In 2019, the most important change we saw in the political discourse of the Chinese Communist Party was the complete abandonment of the phrase “political system reform,” or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革). The process of political reform in China was jump-started in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) between 1986 and 1988, and during this period the term “political system reform” actually became what we label a “hot” (热) phrase within the discourse heat scale I have developed with the discourse analysis team at the China Media Project.

The political reform wave – speaking here from a discourse standpoint – culminated with the first ever inclusion of the phrase “political system reform” in the political report to the 13th National Congress of the CCP in 1987. But ever since that time, we can say that the phrase has sputtered and sizzled, fading and returning, as it has progressively cooled within the overall discourse environment.

Since the 18th National Congress in 2012, which marked Xi Jinping’s rise to power, use of the phrase “political system reform,” already rare enough, has dropped off dramatically. And we now can say with some confidence that we are seeing the complete elimination of the term, a trend we noted at CMP back in October.

Below I’ll provide just a quick summary in English of the trends we saw in the Chinese political discourse in 2019, and then look at the key words used to discuss the economy and what these reveal about anxieties in the leadership. For our full discourse report, I refer readers to the Chinese-language version, which I’ve included in full further down.

The Blazing and the Red Hot

Using the index of political discourse terminologies and their “temperature” as developed by the China Media Project on the basis of frequency of use in the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper, we can note that in 2019 the following phrases stood out either for their intensity of use (“blazing” and “red hot” being the strongest intensities) or for their shift in temperature within the index.

Source: People’s Daily Full Database.

Compared to our study of discourse for 2018, the overall position of these terms and phrases shows little change. At the top of the chart, the biggest difference is that two of the four terms in the “blazing” category last year – namely, “19th National Congress” and “Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for the New Era” – have dropped into the “red hot” category for 2019. The Belt and Road Initiative and “reform and opening” top the charts this year, showing the greatest intensity of use in the People’s Daily on a per article basis.

In the “red hot” category, meanwhile, we have two new additions this year. These are the “two protections,” essentially protecting Xi as the “core” of the Party leadership and protecting the Party’s unified leadership, and that stay-the-course phrase so common this year, “not forgetting the original intention, holding to the mission.”

In 2018, the “two protections” joined the “four consciousnesses” and the “four confidences” to become standard phrases (规范用语) in the Party press. “Not forgetting the original intention, holding to the mission,” a phrase introduced during the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017, became a “hot” phrase in 2018, rising in use in the People’s Daily. In 2019, the phrase rose further, entering the “red hot” category. The term “good governance” (善治), rose two levels in 2019, from “warm” to “red hot”.

In 2019, we have a handful of phrases that appeared in the “red hot” category in 2018 that dropped down to “hot.” These include the “village revival strategy” (乡村振兴战略), “innovation-driven” (创新驱动) and “administration in accord with the law” (依法治国).

Among the “cold” terms in 2019, we find “political civilization” (dropping two levels from “warm”), “ruling the nation in accord with the constitution” (dropping two levels from “warm”), “authority of constitutional law” (dropping two levels from “warm”), and “full accounting of power/responsibility” (dropping two levels from “warm”).

One result that may surprise, given official propaganda over perceived foreign meddling in Hong Kong, is that the phrase “hostile forces” (敌对势力) remained in the “cold” category in 2019. But this does not necessarily mean a drop in the use of related phrases, and in fact in the second half of the year we see a marked rise in these use of the term “external forces” (外部势力), which brought the term into the “hot” category.

The Economy

What does the political discourse in 2019 tell us about the economic situation?

In 2019, we saw a dramatic rise in use of the phrase “steady improvement, long-term improvement” (稳中向好, 长期向好) in the official discourse, and broadly used across Chinese newspapers, based on our search of the  – an indication that the authorities are keen to send a message that all is well.

But if we look beyond the Party-run newspapers and digital outlets, we see other indicators of economic concern. Here, for example, we see the dramatic rise in 2019 of the word “pig” in news headlines, reflecting the nationwide crisis over pork prices.

The increase in coverage seen in the above graph is driven by news about pork prices and supply shortages. While this is just one factor within the overall economy, it was without a doubt a source of anxiety for the leadership and a factor that undermined the sense that all was “steady” and “improving.”  

When we look at the economic picture in China after the 19th National Congress in 2017, we can observe the term “economic downturn” (下行压力). This term experienced a peak back in 2015 but later declined. Here is how the term has looked in Chinese newspapers over the past three years.

At the end of every year, the CCP’s Central Committee holds an important economic work conference that sends signals about economic sentiment and policy, though the language often requires a great deal of reading between the lines. Since 2012 there have been eight such work conferences, and here is the key language emerging from each, reflected in the official discourse played across Party media.

