In recent weeks, the Chinese Communist Party has loudly proclaimed Xi Jinping’s “August 19 speech” on ideology. In the rush of language that has accompanied this media campaign, one phrase in particular stands out: “public opinion struggle,” or yulun douzheng (舆论斗争). The phrase is heating up, and this allows us to draw some serious conclusions about the volatility of China’s current political climate.

In fact, some media are now using the phrase “positive propaganda, public opinion struggle” — zhengmian xuanchuan, yulun douzheng (正面宣传,舆论斗争) — to synopsize Xi Jinping’s speech. This is a dangerous sign. And serious questions also remain about how this phrase has come to the fore.

Initially, No Mention of “Struggle”

When I searched coverage of Xi Jinping’s speech over the past month in China’s media, I discovered something strange.

Xi Jinping’s speech was first reported by the official Xinhua News Agency on the night of August 20. Readers should know that there is a rigid process of examination and authorization for reports of speeches by leaders in China. The cable report of the August 19 speech could not possibly come direct from Xinhua. The final say would be that of the Politburo member in charge of propaganda, or an even more senior leader.

xi on ideology

When I watched the initial state television news report on Xi’s speech, it seemed reasonably moderate in tone — in sharp contrast to the bloodthirsty tone that came later. For that first report, the headline was: “Xi Jinping Emphasizes at the National Propaganda Work Conference: [We Must] Grasp the General Situation and Focus on Major Events with a View of the Big Picture, Working Hard to Do Propaganda and Ideological Work Properly.” The lead to the story went: “He emphasized that propaganda and ideological work must take surrounding the core and serving the overall situation as its chief task, holding the big picture close, grasping the overall trends, focusing on major events, properly ascertaining the starting point and focus, and strategizing and acting as the circumstances demand.”

Comb through the full text of this initial report and you will find no mention whatsoever of the phrase “public opinion struggle.”

This could not have been a mere careless omission. From August 21 to September 1, the People’s Daily published eight different commentaries on the speech and its “spirit.” The process for pieces in the People’s Daily labelled as “from our commentator” (本报评论员) is formalized to a high degree, second only to the paper’s leading editorials, or shelun (社论). The “from our commentator” series can be regarded as quite authoritative (as a reflection of the leadership’s thinking, that is). But none of the eight commentaries on Xi Jinping’s speech made any mention of a “public opinion struggle.”

Moreover, on August 23 People’s Daily Online — the newspaper’s web portal site, important, but not to be read simply as an online version with the same political force — ran a special piece that purported to “read the spirit of Xi Jinping’s important August 19 speech.” The piece had 14 separate entries on the speech, under five headers, but nowhere did it mention the phrase “public opinion struggle.” This “reading” did not appear in the print edition of the People’s Daily. But even so, it would most certainly not have been put together haphazardly.

人民网解读习近平宣传讲话

How Did the Temperature of the “Public Opinion Struggle” Rise?

Even though none of these important official interpretations of Xi Jinping’s speech made any mention of the term “public opinion struggle” over this period, there were crucial exceptions.

On August 21, the Central Political Office of the People’s Liberation Army (解放军总政治部) issued a notice on the study and interpretation of Xi’s August 19 speech. This notice said that General Secretary Xi had outlined a number of key issues, including “positive propaganda and the public opinion struggle” (People’s Liberation Army Daily, August 22, 2013). On August 23, Qin Yizhi (秦宜智), General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League, raised the question of “grasping ideological channeling with one hand and the public opinion struggle with the other” when relaying the messages from Xi Jinping’s speech (China Youth Daily, August 26, 2013).

In their tone, these messages were quite at odds with coverage in the People’s Daily and on People’s Daily Online during the same period.

On August 24, the Global Times published an editorial called, “The Public Opinion Struggle: A Challenge We Cannot Avoid But Must Face Head On” (舆论斗争,不能回避只能迎接的挑战).

130823环球时报论舆论斗争
An August 24 commentary in the Chinese-language Global Times puts “public opinion struggle” in the headline.

This editorial implied that there were some who were avoiding the “public opinion struggle,” but after the editorial came out there was a rebuttal from Cao Lin (曹林) in the August 27 edition of China Youth Daily. Cao’s piece was headlined: “The Term ‘Public Opinion Struggle’ Makes People Uneasy” (“舆论斗争”是一个让人不安的字眼). “Using the term ‘public opinion struggle’ to characterize the current ideological conflict ushers us back into the past,” Cao wrote, referencing China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution.