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Whose New Normal? Framing the Economic Slowdown Under Xi Jinping

Abstract

After decades of double-digit economic growth, China experienced a significant drop in GDP growth rates in the wake of the global financial crisis. For the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping, who had assumed power in the fall of 2012, analysts predicted a looming crisis due to the alleged decline in the regime’s performance legitimacy. This article argues against a mechanistic application of the notion of performance legitimacy. Instead, it proposes to take into account the role of ideology in mediating public perceptions of regime performance. By tracking the career of the concept of “new normal” in Chinese public discourse over a period of three years – from late 2013 to late 2016 – it shows how the economic slowdown has been framed in ways conducive to the reproduction of regime legitimacy. The findings suggest an intense process of ideological contestation and decontestation, in which the domestic reflection of foreign audiences and their recognition of the Chinese regime’s performance have gained in importance.

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Chart 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    For a concise synopsis of this debate, see Sandby-Thomas [27]. Originally, the idea of performance legitimacy was formulated by Seymour Martin Lipset [22]. In addition to economic performance, nationalism and other forms of ersatz ideology have been identified as additional sources of regime legitimacy in the reform period. Despite the fact that there has been a resurgence of nationalism under Xi Jinping, the focus of this article is on economic performance. For a detailed analysis of Chinese academic debates about “performance legitimacy” (zhengji hefaxing) versus other legitimacy sources, as well as the looming legitimacy crisis which had spilled over from Western into Chinese elite discourse in 2003/04, peaking around 2006, see Gilley and Holbig [12]; cf. Zhu [43], Lam [19].

  2. 2.

    This is a brief version of Michael Freeden’s definition of “political ideology” as a “set of ideas, beliefs, opinions and values that (1) exhibit a recurring pattern (2) are held by significant groups (3) compete over providing and controlling plans for public policy (4) do so with the aim of justifying, contesting or changing the social and political arrangements and processes of a political community.” He adds that an ideology “is a wide-ranging structural arrangement that attributes decontested meanings to a range of mutually defining political concepts”, and that the competition between ideologies over plans for public policy “is primarily conducted through their competition over the control of political language” ([11]: 32, 54–5; italics in the original).

  3. 3.

    Recently, Hu [15] Noesselt [26] and Womack [31] have offered interpretations of the economic implications of the “new normal” within the context of governance and political (dis-)continuities of the party-state under Xi Jinping.

  4. 4.

    To use Christian von Haldenwangs’ analytical framework, this article focuses on the “supply cycle”, not on the “demand cycle” of regime legitimation [28]. Also, as Alexander Dukalskis [9] has shown in his book The Authoritarian Public Sphere not only democratic but also authoritarian regimes craft and disseminate narratives to legitimize their rule and shield themselves against open and hidden contestations about these claims. I agree that it is adequate in this sense to also speak of a “public sphere” or at least a “public discourse” in the authoritarian setting of the Chinese party-state, even if the norms underlying the Habermasian understanding of the “public sphere” do not apply in China.

  5. 5.

    In CCP jargon, while the 1990-2000 decade is marked ex post as the period of “entering into a moderately well-off society” (jinru xiaokang), and the years 2002-2012 as the period of “comprehensive construction of a moderately well-off society” (quanmian jianshe xiaokang shehui), the task for the remaining years until 2020/21 now is to “comprehensively complete the construction of a moderately well-off society” (quanmian jiancheng xiaokang shehui) [14].

  6. 6.

    People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) [50]: Guo Jinlong: Rationally dealing with the New Normal in the period of changing gear, 25 December: 5.

  7. 7.

    See Fathom Consulting [47]: China GDP and CMI, Available at: http://fathom-consulting.com/services/expertise/china-research/.

  8. 8.

    See PIMCO [58], “New normal” growing old, PIMCO Investment News, 25. April,

    www.investmentnews.com/article/20140425/FREE/140429934/new-normal-growing-old-pimco.

  9. 9.

