China’s Political Discourse September 2021: Meng Wanzhou Returns Home; “Common Prosperity” is in Our Genes

By China Media Project

China’s Political Discourse: September 2021  

Meng Wanzhou Returns Home

The month of September closed with the ceremonious return to China of Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟), the chief financial officer of the telecoms giant Huawei and daughter of the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei (任正非). Meng, who has been referred to in the West as the “princess of Huawei,” was detained in the Vancouver airport nearly three years ago, in December 2018, on charges that her company used a Hong Kong shell company called Skycom to make equipment sales to Iran in violation of US sanctions. Arriving at Shenzhen’s Bao’an Airport wearing a bright red dress, Meng delivered a speech on the tarmac, amid the fluttering of bright red national flags, in which she said: “If faith has a color, that color is definitely Chinese red” (如果信念有颜色,那一定是中国红). The city of Shenzhen rolled out the red carpet for Meng’s return, even installing LED displays and stringing up red banners to welcome her home. The fanfare aroused a great deal of attention across China. 

The phrase “common prosperity,” or gongtong fuyu (共同富裕), which came under greater international attention after Xi Jinping addressed the meeting in early August of the country’s senior commission responsible for economic coordination, has in fact been a strongly-performing term so far for all of 2021, remaining steadily in Tier 2 (see our scale below). The phrase continued strong in September, and during the second-quarter earnings call for the Chinese shopping platform Meituan (美团), the company’s CEO, billionaire Wang Xing (王兴), said that “common prosperity is rooted in Meituan’s genes.” This prompted other internet companies to pursue their own “transformations,” or gaizao (改造) – essentially declaring their allegiance to the “common prosperity” slogan, and by extension to the policies and priorities of Xi Jinping. 

For a more detailed history of the phrase “common prosperity,” readers can turn to CMP’s August article on the subject. 

Also in September, the hot term “paratrooper” (伞兵) received attention from the Party-state media, the story hilariously revealing the pitfalls and limitations of online censorship. The term “paratrooper,” which sounds very similar in Chinese to shabi, slang that essentially means “dumbass” but has been censored (or “harmonized”) on social media, is one of the latest examples of creative workarounds to online keyword censorship in China. 

More on these stories further down, but moving on to our analysis. 

The Hot and the Cold

About the CMP Discourse Scale:

According to the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016, based on a historical analysis of keywords appearing in the China Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, we define a six-tier system of discourse intensity based on the total number of appearances of a given discourse term on a per article basis for the full year in the paper. The scale is as follows:

For 2021, CMP will adjust its classification method for CCP discourse, determining the intensity (热度) of Party terminologies according to the absolute number of articles including those terms in the People's Daily newspaper. Previously, CMP used a proportional method, which looked at the number of articles including a 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 September 2021, the terms "pneumonia" (肺炎), "epidemic prevention and control" (疫情防控) and "reform and opening up" (改革开放) remained unchanged from the previous month, all appearing in Tier 1. The phrase “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心) dropped from Tier 1 to Tier 2. This phrase, introduced in October 2016 to reinforce Xi’s authority and position at the head of the Chinese Communist Party ahead of the 2017 Party Congress, has hovered between the two levels this year, being at Tier 2 in February, April, May and September, and in Tier 1 for the other five months.  

Terms dropping from Tier 2 to Tier 3 for September included: “red genes” (红色基因), “Deng Xiaoping” (邓小平), the “Four Comprehensives” (四个全面), “not forgetting the original intent” (不忘初心), “five-in-one” (五位一体), and “comprehensive strict governance of the Party” (全面从严治党). 

The phrase “community of common destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体), a key feature of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy (under the notion of “Xi Jinping thought on diplomacy”), maintained its position in Tier 2, but for September in fact rose 64 percent from August to reach 151 articles (versus 92). 

Six terms rose from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in September. These included “comprehensively deepening reform” (全面深化改革), “independent innovation” (自主创新), “China’s wisdom” (中国智慧), “China solution” (中国方案), “institutional advantages” (制度优势) and “top-level design” (顶层设计).

“Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” (习近平强军思想), a term related to Xi’s legacy banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” as applied to national defense, dropped from Tier 4 down into Tier 6, with just one article mentioning the phrase in September. It was joined in cold territory by “people’s democratic dictatorship” (人民民主专政), which also dropped from Tier 4. September was the first month this year in which “people’s democratic dictatorship” was absent entirely from the People’s Daily. Meanwhile, the phrases “simplifying procedures and delegating powers” (简政放权), essentially about streamlining administration and reducing red tape, and the “Five Persists” (五个坚持), a set of CCP work-related rules including the need to uphold the “political character of absolute loyalty,” both rose in September from Tier 6 to Tier 4.  

