Reading China’s press for clues about the internal twists of Chinese politics can be a hazardous business. In July 2018, the Financial Timesreported an “unusual reduction” in mentions of Xi Jinping in the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily – perhaps a clue to the general secretary’s changing political fortunes. “Last Monday, his name did not appear in any headline on the front page,” the paper reported, “the first such absence in five years, according to a count by independent Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily.”
The count from Apple Daily was woefully inaccurate. In fact, since November 2012 there had been close to 500 front pages in the People’s Daily absent any mention of “Xi Jinping,” “Chairman Xi” or “general secretary.” In 2013 there had been 111 such front pages, in 2014, 74, and in 2015, 97. The numbers had steadily fallen as an atmosphere of worship had formed around Xi Jinping. In 2016, the year he was designated as the “core” leader, 88 front pages in the People’s Daily failed to mention the man or his titles. In 2017, that number was 73.
Despite reports of an “unusual reduction,” there would be 20 front pages without Xi Jinping in 2018, the year following the 19th National Congress of the CCP. And still the center held. Xi’s power, and the cult of personality surrounding him, only grew.
It is a cautionary tale for the reader of tea leaves, and a tale to bear in mind as we address the reportedly strange and notable happenings this month in the Party’s flagship newspaper.
According to some close observers of Chinese politics through the news page, Xi Jinping has been less prominent in recent weeks. The basic idea is that while the front page of the People’s Daily has very often in China’s “New Era” been all Xi all of the time, recent pages have played the general secretary down. There are fewer large headlines with his name, and there are fewer photographs as well. And in some cases he has been absent altogether.
There was even talk this week that Xi Jinping might have pulled back from public engagements, that he had not been seen since May 10. Adding fuel to the speculative fever were reported rumors on Chinese social media that the general secretary might be stepping down following harsh criticism of his alleged mismanagement of Covid-19. Alternatively, according to reports on the sketchy margins of the global media, he was suffering from a brain aneurysm.
Or, had Xi perhaps been sidelined by other senior officials as he championed – as was clear at the May 5 Politburo Standing Committee meeting – a “zero Covid” policy that many Chinese have found painful, and which has had deep economic ramifications? This has been a popular narrative in some Chinese-language outlets outside mainland China, which have suggested that Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) is enjoying a moment of ascendance, perhaps alongside PSC members like Wang Yang (汪洋).
Both Li and Wang were relatively prominent on the front page of Tuesday’s edition of the People’s Daily, with headlines about Li having a call with Pakistani Premier Shahbaz Sharif, and Wang Yang holding a meeting of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The top article under the masthead stressed the importance of a stable market economy, an issue right in the premier’s wheelhouse. But there was no mention in the headlines of Xi Jinping.
Speculation was rife on Chinese social media too. Sharing the People’s Daily front page the same day, the former editor-in-chief of the Global Times newspaper, Hu Xijin, noted the importance of the focus on a stable economy, but seemed to point to signals in the leadership as well. “This is a very important signal,” he wrote. “[Those who] follow this signal, abandon doubt and uncertainty, and embrace new opportunities, will prove to be the true business heroes, and the heroes of our time.”
Hu’s reference to opportunities could be read as “person of new opportunities” (新的机遇者), and given the page’s apparent favoring of Li Keqiang, a strong supporter of the market economy, some assumed that this was nod in favor of Li, feeding further speculation of a change in priorities at the top of the leadership.
Speculation deepened on Wednesday, as Xi Jinping was once again absent from the front page of the People’s Daily. One article in an overseas Chinese outlet announced a “sudden change in the political scene of the Chinese Communist Party.” The article also cited as evidence the fact that on May 14 the newspaper had published in full a speech Li had delivered nearly three weeks earlier, on April 25, about anti-corruption work as the foundation of strong future economic development. The same speech was also posted online by Xinhua.
For a moment, let’s take a breath. And let’s look more closely at the observations that began so many of these speculative readings — hinging on the key question of whether Xi Jinping is prominent or absent on the front page of the Party’s flagship newspaper.
It is certainly true that such absences can be significant. But the false reports in 2018 of an “unusual reduction” should encourage a bit more skepticism. Even if we count them correctly, how much stock should we place in such absences? How much do we need to not see of Xi before we begin to suspect profound shifts in Chinese politics?
As the abovementioned tally of absences through 2018 suggests, it was already typical by 2016 and 2017 to expect on average about 6-7 front pages without Xi Jinping in any given month. In 2018, there were on average just 1.6 front pages without Xi per month. Since the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2018, however, we can typically expect, according to CMP’s observations, 3 or 4 absences in any given month.
More than five absences for Xi from the People’s Daily front page in a given month would be something unusual, and this is especially the case with the approach of the 20th National Congress this fall, which should usher in wave after wave of promotion of the top leader and his ideas, policies and speeches.
Next, what exactly counts as an absence? Typically, we should be looking for any front page that does not include Xi’s full name, “general secretary” or “Chairman Xi” in a main headline (主标题), a subhead (副标题), or a column header (栏目题).
Looking carefully at People’s Daily front pages with the use of full-resolution PDF versions that allow us to see the fine print – yes, this is where CCP discourse takes us – here is what we come up with so far for May. The papers with red stars are those that do include Xi Jinping or a related reference.
So as of today, May 19, through just 61 percent of People’s Daily front pages we can expect for the month, we have four days on which Xi Jinping was absent. These were May 3, May 8, May 17 and May 18.
According to the rough benchmark mentioned above – five pages in any given month – it is distinctly possible that Xi’s absences will be one data point to watch closely into June, along with other possible signals. Another measure, for those fascinated with the shifts to be glimpsed in the pages of Party newspapers, could be the total number of articles for May mentioning various leaders on the Politburo Standing Committee. According to this measure, Xi Jinping has been the far-and-away favorite for years running, dwarfing not-even-close seconds like Premier Li. If that gap were to close in any noticeable way, that would certainly be significant.
But for those concerned by speculation about Xi Jinping’s slip from the front page, there is good news. Xi is back in the People’s Daily with a vengeance today, his name fronting all four of the top headlines. Once again, we have bright red images of the top man, beaming out over a conference on international trade.
Down below, huddling under the crushing weight of the bold headlines above, we can find Li Keqiang in two faint sub-heads, one directly under a main headline that includes Xi.
China watchers are certainly right to keep a careful eye trained on the visual signals beamed out from the pages of the People’s Daily. But the signals abound, and confuse.