China’s Political Discourse November 2022: A Fire in Xinjiang Ignites Fury on the Streets of Shanghai
By China Media Project
This monthly report is prepared for Sinocism by the excellent China Media Project.
A Fire in Xinjiang Ignites Fury on the Streets of Shanghai
As the October political season faded, November brought a notable easing in intensity for some political catchphrases closely associated with Xi Jinping. These were not rhetorical setbacks for Xi, but rather expected moderations as China headed into the first full month following the fanfare of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi-related phrases experiencing moderate declines included the general secretary’s so-called “banner term” (旗帜语), “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” as well as related terms for various policy areas, such as “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), the prevailing catchphrase for environmental policy and sustainable development.
Another phrase to experience a moderate decline was “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心), which dropped from Tier 1 to Tier 2 in November after a strong showing around the 20th Congress.
November 2022 was also notable as the last month during which China’s “zero Covid” policy, in place since 2020, was fully implemented. Despite the marked shift in the policy toward Covid unfolding in November, however, strong and even inflexible language about fighting the epidemic remained a feature of the official discourse during the month — an issue we look at in greater depth below.
“Zhong Yin”: An Inflexible Voice Before the Dynamic Zero Snapped
In the days leading up to the 20th National Congress in October, three commentaries in the official People’s Daily newspaper became a focus of attention in China as indicators of where the country's rigid Covid policies might be headed. Despite the widespread hope that the leadership might introduce a more flexible and humane response to anti-Covid measures that had grown increasingly painful, the commentaries, attributed to "Zhong Yin" (仲音) — a homophone for “important voice” (重要声音), and thus pointing to the prevailing view at the top of the leadership — maintained a firm attitude towards the less virulent and more infectious Omicron strain.
These three commentaries were "Raising Confidence and Patience With Current Epidemic Prevention and Control Policies" (增强对当前疫情防控政策的信心和耐心), published on October 10, "'Dynamic Zero' is Sustainable and Must Be Adhered To" (“动态清零”可持续而且必须坚持), published on October 11, and "'Lying Flat' Will Not Work, 'Lying Down and Winning' is Not Possible" (“躺平”不可取, “躺赢”不可能), published on October 12.
At mid-month, as the 20th Congress pushed more contentious issues into the background, this hard line on Covid policies suddenly faded from the public view, and from the opening of the Congress on October 16 through to November 11, over nearly a month, “Zhong Yin” commentaries entirely avoided discussion of China’s strict Covid policies. The commentaries dealt instead with other topics, including Xi Jinping’s efforts to combat corruption within the Party, the need for Party members to uphold an attitude of “struggle,” the need for unity in striving for a brighter future, and so on.
The “Zhong Yin” hard line on Covid seems to have been waiting in the wings, however, and it returned during the second week of November — even as it became increasingly out of step with the government’s evolving approach to anti-epidemic work.
On November 11, the State Council’s Comprehensive Team for Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism for Covid-19 released a notice for the "further optimization" of Covid control measures. The notice included 20 concrete measures that seemed to mark a relaxation of longstanding restrictions. For example, in instances where people had close contact with a positive case, the measures called for “five days of centralized isolation + three days of at-home observation,” as opposed to the previous policy of 7 days +3, and they suspended the system of determining close contacts of close contacts. The system of 7+3 for people entering China was also altered to five days of centralized isolation + three days of at-home observation.
In many areas across China, the “20 measures” were implemented with alacrity. In the city of Guangzhou, for example, the isolation of contacts of close contacts was suspended the very same day in a move to resolve a serious shortage of quarantine facilities.
