Author: David Bandurski

Now director of the CMP, leading the project’s research and partnerships, David joined the team in 2004 after completing his master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He is currently an honorary lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre. He is the author of Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin/Melville House), a book of reportage about urbanization and social activism in China, and co-editor of Investigative Journalism in China (HKU Press).

No “Lying Down” on Covid

While much of the world is now living beyond Covid, dropping quarantine, testing, and even masking policies, China has become the exception, increasingly out of step with the world. Though some no doubt support the government’s rigid “people’s war” approach to Covid, resentment has been on the rise as Chinese struggle to live not so much with the virus as with the government’s inflexible and often arbitrary “zero Covid” measures.

As the policies go in China, so goes the propaganda. And on page two of the People’s Daily newspaper yesterday, readers can find the latest robust official defense of the Party’s handling of Covid-19, which speaks of continuing danger with familiar slogans like “persistence is victory” (坚持就是胜利) — a battle cry harking back to the Cultural Revolution.

But one phrase stands out from the official speak. Three times in yesterday’s article, the neologism “lying down,” or tangping (躺平), is used to describe a weak and contemptible attitude of complacency toward Covid. “In doing a proper job of normalizing epidemic prevention and control, ‘lying flat’ is no way out,” the newspaper says.

Immediately after:

Some people see certain countries outside choosing ‘lying flat’ in the face of the epidemic. They believe that the costs are too great for our country in adhering to dynamic zero, and that we should follow suit, achieving coexistence with the virus. This is an extremely wrong and irresponsible view.

The deployment of tangping as an object of mockery in the official discourse of the Chinese Communist Party is an interesting turnabout for a phrase that emerged to wide popularity in 2021 as a shrug of apathy, urging Chinese to relinquish ambition and reject overwork in hedonistic protest — a kind of anti-battle cry.

But since May this year, when tensions crested over the inept and often dehumanizing tactics used to respond to Covid cases in Shanghai and other cities, “lying flat” has become a mainstream CCP buzzword for unacceptable lassitude, contrasted with the responsible and resolute attitude of the leadership.

In a May 16 article, the People’s Daily mocked the approach of countries like the UK to the spread of the Omicron variant. “The choice of ‘lying down’ has not only led to the crowding out of health care resources in these countries and continued strain on health care systems, but mass infections have also had a long-lasting social and economic impact,” the paper said. And in an article two days later: “We have not chosen to ‘lie flat’ in the hope of avoiding more deaths and serious illnesses, and of promoting economic and social development on the foundation of safeguarding people’s lives and physical health.”

“Facts had shown,” the newspaper said on May 19, that “the ‘lying flat’ epidemic prevention of certain Western countries cannot eliminate the epidemic.” Another report on May 23 said that while marginal economic growth in the Eurozone could be attributed to many factors, the “choice of the ‘lying flat’ and ‘coexistence’ policy [toward Covid] has clearly not had the positive effect anticipated.”

An illustration of the “lying flat” phenomenon appears on the Q&A platform Zhihu in early May 2021.

Not surprisingly, “lying flat,” which during its rapid rise in 2021 prompted concern from the leadership, is now pitted against the attitude of “struggle” Xi Jinping has encouraged in the Party’s ranks. Over the summer, an article lionized the “revolutionary spirit” of resolute action: “In the face of difficulties and setbacks, to not ‘lie flat’ and give in to demoralization . . . working hard and forcefully — such is the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party member.”

There has been some moderation of Covid-related language in the official Chinese media in recent weeks as the Party has prepared for the 20th National Congress, to open in less than two weeks, and we shall have to see if any compromises on the rigid “Covid zero” policy follow once the crucial political season has passed.

But for now, resoluteness and rigidity are the order of the day, at least as much about political messaging as considerations of public health. No one within the leadership and its mouthpiece media can be permitted to relax.

Tibet, By Any Other Name

The state-run Global Times said in an English-language report this week that nearly 70 other countries had called on others to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs on [the] Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Xizang regions.” This came amid efforts by the United States to encourage a debate on human rights in Xinjiang at an upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council, following a report released last month by UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

But contained in this standard language about interference — hiding just in view — is an intriguing clue to how diplomats and state media are moving to reframe debates over sovereignty and human rights in another region, Tibet, and with the most basic of tools: the place name.

Speakers of Mandarin educated in the pinyin system, created by Zhou Youguang in the 1950s, shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, will instantly recognize “Xizang” as the pinyin rendering of Tibet (西藏) — which in the local Tibetan language is called “Bod” (བོད་).

How long has “Xizang” featured in English-language coverage by the Party-state media? Only for a matter of months, it turns out.  

