Image of Foreign Minister Wang Yi by Munich Security Conference, available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.
“Great eras produce great ideas,” China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi (王毅), said in July 2020 as he inaugurated a special studies center on “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想), the buzzword meant to coalesce the Chinese Communist Party’s current thinking on foreign affairs.
But under the CCP, great ideas must also be made with great hype. And that hype was on display last Friday as “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” was given top billing in the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, in a lengthy article right under the masthead. It was a rare center-stage performance for a phrase that has languished in China’s official discourse throughout 2022.
The front-page article, “Destiny and the Path to Common Action” (命运与共行大道), was sprawled across three pages of the paper. It offered a summary and reaffirmation of Xi Jinping’s supposed successes in handling foreign affairs during his first 10 years as China’s top leader. It marveled at how, in 2019, Xi made four trips outside of China, to five countries and six cities, appearing at 90 different events. This, it said, had “created a new record in the history of Chinese diplomacy in the New China.” And when Xi Jinping was not traveling, or could not, he was busy with “telephone diplomacy.”
A telephone. You don’t say?
The article rattled off related foreign policy terms, like “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色大国外交), “harmony” (和衷共济), and “co-existence” (和合共生).
According to the soaring tribute, the world has marveled at the CCP’s great “strategic wisdom” (战略智慧) in transforming global risks into global opportunities. The world has wondered about the genius of China’s “Belt and Road” (一带一路), for example, asking how China has managed to appeal to so many partners. “It is the spirit of mutual respect,” it concludes.
But articles like Friday’s tribute are less important for their policy content than for what they claim about the greatness of Xi’s governing concept, or banner phrase (旗帜语), which during the upcoming 20th National Congress of the CCP is likely to reemerge as the shortened and potent “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想).
“Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” is one of the five permutations of Xi’s banner phrase dealing with five key policy areas: the economy; national security; rule of law (domestic security); foreign affairs; and the environment. In recent months, these phrases have been among the key terminologies through which to observe the gradual transformation of Xi Jinping’s long-winded banner phrase, “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). They are components of what is being claimed in CCP propaganda as a comprehensive system of ideas that is profound, historic, and necessary — justifying Xi’s continuation as the Party’s “core” and insuperable boss.
So how have these terms fared this year?
The following graph plots the number of occurrences of the five permutations in the People’s Daily on the monthly basis since the start of 2022.
As the graph above shows, the top-performing permutations of Xi’s banner phrase this year have been “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization,” the term corresponding to policy-making on the environmental front, and “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law,” which deals with issues of law and order. Slightly behind is “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military,” the phrase dealing with national defense.
These three policy areas have been relatively non-sensitive, and are therefore areas in which Xi Jinping and his acolytes can feel freer in pushing the association of supposed successes with his governing concepts. With the approach of the 20th National Congress, we see the national defense banner holding steady in August and September, while the banners for ecological civilization and rule of law rose sharply.
For the relatively sensitive areas of the economy and foreign policy, however, it is a different story.
While there was some drum-beating in July and August over Xi’s successes in dealing with the economy, often accompanied by the cautious phrase “seeking progress in stability” (稳中求进), this banner permutation has lagged throughout 2022, corresponding with a generally weak economic picture and controversy internally over the impact of continued Covid-19 lockdowns under “zero Covid.”
In six out of nine months this year, “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” has been the weakest of the five permutations. It plummeted again in September, meeting up with the other lackluster performer, “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.”
Since July, Xi Jinping’s diplomacy-related banner permutation has remained at the bottom of the pack, with less than five articles in the People’s Daily mentioning the phrase on a monthly basis. Just as for the economy, these are tough times for China’s foreign policy, with a “plummeting global image,” by some estimates, and soft power efforts largely unsuccessful.
A rise for “Xi Jinping Thought” generally in the midst of the upcoming 20th National Congress is likely to pull the foreign policy banner along with the rest. But these are touchy times for the diplomatic approach that state media have enthusiastically called “Xiplomacy.”
For now, the policy might prompt caution as much as bullish optimism. Great ideas, like all ideas, can fail.