Xi’s missing terms emerge again

Just last week, in a post called “The Missing Speech,” I discussed the significant omission from a new compilation of speeches by Xi Jinping — A Primer of Important Speeches by General Secretary Xi Jinping — of a speech he made on December 4, 2012, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of China’s Constitution. I singled out the most important phrase Xi uttered during that speech: “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.”

The pair of terms in this phrase — “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国) and “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政) — received a great deal of attention inside and outside China at the time of Xi’s speech, and they were also for a time widely touted by Chinese media. Some felt that they bore the promise of greater reform. But before long they disappeared altogether. As of August 2014, the former term, “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution,” had been unused for six months, and the latter term, “governing in accord with the constitution,” had been unused for nine months.

I concluded my post by saying that the appearance (or continued disappearance) of Xi’s words during next month’s 4th Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party would be an important test of how and whether the agenda has shifted.

As it happens, both terms have already re-emerged. On September 5, President Xi Jinping gave a speech to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the National People’s Congress (NPC). In the speech, Xi said: “The Constitution is the most basic law of our country. Rule of the nation by law means, first and foremost, ruling the nation in accord with the constitution; governing by laws is first and foremost, governing in accord with the constitution.”

For a more detailed look at the strange ups and downs of this important phrase, I refer readers to my earlier piece. But what can we infer from this strange pattern of use of this pair of slogans, what in Chinese we call tifa (提法), or “watchwords”?

spectrum

In my past analyses of political discourse in China, I’ve defined a four-color spectrum to categorise political speech: DEEP RED, LIGHT RED, LIGHT BLUE and DEEP BLUE.

Terms in the DEEP RED are mostly leftist slogans left behind by Mao Zedong. The Party’s dominant language is in the LIGHT RED, terms like “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (中国特色社会主义) or “not traveling the old road” (不走老路). LIGHT BLUE terms are more liberal ones that are not used by the Party but are not off limits. They might be seen, for example, in commercial newspapers like Southern Metropolis Daily, and much less frequently in the likes of the People’s Daily.

DEEP BLUE terms like “multiparty system” are off limits, hence the vertical red line in the graphic above. This means they are not generally used at all, at least in a positive sense. Since last year we can say we’ve seen a re-emergence of the DEEP RED in China, and along with this shift we’ve seen a number of terms typically in the LIGHT BLUE — such as “constitutionalism” and “civil society” — shift over into the DEEP RED, become taboo terms.

We can regard Xi Jinping’s above mentioned terms — “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国) and “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政) — as LIGHT RED terms. And at certain times, we might see these terms banished to the cold house, in which case they move further along the spectrum and become LIGHT BLUE terms (not used officially).

Political watchwords in China run hot and cold, and they can reflect political changes in the country. But the relationship between discourse and political shifts or circumstances is a complex one, and we have to avoid the temptation of oversimplifying.

Based on my observations of the ebb and flow of these constitutional terminologies employed by Xi Jinping, I believe they are closely tied to the internal struggle over constitutionalism in China.

In the summer of 2013, in the midst of a vehement campaign against constitutionalism, “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国) and “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政) disappeared entirely in the media. In the midst of the 3rd Plenum late last year, the terms came back again briefly. But through spring and summer this year, the anti-constitutionism drums beat strong again, and we saw a corresponding dip in use of these slogans.

Some people believe that the Chinese Communist Party has recognised this issue. Seeing that Xi had once again used these two terms, one scholar friend who specialises in constitutionalism shared his thoughts with me as follows:

These terms “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” and “governing in accord with the constitution” that Xi is using refer to the preamble to the Constitution, which essentially says that the Chinese Communist Party is the leadership core of the project of socialism with Chinese characteristics. As the CCP understands it, this [sentence?] makes clear the ruling status of the Chinese Communist Party, and this is the basis of the Party’s rule. There is a huge gap between how the system understands this and how the public understands it. If you leave out these eight [Chinese] characters — “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” and “governing in accord with the constitution” — you’ve lost the basis of Party rule. They’ve realised this. I think these terms missing from the Xi Jinping collection is just about how they mediate things internally.

I agree with what this friend says. Certainly, there is often a “huge gap between how the system understands [something] and how the public understands it.” There are a lot of Chinese who hope ardently for reform, and every time this or that slogan appears they read their own hopes into it, often missing the fact that inside the shiny new bottle it’s the same old wine.

