China’s political discourse in 2013

Another year has passed. We can now take a comprehensive look back on China’s political discourse in 2013 — and what it can tell us about China’s current political atmosphere.

“Light Blue” Terms Associated with Constitutionalism and Democracy Reach New Lows

I use a graded color system of four quadrants to describe China’s political discourse. “Deep red,” on the left end of the spectrum, denotes political terms from the Maoist era. At the opposite end, we have “dark blue” terms. These are words and phrases, many of them associated with sensitive concepts like separation of powers or privatisation of the military, that the Chinese Communist Party does not permit.

“Light red” terms are those employed by the Party leadership. They represent the dominant orthodoxy in terms of CCP discourse. Finally, “light blue terms” are those the Party does not sanction but does not explicitly ban. They may be used by commercial media in China, but are rarely, if ever, seen in official Party media.

Many of the terms we have observed carefully in our discourse analysis on the topic of political reform within the Party in recent years belong to the light red category — terms like “democratic politics,” “political civilisation” and “intra-Party democracy.”

Light blue terms like “universal values,” “constitutionalism” and “civil society” coexisted peacefully (though not exactly comfortably) with light red terms throughout the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras. But in 2013, the first full year of the Xi Jinping era, light blue terms have been under assault — some moving into the dark blue end of the spectrum.

The idea of “constitutionalism” was the origin of the Southern Weekly incident in January 2013. Southern Weekly‘s New Years editorial — an important essay that generally sets the paper’s professional tone and mission for the year — had originally been called, “The Chinese Dream: the Dream of Constitutionalism.” During preparation of the New Years edition, the editorial was altered beyond recognition by censors in Guangdong. All 18 instances of “constitutionalism” in the essay were removed, and censors even added text to the edition (without input from editors) that contained serious and embarrassing factual errors. The incident created a major uproar, and prompted widespread calls for greater freedom of speech in China.

Using the advanced search function on Baidu.com, the most widely used search engine in China, we can see that 2013 was a different year from 2012 as far as light blue terms were concerned. In 2012, there were 150 distinct articles using the term “universal values” in the headline, of which 78 percent presented the term in a positive light. The same year, there were 400 articles using the term “constitutionalism” in the headline, of which all uses we’re positive.

In 2013, there were 500 articles using “universal values” in the headline, of which 84 percent presented the concept in a negative light. There were 1200 articles using the term “constitutionalism,” 86 percent negative.

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Southern Weekly, Southern Metropolis Daily and The Beijing News have typically been publications where light blue terms like the above have thrived. But light blue terms fell off sharply at these newspapers in 2013. Here, for example is a graph of “civil society” in Southern Metropolis Daily over the past 10 years.

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Not long after the curtain closed on the 18th National Congress in 2012, Xi Jinping emphasised the need to “govern according to the constitution.” This was the first time that this phrase, which is similar to the notion of constitutionalism, appeared in a headline in the Party’s official People’s Daily. In December 2012, use of the phrase “govern according to the constitution” soared in China’s media. But after this the term nosedived. In 2013, there were seven months during which the term was completely gone from People’s Daily. A search in Baidu News turns up just a handful of uses in headlines, and eight months in which the term is completely absent from headlines.

On the opening day of the Third Plenum of the 18th CCP Central Committee, a lengthy editorial on the front page of the People’s Daily, “‘The New Historic Starting Point’ on the Chinese Road,” did finally include this phrase about the constitution once again, and it emerged in another editorial two days later. But the term did not appear in the formal “Decision” coming out of the Plenum.

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On January 6, 2013, the phrase “the two must not rejects,” or liang ge bu fou ding (两个不能否定), began appearing in Chinese newspapers. This term summed up a new political position emerging from the Party leadership, that “the historical period after economic reforms [in 1978] must not be used to reject the historical period before economic reforms; and the historical period before economic reforms must not be used to reject the historical period after economic reforms.” This new phrase generated an uproar, and it heralded the appearance of the “Seven Don’t Speaks,” a Party document — not formally released but widely discussed — restricting use of political ideas generally in the light blue quadrant, like constitutionalism and civil society.