The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of September 2021 and how they rated on our scale:

The Litmus List

Among the nine keywords on our Litmus List, a group including seven terms synonymous with past leadership and two generally indicating discussion of political reform, there were once again no terms appearing in Tier 3 or higher. In fact, there were notable drops for “political civilization” (政治文明) and “democratic politics” (民主政治), which dropped from Tier 4 to Tiers 5 and 6 respectively. 

The phrase “political system reform,” or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革), remained in ice cold territory in September. The nearly complete abandonment of the phrase was the most important change we noted in the discourse of the CCP back in 2019, and it has never since recovered. Jump-started in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), political reform was at that time a visible topic of discussion, making “political system reform” at red-hot phrase on our discourse scale. The political reform wave culminated in the CCP discourse with the first ever inclusion of the phrase “political system reform” in the political report to the 13th National Congress of the CCP in 1987.

The Centrality Index

Once again, and not at all surprising expectations, Xi Jinping was the only member of the CCP’s Central Committee to make Tier 1 in the People’s Daily, appearing in a total of 640 articles, an average of 21.3 articles per day. Premier Li Keqiang remained in Tier 3 for the month, again leaving Tier 2 empty of top leaders and underscoring the clearly dominant position of the Party’s general secretary. With the exception of March this year, corresponding with the National People’s Congress and delivery of the government’s annual work report, Premier Li has remained steadily in Tier 3.

Some members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) did manage to rise in September, including Wang Yang (汪洋), vice-premier and chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), who rose from Tier 4 to Tier 3. Propaganda chief Huang Kunming (黄坤明) and Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, the country’s highest diplomatic position, both left the cold in September, jumping from Tier 6 to Tier 4. 

In Huang Kunming’s case, the increase in attention came chiefly as a result of the Party History Study Conference (党史学习会议), where he delivered a speech on September 22, urging those present to “earnestly study and implement the spirit of the important speech delivered by General Secretary Xi Jinping on July 1.” Huang, who appeared in just three articles in the People’s Daily in August, was mentioned in 15 articles in September. 

Yang Jiechi received increased attention in September as a result of the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where he was in attendance. Xi Jinping was not present in person for the event, though he did attend by video on September 17. Coverage of the SCO meeting mentioning Yang brought him up to 12 articles in the People’s Daily for September, up from just a single article in August.

In all, a total of 12 members of the Central Committee were at Tier 4 or higher in September 2021. 

Regional Rankings

Owing to his participation in the ZGC Forum (中关村论坛), an event in the capital devoted to innovation and development, as well as his attendance of an arts and culture event for national minorities (第六届全国少数民族文艺会演), Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi (蔡奇) was the top-ranking regional official for September in the People’s Daily

One notable change in September was the reappearance of Guangxi Party Secretary Lu Xinshe (鹿心社), who had not appeared at all in the People’s Daily from June through August, but who appeared twice in September. One of these appearances was an article on page 15 of the paper bearing Lu’s byline. The article was essentially a hymn of self-praise about international economic cooperation and the hosting of the China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning. The second was a report about a visit to Guangxi by Premier Li Keqiang, during which Lu Xinshe accompanied the leader on trips to Yulin and Nanning. 

Lin Wu (林武), the CCP secretary of Shanxi province, appeared in two separate articles in September 2021 on peak carbon dioxide emissions and the goal of reaching carbon neutrality. Shanxi is a major producer of coal, and Lin Wu stressed at a provincial study session the importance of being realistic in pushing for lower emissions, avoiding “movement-style carbon reduction,” meaning essentially that mandated goals must not lead to a chaotic scramble to reach benchmarks in ways that are unsustainable and ultimately destructive. 

Foreign Leaders

In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin rose from Tier 5 back into Tier 4 thanks to the 6th Eastern Economic Forum (东方经济论坛), for which Xi Jinping delivered a speech on September 3. Putin had held steady at Tier 4 from May through July 2021, but dropped one level in August. Owing to his participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit at mid-month, and his presence at the BRICS Summit held later in the month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose from a cold Tier 6 in August to a much warmer Tier 4 in September. 

Data Source: People’s Daily Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016. Leaders appearing 0 times for the month are not shown. 

 

US President Joe Biden appeared in seven separate articles in the People’s Daily in September, joining Putin and Modi in Tier 4. On September 25, Biden appeared in an article on page six of the People's Daily called "List of Facts Concerning the Interference of the US in Hong Kong Affairs and its Support for Anti-China Forces of Chaos in Hong Kong." The article included an entry for June 24, 2021, that said that Biden had “issued a statement from the White House, using the excuse of freedom of speech, that falsely claimed that the suspension of the Apple Daily newspaper was ‘a sad day for media freedom,’ and a sign that ‘Beijing is intensifying its crackdown.’” 

