By Qian Gang (钱钢) — It has been two weeks already since the July 5 Urumqi incident. A great many friends of mine on the mainland, even as they denounce the violence unleashed in Xinjiang, have expressed profound concern over the further tightening of the political climate in China, and its chilling effect on political reform and social development.

These concerns are well founded. I have long analyzed the occurrence of slogans and other political phrases in China’s political landscape as a way to read and observe the political situation on the mainland. My research most recently shows that use of the phrase “stability is the overriding priority” (稳定压倒一切) rose dramatically during the first half of this month.

On July 9, Hu Jintao, who had only just returned from the G8 summit, presided over a meeting of China’s politburo standing committee, which discussed the recent events that unfolded in the Xinjiang region. In the official news release that came out of the politburo meeting, the phrase “stability is the overriding priority” loomed large, sending a clear message that China’s top leaders took a stern view of the crisis.

So far, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have themselves avoided use of this historically loaded term in official addresses, and my analysis suggests both leaders are wary of the term. Under the leadership of Hu and Wen, and particularly since the introduction of the political term “harmonious society” in 2004, “stability is the overriding priority” has been seen only rarely. Even during and after the 2008 unrest in Tibet, the phrase was not to be seen in the party’s official People’s Daily. In fact, the phrase was not seen at all in People’s Daily in 2008 (See Graph 2).

It is true that local authorities in Xinjiang have long favored the full phrase, “Strength determines all; stability is the overriding priority.” The CCP has recently urged the more delicate confining of the phrase to certain contexts, saying that “in Xinjiang especially [the idea that] stability is the overriding priority should be stressed among cadres and people of different ethnic groups.” However, unavoidably, the phrase has been taken up widely by provincial and city leaders across the country and used as a kind of magic weapon with which to terrorize potential troublemakers.

“Stability is the overriding priority” was a phrase introduced by Deng Xiaoping following the crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing in June 1989. It first appeared in People’s Daily In November 1989, and was used widely in 1990 and 1991. The phrase dropped out of use suddenly in 1992, however, as leaders sought to forestall criticism of capitalist reforms and fierce opposition to the notion of peaceful evolution [from socialism to capitalism], which were then gathering under the banner of “stability” and erecting roadblocks to reform. In the spring of 1992, the unlooked-for surprise of Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” reinvigorated economic reforms. President Jiang Zemin rarely used the phrase after that, and it was absent from his political reports to both the 14th Party Congress in 1992 and the 15th Party Congress in 1997.

It was in the midst of the CCP’s campaign against the Falun Gong spiritual movement in 1999 that the phrase “stability is the overriding priority” came into resurgence, signaling a general tightening of the social and political climate in China. Jiang Zemin’s third and final political report in 2002 did include the phrase.

China is a nation of political slogans. Their tone, volume and context are an important reflection of the political environment. When the 17th Party Congress came around in 2007, and Hu Jintao assumed the CCP’s top leadership position, his political report dispensed once again with the phrase “stability is the overriding priority.”

China’s leaders should draw important lessons from the ups and downs of this phrase’s history. Charged political slogans to the effect that this or that is the “overriding priority” were deeply questioned after the Cultural Revolution. In 1980, People’s Daily ran an article called, “Moving from ‘the overriding priority’ to a discussion of improving our cultural climate,” which criticized slogans employing “the overriding priority” and other such lexical legacies of the political turmoil of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Political leaders in China must take care to avoid coarse ideological terminologies to express highly sensitive policy issues. This was common in the Mao Zedong era. But today, as we move progressively toward a more moderate and controlled politics, any political slogan carries with it certain risks. In the case of Xinjiang, I believe the phrase “national unity is as high as the heavens” is far more effective than “stability is the overriding priority” in creating cohesion and consensus, and in mitigating social tensions.

Well-known sociologist and Peking University professor Sun Liping (孙立平) has said that the greatest danger to Chinese society is posed not by civil unrest but by social decay. In order to achieve long-term stability, it is imperative that we promote political reform. A good system does not encourage discord, but can accommodate various forces of conflict and resolve them in a systematic fashion.

Factors of social instability are often the result of social decay, and the employment of such phrases as “stability is the overriding priority,” far from addressing social decay, can exacerbate the problem. A number of corrupt officials use “the overriding priority” as a kind of talismanic amulet. They lord it over the people and suppress all monitoring by public opinion. They use is as a tool by which public mechanisms can be used toward the private ends of a particular political interest group. What results is a vicious cycle of fierce suppression bringing greater instability, and again more active suppression.

There is no question that stability is of urgent importance. But without great care, efforts to force stability can worsen matters. Hu and Wen should stick to their guns in applying the policy of “building a harmonious society” and sticking to the three pillars of “reform,” “development” and “stability.” Stability should not be emphasized at the expense of all else, or abused for narrow ends like China’s National Day or the Shanghai World Expo. Leaders must take care that “stability is the overriding priority” does not unwittingly become: “All things crush stability” (一切压倒稳定).

[Translated by David Bandurski]