But this does not mean that political watchwords leave us entirely without solutions. In fact, we can often observe what the numbers tell us about “how the system understands” something. In China, to understand how the DEEP RED and LIGHT RED constrain DEEP BLUE, and how the DEEP RED and LIGHT RED often contest one another, all we need is to observe the movement of the term “political reform” (政治体制改革).

Just consider. How is it possible that for such important terms as “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国) and “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政) — terms that deal with the Party’s core concepts — saying them and not saying them amount to the same thing?

Some people say, well, Xi Jinping has always talked about “ruling the nation by law” (依法治国), which is basically the same thing as “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” and “governing in accord with the constitution,” right? But the difference in emphasis is, I believe, significant. Look again at what Xi Jinping said in December 2012:

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.

And what he said in this September 5 speech:

The Constitution is the most basic law of our country. Rule of the nation by law means, first and foremost, ruling the nation in accord with the constitution; governing by laws is first and foremost, governing in accord with the constitution.

I think with Xi Jinping’s talk of “first and foremost” and “the crux” in the above two passages we can see clear differences of emphasis between these and “ruling the nation by law.” I cannot possibly be an accident or an incidental choice for Xi Jinping to have used these particular phrases, these slogans, in these two speeches.

Many people, of course, don’t trust the slogans of the Chinese Communist Party. They’ll point out that the Party has always said one thing and done another. So even if they sign these two slogans about the constitution to the heavens, we can’t take this to mean they’re actually going to move in the direction of real constitutionalism. I’ll admit the reason in this too. However, I think it’s worth continuing to watch this deployment of watchwords.

This most recent speech of Xi Jinping’s deserves particular attention. It should be understood as an opening salvo to the upcoming 4th Plenum. It should be a signal of some sort that he has chosen at this moment to once again raise these two terms, “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” and “governing in accord with the constitution.”

At the same time, it’s not enough to dwell on these terms. Looking at the full text of Xi’s September 5 speech, we can see LIGHT RED terms mixed together with clear DEEP RED language like “dictatorship” (专政). So it’s very hard to tell what positives can be inferred from these nuances of discourse.

One thing we can be quite sure of, however, is that there are people within the Party who are unsettled by Xi Jinping’s decision to use these terms.

With the re-introduction of the above mentioned terms in Xi Jinping’s September 5 speech, the questions I laid out in my last post are not eliminated. For from it. They are more pronounced than ever.

“Ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” and “governing in accord with the constitution” have a directional quality and even possibly are banner term material (representing Xi’s hoped-for legacy like the “Three Represents” for Jiang Zemin and “scientific development” for Hu Jintao). Xi Jinping used them at the beginning of his term in office, and now we see them emerging again.

But why would A Primer of Important Speeches by General Secretary Xi Jinping, the volume intended as “a scientific compass for the unifying of ideas and advancement of [Party] work in the new era,” leave out these slogans? It’s hard to imagine that such a collection, produced by the Central Propaganda Department, would be published at all without the blessing of Xi Jinping. If it did have his blessing, why again would these slogans be removed? And then, just as everyone throughout the Party is poring over their copies of this volume without Xi Jinping’s “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution,” the term crops up again?

Where does this leave the Primer as an authoritative volume?

My friend, the constitutional expert, is right. We have to watch “how they mediate things internally.”

Chinese politics today are an exceedingly complex system in which DEEP RED, LIGHT RED, LIGHT BLUE and DARK BLUE face off in a chess game in which the rules are equally unclear.

As I wrote in my last post, the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party will meet for its 4th Plenum next month. Party media have already reported that the meeting will “research the thorough promotion of rule of the nation by law.” I posed the question: would the Xi Jinping statements that “rule of the nation by law means, first and foremost, ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” or “the crux in governing by laws is to govern in accord with the constitution” appear at the 4th Plenum?

Now, one month ahead of the Plenum, Xi Jinping’s September 5 speech seems to have raised the probability that we will see these watchwords next month.

I urge observers of Chinese politics to watch these words closely. Though of course, things are never quite so simple. I noticed, for example, that while the full text of Xi Jinping’s September 5 speech as released by Xinhua News Agency does have both of these terms, Xinhua’s official news release on the meeting did not mention them at all. Nor did the news about the meeting on the front page of the People’s Daily make any mention of them.

Was that negligence too?


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