Foreign Countries

In September, the United States, Japan, Russia and Germany maintained their positions in Tier 2, while Great Britain and France dropped from Tier 2 to Tier 3. Owing to the declaration by the Taliban of the formation of a new government in September, Afghanistan rose from Tier 3 to Tier 2 for the month.

2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of relations between Pakistan and the People’s Republic of China. In September, owing to news of Chinese assistance to Pakistan in its fight against Covid-19 and several other stories, Pakistan rose from Tier 3 to Tier 2. In coverage of the bilateral relationship, the phrases “common destiny” (共同命运) and “community of common destiny” (命运共同体), both regarded as a core discursive feature of the foreign policy concept (linked to Xi’s banner term) of “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想), figured strongly.  

As 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of China-ASEAN dialogue, a number of related countries rose in frequency in September along with the opening of the China-ASEAN Expo. These countries included Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. Coverage of the relations between China and these ASEAN members routinely used the phrase “community of common destiny.” In fact, “community of common destiny” very nearly made Tier 1 in September, with a total of 163 articles, falling just short of the 167 mark. 

India also rose in September, moving up two levels from Tier 5 to Tier 3. This owed to PM Modi’s aforementioned participation in the SCO and BRICS summits.

September Surprises

Meng Wanzhou’s Glorious Red Return

After being placed under house arrest at her multimillion-dollar Vancouver home for nearly three years, Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟) was released on September 24 after a deferred prosecution agreement was reached with the US Department of Justice. On the morning of September 24 (local time), Meng left Canada on a flight chartered by the Chinese government. Atop Shenzhen's tallest skyscraper, an electronic display screen bore the words: "We welcome Meng Wangzhou home." 

Meng arrived in Shenzhen at 9:49 PM on September 25, wearing an all-red outfit. At the airport, Meng delivered words of gratitude, saying: “Where there is the five-star red flag, there is a lighthouse of faith. And if faith has a color, that color is definitely Chinese red!” These words were splashed across the Chinese media in the days that followed, offering the top surprise phrase of September 2021. 

A social media image by the official Xinhua News Agency makes a play on Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s name with the phrase, "Even though the boat is late, it has returned across a great distance."

Shortly after Meng's arrival in Shenzhen, the official Xinhua News Agency employed such slogans as, "Even though the boat is late, it has returned across a great distance" (轻舟虽晚,归途如虹) – the word for boat being a play on Meng Wanzhou’s name. The People's Daily ran an article saying of Meng's return that, "This is a result of the leadership of the CCP's Central Committee, a result of the tireless work of the Chinese government, a result of the full support of the Chinese people, and a major victory for the Chinese people." “No power,” said the paper, “can stop China’s forward progress.” 

The Dormitory Inspectors

This month, a video taken during an inspection visit to a female dormitory at Heilongjiang Vocational College (黑龙江职业学院) went viral on the Chinese internet. In the video, six women dressed in formal black outfits enter the student dormitory to inspect the sleeping areas. One of the women says in a stern and commanding voice: "Take a good look at our six faces. We've come to check on your beds. Take a good look of our work IDs. The six of us control you, got it?" Right after, another woman points out one of the leading women and says: "Let me do introductions for you all. This is Minister Zhang, you call her Miss." Whereupon all of the female students say together, "Hello, Miss."

As the video went viral, Heilongjiang Vocational College issued a notice saying that the incident in the video had happened in 2020, and that the six young women in the video were issued at the time with “notifications of criticism” (通报批评). As the video exposed it to fresh criticism, the school defended its 2020 handling of the incident. 

However, the conduct of the student cadres shown in the video continued to trigger public controversy. Many Chinese commenting online felt that this was a case of students behaving after the manner of cadres and "flaunting their power and prestige" (摆官威). Many netizens created their own parodies and spoof videos, and the line, “The six of us control you, got it?” (除了我们六个谁管你们都不好使) became synonymous with the arrogance of “officialdom” (官场). 

The "dormitory checker" incident triggered lively discussion among netizens, largely surrounding the question of why a "power discourse system" (权力话语体系) existed at all among those tasked with dormitory inspection. Why had schools become extensions of officialdom?

Focus Topics:

[1] “Common Prosperity” is in Our Genes

The phrase “common prosperity,” or gongtong fuyu (共同富裕), has been a hot political catchphrase throughout 2021, and is sure to feature strongly in the China Media Project 2021 annual discourse report. At a meeting of the senior commission responsible for economic coordination in early August, Xi Jinping again advocated a policy of “common prosperity,” emphasizing the need in China for a “third distribution” (三次分配), and to strengthen the regulation and adjustment of high incomes, “ensuring guarantee of legal incomes and the reasonable adjustment of high incomes” [LINK]. 

