On the front page of the September 25 edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, a “double lead headline” (双头条) was used to emphasize two high-level events held in Beijing the previous day. The first was a meeting of the Politburo, the inner circle of 25 Party leaders; the second was a “collective study session” of the same inner circle. Both reports were bursting with rhetorical gibberish, but the headlines nevertheless held important clues.

The bold headline on the right-hand side of page one, seen above, announces the 17th Collective Study Session of the Politburo with a phrase we have observed closely at the China Media Project over the past six years: “[The] modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity” (国家治理体系和治理能力现代化).

Any time we observe phrases within the Party’s political discourse appearing in headline positions in the People’s Daily and other core Party media, these should invite special attention, and this is particularly true when these phrases have to do with questions of governance. So what is this drawn-out phrase, “modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity”?

When we search the People’s Daily database, we find that since 2013, there have been 10 headlines in the newspaper including the phrase “modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity.” Of these, five have appeared on page one of the People’s Daily, three of these coming since July this year. Below, for example, is the July 6 edition of the People’s Daily, with a headline about “promoting modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity.”

The phrase, unique to the Xi Jinping era, first appeared in November 2013 at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP. The Third Plenum was a political event, as some may recall, at which the key question was the “deepening of reform,” or shenhua gaige (深化改革), which may at first sound like a push for meaningful reform. But the broader context of that plenum was a severe ideological tightening in China, following the release earlier in the year of an  internal Party communique known as “Document No. 9” that essentially banned discussion of such concepts as constitutional democracy, civil society and universal values.

The 2013 plenum tabled a document called “Decision Concerning Major Questions in the Comprehensive Deepening of Reform” (关于全面深化改革若干重大问题的决定) that defined the twin objectives of “developing socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “promoting modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity” as the “overarching goals” of so-called reform in China. What do these mean? Yes, more confusion by way of definition. But there were five points mentioned specifically in this context that help clarify how leaders conceptualized this process of “deepening reform,” and these included:

1. economic system reform (经济体制改革)
2. political system reform (政治体制改革)
3. cultural system reform (文化体制改革)
4. social system reform (社会体制改革)
5. reform to the system of ecological civilization (生态文明体制改革)

This fifth and last term is a fancy way of signaling environmental goals and policies. The biggest sticking point, the point of greatest sensitivity, is the second phrase, “political system reform,” or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革), which can also be translated simply “political reform.” Within the Party’s political discourse, this phrase has moved in recent years from a position of grudging acceptance, associated with such ideas as “intra-party democracy” (党内民主), to sensitivity and unease.

The following graph, which plots occurrence of the phrase “political system reform” within the CCP’s political reports every five years during the reform era, shows us how this hot potato has been tossed since 1982.

The phrase, which has long served as a key indicator within the political discourse of political reform readiness or resistance within the Party, reached its peak in the reform era with the 13th National Congress of the CCP in 1987, during a period when political reform was an active item on the agenda. Following a rather dramatic drop in the 1992 political report, which followed the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989, the phrase held more or less steady through to 2012 and the 18th National Congress of the CCP, at which Xi Jinping became general secretary. The 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017 marked a rather dramatic decline for this important reform phrase.

Returning to the headlines above from July 6 and September 25, dealing with “deepening reform” and the “modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity,” we should note that both are related to the phrase “political system reform.” As the notion of “political system reform” has become more sensitive (post-2013), a number of alternates have appeared in its place, notably including “political civilization” (政治文明) and “democratic politics” (民主政治), which differ in form but are similar in meaning.

In leadership speeches and in official Party media, these concepts have been subsumed under the phrase “the organic unity of the leadership of the Party, governing of the nation according to law and the [principle of] the people as the masters” (党的领导、依法治国和人民当家作主有机统一). In the headline article from September 25, we see this trinity of “organic unity” emphasized yet again in the context of “modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity,” but this time a fourth point is added, the principle of “democratic centralism” (民主集中制), which again emphasizes the supremacy of the Party in the decision-making process.

The page one article in the People’s Daily on September 25 emphasizes four aspects of the CCP-led political system.

As all of these concepts congeal under the umbrella concept of “modernization of the national governance system and governing capacity,” it seems likely that the time will come — if it has not already — to retire “political system reform.”  The old phrase, which once pointed the way to the future, has become a relic of the past. Meanwhile, “modernization,” that word pointing to new horizons, is taking China back politically toward its pre-reform past.