The missing speech

An official tome released this summer from the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department, A Primer of Important Speeches by General Secretary Xi Jinping is the talk of the town in Beijing. It is estimated that some 10 million copies have circulated since the middle of August alone, and the collection has been touted as “a scientific compass for the unifying of ideas and advancement of [Party] work in the new era.”

According to the book’s preface: “The structure of this book was designed on the basis of the study and review of a series of important speeches made by General Secretary Xi Jinping. The discussions and opinions herein are faithful to the originals.”

However, upon careful review of the collection I discovered a very significant “error” in the compilation of the material. One important speech is missing.

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This book, totaling over 110,000 words, includes some 40 or so speeches made by Xi Jinping since he became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Some of the speeches are directly quoted in the book, while for others the editors explicate the “spirit” of Xi’s language.

Generally, all of the speeches Xi Jinping has made since the 18th National Congress in November 2012 should be eligible for inclusion, excepting of course those that cannot be included for reasons of sensitivity. But for some reason, the volume has passed over Xi Jinping’s speech on “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国) and “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政).

On December 4, 2012, Xi Jinping made a speech in Beijing to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the promulgation and implementation of China’s constitution. This speech attracted a great deal of attention both inside and outside China. In the speech, Xi Jinping said: “Rule of the nation by law means, first and foremost, ruling the nation in accord with the constitution; the crux in governing by laws is to govern in accord with the constitution” (People’s Daily, December 5, 2012). For Xi Jinping to use the words “first and foremost” and “crux” in these remarks represented a marked departure from the language of his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

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[ABOVE: Xi Jinping’s December 2012 speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of China’s Constitution becomes a hot topic in the Party media, including the People’s Daily.]

In the wake of Xi Jinping’s December 2012 speech on the constitution, the terms “administering the nation in accord with the constitution” and “governing in accord with the constitution” became hot-button terms in China’s media. In fact, the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper wrote a series of three editorials from “this paper’s editorial writer” (本报评论员) expounding on this particular speech. Here is what one of those editorials said:

Rule of law means first and foremost rule by the Constitution. The “law” we refer to when we speak of ruling the nation in accord with the law are is the body of law of which the constitution forms the core, and the complete legal system. Here, the Constitution, as the major basic law of the country, is the most important law among laws, the core of the entire legal system. All of our country’s laws are made in accordance with the constitution, and set out specific systems and principles in line with the spirit of the constitution. Therefore, ruling the nation in accord with the constitution (依宪治国) is not only a necessary demand of rule of the nation in accord with the law (依法治国), but is also the foremost meaning of rule of the nation in accord with the law.

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[ABOVE: An editorial in the People’s Daily by “this paper’s editorial writer” explicates Xi Jinping’s remarks on “rule in accord with the constitution.” ]

At around the same time, the People’s Daily ran an article by Jiang Bixin (江必新), the vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court, called, “Ruling in Accord with the Constitution to Open a New Era of Rule of Law” (依宪执政开启法治新时代). Jiang spoke with high regard of Xi Jinping’s speech on the constitution and rule of law, saying that “it is a declaration that fully promotes rule of the nation in a accord with the law, and accelerates the building of a socialist nation ruled by law.” He added that Xi’s speech was a “mobilization order” and a “blueprint for the building of rule of the nation in accord with the constitution, and governing in accord with the constitution.”

Such an “error” of omission, an “error” of such magnitude, is virtually impossible in China’s sensitive political culture. We have to understand that specialist vocabularies are what constitute the political discourse of the Chinese Communist Party, and the discourse we glimpse in the dissemination of news and information in China — particularly from official CCP media — is a reflection of the Party’s agenda.

As I’ve pointed out before, the People’s Daily byline “this paper’s editorial writer” (本报评论员) points at a very minimum to the fact that what your are reading is the paper’s official editorial — not forgetting, of course, that the People’s Daily is the official mouthpiece of the CCP’s Central Committee. And if the editorial in question is part of a special series of editorials, it carries even greater weight.

