in April remained largely unchanged in May, the term “Belt and Road” (一带一路) did manage to re-join the top group. The term was boosted significantly by the first China-Central Asia Summit, which emphasized the ancient ties between China and Central Asia over the Silk Road, as well as related initiatives under the BRI umbrella. The term was also mentioned in conjunction with visits from African leaders.
Also heating up in May as a result of these diplomatic engagements was the phrase "major changes not seen in a century" (百年未有之大变局), which moved up to Tier 2 from Tier 3. As we have explained in previous reports, this phrase has routinely been used to reflect China’s ambition to play a more central role in international affairs as well as the sense that external factors, such as waning US power, make this new centrality possible.
As noted in this report’s Focus Topic, self-reliance in science and technology was a major theme in the official discourse in May. Not surprisingly, phrases related to innovation and creating its conditions also appeared more frequently in May. Examples include “independent innovation” (自主创新) and “streamlining services” (放管服), which both rose one level. Accelerating technological independence has also taken on greater urgency in recent months in China as fears have grown of the possible impact of Western sanctions. Possibly for this reason, the term “decoupling” (脱钩) featured more strongly in May, moving up one level up to Tier 4.
More than three years after the start of the global pandemic, it appears that Covid-19 related discourse may be decisively on the decline. The phrase “epidemic prevention and control” (疫情防控), which was consistently among the top terms on the CMP scale for more than two years, had remained in Tier 2 for the first four months of this year. In May, the phrase dropped down to Tier 3. “Dual circulation of the domestic and the international” (国内国际双循环), a phrase related to economic policy responses to the pandemic, also dropped down to Tier 4.
As was the case in April, the various permutations of Xi Jinping’s banner phrase for specific policy areas continued to underperform in May. “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), Xi’s catchphrase for environmental policy and sustainable development, remained in Tier 3. “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想) remained in Tier 4. “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想) rebounded to Tier 5, but had just 5 mentions in total. “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” (习近平强军思想), the general secretary’s signature national security phrase, dropped one level to the bottom of the CMP scale in Tier 6, where it was joined by “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” (习近平经济思想).
The “Two Establishes” (两个确立), since late 2021 a crucial phrase signaling the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, remained in Tier 2, as did the “Two Safeguards” (两个维护), which is similar in meaning. The first phrase 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. The second phrase refers to the need to protect 1) Xi’s “core” status and 2) the authority and centralized leadership of the Party.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of February 2023 and how they rated on our scale:
The Centrality Index
Xi Jinping was mentioned in 660 articles in the People’s Daily in May 2023, up slightly from the previous month. This placed him at the top of the CMP scale in Tier 1, where he has held strong for more than two years. He was far and away the most mentioned leader in the CCP’s Central Committee, with all others arrayed across Tiers 3, 4, 5, and 6. As we have mentioned in previous reports, the empty Tier 2 can be seen as an expression of the gulf that lies between Xi and the remaining six members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).
China’s premier, Li Qiang (李强), topped the list of leaders in the Central Committee and PSC who were not Xi Jinping. A busy run of domestic affairs and diplomatic engagements kept Li solidly in Tier 3 for May. On top of routine government matters, Li made an inspection tour to Shandong province and also met with foreign leaders from visiting Central Asian countries, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Eritrea.
Wang Yi (王毅), China’s top diplomat as director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, managed to remain in Tier 3 for a third consecutive month, but only just. He accompanied Xi Jinping to 12 diplomatic events, and he personally spoke with leaders and delegations from five countries. These meetings included much-anticipated meetings in Vienna on May 10-11 between Wang and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (US readout), which sought to put communications between the two sides back on track following tensions over the spy balloon incident and other issues this year.
It is interesting to note that while Wang’s numbers in the People’s Daily slipped slightly in May, the trend generally for his arena of focus, foreign affairs, is strong. This can be seen in particular in the strong performance in the official media discourse of Qin Gang (秦刚), China’s minister of foreign affairs — who is not a member of the CCP’s Central Committee. A busy schedule of diplomatic engagements in May, including a state visit to Europe, gave Qin 45 appearances in the People’s Daily, putting him in Tier 2. The strong performance of Qin Gang, in particular, reflects China’s focus on foreign policy from the outset of Xi Jinping’s third term, as his administration seeks to improve the international environment in ways conducive to further development.
