The bottom line in China’s state media today, the day after Xi Jinping met in California with US President Joe Biden, can perhaps be best summed up in just two words: friendly, and firm. On the front page of today’s edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, the visual atmosphere could be described as congenial. The images that draw focus are those of Xi and Biden shaking hands warmly, a smile breaking across Xi’s face, and below of the two men strolling elbow to elbow on the verdant grounds of California’s Filoli Estate — in a frontward facing view, mind you, underscoring the symmetry of the relationship.

We can focus obsessively on the political discourse of the CCP as projected through the carefully calibrated megaphone of the People’s Daily. But these visual elements are a crucial aspect of the framing of the meetings from the Party’s standpoint. In state-crafted propaganda, as in other matters, pictures are worth a thousand words.

Sure, the image directly below the masthead is hardly dynamic, drawing on the all-too-familiar state media trope of the diplomatic conference table, the delegations arrayed stiffly, and again symmetrically, on either side — conveying the seriousness of the high-level business at hand. (As a side note, this choice from Xinhua News Agency photographer Rao Aimin (饶爱民) is an interesting contrast with the more visually pleasing, and often creative choices of Western press photographers like Doug Mills at the Associated Press.)

But we can say in sum that the general sense of good feeling on this People’s Daily front page speaks to the basic tone the CCP leadership would like to strike. It is important not only, in other words, that Biden and Xi had a “frank and in-depth exchange of views,” but that, as the lede report states today, “Xi was warmly greeted by Biden upon his arrival at the Filoli Estate.”

The front page is an expression in layout form of the CCP leadership’s choice in what the report characterizes, relaying Xi Jinping’s words in California, as two competing options facing the US-China relationship:

The world, Xi pointed out, is now experiencing changes not seen in a century, and China and the United States have two choices: one is to strengthen solidarity and cooperation, work together to address global challenges and promote world security and prosperity. The other is to maintain a zero-sum mentality and stir up confrontation between [global] camps, leading the world toward turbulence and division.

So the message of symmetry and friendship is signaled loud and clear on the paper’s front page today. And what about the textual language?

Looking Biden in the Eye

The most important place we need to look today to answer this question is the space directly to the right of the People’s Daily masthead, where we can see four bullet points highlighted in bright red.

This space, known in Party media lingo as the “newspaper eye,” or baoyan (报眼), is of particular value in relaying messages within the CCP political-media culture. It can be used as a space for what we might call executive summaries of key documents and announcements, or it can be used simply to promote reports or commentaries to which the leadership attaches special importance. In the case of commercial publications, or commercializing Party-run publications, the newspaper eye can also be one of the priciest places to advertise — a sign again of its special value.

Images from the head of the meeting table by AP photographer Doug Mills (left) in a report from the Guardian, and from Xinhua News Agency photographer Rao Aimin (right)

In the newspaper eye of the People’s Daily today we can find the CCP leadership’s distillation of what it regards as the most important points to emerge from the meeting. The first bullet is the point already mentioned above, that the US-China relationship today faces a fundamental choice — simple, in this formulation — between “solidarity and cooperation” (团结合作) on the one hand, and the continuing of “zero-sum thinking” (零和思维) on the other.

The not-too-subtle implication here is that the United States has in recent years chosen the latter path in its relationship with China, which threatens to “lead the world toward turmoil and division” (让世界走向动荡和分裂). This point also speaks out against “great power competition” (大国竞争), which is says “cannot solve the problems of the US and China, nor of the world.”

The second bullet is where the firmness I mentioned at the start begins to come into the picture. It affirms that “China’s development has its own logic and laws,” at once a claim to the country’s distinct and legitimate set of political values, and the stiff-jawed assertion that it will accept no interference on systemic questions. The section states that China is progressing toward “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a key platform of Xi since he came to power in 2012, and also that it is doing so by promoting “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化), an important concept emerging around last year’s 20th National Congress of the CCP which state media have elsewhere called in English “the Chinese path to modernization.”

Concise though it is, at just 96 characters (or about 80 English words), this bullet point invites a great deal of unpacking. One of its key assertions, that “China will not follow the old path of colonial plunder, nor the crooked path that says hegemony must result from national strength,” sounds like an attempt at reassuring the United States. We are not interested in global domination, it says essentially, and we will not seek it. The passage follows immediately by saying that China “will not engage in ideological export” (也不搞意识形态输出).

Keener observers of China’s global ideological push will certainly caution skepticism on this point. Much of China’s external communication — what the CCP still calls “external propaganda” (外宣) — over the past decade not only looks like ideological export but is most often framed in exactly that way by the Party itself, in terms that emphasize the failure of American and “Western” values. Over this, the first year of Xi’s third term, there has been a notable rise in propaganda, both inside and outside China, about the superiority of the political and development model culminating during Xi Jinping’s reign in the late-breaking notion of “Chinese-style modernization” and the related creation of a “new form of human civilization” (人类文明新形势).

Much of China’s external communication over the past decade not only looks like ideological export but is most often framed in exactly that way by the Party itself.

