How to Read Hu’s July 1st Speech?

Hu Jintao’s report delivered on July 1, 2011, to the conference commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party can be seen as one of the most important political declarations from the Party’s senior leadership ahead of the 18th Party Congress in 2012. Conducting an analysis of the full text of Hu’s report, I found a number of signs that are worth noting.

Historically speaking, CCP anniversary commemorations have had a close relationship to major Party congresses. Each successive Party congress since the 12th Party Congress in 1982 has fallen after major CCP anniversary celebrations held at five or ten-year intervals. For this reason, leadership speeches for major Party anniversaries often define the “orientation” (定向) for Party congresses, which are held every five years. If that orientation differs or undergoes substantial change, this generally means the political situation in China has been a complex one in the intervening year between the anniversary and the congress, or even that a political shift has occurred.

In China, the struggle over discursive power reflects the Party’s internal political struggles. In the current political lexicon of the Chinese Communist Party, “Mao Zedong Thought” (毛泽东思想), “Deng Xiaoping Theory” (邓小平理论), the “Three Represents” (三个代表) and the “Scientific Outlook on Development” (科学发展观) are the trademarks representing the discursive power of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao respectively. They point to the theoretical systems created by these four political leaders. “Mao Zedong Thought” is a political buzzword already belonging to the past. Meanwhile, another phrase, “With the important theories of Deng Xiaoping Theory and the ‘Three Represents’ as the guide, thoroughly applying the Scientific Outlook on Development,” is one whose use by the Chinese Communist Party has become standard practice ever since Hu Jintao took over the reins from Jiang Zemin (symbolized formally when Jiang gave up his post as head of the Central Military Commission in 2004). The latter phrase also appeared in Hu Jintao’s July 1 speech.

These political trademarks have ebbed and flowed in successive speeches to commemorate major Party anniversaries, from Jiang Zemin’s reports on the 70th and 80th anniversaries in 1991 and 2001, to Hu Jintao’s report on the 85th anniversary in 2006 and the 90th anniversary this month.

In Jiang Zemin’s report on the 70th anniversary in 1991, he mentioned “Mao Zedong Thought” 12 times. That speech came not long after the Tiananmen Incident of June 4, 1989, at a time when reforms had been completely held back. Jiang Zemin’s speech also emphasized the importance of opposing “peaceful evolution,” upholding the “Four Basic Principles” (leadership of the CCP, the socialist path, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, and dictatorship by the proletariat), and maintaining the system of “public ownership.” According to this discursive arrangement, the Party congress set for the following year might have anticipated an appreciable “leftward shift” (向左转). However, Deng Xiaoping’s so-called “southern tour” in the spring of 1992 reinvigorated economic reforms and established the reform objective of the “socialist market economy” (社会主义市场经济) as the chief objective of the 14th Party Congress in 1992. At the same time, Deng’s “southern tour” set the course for the political trademark “Hold high the great banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory” (高举邓小平理论伟大旗帜), which had a prominent part in the 15th Party Congress five years later.

During the 14th Party Congress in 1992, “market economy” was written into the party constitution. During the 15th Party Congress, “Deng Xiaoping Theory” was written into the party constitution. Against this backdrop, “Mao Zedong Thought” — which is, of course, associated with the political left — saw successive declines in the reports to commemorate the 80th and 85th anniversaries of the CCP in 2001 and 2006. In the former, the dominant terms were the “Three Represents” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory.” The “Three Represents” was Jiang Zemin’s trademark theory, taking the stage in the run-up to the fall of 2002 and the passing of the torch to his successor, Hu Jintao. This emphasis on the “Three Represents” established the orientation for the 16th Party Congress, during which Jiang’s trademark theory was written into the party constitution.

But in 2006, both “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and the “Three Represents” were in decline, the position of strength yielded to Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development.” In his speech commemorating the 85th anniversary of the Party that year, Hu Jintao went through great pains to enunciate his “Scientific Outlook on Development,” which he had raised back in 2004, and this slogan appeared with a frequency outstripping that of both “Mao Zedong Thought” in the 70th anniversary report (in 1991) and the “Three Represents” in the 80th anniversary report (in 2001). The “Scientific Outlook on Development,” its core the notion of “people foremost” (以人为本), became the principal theme of the 17th Party Congress in 2007, and the term was written that year into the party constitution. That constitution now reads: “The Scientific Outlook on Development, as a scientific theory completely in line with the important theories of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the ‘Three Represents,’ and in keeping with the times, is an important guideline for the social and economic development of our country, and a major strategic theory that must be adhered to and carried out for the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

From the 15th Party Congress to the 17th Party Congress, “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” the “Three Represents” and the “Scientific Outlook on Development” each became in succession the dominant, trademark political terms of the respective meetings.

In Hu Jintao’s July 1 speech to commemorate the Party’s 90th anniversary, however, we see some rather unusual shifts. Now, even before Hu has stepped aside for his successor, there is a noticeable decline in his discursive profile as the “Scientific Outlook on Development” shows a drop in frequency. “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and the “Three Represents” likewise show declines, but we find by contrast that “Mao Zedong Thought” has experienced a moderate rise. Even if we factor in instances where Hu Jintao uses “scientific development” in his speech rather than the full-blown term “Scientific Outlook on Development” (stressing that this abridged form cannot, strictly speaking, be regarded as an equivalent), we count only 9 instances altogether, far below the 17 full uses of the term Hu logged in his speech to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the Party in 2006. We can guess, therefore, that Hu’s trademark political term will see a dramatic fall in the upcoming political report to the 18th Party Congress.

