China’s Political Discourse October 2022: The Dust Settles on the 20th National Congress of the CCP
By the China Media Project
The latest installment of the excellent China Media Project’s political discourse report, published exclusively on Sinocism.
Even if signaled years in advance, historical reversals can be dispiriting and difficult to accept when they finally come to pass. Happenings that should come as no surprise arrive with a sense of consternation. So it was in the case of this year’s 20th National Congress of the CCP, where Xi Jinping remained as the top leader of the Chinese Communist Party for a third term and consolidated his position at the apex of power.
In hindsight, Xi Jinping’s continued dominance beyond this recent congress was signaled clearly five years ago. Appointments to the Politburo Standing Committee during the last national congress of the CCP in November 2017 included no leader who could be considered a potential successor to Xi as the leader of the Party. Just months after the congress, in March 2018, amendments to the Constitution removed the two-term limit for China’s presidency, paving the way for Xi to continue in the position beyond this year’s 20th National Congress. The fact that Xi’s other key positions, as general secretary of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), were never subject to term limits pointed clearly to his continued leadership on all fronts, barring surprises that could never be clearly defined.
The 20th National Congress of the CCP came with few surprises. As the event opened on October 16, the only note of surprise came with the much-discussed removal from the Great Hall of the People at the outset of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Was Hu unwell? Or was this political theater? But at the subsequent First Plenum (一中全会) on October 23, Xi Jinping was selected as the Party’s general secretary. An editorial in the Japan Times newspaper referred to Xi rather appropriately as China’s “forever strongman.” And indeed, it remains uncertain in the wake of the 20th National Congress when, if ever, Xi Jinping will make the road clear for a possible successor.
One point of much attention and speculation at the outset of the event was Xi Jinping’s delivery on October 16 of a 14,000-character political report, or zhengzhi baogao (政治报告). The report invited confusion among some international commentators, who mistakenly thought this was the final version and was therefore less than half the length of previous political reports. As one researcher wrote: “The 20th Party Congress report is significantly shorter than the 19th, which is a clear indication of Xi’s success in centralizing power.”
But the apparent gap between the 19th and 20th reports was not at all about factional politics. As an official commentator noted on state-run television immediately after the broadcast of the political report, the version Xi had intoned from the floor was not the full report, but rather “picking out the key points,” or tiao zhongdian (挑重点). The full-text report, running to nearly 32,000 characters, was circulated through certain unofficial channels from October 16 onward, and an authoritative version was finally issued by Xinhua News Agency 10 days later, on October 26.
Comparing the two versions of the political report, we can note that the version delivered by Xi maintained the framework and programmatic paragraphs of the full report. All of the sentences uttered by Xi during the session could be found in the eventual 32,000-character version, though the ordering of some sentences was adjusted.
We will not attempt a full discourse analysis of Xi’s political reports (long or short) here, as others have done in the weeks since the 20th National Congress. Instead, we will look at the report’s treatment of one issue that should remain crucial in guiding China’s actions over the next few years: the country’s relationship with the United States.
Before we jump into that analysis, however, it is worth noting that Xi Jinping’s political report in October entirely omitted a key phrase that for decades has lingered in successive CCP political reports to signal the need for institutional changes, including to prevent the over-concentration of power — “political reform,” or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革). “Political reform,” which can also be translated as “political system reform,” has appeared in every quinquennial political report since the 13th National Congress was held in November 1987. Its complete absence this year should be read as a further sign of Xi Jinping’s progressive dismantling of notions of collective leadership and CCP accountability.
The United States in the Political Report
At only one point in the full version of the political report was the United States mentioned by name. This came in a section reviewing the past decade, which noted that there had been a commemoration of the “70th anniversary of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army going to war to oppose the US and aid Korea” — referring to the crossing of the Yalu River on the border with North Korea by Chinese troops in 1950.
But there were several points where the political report made clear, if indirect, references to the United States as a power containing China, aggressive toward its ambitions, and even as an enemy. The first section of the report (第一条) reads, for example:
In response to the gross provocations of separatist activities and external forces aimed at “Taiwan independence” interfering in Taiwan affairs, we have resolutely carried out a great struggle against separatism and countered interference, demonstrating our resolve and ability to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to oppose “Taiwan independence.”