From the close of the 18th National Congress in December 2012 up to the closing date of the recently released published collection in June this year, the People’s Daily ran 10 special editorials from “this paper’s editorial writer” dealing with various speeches made by General Secretary Xi Jinping. (There was one other dealing in a more general sense with Xi’s speeches). We can fairly say that the People’s Daily dealt with Xi Jinping’s speech to commemorate the 30th anniversary of China’s Constitution in the loftiest way possible, and engaged in a very detailed explication of the phrase “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国).

For this recent collection and review of Xi Jinping’s speeches to exclude this particular speech by the General Secretary is in fact an almost unimaginable turn.

Of the speeches previously receiving strong emphasis in the Party press, there are at least four others missing from the new collection. First are a pair of speeches Xi Jinping made on the issue of Xinjiang. Second are two speeches Xi made at the Central Work Conference on Politics and Law (中央政法工作会议). The omission of the Xinjiang speeches is easy enough to understand, dealing as they do with sensitive issues of separatism and terrorism. The omission of the latter two speeches, however, deserves some special attention.

The published collection on Xi’s speeches is divided into 12 topical sections. The section most relevant to the pair of speeches to the Central Work Conference on Politics and Law would be section 5, which is copiously titled, “Making Full Use of the Superiority of our Country’s Socialist System: On Developing Socialist Democratic Politics and Rule of the Nation by Law” (充分发挥我国社会主义政治制度优越性——关于发展社会主义民主政治和依法治国). The second heading under this section deals specifically with the question of rule of law, and introduces four key points under the following terminologies: scientific legislation (科学立法); strict enforcement of the law (严格执法); judicial justice (公正司法); the populace abiding by the law (全民守法). The collection avoids reference to important original language Xi Jinping used at the Central Work Conference on Politics and Law, namely his remarks on “strengthening and improving of the Party’s leadership of political and legal work . . . using rule of law modes of thinking and rule of law methods to lead political and legal work. However, section 5 of the collection did mention “using rule of law modes of thinking and rule of law methods to deepen reforms.”

So we can see that not only does the collection fail to mention Xi Jinping’s important speech on the 30th anniversary of China’s Constitution, but it also entirely omits from its section on “rule of the nation by law” (依法治国) the original language used by Xi: Administering the nation by laws means, first and foremost, administering the nation in accord with the constitution; the crux in governing by laws is to govern in accord with the constitution.

We can only say that this is a manifest “error” on the part of the collection’s editors. But was this a error of selection, an editorial slip? Or does it mark a dramatic departure in the dominant terminology of Party discourse, what we call tifa (提法)? And if this is an example of the latter — meaning a discourse shift — who made the decision? Was it the Central Propaganda Department? Or was it the general secretary himself?

Not privy to those internal discussions and decisions, I can only make a judgement on the basis of the discourse as it has trended in the Party media.

The emergence in the Party media of the terms “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国) and “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政), and the eventual fate of these terms, is in fact quite a fascinating subject.

After the 18th National Congress in 2012, they appeared for the first time in headlines in the official People’s Daily. In December 2012, there were six articles in the People’s Daily using either or both terms. In my view, the combined phrase — ruling the nation in accord with the constitution; governing in accord with the constitution — was very possibly conceived originally as a Xi Jinping banner term, like Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” (三个代表) and Hu Jintao’s “Scientific View of Development” (科学发展观). But as we entered 2013, the terms cooled off.

These were Xi Jinping’s most jarring slogans after taking the Party’s top post in 2012, and they were closely tied to the subsequent championing of “constitutionalism” that we saw among intellectuals in China. The rise and fall of these terms reflects internal political sensitivities. In January 2013 — the month that the Southern Weekly incident erupted in Guangzhou around the censoring of the New Year’s message on constitutionalism — the terms did not appear in the People’s Daily. Then, after appearing once each in February and March that year, the terms disappeared from the paper altogether from April to July. In August, there was one appearance of either term, just as the propaganda tide against constitutionalism reached its height. In October 2013, there was one appearance. In November, two appearances. In February, 2014, there was one final appearance — and since then we’ve not seen the terms at all.

