The 18th National Congress Report Card


As I hope I’ve illustrated through this series, China’s political watchwords can reward us with a wealth of information. These specialized vocabularies, and their shifts over time, provide a glimpse into China’s secretive political culture.

Analyzing China’s political watchwords would have been a painstaking process before the advent of computers and the Internet. Just imagine the time and immense effort it would require to sort through six decades of the People’s Daily for a phrase like “intraparty democracy.”

Fortunately, a new generation of digital search tools makes searching political watchwords in Chinese far easier. We now have, at our fingertips, the means to search through individual articles, through entire archives of a single newspaper, or even through hundreds of newspapers and websites over specified time periods.

With the help of these new search tools, watchwords become keys, allowing us to unlock China’s political past and present, and to make educated guesses about its future. Our basic measure is a given term’s frequency of use, which gives us a reading of that term’s temperature over time. Or, if you prefer, it shows us a term’s changing stock price. Is a watchword (and related ideas, policies or people) on the rise or in decline?

In this series, I’ve looked at the history, origin and context of various political watchwords used by the Chinese Communist Party. I’ve also looked at changes in the frequency of use and meaning of these terms over time.

Political change in China over the past 60 years has been attended by change in the meaning and frequency of political watchwords. Some terms, like “class struggle,” have faded into the past. Others, like “political reform,” have run hot and cold.

[ABOVE: What kind of score will we be able to give the political report to the 18th National Congress on the basis of our core watchwords? Flag image (checkmarks added) by Renato Ganoza posted to under Creative Commons license.]

The following is a bulleted list of basic points that I hope will help readers make sense of the upcoming 18th National Congress. If you like, you can think of these 10 key points as a basis on which we can come up with a report card telling us which direction the leadership seems likely to go on a number of important issues.

1. The Four Basic Principles (including Mao Zedong Thought).
These watchwords have strong significance as indicators of where Chinese politics is heading. If both of these terms are abandoned, this will signify the leadership’s intention to pursue political reform. If the phrase Four Basic Principles is used to the extent that we saw five years earlier, or its frequency is reduced only slightly, this will signal a perpetuation of the status quo, with no substantive progress on political reform. Any increase in the frequency of use of either term will suggest a political turnabout.

2. Stability Preservation.
If this hard-line term appears in the political report to the 18th National Congress (marking its coming of age as a Party watchword), this will be a serious sign of political backsliding. (Note that an increase for Term 1, the Four Basic Principles, accompanied by Term 2, “stability preservation,” would be a serious sign of political backsliding. If this happens, no situation with respect to the other watchwords below would override this more pessimistic reading.)

3. Cultural Revolution.
A return appearance of this term in 2012 could have special meaning. If the political report to the 18th National Congress attempts any sort of soul-searching about the Cultural Revolution, this could be read as positive sign pointing to possible political reform. If, however, the term is used only in the context of praise for China’s progress, its appearance will have little significance.

4. Political Reform.
Possible positive developments for this watchword at the 18th National Congress would be inclusion in a section header of the political report (which didn’t happen in 2007), or an overall increase in use of the term (which was mentioned five times in 2007). Any decrease in use would be a negative sign. We should also note whether the report includes Wen Jiabao-style language. For example, the appearance of the phrase “protecting rights, checking power” would be a positive sign. The appearance, on the other hand, of hard-line language such as “opposing Westernization” or the “Five Will Nots” would be a negative sign.

5. Power of Decision-Making, Power of Administration and Power of Monitoring.
For this phrase, which did appear in the political report to the 17th National Congress, the critical thing to look for is whether it reappears this year. The full 2007 phrase to look for is: “[The Party] must build and improve power structures for mutual conditioning and mutual coordination of the powers of decision-making, administration and monitoring, improving oversight mechanisms” (要建立健全决策权、执行权、监督权既相互制约又相互协调的权力结构,完善监督机制). If we do not see this phrase repeated in this year’s political report, that will be a negative sign. If the phrase is altered to include the idea of these powers operating independently of one another, that will be a positive sign.

6. Power Is Given by the People.
As I explained in my fifth article in this series, this phrase was introduced by Xi Jinping after the 17th National Congress. Any appearance of this term at all in this year’s political report will be a positive sign.

7. Social Construction.
The critical thing to watch here is whether the phrase “expanding the scope for self-governance at the grassroots,” which appeared in 2007, reappears in this year’s political report. If it disappears (and is not replaced by “social self-governance”) that will be a negative sign.

8. Intraparty Democracy.
This term appeared five times in the political report to the 17th National Congress, a relatively high frequency. In this year’s political report we will need to look both at how often the watchword appears, and at whether or not it is accompanied by language about more concrete measures, such as “open nomination and direct election,” “differential election” and “fixed tenure.”

9. Scientific View of Development.
The term, President Hu Jintao’s “banner term,” or qihao, appeared 21 times in the 2007 political report. If the term appears the same number of times or marginally less often in this year’s report, that will be normal. If, however, the term appears with greater frequency, this will signal that Hu intends to extend the influence of his banner term beyond the 18th National Congress. Also worth scrutiny is whether the meaning of the Scientific View of Development is changed in any way. For example, if there is an emphasis on “people-based” governance, or if there is mention of civil and political rights along the lines of what we saw in China’s National Human Rights Action Plan (2012-2015), then this will be a positive sign.

10. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.
This watchword appeared a whopping 51 times in the political report to the 17th National Congress. Judging from Hu Jintao’s speech on July 23, 2012, this watchword, actually a changing medley of political terms, will become a term representing the banner terms for the last three generations of Chinese leaders — Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. If that’s true, we can expect the term to be used with even greater frequency. That would be the product of political balancing and would not necessarily signify positive or negative political developments.

Observers should carefully monitor how Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is defined in the political report. Specifically, we should look at whether that definition includes the Four Basic Principles or “one core, two basics” (which includes the Four Basic Principles). If either of these terms is bundled into the definition of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, that will occasion pessimism about the path ahead.

It remains to be seen which particular watchwords will be most useful in reading China’s political situation and prospects at the 18th National Congress. But I hope I’ve made the case that China’s political watchwords are more than just words — they are concrete outcomes of China’s internal politics. Of course, the study of the ups and downs of China’s specialized political vocabulary should always be combined with a keen eye for other political variables. After all, as this year’s Bo Xilai scandal has shown, China is always ready to surprise.

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