Interestingly, the official English-language version of the political report, released through the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), seems to play down this language in two ways. First, it removes the reference to “external forces” as having agency in the act of interference in Taiwan affairs. Second, it removes the inflated rhetoric of “great struggle,” thereby achieving what might seem a more measured tone in English as the primary language of foreign dissemination — at least on the issue of Taiwan.
The version of this section in English on the MOFA website reads:
In response to separatist activities aimed at “Taiwan independence” and gross provocations of external interference in Taiwan affairs, we have resolutely fought against separatism and countered interference, demonstrating our resolve and ability to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to oppose “Taiwan independence.”
Elsewhere in the report, however, there are more direct references to “forces” or “hostile forces” (敌对势力), suggesting predominantly the United States. The term “hostile forces,” or didui shili (敌对势力), is a hardline phrase with a deep history in the CCP, originating in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist period.
Immediately below this language on Taiwan, the political report adds that “[confronted] with drastic changes in the international landscape, especially external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China, we have put our national interests first . . .” This again should be read as a reference to efforts by the US to criticize China and confront its growing global influence.
Moving on, section 11 of the political report, under the title “Modernizing China’s National Security System and Capacity and Safeguarding National Security and Social Stability,” states that “Mechanisms for countering foreign sanctions, interference, and long-arm jurisdiction will be strengthened.” It follows by saying: “We will crack down hard on inﬁltration, sabotage, subversion, and separatist activities by hostile forces.”
Further down, in Section 13, there is more detailed language addressing the question of Taiwan, with a reference to “outside forces” clearly meant to admonish the United States. It reads:
Resolving the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese, a matter that must be resolved by the Chinese. We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary. This is directed solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking “Taiwan independence” and their separatist activities; it is by no means targeted at our Taiwan compatriots.
Finally, section 14 of the political report includes a passage that clearly heaps blame the US, which CCP media have blasted consistently in recent years for “hegemonic behavior,” “Cold War thinking,” and so on. “And yet, the hegemonic, high-handed, and bullying acts of using strength to intimidate the weak, taking from others by force and subterfuge, and playing zero-sum games are exerting grave harm,” the passage reads after a statement about the unstoppable historical trends of peace, development and mutual benefit.
The passage continues: “China stands firmly against all forms of hegemonism and power politics, the Cold War mentality, interference in other countries’ internal affairs, and double standards.” No one living on a steady diet of invective from the likes of “Zhong Sheng” (钟声) in the People’s Daily, a penname for high-level CCP commentaries on foreign affairs, could fail to read such statements as Xi Jinping wagging his finger in the nose of the US.
Xi Jinping, The One and Only
Another point of interest in the discourse surrounding the 20th National Congress of the CCP in October was the handling by the People’s Daily newspaper of reports on the revealing of the new seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. On October 24, the People’s Daily ran a prominent airbrushed image of Xi Jinping in the center of the page, just as it did five years earlier, on October 26, 2017. The image was accompanied on both pages by prominent red vertical headlines to the left, announcing Xi Jinping’s appointment as general secretary of the CCP and head of the Central Military Commission.
As readers can see from the newspaper images further down, these two front pages are distinct from previous CCP National Congress coverage in the People’s Daily. Prior to 2017, images of the general secretary were smaller and more balanced with those of the remaining members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).
But one notable difference between these two virtually identical pages five years apart was the report featured just on the right-hand side of the People’s Daily masthead, in the area generally referred to as the “news eye,” or baoyan (报眼). On the 2017 page, the baoyan carried a report about Xi Jinping receiving a congratulatory phone call from US President Donald Trump on his appointment, and on the successful convening of the 19th National Congress. This came just nine months after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, at a time when the administration’s China policy had not yet taken shape, and when relations could be said to be in a far more favorable state than they are at present.
This year, however, the report in the news eye was simply about Xi Jinping meeting with delegates and other attendees at the 20th National Congress. In fact, there were no reports at all in the People’s Daily or anywhere else about US President Joe Biden or other international leaders congratulating Xi Jinping on his selection as CCP general secretary.
