Reading Chinese politics in 2014

As we come to the end of 2014, we can say that this year has brought a “hardening” (板结) of China’s political discourse. It’s been a year of cleansing in the ideological sphere, and we find now that virtually all of the terms related to political reform, ones we might previously have classified as “light blue” (浅蓝) — not part of the official Chinese Communist Party discourse but still tolerated — have entered the taboo zone of the “dark blue” (深蓝).

Meanwhile, the “light red” terms (浅红) favored by those in power have undergone a complete shake-up (全面重组). To top it all off, a number of “deep red” keywords associated with the Maoist pre-reform era have made a comeback.

mao[ABOVE: China’s political discourse is at least as enigmatic today as it was in the era of Mao Zedong. Is China heading forward, or back?]

What follows is my 2014 Report on Political Keywords in China. Let us begin with the most troubled term of all, the embattled concept of “constitutionalism.”

The Term “Constitution” (宪) is Battered About in the Winds

The biggest discourse incident of 2014 was the disappearance for a time of a pair of phrases President Xi Jinping gave some degree of emphasis soon after becoming the General Secretary of the CCP. Those terms are: “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (依宪治国) and “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政). The terms re-emerged in September this year, following many months of chilly in-fighting over constitutionalism and its relevance for China.

This pair of terms, which appeared in Xi Jinping’s December 2012 speech to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Constitution’s implementation, descended into a valley of obscurity in the midst of a full-frontal attack on the notion of constitutionalism in 2013 — best illustrated by the “seven don’t speaks” (七不讲), instructions issued by the Party leadership banning coverage and discussion of 1) universal values, 2) press freedom, 3) civil society, 4) civil rights, 5) the historical errors of the CCP, 6) oligarchical capitalism, and 7) an independent judiciary.

In my report on political discourse at the end of last year, I had already noted how the phrase “governing in accord with the constitution” had slipped into obscurity, disappearing altogether from official Party media. In 2014, I discovered that Xi Jinping’s speech to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Constitution had been omitted from a volume of collected speeches by Xi Jinping published by the Central Propaganda Department, A Primer of Important Speeches by General Secretary Xi Jinping.

The same omission reported occurred ahead of the Fourth Plenum in November this year. A revealing interview with one of the drafters behind the Fourth Plenum’s important “Decision” clued us in to the fact that a draft earlier in 2014 had included Xi Jinping’s pair of Constitution-related phrases, but these were subsequently removed at the request of unspecified interests. The phrases were, according to the same source, added back into the “Decision” on the very last day of the Fourth Plenum at the direction of “a certain leading cadre.”

As I’ve said before, shouting the idea of “governing in accord with the constitution” for all to hear does not necessarily signal full love and respect for the Constitution or constitutional politics. However, the deletion of such language and the active suppression of related ideas does clearly signal the actions of strong forces that fear and oppose constitutionalism.

On the very day the brief communique was released at the Fourth Plenum (in advance of the full “Decision”), a number of important websites in China ran an article with the headline, “‘Governing in Accord with the Law’ Cannot be Confused with Western Constitutionalism” (依宪执政与西方「宪政」不容混淆). The article set the rather subdued tone for understanding the notion of “governing in accord with the law.” A search on Baidu shows that 106 websites ran this particular article, which was clearly propagated under direct instructions from propaganda authorities.

The article was run under the byline Guo Ping (国平) — not in fact a person, but rather the official nom de plume of the Information Office of the State Council.

The People’s Daily can be regarded as an important weathervane, or fengxiangbiao (风向标), of official Party discourse in China. In 2013, as the crusade against constitutionalism went into high gear, the People’s Daily remained extremely cautious. Only two articles openly criticizing constitutionalism were published in the paper through the entire year.

In 2014, looking at the ten months prior to the opening of the Fourth Plenum, there were five articles in the People’s Daily criticizing constitutionalism. However, in the two months since the Fourth Plenum (from October 24 to December 23) there have been 13 such articles.

Among these 13 articles was a November 13 piece called “China’s Governance in Accord With the Constitution Differs From Western Capitalism Constitutionalism” (中国依宪执政不同与西方资本主义宪政), marking the first time in the history of the People’s Daily that the paper gave negative treatment to “constitutionalism” in the headline of a piece dealing with domestic political questions.