For the Global Times, the grumbling nationalist tabloid under the umbrella of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily, 2022 has been a grand coming out for “Xizang.” Before this year, “Xizang” appeared only within proper names in Global Times coverage. The sole appearance in 2021, for example, was a May report using the official name of the “Xizang Minzu University.” All three uses in 2020 referred either to the official name of the regional PLA military command, or to Shanghai’s “Xizang Middle Road.”

Since January this year, however, the Global Times has used “Xizang” in more than 200 English-language articles. For the first time, there are headline uses of the pinyin name for the region — and many of them. “New Record for Horizontal Drilling Tech Set in Xizang Hydropower Project,” read one headline back in July. “Xizang Authorities Offer Support for Local People After COVID-19 Flare-up,” read another last month.

The first four Google results returned for “Xizang” from the Global Times website are headline uses.

Global Times reports are now salted with casual references to “Xizang.” A report back in January, about China’s construction of a bridge across Tibet’s Pangong Lake that has prickled border tensions with India, noted that “Xizang still lags behind other provinces of China,” and that infrastructure construction is essential to development.

In May, when China fulminated against the creation by the US State Department of a “Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues,” the newspaper paraphrased the remarks of foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, noting that “any Xizang-related affair is purely China’s internal affair and allows no interference by any foreign country.”

Favored by Diplomats

In the state-run media to date, the “Xizang” change appears to apply only to the Global Times. Core state media like People’s Daily Online, and China Daily, published by the State Council Information Office, have not yet followed suit.

A recent report on regional education by the China Daily notes that “Tibet has more than 920,000 students studying at various schools in the region.” The headline: “Tibet Will Send Students Out of Region Soon.” In 2021 and so far in 2022, the People’s Daily Online has still generally used “Tibet” in its English-language coverage. “Prior to its peaceful liberation, Tibet was ruled by feudal serfdom for hundreds of years,” read an article in May 2021. And a headline in March this year made the issue of sovereignty crystal clear from the outset: “People Celebrate Tibetan New Year in China’s Tibet.”

But at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), where “Xizang” was used just once in English-language material before 2022 — in a 2018 release by the Chinese Consulate General in Vancouver — a shift seems to be underway. It may have started on September 16, 2021, when a statement about a meeting between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, noted that “Russia firmly supports China’s positions on issues related to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Xizang and human rights.”

In 2022, the use of “Xizang” seems to have been standardized by MOFA within this list of sovereignty-sensitive territories. The latest mention came just last month, as Wang Yi met with Mongolian Foreign Minister Batmunkh Battsetseg, and an official release noted that “Mongolia reaffirms its firm commitment to the one-China principle and opposes interference in China’s internal affairs related to Taiwan, Xizang, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, among others.”

Placing Sovereignty

The retirement of “Tibet” in favor of “Xizang” by the Global Times and MOFA is likely an attempt to shift the discussion of issues relating to the region away from a place name that has come in Western languages to symbolize China’s human rights abuses, and to have toxic associations with wrangling over sovereignty. The name “Tibet” in the West has long been synonymous with the struggle for its freedom, culture, and identity, and of course with the region’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Erasing “Tibet” is a rhetorical obliteration of related debates, claims and criticisms.

In 2022, the use of “Xizang” seems to have been standardized by MOFA within this list of sovereignty-sensitive territories.

Perhaps the change at the Global Times and at MOFA is also a trial balloon that will prompt similar changes at other state media down the line.

There are also parallels in China’s past re-labeling in the official discourse of other places and features on the map. For seven decades running, China has promoted the use of “Mount Qomolangma” over “Mount Everest,” spurning the latter’s association with imperialism and colonialism. The peak was named in the 19th century after the former Surveyor General of India, George Everest.

By the time the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, the name “Everest” had already taken hold in the general population. And in January 1951, right in the midst of China’s annexation of Tibet, editors at the People’s Daily made a political slip when they captioned a photo of the peak — part of a series called “Our Great Mother Country” (我们伟大的祖国):

The Himalayas tower over the southwestern frontier of our country, stretching for about two 2,500 kilometers. Our People’s Liberation Army is now marching in this direction. This is its main peak, Mount Everest, which is 8,880 meters high and the world’s highest peak.

It was an oops moment for the flagship newspaper of a newly victorious CCP claiming sovereignty over the lands of the Tibetan plateau. Several weeks later — this being long before the instant controversies of Weibo — the People’s Daily ran a correction, noting that Everest was “an incorrect name” (错误的名称) and the mountain should instead be called “Zhumulangma Peak” (珠穆朗玛峰).

An image of Mount Qomolangma (Everest) appears in the upper left-hand corner of the People’s Daily in January 1951.