During this period, there are three articles the especially deserve our attention. After the “Seven Don’t Speaks” came out — targeting discussion of such things as “constitutionalism” and “civil society” — they caused ideological confusion in China.

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” (巩固党和人民团结奋斗的共同思想基础), and was essentially an open version of the “Seven Don’t Speaks.” But while many Chinese objected to the clear leftist tone of the piece, I realized that in fact it made some fine adjustments to the notion of “Seven Don’t Speaks.” For example, the piece admitted to the existence of commonly shared human values, but made clear its objection to a notion of “universal values” that were, in its view, patently Western values. Furthermore, the piece did not criticize “civil society.” And while it continued the attack on “constitutionalism,” it professed support for something it called “socialist constitutionalism” (社会主义宪政) — and in related discussions it again raised the terms “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” and “governing in accord with the constitution.”

On November 9, the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party opened in Beijing. That day, the People’s Daily ran a lengthy front-page piece called, “A New Starting Point for History on the Chinese Road” (中国道路的“历史新起点). On November 11, the newspaper ran another piece called, “A Magnificent Chapter: A Review of the Building of Democratic Politics Since the 18th National Congress (政治文明的壮丽篇章——十八大以来民主政治建设述评). These two articles did use General Secretary Xi Jinping’s original language about “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” and “governing in accord with the constitution.”

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These three pieces in October and November 2013 account for the peak that can be sign in the middle of the above graph showing us of Xi Jinping’s term relating to the constitution. But after the Third Plenum, we find that the decision emerging from the plenum about “deepening reforms” does not include the Xi Jinping’s terms.

Since the “Decision” emerging from the Third Plenum, we have not seen the term “governing in accord with the constitution” in the People’s Daily. There is only one instance where we’ve seen the second term, “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution,” in the People’s Daily. That was on February 28 in an article called, “Strong Rule of Law Means a Strong Nation: An Interview with National People’s Congress Legal Committee Vice-Chairman Xu Xianming” (法治强则国家强——访全国人大法律委员会副主任委员徐显明).

Counting from December 2013 to August 2014, we’ve seen the absence of “governing in accord with the constitution” for 9 months already. Counting from March 2014 to August 2014, we’ve seen the absence of “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” for 6 months.

The collection of Xi Jinping’s speeches was published in June, and in July we once again saw a cresting of the ideological restrictions we call the “Seven Don’t Speaks.” The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences moved to strengthen ideological controls. The Organization Department of the CCP Central Committee sent out a notice on strengthening the ideological training of Party cadres (在干部教育中加强理想新年和道德品行教育). Finally, a piece from Han Qingxiang (韩庆祥), deputy head of education at the Central Party School, appeared in the People’s Daily on July 23. Han’s article, “Having a Deep Understanding of ‘the New and Great Struggle'” (深刻理解“新的伟大斗争”), once again launched an attack against “constitutionalism,” “universal values” and “civil society.”

The above attacks form the larger background against which we can consider the absence of Xi’s remarks on the constitution from A Primer of Important Speeches by General Secretary Xi Jinping. The terms “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国) and “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政) undoubtedly ruffle the feathers of those who oppose constitutional governance. The champions of the ideologically-laden discourse that I refer to as “deep red” treat even the “light red” discourse used by some Party leaders as a matter of great sensitivity. They will actively resist any language that smacks of reform.

Next month, the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party will meet for its 4th Plenum. Party media have said recently that the meeting will “research the thorough promotion of rule of the nation by law.” Soon after he took office, Xi Jinping said that “rule of the nation by law means, first and foremost, ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” and that “the crux in governing by laws is to govern in accord with the constitution.”

Will Xi’s words appear next month as Party leaders meet to discuss “rule of the nation by law”? We can regard this question as an important test of how and whether the agenda has shifted.

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