From May to July of 2013 came the first round of attacks against light blue political concepts, but these attacks were met with concerted opposition from academics, lawyers and rights advocates online. Finally, in late August, Party media “showed their swords,” calling for a “public opinion struggle” (also referred to as a “struggle in the ideological sphere”). Both “public opinion struggle” and “struggle in the ideological sphere” are reminiscent of another term from the Maoist era, “class struggle in the ideological sphere.”

From this point deep red discourse moved to center stage. In September, criticism of light blue terms reached new heights, though this assault was put on hold on the eve off the Third Plenum.

On October 17, the People’s Daily re-ran in full an essay from the Party journal Qiushi attributed to “Autumn Stone” (秋石) — a writer, or group of writers, of unknown identity. It was called, “Firming Up the Common Ideological Basis for United Struggle by the Party and the People.” The article was essentially an open version of the “Seven Don’t Speaks,” and said that universal values and constitutional democracy are uniquely Western ideas and forms of governance. It severely criticized neoliberalism, historical nihilism and critiques of China’s reform project. Quite notably, however, the essay left a corner of the net open, touching on the notion of civil society that had previously been lumped in the “Seven Don’t Speaks” and been openly attacked. In discussing “socialist constitutionalism,” another idea roundly criticized for several months, the essay was also somewhat moderate in tone.

On November 8, the day before the opening of the Third Plenum, the People’s Daily ran a piece called, “Accurately Viewing the Two Historical Periods Before and After Economic Reform.” At first glance the piece seemed to expound on the idea of “the two must not rejects,” but in fact it did a patching job on the 1981 “resolution on Important Historical Questions” (历史决议), reaffirming the resolution’s rejection of the Cultural Revolution and its statements on other errors in the period prior to the Cultural Revolution.

Light Red Party Discourse Runs Hot and Cold

Some have described the recent Third Plenum of the 18th CCP Central Committee as a reform milestone, much as was the Third Plenum of the 11th CCP Central Committee that initiated Deng Xiaoping’s reform program. But 2013 was not 1978. For more than a year prior to the 1978 plenum, Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang were engaged in a fierce battle of strength with conservative elements in the Party — a process that was all about debating standards of truth, and ultimately clearing away the road to reform. In 2013, quite the opposite happened. The Third Plenum of the 18th CCP Central Committee, touted as a “comprehensive deepening of reforms,” in fact unfolded in the midst of a year-long atmosphere of ideological campaigning that was quite contrary to reform.

In 2013, the most widely used light red phrase was “the Chinese dream.” In 2012, the Chinese dream appeared 106 times in the People’s Daily. In 2013, it appeared 1,912 times, emerging as a classic super-term (超强话语). We can compare the term to other historical super-terms in the People’s Daily, such as Mao Zedong’s “general line” in 1959 (1,605 appearances), “Mao Zedong’s Thought” in 1966 (3,877), Hua Guofeng’s “grasping the key link to bring great order” (抓纲治国) in 1977 (1,145), and Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” in 2003 (2,928). Another term related to the Chinese dream, “trusting in the path” (道路自信), appeared 95 times in 2012 and 203 times in 2013.

Ever since the 16th National Congress in 2002, the Party has prescribed a whole set of regularized terms that deal with reform. These include: Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents, the Scientific View of Development, the Harmonious Society, the people as the base, political system reforms, political civilisation, democratic politics and intra-party democracy.

Among these, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents and the Harmonious Society are the banner terms of Xi Jinping’s predecessors, Deng, Jiang and Hu. They are, in other words, the slogans meant to encapsulate their ideas and policies. Some have argued that this set of terms can be understood essentially as “enlightened discourse” within the CCP — a strain of open-mindedness, if you will. The core of Deng Xiaoping Theory, for example, is Deng’s openness and reform policy. The essence of Jiang’s Three Represents (according to this reading) is the transformation of the CCP from a revolutionary party to a governing party, the most tangible result being the decision to admit capitalists into the Party. On the surface, the terms associated with Hu Jintao are also relatively moderate. My analysis has revealed that the weakness or intensity of these terms corresponds directly to the strength or weakness of light blue discourse in China’s media. In those years that these terms are on the rise, light blue terms enjoy more space to develop.