Wang Huning (王沪宁), the fourth-ranking PSC member and chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), was solidly in Tier 4 for May. He was joined in Tier 4 by CPPCC vice-chairman and Politburo member Shi Taifeng (石泰峰), who currently heads the United Front Work Department. Both officials attended a May 16 “special consultation meeting” (专题协商会) on the theme of "enhancing the influence and communicative power of Chinese civilization" (增强中华文明传播力影响力), which made the front page of the May 17th edition of the People’s Daily. Such “special consultation meetings” at the CPPCC generally happen in May and July each year, and recent themes have included promoting digital economy development and grappling with the challenge of an aging population.
Delivering the keynote at the meeting, Wang Huning, the former scholar who is widely regarded as the CCP’s top political theorist and generator of power-related discourse (including the banner terms of Xi and his predecessors), stressed the need for the CCP to “build brands and working platforms“ (品牌和工作平台) for international communications, and to “enhance the appeal and dissemination of China stories.” The goal, he said, was to “present a credible, lovable and respectable image of China to the world, better promoting civilizational exchange and cooperation.” Though Wang Huning did not seem from official readouts to have directly mentioned the need for China to achieve greater “international discourse power,” this was the broader implication of the consultation meeting. Since the 20th National Congress of the CCP last fall, when Xi Jinping’s political report included the phrase “enhancing the influence and communicative power of Chinese civilization,” an invigorated civilizational discourse has been the center of China’s efforts in the arena of external propaganda and public diplomacy. The phrase originates with Xi’s political report, where it is tied to the notion that China needs “international discourse power commensurate with its comprehensive national strength and standing in the world.”
Zhao Leji, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and the third-ranking member of the PSC, just barely missed the cut for Tier 4 in May, appearing in seven articles for the month. During the first half of the month, these dealt with Zhao’s overseas visits, to Senegal, Morocco, and Malaysia. During the second half, they concerned his meetings with visiting delegations back in Beijing, including the speaker of the Icelandic parliament, Birgir Armannsson, and the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As we mentioned at the start of this report, the inaugural China-Central Asia Summit, which China sought to contrast with the G7 summit in Japan, was treated with great fanfare in the official state media in May. The emphasis on the summit can also be clearly seen in the strength of the top leaders of each of the nations invited, who topped the charts among foreign leaders in the People’s Daily for the month. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, President of Turkmenistan Serdar Berdimuhamedow, and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, all performed strongly in May, reaching Tier 3 of the CMP scale.
All other foreign leaders were arrayed across Tiers 4-6. Felix Tshisekedi, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was mentioned in 11 articles, was the only leader alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin (8 mentions) in Tier 4. Tshisekedi was one of two African leaders to make official visits to China in May, the other being Isaias Afwerki, president of Eritrea. Appearing in 7 articles, Afwerki narrowly missed Tier 4. He landed in Tier 5 with French President Emmanuel Macron, who appeared in three articles to bolster Chinese criticism of US opportunism and unilateralism, and in four others on ranging issues.
The remaining leaders all had less than four mentions, most just one or two. US President Joe Biden was mentioned in just two articles for the month. One was an article related to non-specific accusations from Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador that the US was funding groups in Mexico hostile to his government through its United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an independent agency of the federal government that offers foreign aid and development assistance. López Obrador’s accusations perfectly delved with one of the dominant narrative strands in the CCP’s internal and external propaganda — that the US is a destructive force globally.
The second article mentioning Biden, which dealt with the G7 summit in Hiroshima and with the Japan-US summit meeting, was similarly critical in tone, falsely giving the sense that the summit had experienced strong resistance in Japan. There were small-scale protests during the event, involving around 250 people, but these were exploited by both Russia and China to suggest popular opposition. In one report, the state-run China Daily mischaracterized small rallies as “wide [sic] protests.” On Twitter, meanwhile, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying characterized the G7 as “[stoking] division and confrontation,” in contrast to a Central Asia Summit in Xi’an unmarred by protests. The People’s Daily article emphasized that protesters had chanted: “The G7 summit is a war conference.” (Read more in the May 18 edition of CMP’s Lingua Sinica newsletter).
A visit to Ukraine on May 16-17 by China's Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs, Li Hui (李辉), brought Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky back out of the cold as a brief account of the visit by Xinhua News Agency was included on page two of the May 19 edition of the People’s Daily. The article consisted mostly of platitudes, CCP jargon, and self-dealing praise. To resolve the crisis, the article said, “all parties will need to start with themselves and build mutual trust." It mentioned also that Li, a former ambassador to Russia, had emphasized Xi Jinping’s “Four Shoulds” (四个应该) as the path forward to a political resolution (For more, read “Speak Plainly, Mr. Chairman”). And finally, the article monologued about the leadership’s “constructive role” and neutrality. “China has always played a constructive role in its own way to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Ukraine,” it said, “and will continue to provide assistance to Ukraine within its capabilities.”
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