While the "20 measures" were intended to relax restrictions, they persisted in using a phrase that had long been associated with the government’s inflexible response, "preventing the entry of outside [cases], preventing internal [case] rebounds, and adhering unwaveringly to dynamic zero" (外防输入, 内防反弹, 坚持动态清零不动摇). The same contradiction between inflexible language and flexing practices could be seen in the official Party media through the end of November. The message from the top was that China’s “war” against the virus would continue, and that zero Covid was indispensable. From November 12 through November 30, the People's Daily continued to run commentaries attributed to "Zhong Yin," with the nearly daily defense of dynamic zero. These commentaries included:
November 12, 2022, “Resolutely Winning the Battle of Regular Epidemic Prevention and Control” (坚决打赢常态化疫情防控攻坚战)
November 13, 2022, "Unswervingly Adhering to People-First and Life- First" (坚定不移坚持人民至上, 生命至上)
November 14, 2022, "Persisting in the General Strategy of 'Preventing External Importation, Preventing Internal Rebound'" (坚定不移落实“外防输入, 内防反弹”总策略)
November 15, 2022, “Persisting in the Implementation of the ‘Dynamic Zero’ Guidelines” (坚定不移贯彻“动态清零”总方针)
November 17, 2022, "Judging the Big Picture, Seeing the Advantages" (算大账 看优势)
November 18, 2022, “Grabbing Implementation, Increasing Confidence” (抓落实 增信心)
November 19, 2022, "Upholding Our Duty to Our Land" (守土有责 守土尽责)
November 20, 2022, “Unswerving, Unchanging” (不动摇 不走样)
November 21, 2022, “Scientific and Precise, Solidly Advancing” (科学精准 扎实推进)
November 22, 2022, “Profoundly and Meticulously Doing Service Work” (深入细致做好服务保障工作)
November 24, 2022, “Quickly and Effectively Implementing the 'Four Earlies' Requirement"” (以快制快，切实落实“四早”要求)
November 26, 2022, “Combining Efforts to Contain the Spread of the Epidemic With Haste” (合力攻坚，尽快遏制疫情扩散蔓延)
November 27, 2022, "Firm Confidence, Grasping the Details of the Epidemic Prevention and Control Work" (坚定信心，抓实抓细疫情防控各项工作)
November 28, 2022, "Improving the Effectiveness of Prevention with Science and Precision" (科学精准，提高防疫工作的有效性)
November 29, 2022, "Adhering to the Ninth Edition, Implementing the 20 Measures" (坚持第九版 落实二十条)
November 30, 2022, "Working Together to Firmly Build a Barrier for Epidemic Prevention and Control" (齐心协力，坚决筑牢疫情防控屏障)
The November 29 commentary by “Zhong Yin” was a prime example of how the propaganda authorities were attempting to balance a strong message of adherence to Xi Jinping’s signature policy of “dynamic zero” with what was clearly a shift in approach. The fact that restrictions were loosening in response to the unsustainability of current practices was clear to all, and yet the official language continued to speak of “employing even firmer and more resolute measures.”
The requirements for prevention and control of the epidemic have not been lowered but in fact raised, as we adhere to the ninth control plan and implement the 20 measures for optimizing [Covid prevention]. . . . We will firmly implement the general strategy of 'external prevention of imported [cases], and internal prevention of [case] rebounds,' and [we will] firmly implement the general policy of 'dynamic zero,' resolutely overcoming the mentality of paralysis and wait-and-see . . . . employing even firmer and more resolute measures for tackling [the epidemic] and quickly preventing the spread of the virus.
Nevertheless, by the last week of November, around the midpoint in the above list of “Zhong Yin” commentaries in the People’s Daily, the situation in China was shifting dramatically. One of the key catalysts was a tragedy that unfolded on the evening of November 24, as 10 people were killed in a high-rise fire in the city of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region. For many, the tragedy underscored the ineffectiveness, inhumanity, and even deadliness of rigid measures to grapple with Covid — particularly in light of an Omicron strain that while less deadly was far more infectious, making it nearly impossible for authorities to drive positive cases down to zero.
The fire that ignited open opposition to the zero Covid policy broke out just before 8 PM on November 24 in the Jixiangyuan Compound (吉祥苑小区), a centrally located luxury apartment block not far from Urumqi’s famous Grand Bazaar. According to an official announcement by municipal government authorities, the fire started on the 15th floor and spread up through the 17th floor. The announcement said that "the chief leaders of the CCP committee and government had gone immediately to the scene to direct the handling [of the fire]."