The article noted that while Everest had “secretly surveyed the Himalayas and discovered this peak” in the 19th century, arrogantly giving it his own name, the peak had in fact already been “discovered” as early as 1717 by a Qing emperor who had “sent many people” to survey the area. That emperor would have been Kangxi (康熙), though no mention was made in the article. In any case, a “map was later made,” it said, and the name “Zhumulangma” was placed where the proud Everest would eventually arrive 135 years later.

In an aside following this tale of competing imperial ambitions, and without the slightest sense of irony, the People’s Daily correction noted, “This name was given to the peak by the local Tibetan people.” The correction finished with a Chinese saying that today seems jarring in its frankness about what was then happening on the ground in Tibet, and the cultural, historical, and religious controversies that would reverberate through to the next century: “The name comes from the master” (名从主人).

“And so, we must correct the name of the world’s highest peak,” the article said.

For at least two decades, the Chinese government has been urging a similar transformation of the peak’s name in English. In 2002, the China Daily quoted a Tibetan scholar as saying: “It is time for the Western world to respect us Tibetans by recognizing the highest peak on Earth by its Tibetan name, Qomolangma.” The article began by reminding readers that “[the] days of empires and overt colonialism have long passed,” and that it is time to move on.

There is of course a glaring difference between the case of Mount Qomolangma, the renaming of which the Tibetan scholar urged as a matter of respect for Tibetans, and the case of Tibet/Xizang. Unlike Qomolangma, “Xizang” has no relation to the local language or culture. And for reasons that are only too obvious, no one at the Global Times or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is urging the world to mind its own business when it comes to the land of “Bod.”  

_______

For more on the history of language used to describe the Tibetan plateau, we recommend historian Elliot Sperling’s Tubote, Tibet, and the Power of Naming.

“We Must Wake Up!”

As anger flared across Chinese social media yesterday following the deadly crash in Guizhou of a passenger bus transferring positive Covid cases, Gao Yu (高昱), the deputy executive editor and head of investigations at Caixin Media, posted a reflection on the tragedy to his WeChat friend group that was subsequently shared outside the chat.

In his post, Gao urged an end to China’s zero Covid policy, which he argued was unscientific, pursued out of unnecessary fear, and out of step with the rest of the world. “We must wake up! We must return to normalcy!” he wrote.

An image of the WeChat friend group post by Caixin Media deputy editor Gao Yu, posted yesterday.

As the post was shared more widely on the internet, censors moved quickly to stamp it out. An archived version is still available from China Digital Times.

Our translation of the post follows.

________

For someone to be afraid of Covid is completely normal, and something understandable. When I stand and look down from the third floor, I feel fearful too. But what is not normal, and what is not understandable is to hold 1.3 billion Chinese people in bondage because an extremely small number of people could contract Covid and die.

Right now the entire world is declaring that the Covid pandemic has ended. But in this huge country still, an entire building of people can be dragged away to quarantine because a single person is positive, and an entire city can be forcibly locked down. Entire countries are living normally. But still there are people [here] holding their copies of the People’s Daily and saying that China’s epidemic prevention and control policies are the most scientific, the most humane, and the greatest.

China’s population is huge, [they say], so even if the number of deaths is at just one in ten thousand, then out of 1.3 billion Chinese there will be 130,000 who die. Can’t you be responsible for those 130,000 people? Sure, but the number of people who die each year in car accidents is far greater than the number who die of Covid. And why don’t you prohibit the driving of cars?

So far in Guizhou, not a single person has died of Omicron. But the fear of the possible spread of Omicron has put six million people under lockdown and has resulted in the forced removal of 30,000 people to quarantine facilities, of which some 10,000 have been distributed to other cities.

And now, 27 people who were possibly infected have been killed in an accident that happened during transport [to a quarantine facility outside the city]! Just look at this doomed driver who doesn’t know what’s even happening, and he wearing a hazmat suit and two layers of masks, and senselessly he’s wearing goggles too, and probably two layers of protective gloves. And for the entire journey, he was prohibited from using the air conditioning. And it was 2:30 AM. This is the foggy trance in which this bus was driven toward death.

We must wake up! We must return to normalcy!

Resolutely oppose PCR testing of the whole population!

Resolutely oppose zero Covid!

Resolutely oppose the lockdown of the country!

Mixing Science and Politics

In the midst of more pressing stories, including a wave of Covid lockdowns and an earthquake in Sichuan, a government notice issued over the weekend on “the popularization of science,” or kepu (科普),  may not command attention. But it is the latest sign of how politics and ideology have in recent years crept back into the heart of all endeavors in China.

Released by the general offices of the CCP Central Committee and the State Council, the notice encourages the spread of knowledge about science and technology, both in the government and in the wider population, in the interest of establishing a firm foundation for innovation and development. It speaks of “advocating the spirit of science,” and “promoting scientific approaches to activities,” and it signals concern over the fact that “the supply of high-quality science products and services remains insufficient.”

