In the dictionary of the Chinese Communist Party, the term “one position as the highest authority,” or dingyuyizun (定于一尊), has for decades been used in a decidedly negative sense — to suggest power and position that escapes necessary constraints. But in recent weeks this negative phrase seems to have been dusted off, and a fresh coat of paint applied. It now rings as an affirmation of the need for resolute leadership. 

On July 5, the People’s Daily reported a speech Xi Jinping made to a national work conference on Party appointments, known as “organization work,” or zuzhi gongzuo (组织工作), that was held in Beijing from July 3-4. “The Central Party is the mind and the backbone,” the paper quoted Xi as saying, “and the Party must have one position as the highest authority (定于一尊), making the final decisions.”

Less than two weeks later, according to a report from China’s Legal Daily newspaper, Chen Yixin (陈一新), secretary-general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (and the former Zhejiang official and key Xi ally who oversaw the controversial push to remove crosses from churches), said at a commission study session: “We must firmly defend the core status of General Secretary Xi Jinping, firmly defend the Central Party as the one position of highest authority, making the final decisions . . . ”

Back at last year’s 19th National Congress, Xi Jinping actually made use of the phrase, but not with positive connotations. In one section of his voluminous political report, Xi Jinping said of China’s political system: “No one political system should be regarded as the only choice; and we should not just mechanically copy the political systems of other countries.” Here I have italicized and bolded those words in the official English translation of the political report that correspond to the Chinese phrase dingyuyizun. The idea here is that when it comes to political systems in the world, there is not one choice above all others. The right system, in other words, is a matter of social, cultural and historical context.

Dingyuyizun is a classical phrase with origins in the Records of the Grand Historian (史记), a work by court official Sima Qian dating back to 94BC. In the Records of the Grand Historian, the three-character phrase dingyizun (定一尊) is used to describe the centralized rule of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China.

Since the People’s Daily was launched in 1946, the phrase “one position as the highest authority” has appeared 76 times in this reference book of official discourse. In nearly all of these instances the phrase is used in negatively — to criticize the ideas of feudal society, to criticize bureaucratism (官僚主义) within the Communist Party, to criticize the fascist rule of the Gang of Four. In the 1990s, the phrase was even used to criticize the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Here are just a handful of examples of the phrase at work in the Party’s history:

August 11, 1956: “Vicious criticism is not frightening. What is frightening is to allow viciousness to take on a leading role, with one position as the highest authority.”

April 18, 1988: “History has already shown that banning diverse schools of thought, and setting one position as the highest authority necessarily results in the suppressing of the people (钳制人口), widespread fear of speaking out (万马齐喑), and the throttling of thought.”

September 19, 1988: “Persecution for one’s writing is an extreme manifestation of feudal autocratic politics, and it is really about feudal rulers seeking to shackle thinking, suppress opinion and reach one position as the highest authority in politics.”

As we gaze across the expanse of People’s Daily time, we find that the first time that “one position as the highest authority” was ever used in a positive way occurred just a year ago, on June 16, 2017. Not surprisingly, that article dealt with the standing of Xi Jinping within the Party. “Various central departments of the state unswervingly defend through their real actions, the final decision-making authority and single position in highest authority of the Central Party with Xi Jinping as the core.”

Lest you be in any doubt that the one position of highest authority is Xi Jinping himself.