The other six members of the PSC were relegated in the same editions of the People’s Daily to page three. But the major difference between 2017 and 2022 was that only half as much space was devoted this year to the biographies of the remaining PSC members. In 2017, three-quarters of the page was dedicated to the bios of the other six PSC members, while a column along the left included the bio for Xi Jinping. This year, just a half page with shortened bios on the PSC members was published in the People’s Daily — and even the photographs were slightly downsized. Xi’s bio on page three is also shortened, meaning that far less information about the PSC generally is provided in the CCP’s flagship newspaper this year than was the case in 2017.
One source of surprise and consternation for internet users in China was the fact that Shanghai CCP Secretary Li Qiang (李强) was appointed as the second-ranking member of the PSC, putting him in line to become the country’s premier in March next year. This was despite the fact that Shanghai’s lockdown was handled abysmally earlier this year by Shanghai leaders under Li’s direction. In terms of the ages of the PSC members, it was also notable that only Deng Xuexiang (丁薛祥), who turned 60 this year, will technically be eligible to continue in his post at the 21st National Congress in 2027, given the rule designating 68 as the age of retirement. This means that there are no indications in the current leadership lineup of who might possible successors in five years’ time as general secretary and premier.
Looking back at how new PSC members were unveiled in the People’s Daily for the 16th, 17th, and 18th National Congresses, we can note that for both the 16th and the 18th there were photos showing two generations of general secretaries together. In the case of the 16th National Congress, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were shown in a photograph at the top of the page gazing off in the same direction. In the case of the 18th National Congress, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping are shown shaking hands, a clear signal of the transition of power.
We should note that in all three cases, the full roster of PSC members is included on the front page as well, a sign of collective leadership.
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The capital of PRC testing; the hometown of quarantine pods; the land of vegetable bags; the city of silence
On October 31, “Summer Capital Xining” (夏都西宁), the WeChat public account of the municipal propaganda department of the city of Xining (西宁) in Qinghai province, issued a notice that said that certain internet users had spread rumors online in the face of the epidemic, doing damage of public order and having “an adverse social impact” (恶劣社会影响). Among these rumors, said the notice, local internet users Li __, a male 29 years of age, and Xie __, a male 35 years of age, had disseminated a motto online for the city of Xining: “The capital of PRC testing; the hometown of quarantine pods; the land of vegetable dumplings; the city of silence” (核酸之都, 方舱故里, 菜包之乡, 静默之城).
This “negative speech” (负面言论), no doubt intended by the disseminators as good-natured, albeit slightly critical, humor — a vision of meatless dumplings in a desolate land of forced quarantine — was not regarded as humorous at all by the authorities. The notice said that the post had “slandered our city’s epidemic prevention and control work and disrupted the normal order of epidemic prevention.” The case was being “handled in accord with the law.”
Inner Mongolia: Preventing the spread of Covid to Beijing by “killing chickens with a chef’s knife”
Just ahead of the opening of the 20th National Congress of the CCP, a Covid outbreak in the city of Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia, became serious. According to the official Inner Mongolia Daily (内蒙古日报), run by the provincial CCP leadership, a meeting of top local officials had been called on October 1 to address the situation. The meeting was led by Sun Shaozhuang, the CCP secretary of Inner Mongolia and the head of its Covid prevention and response team.
At the meeting, Sun and his fellow leaders called for the further intensification of zero Covid measures, under the slogan “Killing chickens with a chef’s knife” (杀鸡用牛刀). The chief goal was to prevent the spread of Covid infections to Beijing in the weeks ahead of the critical CCP meeting, and according to the intensification plan, the epidemic alert level was to be raised, mandatory PCR testing put in place, and strict isolation and control methods implemented along with contact tracing and the control of movement. The coarseness of the phrase emerging from Inner Mongolia prompted increased chatter across social media about the continued strictness of Covid policies, with many people voicing concern that anti-Covid measures had become a pretext to apply broader social controls.