But science quickly moves aside for politics.

Point one in “General Requirements” opens with a clear declaration that the guiding ideology for science popularization is the top leader’s banner phrase, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想). The second point then addresses concrete “work demands”:

[Work must] adhere to the leadership of the Party, implementing the leadership of the Party through the whole process of science popularization, highlighting the political properties of science popularization, strengthening the leadership of values, practicing socialist core values, and vigorously promoting the spirit of science and the spirit of the scientist.

This talk of the “political properties” (政治属性) of science popularization is a salient reminder that through much of its history, particularly in the pre-reform period, the CCP has regarded science on the one hand as both a crucial contributor to national development, supporting economic growth and self-reliance, and on the other as intimately inter braided with political claims to truth as a source of political power.

Even as Xi Jinping has re-emphasized the need for self-reliance in science and technology, and has made innovation a key buzzword, his rule has reconsolidated Party control over the sciences. In science education, as in other fields, “ideological and political education,” or sixiang zhengzhi jiaoyu (思想政治教育) — sizheng (思政) for short — has been redoubled.

Biology textbooks in China now explicitly link the study of the subject to patriotic goals and love of the CCP. One textbook encourages an attitude of thankfulness and indebtedness, concluding: “Inspiring and leading students to use scientific knowledge to repay the kindness of the mother country is the best means of passing on red genes.”

Image from a Chinese biology textbook for universities, with a passage urging teachers to equate a lesson on DNA to the inheritance of “red genes.”

The phrase “red genes,” or hongse jiyin (红色基因), refers to the revolutionary spirit and history of the CCP as a form of political and cultural inheritance, the celebration of which is a means of consolidating the Party’s position within the national identity and thereby constructing the legitimacy of the regime.

Point 25 of the notice released on September 4 is crystal clear about the implications of science popularization for public opinion, the control of which the CCP regards as essential to maintaining political stability. The language emphasizes the need to “strengthen public opinion channeling in the field of science popularization,” “adhering to the correct political positions, and strengthening the construction and supervision of public opinion positions in science popularization.”

China’s Quiet Fury Over Xinjiang

The release from the UN Human Rights Office on Wednesday of a report pointing to “serious human rights violations” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region came with the Chinese government’s anger baked right in. A state response shared by the UN in its release said the report “wantonly smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs.”

China vented its fury again yesterday during a regular foreign ministry press conference. Asked what steps the government would take to address the concerns raised by the UN, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin waved the report off as a “so-called assessment,” alleging that it had been “orchestrated and produced by the US and some Western forces.” Its real objective, he said repeatedly, was to “contain China.”

Reacting to the response, international media outlets made fury a part of the story. China had “lashed out,” reported the Washington Post. France24 spoke of China’s “furious riposte.” And an Associated Press story shared on scores of sites had everyone asking: “Why is China so angry?”

But perhaps the most revealing fact to note today, 48 hours after the release of the Xinjiang report, is that there has been almost no reporting at all inside China. If the external messaging of the China’s leadership has been all about pique, its internal messaging has been about creating a vacuum.

A search for “Xinjiang human rights report” in China’s Baidu search engine returns the message: “We’re sorry, we cannot find news content related to “Xinjiang human rights report.”

Today’s edition of the official People’s Daily, which might have reported the foreign ministry response, or even offered a rebuttal from the leading pen name in Party fury on international issues, “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), was silent on the question of Xinjiang. A search for “Xinjiang human rights report” in the WiseSearch database, which covers hundreds of Chinese-language newspapers as well as related websites and wire services, returns 127 articles today including the phrase, 13 from publications and 114 from websites. None of these sources are inside China.

Perhaps the most revealing fact to note today, 48 hours after the release of the Xinjiang report, is that there has been almost no reporting at all inside China.

There is nothing from the official Xinhua News Agency in Chinese. There is nothing from Xinhua in English, for that matter. There is nothing in China Daily in Chinese.

The only front-page mention of Xinjiang today at China Daily  in English is an article, tucked away in the corner of the homepage, by Adnan Akfirat, a Representative to China and Member of International Relations Bureau of Patriotic Party of Turkey. Called “No More Tarnishing Xinjiang,” the article is a personal tale of Akfirat’s experiences in Xinjiang. “[In] China, thanks to socialism with Chinese characteristics, the Uygurs, including Uygur women, can study the subjects of their choice, as well as master and develop their language, enrich their culture and modernize themselves by learning from the progressive aspects of Islam,” he writes.

An article by Adnan Akfirat urges readers to stop “tarnishing Xinjiang,” where everyone is happy.

