As May approaches, we are likely reaching the halfway point in the 2022 march toward the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the political event that will shape China’s political future for the coming decade – and likely under the clinched fist of Xi Jinping as the country’s most powerful political leader since Mao Zedong.
At this point, we should expect to the volume to rise on preparations for the 20th National Congress. And we can also anticipate the creation of new catchphrases to talk about the Party’s glorious leader and his visionary leadership. The past week has not disappointed. We give you Xi Jinping, “pilot of the great revival” (伟大复兴领航人).
For Mr. Special, a “Special Report”
As we have written repeatedly at CMP, there are a number of important signs to watch in the official discourse as the 20th Congress approaches. Crucially, there is the possible shortening of Xi Jinping’s ponderous 16-character banner term, or qizhiyu (旗帜语), as the potent “Xi Jinping Thought.” Other signs? Ever more prominent acts of loyalty signaling, or biaotai (表态), as a host of provincial and city leaders rush to declare their alignment with Xi’s leadership in a process of discursive toadyism resembling the “loyalty dances” of the Maoist past.
This week, China’s Guangxi Autonomous Region (广西壮族自治区) upped the ante on loyalty signaling with the release of a six-part television “special report” (专题片) in preparation for the Congress, and commemorating the “important speech” delivered by Xi Jinping during his tour of Guangxi on April 27 last year. Produced by Guangxi’s CCP leadership and released by the region’s official television network, the series, “Conscientiously Striving With the Pilot of the Great Revival” (紧跟伟大复兴领航人踔厉笃行), is a masterwork of obsequiousness.
Episode 5 of the film, which first aired on March 16, begins with the voice of Xi Jinping – with panoramic shots of science and technology, military prowess and the karst mountains of Guilin – as he intones: “Realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people is the greatest Chinese dream of the Chinese people in our times.” Scenes of Xi visiting Guangxi and talking about the importance of the CCP’s revolutionary history are interspersed with related expressions of zeal from the regional leadership, such as a visit “following in the footsteps of General Secretary Xi Jinping” to a site commemorating the Long March.
The “special report” refers to Xi Jinping as the “people’s leader” (人民领袖), a rare title of praise in China’s political discourse, reminiscent of the personality cult that prevailed during the Mao Zedong era. It speaks of the “great thought” (伟大思想) with which Xi has inspired the people in Guangxi. Finally, it recounts with sickening sycophancy the ways that leaders in the autonomous region have risen to Xi’s glorious vision as outlined in his “4-27” speech in Guangxi:
The CCP Committee of the autonomous region has seriously studied and profoundly implemented the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speech [in Guangxi], making a series of plans and deployments, one after the other, of a series of happy events done a series of major events, and implementing and handling a series of joyful events and glorious event, and a series of major matters.
But the real innovation of this television propaganda series comes in its coining of a new term of praise for the General Secretary.
According to a report on the series from the region’s official Guangxi Daily, one communications professor praised the innovative use by the series of the term “pilot of the great revival” to refer to Xi. The professor was quoted as saying: “The new formulation ‘pilot of the great rejuvenation’ organically unites the Party’s historical mission with the people’s pursuit of a better life, and closely combines the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with the people’s political identification with the Party’s top leaders.”
The term “pilot” (领航人), which was used in the 1960s to refer to Mao Zedong — and was used again for Mao on at least one occasion during the Xi era — has been used only seldomly to refer to Xi Jinping. In October 2019, a report in the People’s Daily praising “China’s governance” (中国之治) quoted Xi Jinping without even mentioning his name, referring to him as only “the pilot of the New Era”: “In 2019, the pilot of the new era solemnly declared, ‘We have come out of the successful path of building a socialist system with Chinese characteristics, and as long as we continue along this path, we will certainly be able to modernize the national governance system and governance capacity.”
More recently, in a front-page piece in the during the National People’s Congress on March 10, 2022, the People’s Daily said quoted 74-year-old Zhang Boli (张伯礼), a Chinese physician and recent torch bearer for the Beijing Winter Olympics, as saying, while “overwhelmed with emotion,” that: “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s crucial decision-making and calm command were the source of motivation for the whole country in fighting the epidemic. It is because of the General Secretary saving us in the storm that the children of China are able to face the epidemic of the century and move forward with courage. The General Secretary is our backbone, but also our pilot!”
Closely related to this term is the phrase “pilot at the helm,” or linghang zhangduo (领航掌舵), a reference with strong echoes of China’s Maoist past that was used for Xi Jinping during the 5th Plenum of the 19th Central Committee in 2020. Used in a total of 47 articles in 2021, usually in references to Xi as the “core pilot at the helm” (核心领航掌舵), it has appeared in seven articles in the People’s Daily so far in 2022.