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, eight phrases were elevated to Tier 1, reflecting the general heating up of CCP discourse in advance of the 20th National Congress. These included the terms “20th Congress” (二十大), “fully constructing a modern socialist country” (全面建设社会主义现代化国家), “Marx” (马克思), and “people-centered” (以人民为中心), all of which had remained steady in Tier 2 throughout 2022. Not surprisingly, the top performer among terms in Tier 1 for the month was “20th Congress.”
October marked just the second month in 2022 that Xi Jinping’s so-called “banner phrase” (旗帜语), the ponderous “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), made it to the top of the CMP scale in Tier 1. The only previous month was March, corresponding with the annual National People’s Congress.
Among the Tier 1 regulars in October, those phrases remaining at the top this year, were “since the 18th National Congress” (十八大以来) and “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心). The black horse among Tier 1 terms for the month was “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化), which has leapt through the year between the chilly Tier 6 and the relatively warm Tier 3, spanning four levels. The phrase soared to the top in October owing in large part to its prominent play in Xi Jinping’s political report, in which it was mentioned 11 times. In the English-language version of the report, the phrase was translated variously as “Chinese modernization” and the “Chinese path to modernization.” For example, Section III of the report, on the missions and tasks of the CCP, began:
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.
Like the notion of socialism with Chinese characteristics, Chinese-style modernization sets out to mark the differences and contrasts between China’s mode of development and the path taken by Western countries in their process of modernization. Behind the concept looms the assertion that the CCP has arrived at a new and unique mode of human civilization that lends the Party legitimacy. This same base legitimacy claim can be glimpsed in a whole range of phrases constructed around the notions of “Chinese-style” (中国式) and “Chinese characteristics” (中国特色) — including the likes of “Chinese-style democracy” (中国式民主) and “philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色哲学社会科学).
In the rough and tumble world of living language, however, the label “Chinese-style” has also taken on pejorative and flatly humorous overtones. This can be seen in phrases like “Chinese-style crossing the road” (中国式过马路), the idea of rushing across the street with the crowd, regardless of whether the light is red or green, and “Chinese-style matchmaking” (中国式相亲), the (over-)involvement of parents and friends in one’s choice of a marriage partner.
When it comes to the concept of “Chinese-style modernization,” there are also clear tensions between its supposed applicability to the broader problems of the world and its narrow definition through the raw necessity of the CCP’s legitimacy claims. Xi Jinping’s political report declares, for example, that “Chinese modernization offers humanity a new choice for achieving modernization.” But it then follows with a definition built on a proviso that is surely untenable outside China’s borders: “Chinese modernization is socialist modernization pursued under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. It contains elements that are common to the modernization processes of all countries, but it is more characterized by features that are unique to the Chinese context.”
Also making Tier 1 in October for the first time in 2022 was the phrase “pilot at the helm” (掌舵领航), identical in meaning to reversed formulation linghang zhangduo (领航掌舵), appearing a combined 45 times for the month. Both terms, which reference China’s Maoist past, are used to praise Xi Jinping and his leadership. For more, readers can turn to Qian Gang’s history of the phrase written back in 2020.
The five most important permutations of Xi’s banner phrase for various policy areas made no significant moves in October. “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), the phrase pointing to Xi’s policies on environmental protection and sustainability, led the group, remaining in Tier 3. “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想), which has generally trailed the pack over the past year, rose one level from Tier 5 to Tier 4, where it joined “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” (习近平强军思想), the phrase marking the general secretary’s views on national security. “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想), dropped from Tier 3 to Tier 4. At the bottom of the pack in Tier 5 was “Xi Jinping Thought on the Economy.”
Finally, one term performing more strongly in October than at any other point in the year thus far was “dual circulation of the domestic and the international” (国内国际双循环), a phrase that relates to the creation of more fully domestic supply chains as a matter of national security. For the first time this year, the phrase reached Tier 2 in October. It has generally appeared within the definition of what has been called the “new development pattern” (新发展格局), a phrase also appearing in Tier 2 in October that is broadly about transforming the mechanisms of economic development in China, making the domestic market the “mainstay.”
