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.
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.
What does the political discourse in 2019 tell us about the economic
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
2012: “comprehensive deepening of economic system reforms” (全面深化经济体制改革)
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.