Xi Jinping’s speech and the wave of Party-state media coverage that followed prompted big tech companies in China to line up to “give back,” issuing public statements on social responsibility and income inequality that unnerved some investors. On August 18, Tencent, one of the world’s largest technology conglomerates, announced that it would invest 50 billion RMB to launch the so-called "Common Prosperity Project" (共同富裕专项计划). On September 2, Alibaba Group announced that it had launched a program called "Alibaba's Ten Actions for Common Prosperity" (阿里巴巴助力共同富裕十大行动), and planned to invest a total of 100 billion RMB by 2025.

The pressure on tech companies has been relentless in China this year. Back on March 12 this year, the official website of the State Administration of Market Regulation (国家市场监管总局) said in an information release that 12 Chinese internet technology companies, including Tencent, Baidu, Meituan, Suning, Alibaba, JD.com, Bytedance, and Didi Chuxing Technology, had been fined penalties of 500,000 RMB each under the country’s Anti-Monopoly Law.

As stories continued in August and September about the distribution by tech companies of largesse on society, some began to whisper that China’s internet giants had become “terrified” (吓怕了). Aside from tech leaders Tencent and Alibaba, other internet companies in China have come forward in various ways with statements about “common prosperity.” 

Speaking in early September during the second quarter earnings call for Meituan, a leading Chinese retail platform, the company's CEO, Wang Xing (王兴), said that "'common prosperity' is rooted in Meituan's DNA." Wang stressed that the company's name essentially meant "we are better together," because it is a combination of the word for "beauty" and the word for "unity." Wang’s remarks once again prompted a wave of discussion online of “common prosperity” and its implications for Chinese society and the economy. 

Moreover, Wang’s remarks prompted a wave of imitation by other internet firms, which released their own versions of Wang’s “in our DNA” line. 

The CEO of the classified advertisements website 58.com (58同城), Yao Jinbo (姚劲波), wrote on his WeChat friends group: “58.com definitely also has these origins: We develop together, common prosperity” (我们一起发,共同富裕). Lai Yilong (赖奕龙), the founder and CEO of Lychee FM, a podcasting and radio platform, wrote a series of claims playing on the word “lychee”: “About common prosperity, our thought is: First, everyone needs encouragement ([pronounced like] ‘Lychee’), and the idea of the whole feeling encouragement is the base of common prosperity; Second, [everyone must], like lychee, go from being a delicacy of the court that few can enjoy, to something that all people can eat . . . The long-term goal of common prosperity is that we may all, by working diligently, all plant lychee in our courtyards.” 

Comments like these prompted one netizen to make a post called, “A New Reading of Major Company Names” (大公司名新解), which sought to read the concept of “common prosperity” into the names of well-known internet companies.

For Tencent, whose company name combines the characters for “soar” and “inquire,” the user came up with the slogan: "We all soar together in the information society” (在讯息社会里大家共同腾飞). 

[2] Don’t Diss the “Paratroopers” 

As internet platforms such as the search engine Baidu have always had keyword blocking systems in place to comply with the censorship demands of the authorities, internet users in China have become habituated to the use of replacement terms to work around these restrictions. Examples include replacing the word "palsy," or naotan (脑瘫), used to mock others online before it became an online taboo, with the initials "nt." Online censorship and its constant development and upgrading has contributed to the transformation and innovation of online slang. 

In early September, the word “paratroopers,” or sanbing (伞兵), became a top search term on the Weibo platform. “CCTV.com Youth” (央视网青年), an account on the platform operated by the state-run television broadcaster and dedicated to youth content, made a post to Weibo decrying the fact that the word “paratrooper” had lately become a term of personal attack online, being a homonym of the Chinese word for “dumbass,” shabi (傻逼). The post advocated strongly against this trend, emphasizing that paratroopers must be respected for their “glorious” profession. There was no sense, the post said, in “stigmatizing paratroopers.” 

An image posted to social media by “CCTV.com Youth” speaking out against the “stigmatizing of paratroopers” by using their profession as online slang. 

Beginning on September 6, Baidu Tieba (百度贴吧) a popular online community integrated with Baidu search services, announced that it had removed keyword blocks on the word “dumbass” following an article from the official Xinhua News Agency called, “’Paratroopers’ are the Elite Among the Elite, and Must Not Be Stigmatized!” (“伞兵”是精锐中的精锐,不容污名化!). The search platform directly encouraged the public to desist from using the word “paratrooper” as a replacement for the word “dumbass.” 

Now on Baidu Tieba, however, when users attempt to reply with the word shabi (“dumbass”), a picture pops up of a green meadow with pink flowers, and the bright pink characters for shabao (傻宝), meaning “silly baby.” The message below encourages them not to use the character “bi” after the character “sha”: “Saying ‘sha’ and not saying X,” the message reads, “makes us all civilized people.” 

“Civilized,” of course, is another word in Chinese that has been transformed by the process of online censorship, having become synonymous since the late 2000s with online censorship itself.