Since the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party held its Sixth Plenum last November, the “Two Establishes” (两个确立) has been a crucial phrase within the Party’s discourse, reiterating Xi Jinping’s position as the“core” of the leadership, and underscoring his ideas as the bedrock of China’s future. As the 20th National Congress of the CCP nears, we should expect the phrase to soar into the heavens — an indication of Xi’s unassailable position at the top.

But that is not what is happening. And while the language of the CCP is never a perfect mirror, or a clear one, of the state of politics internally, these upset expectations are cause to reconsider. Is it possible that a combination of factors — including, perhaps, a flagging economy, the constant squeeze of a fanatical adherence to “dynamic zero,” and a miscalculated foreign policy of Russian hand-holding — have rubbed the gild off of what until recently seemed a steadily rising cult of personality around Xi?

Whatever the reasons, and whatever the outcome, which should become clear in the coming weeks, the fizzling of the “Two Establishes” in August, just as senior leaders emerged from the annual summer conclave at the beach resort of Beidaihe, seems to signal a turn or detour of some sort.

So what exactly is the phrase doing?

In fact, the only use of the “Two Establishes” in the People’s Daily today comes prominently on the front page. It is a bone-dry account of the development of China’s “high-quality team” of public servants since the 19th National Congress nearly five years ago. These are the selfless bureaucrats, the article tells us, that have formed “the backbone of governance in the New Era.”

The front page of today’s People’s Daily, an article mentioning the “Two Establishes” marked in red.

The article, which appears on the front pages of many of country’s provincial-level Party newspapers today as well, makes standard use of the “Two Establishes” as it closes with a nod to the upcoming congress:

Under the strong leadership of the Central Committee of the CCP with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, the vast swathe of civil servants firmly defend the “Two Establishes,” resolutely achieve the “Two Safeguards,” remember the fundamental purpose of serving the people wholeheartedly, consciously serving for the prosperity and strength of the country . . . with real actions welcoming the opening of the Party’s 20th National Congress.

This is exactly the sort of signaling of loyalty that in recent months we had come to expect in the pages of the People’s Daily, often in article after article. In June and July, it was not uncommon to have between four and six such articles in a single day — and days without were few and far between.

But the second half of half has been a discourse drought for Xi Jinping when it comes to the “Two Establishes.” With one more edition of the People’s Daily due for the month, here is what the situation looks like for 2022, with numbers of articles plotted on a half-month basis.

The first half of August 2022 saw 34 articles in the People’s Daily using the “Two Establishes.” In the second half? Just 8 so far, with one day to go.

Setting aside the peak of uses for the phrase corresponding to the National People’s Congress in the first half of March, the “Two Establishes” has remained steadily in the 20-30 range since the second half of February. In the second half of August, after starting at the strongest point since the NPC, the phrase has dropped precipitously, returning to the low recorded in early February.

Judging from the trends in CCP discourse, it is difficult not to think that the engine of Xi Jinping’s continued rise has stalled. There is certainly time for a fall rally, and September could accelerate Xi’s race uphill toward a third term. But other scenarios are looking increasingly possible.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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