On December 4, 2012, just weeks after he became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping sent a powerful message about the need to cut down on excess and extravagance. No more sumptuous banquets. No more grand motorcades that snarled traffic. Party officials had to get down to the serious business of governing. They had to focus on practical matters, and they had to speak about these matters in ways that were focused and concise.
But there was a problem, obvious to anyone who regularly feasts on the discourse of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi Jinping’s December 2012 declaration was yet another eight-course banquet, another formula Party officials across the country were obliged to indulge because the leadership in Beijing had set the table. It was called the “Eight Point Code of Conduct” (八项规定).
Point Three emphasized “shortening speech” (讲短话), “doing one’s utmost to avoid empty speech” (力戒空话) and also “conventional phrases” (套话). Point Four urged “active improvement of styles” (切实改进文风) — which, mind you, is unimproved language that when unpacked means essentially keeping things simple.
Point Six addressed the media aspects of the way the Party works, insisting that comrades in the Central Committee should decide on the basis of “work requirements” (工作需要), “news value” (新闻价值) and “social effect” (社会效果) whether or not something should be reported in the media. Leaders should, besides, “compress,” or limit, the number of reports (报道的数量), their length (字数) and their duration (时长).
But September 3’s edition of the People’s Daily was a stark illustration of how the Chinese Communist Party ultimately finds it impossible to escape the bonds of its own discourse and the normative operation of power.
Just have a look at the front page.
The headlines on the page are virtually identical, all mentioning that “Xi Jinping Received _____ President _____,” where readers may insert the proper African country in the first blank, and the name of that country’s leader in the second.
The only variation comes to the right of the paper’s masthead, where an image is shown of Xi Jinping greeting South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and the headline tells us that Ramaphosa and Xi held “discussions,” or huitan (会谈), a notable difference from the simple reception, or huijian (会见), that the other African leaders had. The huitan suggests a bilateral exchange of views on “major political, economic, cultural or military matters” (重大的政治、经济、文化、军事问题). And such distinctions really matter within the Party’s refined system of discourse.
Relishing in the repetitive page design, and trolling through the monotonous coverage, one has to wonder: What happened to the 2012 injunction in Point Six to “compress the number of reports”? But it gets worse, of course, because the Party’s primary concern, here as always, is with the optics of power, and there are certain distinctions within the Party’s mapping of power that cannot be compressed.
And so, we give you page two of Septemeber 3’s People’s Daily, noting that each photograph is carefully choreographed to ensure that the African leaders are standing in front of their respective national flags, with a balancing pair of Chinese national flags. If a picture is worth a thousand Party catchphrases, then 10 pictures of Xi Jinping shaking hands with African leaders amount to inestimable political capital.
The article with the bold headline immediately below the first two rows of photographs tells us that Xi Jinping will attend the 2018 China-Africa Summit and give an important speech that will be broadcast by China Central Television, China National Radio and China Radio International. Substance? What more do you need? Xi Jinping, as the “core” leader, is always the compression of news relevance.
And lest you still fail to understand that the primary and primal interest of the Party, over all issues of substance, is the reiteration of power and its proper arrangement, we have page three of September 3’s People’s Daily. Here, the leaders of the Politburo Standing Committee are laid out in unerring order of status: Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang…
Because there is nothing whatsoever incidental about these arrangements, we can generally assume they reflect the prevailing political circumstances. It is significant that we do not see Wang Huning here, despite the fact that he received a seeming vote of confidence from Xi Jinping at the work conference on propaganda and ideology last month. Wang was meeting with African leaders, but there might be an interest at play here in the People’s Daily to tone down his profile.
The Party’s impossible struggle against the vortex of its own political culture and language comes painfully into focus on the very next page. After the dull march of “news” about Xi Jinping and the China-Africa summit, we are treated to a commentary on the “spirit” of President Xi’s speech last month to the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference, the very event where he seemed to bolster Wang Huning and double-down on his policies over the past five years.
The commentary is bylined “commentator from this newspaper” (本报评论员), which means — again, if we know how to read the signs — that this piece is meant to represent the spirit of the Party’s Central Committee on matters of consequence. Such pieces are not written by individuals, but by a coterie of scribes within the paper whose job it is to refract the light emanating from the top leadership.
The first objective of the commentary is to pound home the point that the Party has complete and ultimate control over propaganda and ideology. Leaders at all levels must “firmly defend the core status of General Secretary Xi Jinping,” and they must maintain “a high level of unity with the Central Party.” What all of this means in practical terms is not exactly spelled out. Rather, it is indicated with more slogans and waving flags. Officials must dedicate themselves to “political building” (政治建设). They must “firmly establish” the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识). They must ensure that the “main theme” (主旋律) resounds, and that “positive energy” (正能量) is strengthened. In spite of all of this jargon, they must “maintain clear heads” (保持清醒头脑) — a phrase that actually means that they must understand the Party’s core position and ideology, and must not be tempted by “erroneous ideas.”
One could forgive a Party official for thinking that it is all too much. With such restrictions, put so indefinitely, what can anyone possibly say? It’s a good time to remember Point Seven of the “Eight Point Code of Conduct,” which cautions officials that the release of statements must be strictly handled, that “unless arranged by the Central Committee, individuals must not publish books or individual speeches, must not send out greeting cards, congratulatory telegrams, make dedications or inscriptions.”