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of October 2022 and how they rated on our scale:
Monthly Hot Words
The “Two Establishes”
In October 2022 there were a total of 3,979 articles in provincial-level official CCP newspapers that mentioned the “Two Establishes” phrase, one of the most important buzzwords signaling the power of Xi Jinping. This marked a dramatic increase in the use of the phrase, 2.5 times that seen in 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 October were Shanxi, which had 178 articles and made the top three for the fifth time this year; Guizhou, which had 170 articles, making the top three for the first time; and Shaanxi, which had 166 articles, making the top three for the third time.
The bottom three municipalities and provinces in October were Jilin, which recorded 91 articles, putting it in the bottom three for the second time this year; Ningxia, which also had 88 articles (four times that of the previous month), putting it in the bottom three for the third time; and Zhejiang, which had 87 articles, putting it in the bottom three for the second time.
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The Centrality Index
As the new lineup for the Politburo Standing Committee was not revealed until late in the second half of October, we continued to use the PSC list from the 19th CCP Central Committee for our October analysis. For the November 2022 analysis, we will use the new PSC lineup, and the new Central Committee, keeping an eye also on the likes of Premier Li Keqiang (李克强).
As per usual, all members of the PSC were arrayed across Tiers 3, 4, and 5 in October, with the notable exception of the ever-soaring Xi Jinping. At the top of the group in Tier 3 were Li Keqiang, Wang Huning (王沪宁), and Zhao Leji (赵乐际), all of whom had 26 articles for the month.
October was a particularly cool month for foreign leaders in the People’s Daily, and no foreign leaders appeared above Tier 5 on the CMP scale — most likely the result of the greater attention paid to the 20th National Congress.
On October 23, after the First Plenum of the 20th CCP Central Committee had been held, the announcement was made of Xi Jinping’s continued leadership as general secretary. The next day, October 24, the People’s Daily ran articles on page six that reported the congratulations extended by foreign leaders. These included “Leaders of North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba Warmly Congratulate Xi Jinping on his Election as General Secretary of the CCP Central Committee,” and “World Political Party Dignitaries Warmly Congratulate Xi Jinping on his Election as General Secretary of the CCP Central Committee.” The latter article included congratulations from Russian President Vladimir Putin, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and from the presidents of Argentina, South Sudan, Belarus and a number of Central Asian countries.
Similar articles were run in the newspaper on October 25, 26, 27, 28, and 30, as well as on November 3. Most of the mentions of foreign leaders during this period were directly related to Xi Jinping’s selection as general secretary, intended to praise Xi and bolster his legitimacy. Countries such as Italy and Poland were included, though the vast majority of leaders quoted in the congratulatory articles were from Asian and African countries.
In many cases, foreign leaders were quoted in ways that seemed to make explicit use of terminologies unique to the domestic Chinese political context, raising questions about what exactly these leaders might have actually said in their greetings. In one October 28 article, for example, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was quoted as saying: “Over the past decade, under your piloting at the helm, China has made transformative achievements across the board.” The “piloting at the helm” formulation used in this remark (领航掌舵), is the very same we mentioned further up in our analysis of Tier 1 phrases for October. As we said, it is a highly specialized term with clear references to China’s Maoist past — and its issuance from the pen of a foreign leader is likely an act of creative license on the part of the People’s Daily or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Notably absent from the tributes printed in the People’s Daily were congratulations from the usual lineup of top Western leaders, including in this case US President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, UK Prime Ministry Rishi Sunak, and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Among the foreign leaders who did not appear at all in October were the outgoing UK Prime Minister Liz Truss and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
But there was also a notable mention of one foreign leader early in October, weeks ahead of the 20th National Congress. This came on October 7, in an article gathering messages of congratulation from around the world for the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Included on the list of those sending congratulatory letters was President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. This tiny mention marked an important departure from the complete silence over Zelensky that has reined in the People’s Daily since Russia invaded Ukraine back on February 24. This was just the second time the Ukrainian president appeared in the official CCP newspaper in 2022, the first mention coming back in January (See “President Who?”).
Is Zelensky finally out of the discourse deep freezer? Not so fast. Previewing our November 2022 analysis, it looks like Ukraine’s president will be back on the zero-mentions list.