During a high-level conference on propaganda and ideology held this week, President Xi Jinping held his ground, and seemed to reaffirm his confidence in Wang Huning, the top Party leader in charge of ideology. To help us understand the significance of Xi’s keynote speech at the event, I’ll focus first on two points of background and one point of timing.

The first point of background is the criticism Xi Jinping has received since July this year. Not long after the “ink-splashing incident” (泼墨事件), in which a young woman, later confirmed to be Dong Yaoqiong (董瑶琼), posted a video to the internet in which she throws ink on an image of the president, a wave of criticism of Xi appeared both domestically and internationally. This criticism has included more open denunciation of excessively positive and exuberant propaganda, of which the documentary film “Amazing China” has been one of the most representative examples.

The second point of background is the upcoming 40th anniversary of the start of economic reforms in China. How this anniversary will and won’t be commemorated in the state media has been an important, lingering question this year.

Finally, regarding timing. It was five years ago, on August 19, 2013, that Xi Jinping held another important conference on propaganda and ideology during which he introduced the notion of “public opinion struggle,” or yulun douzheng (舆论斗争), coming several months after the release of the so-called “Seven Don’t Speaks,” a communique circulated by the Party’s General Office that banned discussion of a range of issues. The fifth anniversary of the “8.19 speech” was commemorated by Party media over a period of several days, so this also presented the perfect opportunity for Xi to hold another important conference.

A High-Level Affirmation of Propaganda Work

Xi’s latest speech is essentially an affirmation of his speech on propaganda and ideology from five years ago. In this recent speech, he says, “The policy decisions and deployments of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on propaganda and ideological work are completely correct, and the broad masses of officials on the front lines of propaganda and ideological work entirely deserve our confidence.”

The conference was chaired by Wang Huning (王沪宁), the standing committee member in charge of ideology whom many suspect has been a key mastermind of Xi’s projection of authoritarian resolve and national strength. This is the second of two high-profile appearances Wang Huning has made this month — the first being his solo reception of a visiting delegation from Vietnam. We can interpret these as a process of endorsement (背书) by which Xi is signaling that Wang has his confidence.

As for the speech itself, we can see no obvious differences from the speech five years ago. As far as we can glean from official reports of the speech (as yet, no full-text version has been made available), Xi Jinping does not appear to have mentioned the hardline phrase “public opinion struggle.” However, there was another hardline phrase: “We must adhere to the truth with a clear banner, firmly refuting falsehoods” (要旗帜鲜明坚持真理,立场坚定批驳谬误).

Those inclined to a normative Western reading of “truth” and “falsehood” should understand that this is not an affirmation of truth as you might understand it — but rather an affirmation that it is the Party’s prerogative to define that truth, and its obligation to do so according to the clear direction of the top leadership. Which is why Xi follows immediately with: “We must exert pressure to ensure Party organizations at all levels act without negligence, exercising unflagging control of the [Party’s] position, unequivocal in holding those responsible [for lapses] to account.”

One clear difference in the recent speech versus that 2013 speech is Xi’s emphasis on his own stature and position. Five years ago, he had not yet introduced his banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), or the notion of the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), first on the list being “consciousness of the core” (meaning the primary leadership role of Xi himself). This time, he calls on the entire Party to study and implement his own “thought,” though he does not in this instance combine “thought” with “Xi Jinping.” He urges them to “firmly establish the Four Consciousnesses, resolutely protecting the authority and centralized leadership of the Central Committee, firmly grasping the correct political orientation.”

Party discourse notwithstanding, this is a far more direct injunction: Listen to me, follow me.

Reform Anniversary: Where are Mao, Deng and Jiang?

2018 marks the 40th anniversary of China’s Opening and Reform policy. In his speech, Xi does not mention this fact as a point of background. And there is one phrase in particular that deserves attention: “To raise the banner, we must hold the banners of Marxism and of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics up high, persevering in using Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era to arm the entire Party, to teach the people, and to promote our work.”

According to past practice within the mainstream Party discourse, when speeches come to the part about the development of ideologies, Marxism must come along with a string of others — “Leninism,” “Mao Zedong Thought,” “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” the “Three Represents” (Jiang Zemin) and the “Scientific View of Development” (Hu Jintao). In his recent speech, Xi Jinping omits five of these six. This is particularly significant because one of these, “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” is of course intimately linked with China’s reform path over the past four decades.

For Xi to neglect mention of Deng altogether gives us an inkling of the fuller picture. No mention of Deng + no mention of opposing the extreme left + an emphasis on the Party’s and his own authority + an affirmation of the ideological direction set five years ago. All of this added together equals resolute opposition to the right.