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I conducted a search of this set of banner terms from 2004 to 2013 to determine their frequency of use over time. My sources were the People’s Daily database and Hong Kong’s WiseNews database, the latter representing hundreds of mainland Chinese newspapers. The following plots frequency in the People’s Daily:

Numbers in the People’s Daily reveal that all 9 of these terms, excepting “political system reforms,” reached historic lows in 2013. When we conduct a headline search in the WiseNews database, the results are the same. We see too that “political system reforms,” a light red term that straddles the light blue on my spectrum (used eagerly, that is, by more liberal commercial media), reaches its lowest point in seven years in 2013. The light blue term “constitutional democracy” seems to ebb away entirely. Most important to notice is the fact that the entire set of light red “enlightened” terms in the CCP discourse are on a downward slide in 2013. Among these, I note in particular the rapid descent of “intra-party democracy.”

What Does the Plummeting of “Intra-Party Democracy” Tell Us?

Among those who still hold out hope for political reform within the CCP, the most modest hope is that intra-party democracy can expand under the umbrella of single-party rule — which would include, for example, changes to selection procedures for the National Congress of the CCP and local Party governing bodies. During the Hu Jintao era, the term “intra-party democracy” experienced periods of advancement in the media. Hu Jintao affirmed the idea of putting organisational decisions to vote — by allowing multiple candidates (to the Party’s liking, of course) to compete for a certain number of positions — and during his tenure some experiments in internal elective procedures were encouraged.

The focus during the Hu era where intra-party democracy was concerned was on what is called “differential election,” or cha’e xuanju (差额选举), whereby multiple Party candidates stand for election by their Party peers for a number of positions (a differential of 105 percent, for example, would mean 105 individuals filling 100 posts). Under Hu Jintao there was also limited experimentation in certain areas with direct election of Party officials. After he took office, Hu encouraged a number of places in China to organize experiments in the direct election of grassroots Party officials. One of these places was in Jiangsu province, where the provincial Party secretary, Li Yuanchao, first experimented with “ or gongtui zhixuan (公推直选), between 2002 and 2007.

Gongtui zhixuan is one method of reforming the mechanisms by which leaders are chosen for official posts, a limited decentralization (or letting go) of the Party’s power to exercise control over its own cadres. The word gongtui, which means roughly “mutual nomination,” refers to the method by which candidates emerge. Formerly (and of course this is mostly still the case), candidates were simply appointed by their Party superiors. Now, in addition to candidates recommended by superiors, Party members can jointly or individually recommend candidates, and city residents or villagers can send representatives to take part in the nomination process. Zhixuan, which means “direct selection,” refers to a process by which a general meeting of Party members or a congress of Party delegates directly elects a candidate for a post from among the nominees.

When we search the People’s Daily over the past five years, we can see that “open nomination and direct election” reached a peak of coverage in 2010. “Differential election” reached its peak in 2012.

In 2013, use of the term “intra-party democracy” fell 74 percent in the <em<People’s Daily over the previous year. Use of the term fell 81 percent in the larger universe of Chinese newspapers represented by the WiseNews database. “Open nomination and direct election” dropped 88 percent in the People’s Daily in 2013, and 64 percent in the WiseNews database. “Differential election,” meanwhile, fell 67 percent in the People’s Daily and 48 percent in the WiseNews database.

At the same time, another term, “deliberative democracy,” or xieshang minzhu (协商民主), reached a five-year high 2013. When we conduct a headline search for the term on People’s Daily Online, the official online portal of the CCP mouthpiece, we find that use of the term increased 69 percent in 2013 over the previous year.

Party media assert that the idea of deliberative democracy has historic roots in the Chinese Communist Party, that it is not a foreign import. In fact, deliberative democracy is a concept that comes from mature constitutional democracies in the West. The term appeared for the first time in the People’s Daily in 2006, but specifically dealt with the workings of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress. The article quoted Li Junru (李君如), former deputy head of the Central Party School, as saying that, “Our democratic politics, in terms of the people’s congress system, essentially carries out elective democracy; and where the consultative congresses are concerned chiefly carries out deliberative democracy” (People’s Daily, April 7, 2006, p. 13).