Using Baidu News search, we find that in the ten months leading up to the Fourth Plenum, there were 120 articles using “constitutionalism” in a negative sense in the headline. In the two months since the Fourth Plenum, that number has catapulted to 689.

graph 1[ABOVE: On the left, total articles in the People’s Daily in 2014 criticizing “constitutionalism,” 28% before the Fourth Plenum and 72% after. On the right, the same in Baidu News, reflecting online Chinese coverage, with 85% of negative coverage appearing after the Fourth Plenum.].

No sooner had the Fourth Plenum with its stress on abiding by the Constitution concluded than Party media were let loose to carry out a full disinfection of the phrase at the heart of the question, “governing in accord with the constitution” (依宪执政). The propaganda surrounding the “spirit” of the Plenum, which should have been all about a full explanation of what “governing in accord with the constitution” meant, became all about what the phrase wasn’t, what the phrase could never be.

This strange situation reflected how various forces within the Party leadership were struggling for the right to define what is meant by “ruling the nation in accord with the law” (依法治国).

“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” (坚持依法治国首先要坚持依宪治国,坚持依法执政首先要坚持依宪执政). This phrase in the “Decision” of the Fourth Plenum places the Constitution at the very core of what it means to govern the nation in accord with the law, or yifa zhiguo (依法治国).

Governing the nation in accord with the law must entail the question of whether China will have rule of law (法治) or rule by men (人治). It must entail the question of delineating the relationship between the Party and the state. The implementation of the Constitution (宪法实施), enforcement of the constitution (宪法监督) and constitutional review (违宪审查) are all necessary components of governing the nation in accord with the constitution (宪法监督).

There was once a consensus inside and outside the Party over what governing in accord with the Constitution meant, which was the “checking of power, and protecting of rights” (People’s Daily, May 14, 2012). And this is generally the sense in which constitutionalism is understood.

What we can read very clearly in the anti-constitutionalism backlash from Party propaganda organs in the wake of the Fourth Plenum is the dread with which they regard the very idea of checking power. These pieces loudly reiterate the Party’s leadership of the process of so-called rule of law. They speak of the positive role of state power. They speak of “constitutionalism” as a conspiracy by hostile forces (敌对势力) to subvert China. They suggest that “constitutionalism” has its own special colors, not suited for use by the Chinese Communist Party.

The term “constitutionalism” was once a positive one within the CCP lexicon. During the Sino-Japanese War, Mao Zedong talked about the idea of “new democratic constitutionalism” (新民主主义的宪政). In 2008, the head of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Wu Bangguo (吴邦国), said that the “entering of human rights into the Constitution” (人权入宪) had been “an important milestone for constitutionalism in our country” (People’s Daily, March 22, 2008).

In general, national Party leaders before the 18th National Congress in 2012 were cautious about the term “constitutionalism,” never using it lightly. But use of the term in society and in the media was tolerated. Like so many terms the CCP favors today, including the “market economy,” “rule of law” and “human rights,” “constitutionalism” hails from the West. But this was never a problem.

Before the 18th National Congress, “constitutionalism” could be discussed as an academic topic. It was frequently seen in a positive sense in the commercial media. And this meant also that China’s leader had sufficient space to discuss and consult over the question.

In 2013, “constitutionalism” and “civil society” were tossed over to the other side of the red line. And in the immediate aftermath of the Fourth Plenum, another storm of criticism whipped up.

The anti-constitutionalist craze has been resisted by a handful of scholars within the Party ranks. For example, Lin Zhe (林喆), a professor at the Central Party School, has said, as others have: “Constitutionalism is not a great scourge” (China Youth Daily Online, October 24, 2014). Gao Shangquan (高尚全), the former head of the China Society for Economic Reform, has said: “Constitutionalism is not the sole province of capitalism” (, November 15, 2014).

But the voices of dissent on this issue have been swallowed up by a raging sea of official invective.

The Ups and Downs of Party Discourse

Given this discourse environment, the political language of the Chinese mainland has undergone many changes recently. In 2014, the term “judicial independence” (司法独立), which former Premier Wen Jiabao once championed as a positive concept, was also added to the list of terms thoroughly rejected a negative by Party media.