When I searched archives of the CCP’s official People’s Daily from 1997 to 2010, it was clear the both “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and the “Three Represents” had both reached peaks of frequency and then fallen out of use in a relative sense. Similarly, the “Scientific Outlook on Development” has steadily declined since reaching a peak around the 17th Party Congress in 2007.

Looking at the indications given in the 90th anniversary report, it seems that none of these above-mentioned theories will be important banner terms during the 18th Party Congress in 2012. Meanwhile the term “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色社会主义) has experienced a dramatic rise when anniversary reports are compared (22 times for the 70th, 17 times for the 80th and 37 times for the 90th). This term can be seen today as the Chinese Communist Party’s “greatest common denominator” (最大公约数), a term not associated with any one political figure (though it was raised by Deng Xiaoping) or political faction, and one that is not generally contested.

In his political report to the 17th Party Congress in 2007, Hu Jintao did not employ the phrase “raising high the glorious banner of Deng Xiaoing Theory” (高举邓小平理论伟大旗帜), replacing the phrase instead with “raising high the glorious banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (高举中国特色社会主义伟大旗帜). In his July 1 speech, he offered a new formulation of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and its role relative to other theories. He said that the Party had made two great theoretical achievements, the first being “Mao Zedong Thought” and the second being “the theoretical system of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which, he said, includes “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” the “Three Represents” and the “Scientific Outlook on Development.” This formulation essentially packaged all three of these theories — of Deng, Jiang and Hu respectively — under one banner, representing the continued decline of the status of Deng and Jiang in the discursive mix. So we see the rapid fading of the terms “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and the “Three Represents.” But more startling is the way Hu has de-emphasized his own political trademark, seemingly abandoning the hope that it will symbolize his own political personality and establish the orientation for the 18th Party Congress.

At the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Hu Jintao will pass the torch to another general secretary. But according to convention it will still be Hu Jintao that prepares the political report for the congress. Analyzing his 90th anniversary report, it would seem that “the glorious banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics” will set the orientation for the 18th Party Congress. But I believe the likelihood of that is slim. That would mean that the 18th Party Congress had little fresh significance in terms of the articulation of the CCP’s political goals. The general conclusion to be drawn from Hu Jintao’s 19th anniversary report is that he is hesitating and taking a wait and see attitude.

Clearly, in the past one or two years, Hu Jintao has lacked sufficient political drive. His July 1 speech answered none of the problems Chinese care about with rising intensity: rights defense, anti-corruption and political reform. Hu’s recent report, in fact, represents a clear backwards turn from the report to the 17th Party Congress. When Hu Jintao spoke about democracy, it was to roundly praise the achievements of the democratic politics of the Chinese Communist Party. But as for the future, there was no vision or promise. Phrases that were rare bright points in the 2007 report, such as “protecting the people’s right to know, right to participate, right to express and right to monitor,” and “letting power be exercised under the sunlight” (transparently, that is), were absent altogether from the 90th anniversary report. He spoke about fighting corruption, but said nothing at all about the crucial issue of declaration of assets by government officials. Nor did he make any mention of the importance of press and public opinion supervision.

Against these absences, the July 1 speech placed a heavy emphasis on “stability.” The term “stability” was used five times in the report for the 70th anniversary in 1991, four times in the report for the 80th anniversary in 2001, and six times in the report for the 85th anniversary in 2006. The term appears 10 times in Hu Jintao’s latest report, surpassing the 70th anniversary report that came in the tense climate that followed the 1989 Tiananmen Incident. The language of stability, moreover, is more hard-line than in Hu’s report to the 17th Party Congress, in which he said, “Social stability is the common wish of the people, and an important condition of reform and development.” In his July 1 speech, Hu Jintao emphasized for the first time that: “Development is the fundamental principle, stability is the fundamental task.” This is a slogan we heard from hard-line leaders during unrest in Tibet in 2008, and again during unrest in Xinjiang the following year. The use of this term in Hu Jintao’s 90th anniversary speech conveys the voice of hardliners within the Chinese Communist Party. Hu even included his catchphrase “to not rock the boat,” or bu zheteng (不折腾), in the closing remarks of his report.

As a matter of course, the drafts for reports on important Party anniversaries and of course political reports to Party congresses go through an internal process of repeated discussion and revision, and they are the product of various political influences and power plays. Unlike the anniversary speeches we saw in the run-up to the 16th and 17th Party congresses, Hu Jintao’s July 1 speech not only makes no introduction of a political concept to set the orientation of the 18th Party Congress in 2012, but it in fact weakens the political trademarks of Hu and his predecessors. Hu Jintao glances warily to the left and right in the speech, not daring to draw his sword, if you will. Defining stability as the primary task is perhaps the only consensus to be had at the most senior levels at present.

Does the weakening of the political trademarks of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao mean that various factions and interests at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party are holding each other back ahead of the 18th Party Congress, and that we are in the midst of a political stalemate? Does the relative rise of “Mao Zedong Thought” in Hu Jintao’s July 1 report suggest that the Party might make a leftward turn? Does Jiang Zemin’s absence from the July 1 celebrations, as well as the prominent positioning of former standing committee member Song Ping (宋平), sometimes called the “king of China’s left” (左王), signify that larger shifts in Chinese politics are still possible? And as we saw in the interval between the report commemorating the Party’s 70th anniversary in 1991 and the 14th Party Congress in 1992, when Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” radically reset China’s political course, can we expect some sort of dramatic shift over the next year? These are things we will have to continue to watch very closely.

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