Results in Chinese via Google for the past 24 hours, using the keyword “Xinjiang human rights report,” are entirely overseas Chinese media.

It is possible that China’s state media will find the words — furious ones? — in the days to come. But the silence tells its own story, of Xinjiang as a matter so sensitive to China’s leadership that the only voices permitted to speak are the megaphones intended for external audiences.

Which is why, of course, we have heard from the English-language edition of the Global Times. After an initial response on Wednesday, another story in English yesterday from the paper’s website again relayed the Chinese government view, that the Xinjiang report is a “patchwork of disinformation” and a “political tool” for the United States.

Is there nothing else to say?

All Aboard the Adulation Express

Earlier this week, CMP noted the unusual downward trajectory of a key buzzword signaling the power of Xi Jinping, the “Two Establishes” (两个确立), which seemed to indicate at least a momentary stall in the engine of Xi’s rise in the discourse of the CCP. In today’s People’s Daily, just days after the announcement of October 16 as the probable date of the 20th National Congress, we can clearly see that engine springing back to life.

The “Two Establishes” phrase, which has been a crucial power indicator since the 6th Plenum in November last year — underscoring the unassailable roles of Xi as the Party’s “core” and his “thought” as the guiding ideology — appears in five articles in the Party’s flagship newspaper today.

Two of these articles appear on the front page. The first is a love song for the People’s Liberation Army on the occasion of its 95th anniversary, emphasizing national security, and closing with a call to “unite more closely around the Central Committee of the CCP with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, deeply understanding the decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes.'”

The second is about the publication of the fourth edition of Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China (习近平谈治国理政). The article’s headline explains that Wang Huning (王沪宁), secretary of the CCP’s Secretariat, emphasized the need to “deeply study” Xi’s book, but also to “bring the study, propagation and implementation of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era to a deeper level.”

The “Two Establishes” slipped notably in the second half of August. Are we witnessing a blip today, or the start of a September rally?

The Wang Huning article is a clear act of loyalty signaling, mentioning the “Two Establishes” and elevating Xi Jinping’s so-called “banner term,” or qizhiyu (旗帜语), the phrase that encompasses his legacy and claim to power. In all likelihood, the banner term will be shortened during the 20th National Congress from the current unwieldy 16-character version (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) to the more potent five-character “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想).

Another important article printed on page two reports on the opening ceremony for the fall study term at the Central Party School, the CCP’s top institution for the training of Party cadres. The opening address was delivered by Chen Xi (陈希), the current head of the CCP’s Organization Department, who reportedly emphasized that the “Two Establishes” is “one of the greatest political achievements of the Party in the New Era.” The article also includes the phrase in a large headline: “Firmly Supporting the ‘Two Establishes’ and Resolutely Achieving the ‘Two Safeguards'” (坚定拥护’两个确立’坚决做到’两个维护’).

A report on a speech by Chen Xi at the Central Party School mentions the “Two Establishes” in the headline.

The loyalty signaling continues on page nine, a full page of bright orange that pays tribute to the “great transformations” that have happened in China in the “New Era” over the past 10 years.

An article along the right-hand side of the page reads: “Resolutely Maintaining the Authority and Centralized Unified Leadership of the Central Committee.” It oozes about the past 10 years. “The decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes’ is deeply rooted in people’s hearts,” it says.

Page 9 of today’s People’s Daily, with praise for the “great transformation” of the past 10 years, and two articles mentioning the “Two Establishes.”

Below is an article from Chen Li (陈理 ), the former director of the Academic and Editorial Committee of the Central Institute of Party History and Literature. The article is again classic loyalty signaling. It teems with “greatnesses” — great victories and glory (伟大的胜利和荣光), “great transformations” (伟大变革), “great projects” (伟大工程), and of course the “great rejuvenation” (伟大复兴).

But the key point is that Chen signals loyalty to Xi Jinping, emphasizing the need to “deeply comprehend the decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes’ and resolutely achieve the ‘Two Safeguards.'”  The “Two Safeguards,” or liangge weihu (两个维护), are about the need to 1) safeguard the “core” status of Xi Jinping within the CCP, and 2) to safeguard the centralized authority of the Party. Together, the “Two Establishes” and the “Two Safeguards” lay claim to the basic principles governing China today, centered on Xi himself — and they define the protection of these principles as the chief task of the country.

It looks like Xi Jinping’s train to the foggy heights of CCP discourse is chugging ahead once again.

China’s Front on Human Rights

A long-awaited report released yesterday by the United Nations on the human rights situation in Xinjiang concludes that China’s actions in the region “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The report, published along with a strongly-worded “state response” from China, was seen by international human rights groups as a vindication, and as “groundbreaking.” “We can breathe a sigh of relief,” one rights researcher wrote.