At the same time, the discourse employed by recent top leaders has continued to undergo change has well. At the end of 2013, a host of terms associated with Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had reached their lowest points of relevance in 10 years. These included: “Deng Xiaoping Theory” (邓小平理论), the “Three Represents” (三个代表), the “scientific view of development” (科学发展观), “harmonious society” (和谐社会), “people as the base” (以人为本), “political civilization” (政治文明), “democratic politics” (民主政治) and “intra-party democracy” (党内民主). The term “political reform” (政治体制改革) had reached its lowest point in official Party media in 7 years. As of December 29, 2014, all of these but “democratic politics” and “political civilization” have continued their downward slide. As for “political reform,” it has reached its lowest point since 2002.

pol reform[ABOVE: “Political reform” in the People’s Daily, 2002-2014].

It is not all that surprising to see the banner terms (旗帜性用语) of previous leaders, such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, drop in relative importance under a new administration. What is worth noting, however, is that “political reform” and related terms underwent quite an extraordinary change in 2014.

“Political reform,” or “political system reform,” is a term we have seen in every political report since the 13th National Congress of the CCP in 1987. While we have seen words without deeds on this count, and the term has become empty talk, it has nevertheless remained an important discourse facade. It was raised again at the Third Plenum in 2013.

As I’ve said, the main stated purpose of the Fourth Plenum was to tackle the issue of “governing the nation by law” (依法治国). That stated purpose is of course inseparable from political reform. And yet, the term “political reform” does not appear anywhere in the “Decision” emerging from the Fourth Plenum.

The term “political reform” appeared in just 43 articles in the People’s Daily this year. But over the same period, another new phrase, “the modernization of the national governing system and governing capacity” (国家治理体系和治理能力现代化) rapidly became red hot, used in 457 articles for the year in the People’s Daily. For comparison, consider that the height of the term “political reform” in the People’s Daily was 1987, the year of the 13th National Congress, when the term appeared in 348 articles.

In the Jiang Zemin era, political reform was mostly talked about under the auspices of the new slogan “political civilization.” In the Hu Jintao era, the favored term relating to political reform was “intra-party democracy.” So, is Xi Jinping favoring this new phrase about the “modernizing” of governance as a constructive form of discourse, without the layers of historical meaning, and without the associations with Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, that “political reform” carries within the Party?

“Decision-making power, executive power and supervision power should mutually restrain and coordinate one another” (决策权、执行权、监督权既相互制约又相互协调). This phrase, used in the political report from the 17th National Congress in 2007, gets to the essence of political reform, the most core concept being the restraint of power. The idea could be found in both the 17th and 18th national congresses. But when it came to the Third Plenum in 2013, the idea was confined within “government organs” and “administrative mechanisms,” meaning that the sense of mutual and external checks was lost. Then, finally, in the “Decision” from the recent Fourth Plenum, the language is gone altogether. When we search the People’s Daily for the entire year, we find the phrase about “mutual restraints” appearing only six times.

After the 18th National Congress, Xi Jinping’s phrase about “shutting power in the cage of the system” (把权力关进制度的笼子) became extremely popular. 2014 has been the year of “striking tigers,” or going after more senior corrupt officials. Every day calls within the Party for turning the system against the scourge of corruption seem to grow louder and louder. But in the “Decision” from the Fourth Plenum, with its ostensible emphasis on governing the nation in accord with the law, we see nothing whatsoever of this biting slogan about tigers and cages.

“Power is given by the people” (权为民所赋). This is a phrase Xi Jinping spoke before he became General Secretary of the CCP in 2012. In 2014, despite the fact that Xi Jinping seems to have a great deal of space to propagate his ideas, we see virtually nothing of this idea. Search record after record of Xi’s remarks and you’ll find neither hide nor hair of it. The phrase appears in just four articles in the People’s Daily for the entire year.

The cooling off of the “Party language” (党语) above is linked to the anti-constitutional wave. The four phrases bolded above all deal with the question of whence the legitimacy of power arises and how power is to be restrained, what are in fact the pillars of “governing in accord with the constitution.” These have naturally been spurned under the present environment by those who hold the reins of the press.

The Fourth Plenum called for rule of law (法治), but immediately after the plenum restraint took hold in the dominant Party discourse; while one eye was trained on “the law,” the other looked to the “the Party,” or in fact to the strongman.

Fang Ning (房宁), head of the Politics Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, stated publicly that, “We cannot hold rule of law up as sacred while demonising rule by man” (People’s Daily Online, December 6, 2014).

