Li Zhanshu in Brazil in 2019, by Palácio do Planalto, available under CC license.

One week ago, Li Zhanshu (栗战书), chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, delivered his “work report” to the committee, in which he outlined the country’s accomplishments over the past year and sounded a triumphant note ahead of the centennial of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. A rather verbose “abstract” (摘要) of Li’s report was issued on March 9, but the full-text was made available only yesterday.

Slicing through this thick layer-cake of Chinese newspeak, which totals 13,693 words, just over 20 percent larger than in the 2020 report, there are a number of trends worth noting.

First, there is a more than negligible rise of language signalling the power of Xi Jinping. Appearances of “Xi Jinping” more than doubled in this year’s report, and use of Xi’s “banner term,” or qizhiyu (旗帜语), increased. Several other permutations of “Xi thought” for various policy areas were given greater prominence in this year’s report.

The following graph compares how various Xi-related terms appeared in Li Zhanshu’s reports this year and last.

As we have said repeatedly at CMP, the shortening of Xi Jinping’s lengthy banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), is the end-game in this drawn-out rhetorical game. The ambition of Xi and his acolytes is almost certainly to achieve the shortening of this unwieldy banner term to the more potent “Xi Jinping Thought” with the approach the 20th National Congress of the CCP, which should be held in the fall of 2022. Another possible landmark, much closer, is the Party’s 100th anniversary on July 1 this year.

While some scholarship and reporting outside China has prematurely used “Xi Jinping Thought” to discuss Xi’s banner term, it is important to understand that this transformation has by no means been achieved. Ever since the 19th National Congress of the CCP in November 2017, Xi has sought to cross this rhetorical river by feeling the stones. When possible, testing the waters, those around him have promoted the application of “Xi thought” to concrete policy areas, such as rule of law, military affairs and diplomacy.

In last year’s NPC Standing Committee report, however, Li Zhanshu mentioned just two forms of “Xi thought.” These were “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,” clearly associated with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who last summer inaugurated a new center for the buzzword; and “Xi Jinping Thought on Adhering to and Improving the NPC System.” Dealing directly with the NPC, this particular “thought” is solidly in Li Zhanshu’s territory, and the chairman has held a number of special meetings on the topic. Not surprisingly, the fundamental character of this system is the leadership of the CCP under the principle of democratic centralism.

In this year’s report, three additional forms of “Xi thought” are added: “Xi Jinping Thought on Thought on Rule of Law”; “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military”; and “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization.” The first of these gets prominent play, mentioned six separate times. This is significant, though not altogether surprising, considering that the term has been ascendant since the last quarter of 2020 and Xi’s “important speech” to the Central Work Conference on the Comprehensive Rule of Law.

These mentions of “Xi thought” can be regarded as steps in the journey toward an eventual “Xi Jinping Thought” banner. But perhaps it is better to view them as steps, sometimes faltering, in a delicate dance in which the music is always changing. The epidemic last year temporarily changed the tune, and we saw a corresponding downturn in talk of “Xi thought” during the first quarter of the year, in the midst of the crisis. As China regained control of the situation, however, the music changed again.

Reading the environment is a complicated process. What do we make, for example, of the fact that “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” has vanished from Li Zhanshu’s report this year?

No doubt a priority for Wang Yi in particular, “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” is missing from section five of Li Zhanshu’s report, though there is the usual talk of policy concepts subsumed by this “thought” – including the “community of common destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体), the Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路), multilateral dialogue and so on.

Interestingly, section five does make prominent mention of “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law,” perhaps because this phrase is closely aligned with the legislative work of the NPC on a range of issues that have prompted international controversy, not least the question of Hong Kong and national security. The section addresses the need to “promote the China path and the Chinese system oversea.” This is about counteracting international criticism of China’s actions, and Li suggests the NPC Standing Committee has performed well:

[We] actively promoted Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, actively introducing China’s development achievements and its contributions to the world. [We] actively promoted Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law, introducing the people’s congress system and its legislative work. [We] actively promoted China’s concepts of adhering to people first (人民至上) and life first (生命至上) in its fight against the epidemic, sharing China’s experiences and methods in fighting the epidemic.

How did the NPC achieve this messaging? Here we find an interesting note on the conduct of external propaganda, not touched upon in last year’s report. Li notes: “[We] strengthened the building of the English-language website of the NPC, and prioritized the English-language edition of NPC (中国人大) magazine, demonstrating the advantages and efficacy of the democratic political system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

China’s multifaceted approaches to external propaganda and disinformation, including through international social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, have received a great deal of scrutiny over the past year. But would anyone seriously count NPC magazine among the jewels of foreign influence?

This is an odd boast for the NPC Standing Committee. The kindest thing to be said about the magazine is that it faithfully reflects the vacuous and self-congratulatory myth-making readily found in the Chinese-language Party state media. “Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping,” reads one section header, following a drop quote from the General Secretary that reads: “China has the full confidence and capability to win the battle against the virus with concerted efforts, scientific containment and targeted policies under the strong leadership of the CCP.”

Even deeply ideological language like “the people’s war” (人民战争) is lobbed out into the wide world (assuming the publication has any measurable circulation) in the vain hope that it will find an audience.

But perhaps that is exactly the point. “External” though this propaganda may be, the work of NPC magazine is not directed toward foreign audiences at all. Not really. Like Li Zhanshu’s NPC Standing Committee report, it is a mirror in which all of us can gaze at the CCP’s reflection of itself — resolving gradually into the reflection of just one man.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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