There is naturally a lot of guesswork going on in the run up to the 17th Party Congress. But there is one thing we can say with certainty already — the most important document to come out of the 17th Party Congress will be Hu Jintao’s political report (政治报告).

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[The front page of yesterday’s Southern Metropolis Daily reports the politburo’s announcement of pending changes to the Party Constitution, adding core Hu Jintao concepts.]

Reports to the Party Congress are always a vehicle for top leaders to set out their political principles. Promoted loudly by state-run media after Congresses, political reports are also a form of speech hegemony (话语霸权), dominating the political vocabulary. For this reason, they are libraries of important political keywords of the day, and a textual analysis of them can yield important clues about China’s direction.

So, what exactly will Hu Jintao’s political report say?

Hu’s speech back on June 25 this year was a kind of warm up for his political report, and in the glimpses we have of that speech through official party media we can see the president’s key terms gearing up.

While the full text of the June 25 speech was never made available, People’s Daily ran a series of eight editorials this summer laying out the spirit of the speech. Performing a textual analysis of the keywords in those eight editorials, we get the following totals (for the number of times particular keywords appear):

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics (中国特色社会主义) – 48
Scientific Development (科学发展) – 37
Firm and Unchanging/Unshakable (坚定不移) – 26
Relatively Comfortable Standard of Living (小康) –
Harmony (和谐) – 15
Liberation of Thought (解放思想) – 9
Early Stages (初级阶段) – 9
Deng Xiaoping Theory (邓小平理论) — 8
Three Represents (三个代表) – 8
Inner-Party Democracy (党内民主) – 4
One Core, Two Basic Points (一个中心 两个基本点) – 4
Political Reform (政治体制改革) – 1

The notion of the “Four Unshakables” (四个坚定不移) is Hu Jintao’s own addition to the pantheon of party terms. In the following portion of Hu’s June 25 speech, I have marked the “unshakables” with bolded numbers:

[1] Liberation of thought (解放思想) is the basic requirement and character of our party’s course and thinking, a talisman with which we can meet new situations and new problems on the road ahead. [We] must firmly and unshakably (坚定不移) support it [the principle of thought liberation]. [2] Economic reform and opening is a necessary condition for the liberation and advancement of the productivity of society, and of the constant renewal of systems and mechanisms invested with energy and vitality (改革开放,是解放和发展社会生产力、不断创新充满活力的体制机制的必然要求). [Economic reform and opening] is powerful force (强大动力) in the development of Socialism with Chinese characteristics (中国特色社会主义), and we must firmly and unshakably promote it (必须坚定不移地加以推进). [3] Scientific development (科学发展) and social harmony (社会和谐) are basic conditions for the advancement of Socialism with Chinese characteristics (是发展中国特色社会主义的基本要求), and they are intrinsically necessary to the achievement of rapid and healthy (又好又快) development of the economy and society (是实现经济社会又好又快发展的内在需要) – [we] must put them into effect firmly and unshakably (必须坚定不移地加以落实). [4] The comprehensive building of a relatively comfortable standard of living (全面建设小康社会) is a goal toward which our nation must struggle through to 2020, and which concerns the basic welfare of our people (是全国各族人民根本利益所在) – [we] must firmly and unshakably struggle for it (必须坚定不移地为之奋斗).

From this notion of “four unshakables” and the terms orbiting around it in Hu Jintao’s speech, we can see that his basic orientation is toward reform and development. Nothing here suggests a slowing down or reversal of reforms.

After 2004, leaders and intellectuals in China cranked up the volume of the debate over the direction of reforms, and those in the leftist camp crusaded against market reforms. Hu’s speech offers a counterpoint to this retrogressive trend in Chinese politics, and we should expect to see the same in his report to the 17th Congress.

But Hu’s reforms will definitely not be too ambitious or too rapid. This becomes clear from his emphasis in the June 25 speech on “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色社会主义).

Why is this the case? First, we should understand that the idea of Socialism with Chinese characteristics arose in counterpoint to the idea of “democratic socialism” (民主社会主义). In 2006, a number of relatively open-minded scholars allied proposals for further research into the question of “democratic socialism” with calls for an acceleration of political reforms. In response, leftists held more than ten conferences to criticize these moves. The emphasis on “Chinese characteristics (中国特色) is essentially an emphasis on “China’s national characteristics” (中国国情), and it seeks to draw clear boundaries between China and Western systems of democracy or the social democracy of Europe.

However, the slogan “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” can also serve to prevent further inroads by the leftist camp. The emphasis on “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” essentially upholds the policy, a 1980s legacy of Deng Xiaoping, of not getting mired in controversy over the ideological underpinnings of China’s development — “not arguing over whether [China’s economy] is surnamed Socialism or surnamed Capitalism” (不争论姓社姓资). The preservation of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is, therefore, a nod in the direction of the left, a stopgap solution preventing an ideological clash. The hope is that economic reforms can proceed without controversy, with a clear line drawn between China’s present economic development and the legacy of Mao Zedong’s brand of socialism.