The “Decision” of the Fourth Plenum is quite a hodgepodge. As I said, “political reform” does not appear, but a number of deep red terms, like the “Four Basic Principles” and “dictatorship,” are also absent. What we have are conservative assertions of the Party’s rights combined with suggestions of institutional shift (制度变革).

I have focused on 8 terms in particular, looking at their occurrence in the media before and after the Fourth Plenum:

A. “Building a system for recording, reporting and handling instances of intrusion on judicial activities by leading cadres” (建立领导干部干预司法活动、插手具体案件处理的记录、通报和责任追究制度).
B. “Adhering to an organic unity of the leadership of the Party, the people as the masters, and governing in accord with the law” (坚持党的领导、人民当家作主、依法治国有机统一).
C. “Strengthening the judicial protection of human rights” (加强人权司法保障).
D. “Exploring the mutual separation of the judicial administrative management authority and jurisdictions of courts and prosecutors” (探索实行法院、检察院司法行政事务管理权和审判权、检察权相分离).
E. “[We must] take the regulation and restraint of public power as our point of emphasis” (必须以规范和约束公权力为重点).
F. [The Party must] “act within the scope of constitutional law” (党要“在宪法法律范围内活动”).
G. “Legalization of civil rights protection” (公民权利保障法治化).
H. “Implementing and lifelong responsibility system for case handling, and a responsibility system for wrongful cases” (实行 终身负责制和错案责任倒查问责制).

In the People’s Daily the order of the above in the foot race of most-used to least-used was: BFACHDGE. In the WiseNews database, reflecting mainland newspapers more broadly, the order was: ABCHFDGE.

Looking for commonalities, we find that in both cases, B (“Adhering to an organic unity of the leadership of the Party, the people as the masters, and governing in accord with the law”) is in prime position, being first in the People’s Daily and second in WiseNews.

And in both cases, G, “Legalization of civil rights protection,” and E, “[We must] take the regulation and restraint of public power as our point of emphasis,” are at the bottom of the list.

The implication here is clear enough. The emphasis on Party control is supreme, while restraints on power are conditional.

I also looked at 5 other keywords in the Fourth Plenum “Decision”:

1. “Constitutional supervision” (宪法监督)
2. “Governing the nation with virtue” (以德治国)
3. “Intra-party regulations” (党内法规)
4. “Judicial protection of human rights” (人权司法保障)
5. “The leadership of the Party + governing the nation in accord with the law” (党的领导+依法治国), looking for articles using both terms together.

In the WiseNews database, the term with the highest degree of use was “intra-party regulations.” The combination of terms in 5 came in second. In third place was “ruling the nation with virtue,” followed by “judicial protection of human rights” and finally “constitutional supervision.”

The first term in the above lineup was used at 7 times the frequency of the last term.

4th plenum keywords[ABOVE: Frequency of terms appearing in the “Decision” from the Fourth Plenum. From the left: “The leadership of the Party + governing the nation in accord with the law”; “Intra-party regulations”; “Governing the nation with virtue”; “Judicial protection of human rights”; “Constitutional supervision”.]

The situation we see in regards to Fourth Plenum keywords and their deployment shows us guidance of public opinion (舆论导向) in action — official manipulation, in other words, of public perception and the public agenda. The discourse of cautious reform takes the lead, while those terms dealing with institutional change fall far behind.

As for the heating up of “Party language” (党语), this might bear little fresh meaning for the liberal intellectuals who have been pressed into silence, but it is a worrying sign for more reform-minded forces within the Party.

The Crudeness of the “Deep Red”

Let’s move on now to the far end of the Chinese political discourse spectrum, to the “deep red” words that hark back to the years before the reform era.

In 2014, a number of these words, having disappeared in the Deng Xiaoping and post-Deng Xiaoping eras, made unexpected returns.

First we have “class struggle” (阶级斗争) and “dictatorship of the proletariat” (无产阶级专政). We find these redeployed by Wang Weiguang (王伟光), the head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in a September 2014 edition of the journal Red Flag.

Wang’s piece was called, “There’s Nothing Wrong With Adhering to the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” (坚持人民民主专政并不输理). The article stressed that “the dictatorship of the proletariat is a tool by which the proletarian class as the ruling class carries out its class rule,” and class struggle, said Wang, remained the “main line” today, “that cannot be extinguished.”