How have media inside China responded? With blistering silence.

A search for “Xinjiang human rights report” (新疆人权报告) in the WiseSearch database, which covers hundreds of Chinese-language newspapers as well as related websites and wire services, turns up 101 articles today. But just one is from mainland China. This is a post to Toutiao by an economics professor from Chongqing University of Technology, who dismisses the report as a “smokescreen” with “no credible evidence.”

“Yao Wen Observes the World,” an account from an economics professor in Chongqing with more than 200,000 followers, is one of the only mentions inside China today of the “Xinjiang human rights report.”

“As we all know,” the professor writes, “Xinjiang has developed rapidly and made great achievements in recent years under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the government.”

Surely China’s major news services must have responded? Or People’s Daily Online, perhaps, the website under the CCP’s flagship newspaper? If all else fails we can surely expect a few words — and harsh ones at that — from the ever-faithful Global Times?

Searches for “Xinjiang human rights report” on the Xinhua News Agency websites, People’s Daily Online, China News Service and Global Times Online return no results — though China News Service has “human rights” related results attacking the United States.

Cricket sounds.

The only results returned at all are a pair of articles from the official China News Service, the first about how US hegemony is harming “digital human rights” globally, the second mentioning “the West’s manufacture of rumors about so-called human rights [problems] in Xinjiang.”

It is safe to assume that the Chinese Communist Party is loading its propaganda blunderbuss, and the next 24-48 hours should bring a torrent of commentaries — including one, perhaps, from “Zhong Sheng” (钟声) in the People’s Daily.

But while we wait, it might be a helpful exercise to look at how China has been talking about human rights in recent weeks and months, and what this reveals about how China engages on human rights issues through international institutions like the UN.

The Civil Society Front

As the focus at China News Service suggests, one of China’s primary tactics on human rights is to attack the record of the United States and its allies in the West.

In December last year, state media widely reported on the release by the China Society for Human Rights Studies (中国人权研究会) of a report called “Politicization of Human Rights by the United States Undermines the Foundations of Good Human Rights Governance.” In April this year, another report, “Anti-Asian Racial Discrimination Rises to the Surface to Confirm the Nature of Racist Society in America,” laid out instances of anti-Asian discrimination. The report was once again prepared and publicized by the China Society for Human Rights Studies.

As the focus at China News Service suggests, one of China’s primary tactics on human rights is to attack the record of the United States and its allies in the West.

Most recently, the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily reported along with other state media in early July that the China Society of Human Rights had released a new report called “US Commits Grave Human Rights Violations in the Middle East and Elsewhere.”

Who exactly is this group, the China Society for Human Rights Studies (CSHRS)?

The CSHRS refers to itself as “the largest national non-governmental organization in the field of human rights in China,” and “a national academic organization in the field of human rights in China.” It notes in an introduction on its website that it “enjoys a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and is a member of the United Nations Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations (CONGO).”

A notice from the OHCHR in 2005 on a visit to China by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights notes that the commissioner met with “non-governmental organizations” that included the China Society for Human Rights Studies.

The group is “active in human rights studies,” and it “endeavors to popularize human rights knowledge in an effort to raise the awareness of the importance of human rights throughout society.” The introduction also explains that CSHRS funding comes mainly from the China Foundation for Human Rights Development (中国人权发展基金会), or CFHRD.

CFHRD calls itself a “public foundation.” But it also states unambiguously in its formal charter from 1994 that “the business unit in charge is the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (Information Office of the State Council).”

These organizations have sought to present themselves as being broadly representative of an alternative vision of human rights, one supported by Chinese society and to be taken seriously in the field of human rights studies. They have inserted themselves into international human rights governance, trading on their supposed status as “non-governmental organizations.” But their direct connection to the Central Propaganda Department, the heart of the CCP’s perception machine, underscores the fact that they are little more than a civil society front for the CCP’s global human rights agenda, meant to distract from criticisms of China’s human rights abuses.

We should expect to hear from them at any moment.

Changes at the Core

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.

A Top Power Buzzword Goes Quiet

Exactly two weeks ago at CMP, we wrote that one crucial term signaling the power and prestige of Xi Jinping, the so-called “Two Establishes,” or liangge queli (两个确立), was trending strongly in the People’s Daily and in Chinese state media generally. The strong trend line for the “Two Establishes,” a phrase that reiterates Xi’s position as the “core” of the CCP, and underscores his ideas as the bedrock of China’s future under the CCP, was to be expected in the discourse build-up toward the 20th National Congress of the CCP, to be held later this fall.

But while extreme caution is warranted when it comes to reading CCP discourse, the trend lines are no longer so clear.