We should make note in particular of the fact that the short passage for the second bullet stresses only “Chinese-style modernization,” seeming to dwell on those aspects having to do with economics, trade, and development, but does not mention “a new form of human civilization,” which has soared along with “Chinese-style modernization” in China’s domestic and international propaganda over the past year.

This grandiose phrase, which has become inextricably linked with Xi Jinping’s manufacture of power and legitimacy over the past year, is not at all posited merely as a homespun domestic model. Rather, it makes the bold and unmistakable claim that Xi’s China has achieved a civilizational renaissance through a set of new ideas on governance and development. Moreover, it claims that this new form, which combines ancient Chinese civilizational elements with an adaptive new Marxist modernity, has surpassed both modern Western civilization and traditional socialist civilization (whatever that means), presenting the world with a new aspirational model.

Xi’s “new form of human civilization” is being actively promoted as a new global model over and against the failing model of the West, and as an answer to “the ills of Western modernization,” and it is being sold in particular to the Global South. Despite China’s insistence this week that it “has no plans to overtake or replace the United States,” the leadership regularly asserts in its more recent external propaganda that Chinese-style modernization and the related “new form of human civilization” are the “right choice” for developing countries and an alternative to the values espoused by the US-led West.

One interesting question to consider for observers of CCP rhetoric, and of course the development of the US-China relationship going forward, will be how we see the grandiose discourse of civilizational renaissance trending in the coming months. To a considerable extent, as I suggested above, this discourse is entirely reactive, an attempt to construct alternatives that ideologically legitimize Xi and his leadership, and the CCP, against fierce criticism from the US as well as from Europe.

Five Pillars

The third bullet in the newspaper eye lays out what will certainly continue to be promoted in the CCP discourse in the coming months, what Xi has called the “Five Pillars” (五根支柱) of the US-China relationship. These are:

  1. Working jointly to establish correct perceptions of the bilateral relationship (共同树立正确认知)
  2. Jointly and effectively managing differences (共同有效管控分歧)
  3. Jointly promoting mutually beneficial cooperation (共同推进互利合作)
  4. Jointly shouldering the responsibilities [of both sides] as major powers (共同承担大国责任)
  5. Jointly promoting people-to-people exchanges (共同促进人文交流)

These are listed but not elaborated. They have to do essentially with managing the tone of the relationship, adhering to principles such as “mutual respect” (相互尊重), which to the CCP can often mean avoiding criticism on such issues as human rights. The last point, people-to-people exchanges, has been trumpeted loudly by the Chinese state media in recent months, emphasizing (in the midst of rocky relations at the government-to-government level) that a healthy US-China relationship relies on connections at a far more basic level, in areas such as business and trade, the arts, sports competitions and so on.

The importance of people-to-people exchanges is further stressed on page three of the newspaper today, through a full-page special report that highlights tourism, musical performances, and of course the Flying Tigers, the group of American volunteer pilots formed to help oppose the Japanese invasion of China.

China’s leaders have placed a strong emphasis on people-to-people exchanges in recent months, mindful of how they have played an important role in the history of the US-China relationship — most famously in the ping-pong diplomacy that laid the groundwork for the re-establishment of formal relations in 1971. They are also keenly aware of how people-to-people exchanges can help build support from the ground up for closer relations (for example, from the business community). The catch is that the CCP has often micro-managed people-to-people ties, pursuing them in many cases through front organizations and surreptitious support that raise serious questions from the American side about the real motivations that lie behind.

Firm Lines

We started by noting the friendly tone and visual symmetry of the People’s Daily front page today, but unfortunately must finish by returning to the shakier ground of the firm. Not surprisingly, that is the question of Taiwan. The fourth bullet in the newspaper eye deals with this issue, which Xi reportedly told his hosts in California is the biggest and most dangerous issue in the bilateral relationship.

The text of the fourth bullet is the firmest and most direct of the list. It reads:

The question of Taiwan has always been the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations. China attaches importance to the positive statement made by the United States during the Bali meeting. The United States should translate its statement of non-support for Taiwan’s independence into concrete actions, stop arming Taiwan and support China’s peaceful reunification. China will be reunified eventually and inevitably.

In the days leading up to the meeting between Biden and Xi, Chinese state media repeatedly emphasized the phrase “returning to Bali, heading to San Francisco” (重返巴厘岛,通往旧金山). An important insinuation behind that phrase is the imperative, from China’s standpoint, of hearing more clarity from the United States on Taiwan and the “one China” principle. One year ago in Bali, Biden and Xi engaged in tough discussions over Taiwan, which Xi Jinping called “the first red line” which must not be crossed.

The readout from the White House on the meeting between the two leaders suggests Biden did not give Xi the reassurances he sought. Biden emphasized that “our one China policy has not changed and has been consistent across decades and administrations.” But he reiterated the need for the peaceful resolution of “cross-strait differences” and said that “the United States opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side.”

On this “red line” issue, it seems, the lines are firm. Behind the smiles and the handshakes — marking progress in the relationship that has been long, long awaited — everyone will be wondering anxiously what China means by “eventually and inevitably.”

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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