Hu Jintao’s use of such phrases as “liberation of thought” (解放思想) and “early stages” (初级阶段) is also a kind of “singing two different tunes with equal skill” (异曲同工), or yiqu tonggong, a political ventriloquism that allows Hu to push his agenda while placating his enemies. It should be noted that an important mark of the leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is in fact a quiet slipping back toward the politics of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang (although not, mind you, a return).

In order to drum up support and strength to push ahead with inner-party reforms, Hu and Wen must pick up key concepts where the 11th and 13th congresses left off. “Liberation of thought” was a slogan used at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee, held in December 1978, and during which Deng Xiaoping launched a series of reforms including the Four Modernizations.

The phrase “early stages” was a strategy employed by Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s, when leftists remained a powerful force. The idea that China was in “the early stages of socialism” could be used to counter attacks from the left, and at the same time cooled down demands for more urgent political reform. The phrase was enthusiastically supported by Deng Xiaoping, who remarked: “This is well designed” (这个设计好).

“Relatively comfortable standard of living” (小康), “scientific development” (科学发展) and “harmonious society” (和谐社会) will remain hot buzzwords in the 17th Congress report. The “moderately wealthy” society, or xiaokang shehui, is an important target for the Central Party leadership. The term xiaokang, first used by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 to describe China’s modernization, was elevated by Jiang Zemin in his report to the 16th Congress.

“Scientific development” and “harmonious society” are banners and slogans raised by Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and the current leadership group. One thing we should watch for at the 17th Congress is whether or not these terms are formally elevated as “innovative party theory” (党的创新理论) — or, per the recent statement from the politburo, “major strategic theory” (重大战略思想). Will they be written, as state media suggested earlier this week, into the Party Constitution? And which ones?

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[Coverage on major Chinese Web portal QQ.com on September 18 reports that key Hu Jintao concepts will be written into the Party Constitution this year]

While the possibility of political reform in China is something we should watch for carefully, it is doubtful whether political reform, or “political system reform” (政治体制改革), will become an important part of the agenda at the 17th Congress. Looking at Hu Jintao’s June 25 speech, we can see that “political reform” has only a minute share of the buzz. Still, we should pay attention to whether or not a particular section of the report is reserved for political reform.

Two more terms will be key at the 17th Congress – “one core, two basic points” and “inner-party democracy”. Stay tuned for further discussion of these two concepts.

(Qian Gang, September 19, 2007)
[Translated by David Bandurski]

Previous 17th Congress article: “How do we make an assessment of Hu Jintao’s strength?”

[A BRIEF HISTORY OF PARTY CONGRESS REPORTS]

The Communist Party of China has held nine Congresses since it came to power in 1949. What were the core agendas of these Congresses?

At the 8th Congress in 1956, the theme was the “general direction for the transitional period” (过渡时期总路线). The basic idea was for the “party of revolution” to make the transformation into a constructive ruling party and accelerate economic development. Responding to socialist democratic movements in eastern Europe, the report sought to contain contagion’s spread by building a “sound political culture.” This included such measures as increasing inner-party democracy (党内民主), essentially about more shared decision-making within the party. The report to the 8th Congress was done by Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇). But less than two weeks after the closing of the Congress Mao Zedong declared that, “The report to the 8th Congress was a mistake” (“八大报告是错误的”). Mao later destroyed the spirit and direction of the 8th Congress report, launching a class struggle and dragging China into a series of calamities – the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution.

The 9th and 10th Congresses were held amidst the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. The principal theme for the 9th Congress was “persisting in the revolution” (继续革命), and the report offered theoretical support for the Cultural Revolution.

The 10th Congress was held after the death of Lin Biao, whom Mao had designated as his successor but who was later branded a traitor. The reigning buzzword of the congress was the “Three Basic Principles” (1. Mao Zedong Thought over revisionism; 2. unity over disunity; 3. straightforwardness over conspiracy). The congress essentially mustered a war against Lin Biao’s former supporters and continued the path of the Cultural Revolution.

Hua Guofeng was premier when the 11th Congress opened in 1977, right on the heels of the Cultural Revolution. The theme that year was “grasping the guiding principles, governing the nation” (抓纲治国). The former was about continuing China’s class struggle; the latter was about economic development. The “guiding principles,” or gang, were dropped in December 1979, and economic development (“governing the nation”) became the core policy, with an emphasis on “liberating thought” (解放思想). This was the beginning of the policy of opening and reform.

In Hu Yaobang’s report to the 12th Congress, the core concept was “reform” (改革), which appeared 18 times, but another buzzword, even hotter, was “spiritual civilization” (精神文明), appearing 36 times. The term “spiritual civilization” was again a nod to the leftist camp, an important counterbalancing concession to those who feared economic development would send China reeling toward materialism. The term’s strong presence in the report signaled the persisting influence of leftists within the party.

In Zhao Ziyang’s report to the 13th Congress the buzzword was “early stages” (初级阶段), which appeared 26 times (and which, again, we’ve seen resurface this year in Hu Jintao’s June 25, speech). Another hot buzzword was “political reform” (政治体制改革), which appeared 12 times.

Jiang Zemin issued three political reports in all, at the 14th, 15th and 16th congresses. The key terms in his reports were as follows:

14th Congress: “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (35 times)
15th Congress: “Deng Xiaoping Theory” (32 times)
16th Congress: “Three Represents’ (27 times)