Words play a crucial role in signalling power and standing within the Chinese Communist Party. And for individual CCP leaders, “banner terms” are an important way to signal and consolidate their legacies, writing them (if possible) even before history has a chance to. For Xi Jinping’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, those banner terms were the “Scientific View of Development” (科学发展观) and the “Three Represents” (三个代表).
Since the 19th National Congress of the CCP was held in October 2017, introducing as Xi’s “banner term” the lengthy “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), CMP has watched carefully for Xi Jinping’s next rhetorical coup in terms of solidifying his power and legacy – which would be to successfully shorten this lengthy 16-character phrase into the concise five-character “Xi Jinping Thought.” This abbreviated banner term would put Xi on even rhetorical footing with his most powerful predecessors, Mao Zedong (“Mao Zedong Thought”) and “Deng Xiaoping” (“Deng Xiaoping Theory”).
Despite the fact that “Xi Jinping Thought” has been reported as a fait accompli in the international press (as here and here), purely to avoid the unpalatable length of Xi’s power-phrase, it is important to recognize that the transformation is not yet complete. What we can see, however, is the constant testing the political waters internally. This testing has happened in part through a number of abbreviations of Xi’s banner term evolving within Chinese political discourse and applied to specific policy areas. These abbreviations, far from being incidental, must be regarded as chess moves in the longer rhetorical game, in which the ultimate victory will be the final transformation of Xi Jinping’s 16-character banner term into a 5-character banner term.
In March 2017, just a few months after Xi Jinping formally secured his status as China’s “core” leader at the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in the fall of 2016, Ji Bingxuan (吉炳轩), vice-chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, repeatedly used the phrase “Xi Jinping Thought on Economics” (习近平经济思想). This was at least half a year before the direction of Xi’s new banner term was clear, but in retrospect was perhaps a foreshadowing. (Interestingly, the phrase has not been used in this abbreviated form since the introduction of Xi’s full banner term in late 2017, preference instead being given to “Xi Jinping Socialist Economic Thought With Chinese Characteristics”).
Also in March 2017, Zhejiang Daily, the official CCP mouthpiece of the Party committee in Zhejiang province, used the phrase “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想). In June 2017, Foreign Minister Wang Yi first used “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,” yet another act of foreshadowing. And in October 2017, the phrase “Xi Jinping Thought on Strengthening the Military” (习近平强军思想) first appeared in the Resolution released as the curtain closed on the 19th National Congress.
In CMP’s “China Discourse Report 2018,” covering the first full year after the formal introduction of Xi’s banner term, we looked at more than 20 different permutations of “Xi Thought” appearing in the Party-state press in 2018. These included:
“Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Literature and Art” (习近平文艺思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Strengthening the Military” (习近平强军思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Education” (习近平教育思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Party Construction” (习近平党建思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Battling Poverty” (习近平脱贫攻坚思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Rural Revitalization Strategy” (习近平乡村振兴战略思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on News and Public Opinion” (习近平新闻舆论思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on the Press” (习近平新闻思想), “Xi Jinping’s Important Thought on Taiwan” (习近平对台工作重要思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Targeted Poverty Alleviation” (习近平精准扶贫思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Education” (习近平体育思想), “Xi Jinping thought on Youth Work” (习近平青年工作思想), “Xi Jinping Though on Finance” (习近平金融思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Ethnic Work” (习近平民族工作思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Ethnic Unity” (习近平民族团结思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Clean Politics” (习近平廉政思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Belt and Road” (习近平一带一路思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Marine Development” (习近平经略海洋思想), “Xi Jinping Thought on Military-Civilian Integration” (习近平军民融合思想).
Since 2018, such abbreviated permutations of the Xi banner term have been used sparingly, particularly during the first half of 2020, as China struggled to contain the Covid-19 epidemic. In the summer of 2020, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, tried to promote “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” with the opening of a related research center – but by September use of the phrase had leveled off. In late 2020 and into 2021 there was a surge in use of the phrase, “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law.” It is possible that as the centennial of the CCP approaches on July 1, 2021, there will be – barring external or internal pressures that preoccupy Xi – as push to further consolidate “Xi Jinping Thought.”