In the CCP dictionary, “elective democracy” and “deliberative democracy” are opposites. In the past, Party media have asserted that a combination of elective and deliberative democracy is what makes for Chinese-style democracy. Deliberative democracy is also a term much loved by those of the China Model camp, who assert that China has developed its own unique set of values (distinct from those of the West) enshrined in its own unique and highly successful system. in 2013, the term “deliberative democracy” made a much stronger appearance in China. The Third Plenum defined economic reform as the focus of the reform project, and had little to remark on the issue of political reform. In his explanation of the Decision emerging from the plenum, Xi Jinping said:

The [Party] Congress has taken the widespread and multi-level systematisation and development of deliberative democracy as the chief content of political system reform, emphasizing, under the leadership of the Party, the carrying out of an expansive process of deliberation throughout society on major issues of economic and social development and real issues dealing with the immediate interests of the masses, carrying deliberation through from the policy-making phase to the policy implementation phase.

The only point in Xi’s speech dealing at all with political system reforms is directly connected with deliberative democracy. This elaboration by Xi would seem to suggest that we can only expect the scope of political reform [pursued by the Party] to narrow in the future. we can expect substantive moves on political reform, those touching on the thornier issue of Party power — such as an organisational system in the Party based principally on elective procedures, or separating the powers of decision-making, implementation and supervision — will be very slow indeed. The focus in promoting democratic politics under this formulation lies outside the Party, with “consultation” taking precedence over election. if this is indeed the case, I’m afraid what we have is the shelving of Deng Xiaoping’s idea that the core of political reform must be addressing the problem of “over-concentration of power.” As we see the rapid cooling off of the term “intra-party democracy” this can only anticipate further concentration of power.

Observations for 2014

1. Deep red. We must continue to observe the term “public opinion struggle.” While the term has mitigated somewhat in event weeks, it is still being used. Its last appearance in the official People’s Daily was on December 30. we must pay special attention to the phrase “raising high the banner of Mao Zedong’s Thought” (高举毛泽东思想旗帜). Over the past few years the standardised slogan has been, “raising high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (高举中国特色社会主义伟大旗帜), but just as Jiang Zemin did in his speech to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birth, and Hu Jintao for the 110th, Xi Jinping used the phrase in his recent 120th anniversary speech. The question is whether or not use of the phrase will continue, and so we must keep a close eye on the use of deep red keywords this year.

I’ve pointed out before that “Mao Zedong’s Thought” is a measuring stick we can use to look at Chinese politics. If we look at the People’s Daily and at the broader universe of papers represented by WiseNews, we find that use of this term did not increase in 2013. However, if we search news headlines on Baidu.com, we find that “Mao Zedong Thought” has reached a six-year high (altogether 2,120 uses, of which 312 came between December 26 and December 31).

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2. Light blue and dark blue. Something we have to look at very carefully is whether in fact “universal values” and “constitutionalism,” typically light blue terms in the past, have indeed shifted into the dark blue, becoming sensitive terms that cannot be used in a positive sense. It seems at the moment that “civil society” and “civil rights” remain in the light blue quadrant. Toward the end of the year, both People’s Daily Online and the official website of the court system, chinacourt.org, carried articles using “civil society” in a positive sense. We’ll have to see whether this situation holds.

3. Light red. Right now “the Chinese dream” is dominant everywhere. but this slogan is meant to be primarily motivational, like Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward incitement to “surpass England and the United States.” It is not, in fact, a banner term (or legacy term), like “Mao Zedong Thought,” “Deng Xiaoping Theory” or the “Three Represents.” There is a process to banner term introduction in the Chinese Communist Party, and these are not things leaders simply toss out as soon as they take the stage. It’s inconceivable that in the future people will be shouting, “Raise high the banner of the Chinese dream!” Nor can we imagine a legacy formulation like, “Comprehensively implementing the Chinese dream.” So the matter of Xi Jinping’s banner term is something we’ll have to keep an eye out for.

2013 was a year in which we saw the deck of China’s political discourse being shuffled. This year, we’ll have to be careful observers and see what cards are played.

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