But the public swiftly questioned the official narrative of decisive action, suspecting that the closing off of the residential area had prevented or slowed access by emergency vehicles, and the evacuation of residents. Several videos posted to social media on the night of the fire clearly showed firefighters directing a stream of water at the building that fell short of the fire as the emergency truck was unable to remove traffic barriers put in place to enforce Covid quarantine measures.
There were also rumors online that emergency exits from the Jixiangyuan Compound had been secured with wire, preventing residents from getting out. During a press conference on November 25, local authorities denied this version, saying that images online had been maliciously altered and that residents had been free to leave their floors and move about in the compound since November 20.
These remarks from Urumqi authorities further infuriated many Chinese, who understood this rationalization as essentially saying that escape routes had been free but that residents had not done a sufficient job themselves in fleeing the compound. From this point on, videos started proliferating across social media of residents in Chongqing, Beijing, and other cities refusing mandatory PCR testing and facing off with neighborhood Covid prevention personnel.
Over the weekend of November 26 and 27, Shanghai residents, who had endured many months of quarantine and isolation in 2022, gathered on Wulumuqi Road (Urumqi Road), a street running north-south in the center of the city, in a spontaneous movement to commemorate those who had died in the Urumqi fire. Some in the crowd shouted slogans, including “freedom,” and held up blank sheets of white paper — a commentary on rampant censorship. A number of protesters were hauled away by police. Sometime in the night on November 27, authorities removed street signs along Wulumuqi Road in an apparent attempt to erase what had become a symbol of protest.
The tragedy in Xinjiang prompted a rare movement of civil disobedience in Shanghai and other cities, as citizens turned out onto the streets to protest the harsh zero-Covid measures and their devastating impact on normal life. “We just want our basic human rights,” one protester in Shanghai told The Guardian. “We can’t leave our homes without getting a test. It was the accident in Xinjiang that pushed people too far.”
Finally, on December 7, the convulsions of November would culminate in the release of the “New 10 Measures” (新十条), a de facto acknowledgment by the State Council’s Covid-19 team that the epidemic of Omicron could no longer be contained, and that testing and isolation requirements would have to be relaxed. The consequences of these changes, and China’s failure to adequately prepare for life beyond lockdown with a robust vaccination approach and the strengthening of key facilities such as hospitals, will be a focus in our analysis of the December 2022 discourse.
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Bulk booking for PCRs
The continued demand in November that “close contacts be determined in a timely and accurate manner” meant that if a single positive case was found in a batch of 10 mandatory PCR tests, then everyone in the batch would be designated as close contacts and forced into collective quarantine, and related residential areas or work units would be temporarily shut down. As a result of these rules, some Chinese began arranging their PCR tests in groups of 10, including only friends and family members they felt they could trust, to avoid being caught up with positive results from strangers and being quarantined with strangers at a designated place. This practice became popularly known as “bulk booking,” or yueguan (约管).
“His Achille’s Heel is his son”
At night on November 25, a video circulated online that seemed to show neighborhood committee staff in the area of Tiantongyuan in Beijing’s Changping District discussing how to deal with a "troublesome" local resident. In the video, apparently taken on November 20, the staff members, two males and two females, talk about “finding a dark place to detain him for three days,” mention that “his Achille’s Heel is actually his son,” and discuss casually slapping him with the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a catch-all criminal accusation frequently used in China to silence all forms of dissent.
The video seemed to substantiate the arbitrary, selective, and even vicious nature of local governance by neighborhood committees, at the lowest level of the police and government bureaucracy, and it infuriated Chinese responding online and across social media. Domestic media reports about the surfacing of the video were almost uniformly deleted, but the news was retained on the Weibo platform by “New Yellow River,” an app under the official Jinan Daily.