Taking the long view over 2022, the “Two Establishes” seems to be in the midst of an August rise. When we plot the number of articles in the People’s Daily using the term on a half-month basis since January, the following graph results, with 39 articles closing out the first half of August — the same amount recorded for all of June. The huge peak for March corresponds to the National People’s Congress (NPC), which was a major political event, and an opportunity for delegates and other senior officials to butter Xi’s toast with the “Two Establishes.”

SOURCE: The People’s Daily.

But the odd fact is that over the past week, since Xi Jinping re-emerged from the summer conclave at the beach resort of Beidaihe, there have been just two articles in the People’s Daily including the “Two Establishes.”

The first, appearing on page 11 on August 19, was a contribution by Yin Li (尹力), the top CCP leader in Fujian, who praised developments in his own province and took the opportunity to express his loyalty to Xi by saying there was a need for “a deep understanding of the decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes.’”

Fujian CCP secretary Yin Li mentions the “Two Establishes” in the People’s Daily on August 19, 2022.

The second appears in the People’s Daily today, in a page-nine article by an official from Guangxi. The article closes by mentioning the same exact phrase used by Yin Li.

By the second half of July, it was typical to see 2 articles per day mentioning the “Two Establishes,” and in the first half of this month, that number was up to 2-3 articles per day.

It is still possible that Xi’s numbers for this phrase could pick up pace over the next week. But if they do not, we would need to reckon with a sharp drop on the graph that could bring numbers back to February levels. Given the ever-nearing 20th National Congress, that would be an odd trend line in the official discourse.

Stay tuned!

China’s Global Soundbite Factory

As we reported yesterday, the People’s Daily provides a fascinating glimpse into how the Taiwan visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, though international headline news and a serious point of unhappiness for China, takes third, fourth, or even fifth place against the country’s domestic politics. The top priority in the pages of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper is to pave the path for Xi Jinping’s continued elevation at the 20th National Congress in a few months’ time.

Repeating the pattern today, the People’s Daily front page is a one-two-three hit of power signaling for Xi Jinping: a commentary on how the general secretary has led a “great self-revolution” of the Party in a new era of socialism; a Party puff piece about how everything is fine economically thanks to Xi’s “strategizing and raising the flag to point the way”; and a lineup of voices gilding “Xi Jinping Thought” for its coming apotheosis (“A people at the forefront of the times cannot be without theoretical thinking for the times.”)

And Nancy? Once again, she is pushed to page three, where she gets a generous dressing down. The entire page is a register of China’s official pique over the Pelosi visit, most of it drumming over the same points made yesterday.

But the top piece, a compilation of remarks from a grab bag of international voices on the Taiwan question, merits closer scrutiny. It is a textbook example of a key tactic in China’s international communication – the grooming of token voices to relay the CCP’s position on any issue as required, often with quotes that shamelessly mirror official-speak, or are apparently invented out of whole cloth.

Page three of today’s People’s Daily newspaper, with international voices on Pelosi’s Taiwan visit topping the page, at upper-left.

It has long been a priority for the Chinese Communist Party to maintain a network of quotable international sources. These sources often include minor political party leaders, particularly from socialist or other left-leaning parties, as well as scholars and political commentators who appear virtually nowhere outside of Chinese official state media reporting.

Today’s article on page three is called “International Society Fiercely Condemns Pelosi for Hurried Visit to China’s Taiwan Region” (国际社会强烈谴责佩洛西窜访中国台湾地区). So let’s have a look at what this “international society” looks like through the lens of the CCP’s flagship newspaper.

Borrowing Voices

After a brief histrionic summary of the Pelosi visit as a “serious trampling on international law,” the roundup of international voices begins with a hanging, unattributed quote that reads: “Pelosi’s conduct not only damages China-US relations but also amounts to a serious threat to regional and global peace.”

Further down in the article, this quote is attributed to Eduardo Regalado of the International Policy Research Center of Cuba (CIPI), discussed below. Placed at the top, however, the impression is that this comes from United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric, who is mentioned first in the story. During a daily press briefing on August 2, Dujarric more or less dodged a reporter’s question on the Pelosi visit, simply pointing them to the 1971 UN resolution 2758: “I mean, the only thing I will say is that the policy of the United Nations on the issue of . . . on this issue is that we are guided by General Assembly resolution 2758 from 1971 on one China.”

The next remark in the piece comes from Ignacio Martinez, an international relations expert from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Martinez calls Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan a serious violation of the one-China principle, and says, curiously echoing China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, that “the United States should never play with fire on the Taiwan issue.”