Well then, surely the best thing for any Party official to do is simply to parrot the Party’s official discourse as it emanates from the top. If one “cleaves” — now that’s an active verb the Party adores — to the declarations of Xi Jinping, how can anything go wrong? Right?
As the page four commentary in the People’s Daily reiterates, doing a proper job of propaganda and ideology work also means officials must “persevere in the implementation of the spirit of the ‘Eight Point Code of Conduct,’ firmly correcting the ‘four winds’ (四风), especially formalism (形式主义) and bureaucratism (官僚主义).” This includes the injunction to speak simply and focus on practical matters, and to emphasise “news value.”
Combating formalism means that Party officials must definitely avoid the temptation to simply parrot the utterances of their superiors and go through the motions. “Right now, departments at all levels are busy transmitting the spirit of the Central Party,” says the commentary. “But we must recognise that still we see fierce transmission on the surface, and slogan-ish and mechanical transmission, and transmission of that which is swallowed in one gulp but never digested, and transmission through slavish copying of one’s superiors.”
The commentary urges officials not to “become gramophones” (当”留声机”). It warns them not to “irrigate by flooding” (大水漫灌). Emphasize the “real,” it says. Avoid “vacuity” (虚).
Say only what we say. But in saying what we say, make sure you are not just parroting what we say. Better yet, say what we mean, and when you say it make sure you mean it too. If you catch our meaning.
Let the Flag of the Party Wave High Over the Front Lines of Propaganda and Ideology: On the Study and Practice of the Spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Important Speech to the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference, People’s Daily, September 3, 2018, Page 4, “commentator from this newspaper” (本报评论员).
In the great game of [Chinese] chess that is national governance, the Central Party is the “general” positioned at the central command tent, and the chariots, horses and cannons are deployed with their clear roles.
“Strengthening the Party’s comprehensive leadership of propaganda and ideology work, supporting with a clear banner the Party’s control of propaganda and the Party’s control of ideology.” At the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference (全国宣传思想工作会议), General Secretary Xi Jinping again emphasized the political responsibilities and leadership responsibilities of Party committees at various levels, and he raised clear demands for increasing the Party leadership and Party building on the propaganda and ideology front, clearly defining our direction, strengths and advantages in propaganda and thought work.
Since the 18th National Congress of the CCP, the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core has placed propaganda and ideology work in an important position, and has taken a series of significant decisions, implemented a series of significant actions, and has pushed propaganda and ideology work to make historic achievements, and to make historic changes, fundamentally reversing what for a time was a passive posture in the ideological sector, raising the “9 Persistences” (九个坚持) to deepen systematic understanding of propaganda and ideology work. The experiences of the past 5 years fully show that only by letting the flag of the Party fly high on the propaganda and ideology front can we ensure that the main theme (主旋律) resounds, that positive energy (正能量) is stronger, spurring the whole Party and the whole society to advance with unity and force.
Propaganda and ideology work is political work, and [correct] politics is imperative in matters large and small. The strengthening of the Party’s comprehensive leadership of propaganda and thought work should be led by political building (政治建设), firmly establishing the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), firmly defending the core status of General Secretary Xi Jinping, firmly defending the authority of the Central Party and its central, unified leadership, maintaining a high level of unity with the Central Party in terms of political positions (政治立场), political orientation (政治方向), political principles (政治原则) and political path (政治道路). The decisions of the Central Party must be carried out to the letter (不折不扣贯彻落实), and propaganda and ideology departments at all levels must . . . regularly synchronize themselves with the demands of the Central Party. [The Party] must maintain clear heads (保持清醒头脑), raising political sensitivity (政治敏锐性) and [the power of] political discrimination (政治鉴别力), not allowing interference by static and noise (杂音噪音), not being tempted by erroneous ideas. [The Party] must strictly maintain the Party’s political discipline and political practices, taking the speaking of politics (讲政治) as a primary demand, and taking loyalty and reliability as the first standard, acting throughout as a person who understands politics (政治上的明白人) and is trustworthy [in their politics].
Effective styles give rise to fighting strength (好作风出战斗力). Strengthening the Party’s leadership of propaganda and ideology work also means we must strengthen the construction of working styles (作风建设), persevering in the implementation of the spirit of the “Eight Point Code of Conduct” (八项规定), firmly correcting the “four winds” (四风), especially formalism (形式主义) and bureaucratism (官僚主义). (NOTE: The other two “winds” are “hedonism” and “extravagance”). Right now, departments at all levels are busy transmitting the spirit of the Central Party. But we must recognize that still we see fierce transmission on the surface, and sloganish and mechanical transmission, and transmission of that which is swallowed in one gulp but never digested, and transmission through slavish copying of one’s superiors (上下一般粗). This must be given great attention, seriously researched, and conscientiously resolved. Putting the spirit of the Central Party into practice means we must apply them to our own circumstances [in the course of Party work], conscientiously studying and grasping [the spirit], and bringing it out in our own concrete work — not writing surface articles, not imitating and copying word for word, so that we become like gramophones (当”留声机”), not irrigating by flooding (大水漫灌); [we must] emphasize the “real,” do our utmost to avoid “vacuity” (虚), applying ourselves with precision and seeking practical results.