One internet user asked: “Does having a child now mean that it will be held hostage?” Another responded: “Not having children is our last form of resistance! Why would you bother? In peace, they are just harvested for exploitation, and they serve as cannon fodder in war!”
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 October, the phrase “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化), sometimes translated as “Chinese path to modernization” in English official translations, maintained its position at the top of the CMP scale, remaining in Tier 1.
The strong performance of the phrase owed in part to its prominent treatment in Xi Jinping’s political report to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Language in the third section of the report laying out the mission and tasks of the CCP said:
From this day forward, the central task of the Communist Party of China will be to lead the Chinese people of all ethnic groups in a concerted effort to realize the Second Centenary Goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects and to advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts through a Chinese path to modernization.
State media coverage in the wake of the 20th National Congress emphasized that China’s goal is not only to achieve prosperity but to achieve “common prosperity” (共同富裕) — essentially, the idea that all Chinese, including in rural areas, must experience a rise in living standards as the country advances. As one government-produced video on the concept for overseas audiences explained the implications of this for China’s homegrown vision of the modernization path, “China has included the pursuit of common prosperity for all in its journey of modernization.”
In fact, “common prosperity” has a long history in the discourse of the CCP, and in the early reform and opening period was tied to Deng’s notion of a kind of strategic inequality – that a few needed to get rich first in order to general broader wealth for the society. Xi Jinping has lately reapplied the term to suggest that disparities in wealth must be addressed to ensure a fairer form of modernization. “Common prosperity,” therefore, is one of the key components of his “Chinese-style modernization.”
The second key component of “Chinese-style modernization” or the “Chinese path to modernization” deals with environmental and sustainability goals, suggesting that China will achieve full modernization without doing irrevocable damage to the environment and destroying what the CCP has called “beautiful China.”
The phrase “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心) and Xi’s banner phrase, “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) both dropped down to Tier 2 for November after expectedly strong showings in October surrounding the 20th National Congress.
None of the various permutations of Xi Jinping’s banner phrase for specific policy areas performed above Tier 4 in November. “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), Xi’s catchphrase for environmental policy and sustainable development, dropped from Tier 3 to Tier 4. Both “Xi Jinping Thought 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 in Tier 4, and “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” (习近平经济思想), remained near the bottom in Tier 5, where it was joined by “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想).
The “Two Establishes” (两个确立), a crucial phrase over the past year in signaling the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, remained in Tier 2, joined by the phrases in the so-called “442 formula,” all of which also play an important role in firming up Xi’s position as the “core” leader. These terms, which experienced some ups and downs through the spring, include the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), the “Four Confidences” (四个自信), and the “Two Safeguards” (两个维护) — also known as the “Two Upholds.”
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of November 2022 and how they rated on our scale:
Monthly Hot Words
The “Two Establishes”
In November 2022, CCP-run newspapers at the provincial level published a total of 2,579 articles using the “Two Establishes” catchphrase, one of the most important buzzwords signaling the power of Xi Jinping. This was a marked decline from the heights recorded for the phrase in October in the run-up to the 20th Congress, though numbers remained ahead of those for September.
The “Two Establishes” has been an important phrase to watch through 2022, as it is meant to signal the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, and pose a challenge to any who might resist his leadership. The top provinces using the phrase in November were Tianjin, which had 149 articles and made the top three for the sixth time this year; Tibet, which had 149 articles, also making the top three for the sixth time; and Guangxi, which had 124 articles, making the top three for the third time.
The bottom three municipalities and provinces in October were Shanghai, which recorded 31 articles, putting it in the bottom three for the sixth time this year; Chongqing, which also had 31 articles, putting it in the bottom three for the first time; and Beijing, which had 51 articles, putting it in the bottom three for the third time.
The Centrality Index
Beginning in November, tallies of central leaders in the People’s Daily included both those from the 19th Central Committee and the 20th Central Committee. In some cases, these mentions included bylines for articles in a series by top officials about “conscientiously studying and publicizing the spirit of the 20th Congress.” In November, there were 45 articles in this series, which began on October 19 and continued through December, all praising various aspects of CCP policy and the leadership of “comrade Xi Jinping as the core.”