Right at the start, Martinez illustrates the curious nature of China’s international experts. Search “Ignacio Martinez” and “National Autonomous University of Mexico” and you might expect academic results – published papers, research projects, perhaps even a faculty profile. Instead, all 12 of the links on the first page of results dealing with the same “Ignacio Martinez” are reports from Chinese state media and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ignacio Martinez, identified as an international relations expert from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is a regular in Chinese official media coverage on a range of issues, his views unerringly positive about China.

In 2016, Martinez “spoke highly of the Sixth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee.” In January 2017, he was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying that Xi Jinping’s New Year’s greeting “reflected China’s confidence and style as a major power.” The report was shared through China Human Rights, the official website of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, a front organization that traces back to the Central Propaganda Department through the website’s publisher, the China Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC).

Last year, Martinez told Xinhua, in a piece published on the Chinese government’s website, that “China will play a crucial role” in sustainable infrastructure, environment, and technology. In March this year, Martinez told the China Daily, published by the government’s Information Office, that “China does not just talk about multilateralism, but has taken real actions.” Three months later, he was interviewed by CGTN and railed against the “so-called democratic criteria” of the United States.

Next in the People’s Daily lineup to represent “international society” is José Luis Centella, the president of the Communist Party of Spain, who says (though quotation marks are never used) that Pelosi’s “provocative behavior” (挑衅行为) in visiting Taiwan exposes “the consistent hegemonic thinking of the United States in international relations.”

Centella, too, is no freshman when it comes to amplifying positive views of China’s leadership. Commanding virtually no attention in the international media, he is a regular in China’s state media. Like many leaders of minor political parties, Centella has obliged China by participating in its regular “political parties summit,” an opportunity for the CCP to develop contacts – and external propaganda sources – through a sub-national level exchange. He was among the “many political leaders” in July 2021 who “lauded the governing experience” of the CCP, according to an article published online by the State Council Information Office.

In a video produced by GLOBALink, Xinhua News Agency’s global news service, Centenella was among several party leaders praising China to celebrate the centennial of the CCP. And most recently — before his Pelosi potshot in the People’s Daily — he appeared in a Xinhua special this week in which “political parties of various countries” opposed the House Speaker’s visit.

Centenella appears in a GLOBALink video celebrating the 100th anniversary of the CCP.

The pattern persists when we come to Eduardo Regalado of the International Policy Research Center of Cuba (CIPI), whose unattributed quote tops today’s People’s Daily article.

In October 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the PRC taking its seat at the United Nations, Regalado told Xinhua that “China is sending a strong message to the international community about the importance of multilateralism and international cooperation.” In January this year, ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Regalado heaped praise on the CCP as he spoke to the China Daily, saying that the “leadership and role of the Communist Party of China has been fundamental for the development of the Chinese society in the sports arena and the country as a whole.”

In May, Regalado was a guest at the Chinese Embassy in Cuba as it celebrated “International Chinese Language Day 2022.” Just days earlier, he was quoted by Xinhua stressing that China is “fundamental to the development of Caribbean countries in the coming years” – the article appearing also on the news agency’s Spanish-language channel.

Regalado has published scholarship outside the fishbowl of China’s external propaganda apparatus. His book China and its International Relations (China y sus relaciones internacionales), a collection of writings on China’s foreign policy, was published in April 2021. But his penchant for sounding off with positivity about any and every event that China hosts, and every news event that troubles its leaders, can be astonishing.

In November last year, as Xinhua cast about for an expert to praise the 4th China International Import Expo (CIIE) about to open in Shanghai, the Cuban scholar, presumably not attending, was happy to oblige with all the gusto of a marketing agency: “This fair will be a fundamental platform for exhibitors, business people, and government officials from the entire world to come together,” he said.

Pluck any personality out of today’s People’s Daily story and you will find similar paper trails across Chinese state media. There is Luciana Santos, chairwoman of the Brazilian Communist Party, who tells us that “Pelosi ignored repeated serious warnings from China.” You can find her on China National Radio (CNR) praising China’s “construction of modern socialism led by the CCP.” Or on Xinhua’s GLOBALink, insisting that “China would not see the tremendous growth and development achieved in society today without the Communist Party of China.”

There is Bambang Suryono, chairman of the Asia Innovation Study Center, an Indonesian think tank, whose state media credits are a mile long. And Ghassan Youssef, a Syrian political analyst and frequent state media soundbiter, who told Xinhua late last year that China’s economic achievements in Xinjiang are “undeniable,” and that the US is manipulating public opinion about the region for “political goals.”

None of this is to say there are no real voices in the world that oppose Pelosi’s Taiwan visit for reasons strategic, political, or personal. Real voices, however, are not the stuff external propaganda is made of. China’s leaders grumble that they cannot control the stage, that they lack sufficient “discourse power” to hold the realm of ideas. But shadow puppetry — that they can do.