2012: “comprehensive deepening of economic system reforms” (全面深化经济体制改革)

2013: “keeping steady” (稳中求进)

2014: “new normal” (新常态)

2015: “supply-side” (供给侧)

2016: “new development concept” (新发展理念)

2017: “preventing and solving major risks” (防范化解重大风险)

2018: “steady employment, steady finance, steady foreign trade, steady investment, steady expectations” (稳就业、稳金融、稳外贸、稳外资、稳投资、稳预期) / “Six Steadies” (六稳)

2019: “Putting ‘steady’ first” (稳字当头)

When we review these eight terms we can note the diminishing sense of optimism over time, and a rising sense of crisis that is understated in the official discourse. “A new normal for the Chinese economy” was a phrase introduced when GDP growth in China was falling below the 8 percent level, the goal being to habituate Chinese to the idea that GDP growth between 7 and 8 percent was acceptable. The phrase “supply-side structural reforms,” meanwhile, was a way of coping with continued weakness, the goal being to regain momentum. Both “new normal” and “supply-side” rose rapidly to become “red hot” terms after their introduction. But in 2019, we have seen signs of fatigue for both terms when we look at use within the official People’s Daily on a per-article basis.

In 2019, we see “supply-side” maintaining its “red hot” status, but with significantly diminished use in the People’s Daily, about half the level of use recorded for 2017. The “new normal,” meanwhile, drops down to the “warm” category, understandable considering that the 7-8 percent GDP growth level it pointed to is no longer sustainable.

On October 19, 2019, the National Bureau of Statistics released the latest GDP estimates, which drew a great deal of attention globally. GDP growth came in at what Deutsche Welle and other news outlets referred to as an “underwhelming” 6 percent for the quarter.

图片包含 屏幕截图

China’s economy currently faces a downturn unlike anything it has faced in the past several decades. We now see the term “Six Steadies” (六稳) being used as a provisional response to this weakness – the next conditioning of the public to lower expectations. The goal now, in other words, is holding the line in terms of employment, investment and  so on. Use of the term “Six Steadies” was 2.8 times higher in Chinese newspapers in 2019 (based on the Qianfang database) than in 2018.

Among the six priorities outlined in the “Six Steadies” formula, we saw “steady expectations” leading in 2018. In 2019, the clear priority seems to be “steady employment,” which shows quite a dramatic rise over the past two years.  

图片包含 屏幕截图
图片包含 屏幕截图

The release just last month by the State Council of “Opinions Concerning Further Stabilizing Employment Work” (关于进一步做好稳就业工作的意见) can be read as a further sign of just how serious the issue of employment has become for the leadership.

The announcement of the State Council document took prime position in the People’s Daily on Christmas Day, appearing right next to the newspaper’s masthead.

The full text in Chinese of our 2019 political discourse report is included below, including a discussion of what I call the “442 Formula,” referring to the “Four Consciousnesses,” “Four Confidences” and “Two Protects,” which warmed up toward the end of the year, along with increased talk of Xi Jinping as the “people’s leader” (人民领袖) — a direct result of the reformulating of the “442” formula.

You will also find a more in-depth discussion of the phrase “political system reforms,” which as I said at the outset seems very much to be on its way out.



钱 钢












































笔者用语象方法分析19届4中全会通过的1.8万字的《中共中央关于坚持和完善中国特色社会主义制度 推进国家治理体系和治理能力现代化若干重大问题的决定》,发现一个重要的词语已经寿终正寝:“政治体制改革”。

中共19届4中全会的核心议题是制度。决定用了“国家制度”、“党的领导制度”、“国家治理体系”等词语来表述制度。决定提到的制度,虽然从政治、经济、文化到社会、民生、生态包罗万象,但核心是政治制度。决定所说的“坚持党的领导、人民当家作主、依法治国有机统一”是中共使用多年的术语,原本是对政治体制改革的规范性要求。决定第二、三、四条提出的“坚持和完善党的领导制度体系,提高党科学执政、民主执政、依法执政水平”、“ 坚持和完善人民当家作主制度体系,发展社会主义民主政治”和“坚持和完善中国特色社会主义法治体系,提高党依法治国、依法执政能力”,即上述的“三者有机统一”。



从19届4中全会的议题和“决定”的论述重点看,“政治体制改革”原本无法回避。整个决定文本中,“改革”一词出现了27次,其中有5个“体制改革”: 行政执法体制改革、文化体制改革、医药卫生体制改革、国防动员体制改革、纪检监察体制改革。这么多的“改革”和“体制改革”,为什么偏偏遗漏了“政治体制改革”?













“将维护核心、拥戴核心、追随核心内化于心、外化于行”( 江西,2019.11.22,赣南日报)。




图片包含 文字, 报纸












图片包含 文字, 地图


图片包含 文字, 地图


图片包含 文字, 地图


图片包含 文字, 地图



图片包含 文字, 地图










图片包含 屏幕截图






图片包含 文字, 报纸








David Bandurski

CMP Director

Latest Articles