Top leaders bylined in series articles on the “spirit” of the 20th Congress in November included He Lifeng (何立峰), Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥), Li Shulei (李书磊), Han Zheng (韩正), Wang Zhen (王晨), Liu He (刘鹤), Xu Qiliang (许其亮), Wang Yi (王毅), Sun Chunlan (孙春兰), Yang Xiaodu (杨晓渡), Hu Chunhua (胡春华), Huang Kunming (黄坤明), Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪), and Guo Shengkun (郭声琨).
As in previous months in 2022, Xi Jinping was the only central CCP leader to make Tier 1, with a mention in 700 articles, up slightly over the 641 recorded for October. Xi was mentioned with more than ten times the intensity of any other official in the Central Committee, though the gap on the CMP scale closed incrementally in November as three top leaders appeared in Tier 2. These were Wang Yi and He Lifeng, with 64 and 45 articles each, both experiencing stronger coverage as a result of the 17th G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, and the APEC leaders meeting in Bangkok, and Premier Li Keqiang (李克强), with 56 articles.
Consistently in 2022 and 2021, Xi Jinping remained in the stratosphere of Tier 1 while all other central leaders were arrayed across Tier 3, 4 and 5 — the only exceptions being the March political season around the National People’s Congress when Premier Li Keqiang rose briefly into Tier 2.
In November 2022, foreign leaders in the People’s Daily were arrayed across Tiers 4-6, with none appearing in Tiers 2 or 3. The foreign leader appearing most frequently in the newspaper was US President Joe Biden, who spoke with Xi Jinping during the G20 summit in Bali after first meeting Premier Li Keqiang (and “breaking the ice” as some media reports said) at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.
Coverage of the meeting of Biden and Xi made the front page of the People’s Daily on November 21, in the crucial space to the right of the masthead. The People’s Daily apparently sought to emphasize the warmness of the meeting, writing that, "President Biden, seeing that there is still a distance between him and President Xi Jinping, smiled and ran a few steps with his arms wide open, and reporters on the scene were amazed."
Another foreign leader to meet prominently with Xi Jinping in Bali was French President Emmanuel Macron, who also topped the short list of leaders in Tier 4. The account relating to Macron was included in the same article on November 21, with a dialogue of the meeting that emphasized the warmth of the exchange and seemed to put Xi in the dominant position. In this passage, we have translated the Chinese title zhuxi (主席) for Xi Jinping as “chairman” rather than as “president.”
“How are you, Mr. Chairman?” French President Emmanuel Macron arrived at the hotel where Chairman Xi Jinping was staying early in the morning on the 15th.
Chairman Xi Jinping greeted him with a smile as he stood in front of the national flag: “I’m very well, and you look well.”
President Macron took a large step forward and extended his hand: “I’m very happy to see you again.”
Another leader attending the G20 summit and the East Asia Summit who received Tier 4 coverage in the People’s Daily was South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (尹锡悦), Xi Jinping referring to China and the Republic of Korea as close neighbors and cooperation partners that “cannot be separated.” Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who made an official visit to China at the start of the month, also received relatively strong coverage among foreign leaders in November.
Notable on the list of foreign leaders not appearing at all in the People’s Daily for November 2022 was Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky. The leader, who of course is now fighting a bitter war with Russia, was one of our notable mentions last month as he appeared in the newspaper for the first time since January 2022, weeks before the start of the war. He is now back on the zero-mentions list. By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared in six articles in the People’s Daily in November, putting him just out of the cold in Tier 5. Coverage included a letter sent by Xi to the Russia-China Friendship Association to commemorate its 65th anniversary, mention of Putin in general coverage of congratulations from world leaders on Xi’s appointment for a third term as general secretary of the CCP, and mention of Xi and Putin in the context of various forms of bilateral cooperation, including in cultural exchanges and energy.
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