Another deep red term is “against the Party and against socialism” (反党反社会主义). An article in Red Flag this month said that on the internet [the Party] “must strike out fiercely against the ‘black line’ [working] against the Party and against socialism.”

“The hilt” (刀把子). This is another term from the Mao Zedong era, referring specifically to the organs of dictatorship (专政机关). An article in the January 9, 2014, edition of the People’s Daily, “We Must Maintain the Party’s Leadership of Political and Legal Work” (毫不动摇坚持党对政法工作的领导), said: “Political and legal organs, as organs of state power for the people’s democratic dictatorship, are the hilt grasped by the Party and the people, and it must be under the leadership of the Party.”

The day after this piece in the People’s Daily, Chinese media ran the text of a speech by China’s Ministry of Public Security under the headline, “Political and Legal Organs are ‘the Hilt’ Grasped By the Party and the People” (政法机关是党和人民掌握的“刀把子’).

“The hilt” is an example of what we can call crude discourse (粗蛮话语), discourse that reflects the brutal politics of raw power.

In 2014, we have seen the proliferation of crude discourse.

Another example is the phrase, [We cannot] “allow the eating of the Communist Party’s food by those who smash the Communist Party’s cauldron” (不允许吃共产党的饭,砸共产党的锅). In a November issue of Red Flag journal, Zhang Quanjing (张全景), former head of the Organization Department of the Central Committee, said: “There are Party members who wear the costume of Chinese Communist Party members, who work against the Chinese Communist Party, who eat the food of the Chinese Communist Party, who break the cauldron of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The idea of a Party under attack has gained prominence in the official media. Said one recent article: “Slandering the Party, slandering the leadership of the Party, does greater damage than the graft to the tune of one million yuan.”

The obsession has even led to the rise of the term “cauldron destroyers” (砸锅党) to refer to those who threaten the Party’s position.

The People’s Liberation Army Daily said on December 24, 2014: “As for those who eat the Party’s food and break the Party’s cauldron, we must not only deny them food but must also take away their bowls; for those cauldron breakers who act with reckless disregard for others, we must never be too soft hearted to break their bowls.”

PLA Daily[ABOVE: An article in the People’s Liberation Army Daily urges action against the “cauldron breakers” who damage the Party’s leadership.]

These pieces published in Red Flag and other Party publications have been widely distributed on the internet.

Also in 2014, terms like “hostile forces” and other terms alluding to foreign and otherwise unwelcome involvement in the Party’s affairs — such as “outside forces” (境外势力) and “external forces” (外部势力) — have become lively terms, along with the notion of “color revolutions” (颜色革命).

“Hostile forces” and related keywords appeared in 120 articles in the People’s Daily in 2014, higher than the 98 recorded in 2013.

Thanks to the unwelcome addition of “color,” the word “revolution,” once the number one red word in the CCP lexicon, has undergone a dramatic change in valence. In China’s media we now see a discourse revolution against revolution. Do a headline search on People’s Daily Online for the term “color revolution” and you find this was its blowout year.

color revolution[ABOVE: The term “color revolution” on People’s Daily Online, 2009-2014.]

Such a dramatic ascendence of the discourse of fear leads one to infer a general sense within the Party that the shadows are flickering everywhere, that trouble is on the way. This sort of language is almost disorienting, as though here we are again in an era of all-round dictatorship in which enemies are perceived on all sides.

On the heels of the 18th National Congress, I conducted a discourse analysis with my students at the University of Hong Kong, and we concluded that: “Conservative forces remain very powerful, and substantive progress on political reform will be difficult to advance.”

The past two years have in fact shown that not only has advancement been difficult, but we have actually seen substantial backsliding, at least in terms of public opinion controls. The progressive and political reform discourses that have emerged over the past 30 years of reform have never before suffered the level of attack we see happening right now.

To the extent that we saw efforts at institutional reform from the third and fourth plenums, these have been forcefully neutralised by the ideological extreme left.

It seems at the moment that China’s rulers are taking steps backward from Deng Xiaoping. Despite the reinvigoration of deep red keywords, however, few people dare to really entertain the possibility that a full return to the politics of Mao Zedong might be possible. One reading of the deep red rally — hardly a heartening one — is that these are being flashed like knives to strike terror into people’s hearts and make them step into line.

So will China’s rulers take a path that is neither Deng nor Mao? What kind of road might that be?

Those are the core questions to bear in mind as we continue to observe the political discourse in China.

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