    See Xinhua English Service [62]. Xi’s ‘new normal’ theory. Xinhuanet, 09.11.2014.

    http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-11/09/c_133776839.htm. See also:

    http://english.cntv.cn/2014/11/10/ARTI1415575824659324.shtml.

  10. 10.

    Gross, William H. [49], On the “Course” to a New Normal, PIMCO Investment Outlook, September,

    https://www.pimco.com/en-us/insights/economic-and-market-commentary/investment-outlook/on-the

    course-to-a-new-normal.

  11. 11.

    See Swanson [59] Beyond the New Normal. A New Era of Growth, US Chamber of Commerce,

    Foundation, https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/bhq/beyond-new-normal-new-era-growth.

  12. 12.

    See PIMCO [58], “New normal” growing old, PIMCO Investment News, 25. April,

    www.investmentnews.com/article/20140425/FREE/140429934/new-normal-growing-old-pimco.

  13. 13.

    See China Daily [46]: 2013 China Central Economic Work Conference, 13.12.2013,

    http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2013-12/13/content_17173591.htm.

  14. 14.

    See People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) [50]: Guo Jinlong: Rationally dealing with the New Normal in the period of changing gear, 25 December: 5.

  15. 15.

    Xinhua [61], Xi Jinping gives first systematic account of the “new normal”, 11 November,

    http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2014-11/10/c_127195118.htm.

  16. 16.

    Xinhua English Service [62]. Xi’s ‘new normal’ theory. Xinhuanet, 09.11.2014.

    http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-11/09/c_133776839.htm. See also:

    http://english.cntv.cn/2014/11/10/ARTI1415575824659324.shtml.

  17. 17.

    Xinhua [61], Xi Jinping gives first systematic account of the “new normal”, 11 November,

    http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2014-11/10/c_127195118.htm.

  18. 18.

    Xinhua [61], Xi Jinping gives first systematic account of the “new normal”, 11 November,

    http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2014-11/10/c_127195118.htm.

  19. 19.

    See People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) [51], China’s economy is about to enter a new stage. What is new in the new normal? 4 August: 1.

  20. 20.

    See People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) [52], New lightspots sparkling in the economic situation. 5 August: 1; People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) [53], Economic Performance shows new features. 6 August: 1; People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) [54], Economic development strides toward a new stage. 7 August: 1.

  21. 21.

    The state media had formally announced an internal party investigation into Zhou Yongkang’s violations of party discipline two weeks earlier, on 29 July 2014.

  22. 22.

    See People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) [55], Explaining “Xi Jinping’s New Normal” in eight characters. 13 August: 2; Baidu [45]. New Normal (first of Xi-style hot words). Online source: http://baike.baidu.com/subview/3212156/15855786.htm.

  23. 23.

    See The Paper (Pengpai) [60], Xi Jinping in power for 700 days: Twelve “Xi-style hot phrases” and how they are changing China. 17.10.2014, disseminated via QQ (2014): http://news.qq.com/a/20141017/061498_all.htm.

  24. 24.

    See Baidu [45]. New Normal (first of Xi-style hot words). Online source: http://baike.baidu.com/subview/3212156/15855786.htm.

  25. 25.

    The most recent figures are hard to verify, as there is usually a backlog of several months before all journal data are entered into the Database. I am indebted to Chen Mei, who assisted me in retrieving the statistical data from the CAJD as available via CrossAsia/CNKI. A first systematic search was done in May 2016, a second one in May 2017, which produced various differences in the monthly figures for all social science journals, as well as for core social science journals (see below). Overall, however, both searches show the same trend, i.e. a quick increase in the number of articles from May 2014 to early 2015, plateauing during the first half of 2015, as described here.

  26. 26.

    For a seminal analysis of the workings of the Chinese propaganda apparatus, see Brady [1, 2].

  27. 27.

    For a more detailed account of incentives for social scientists to produce research work in line with the current agenda of party ideology, see Holbig [14].

  28. 28.

    According to official language, the Three Self-Confidences refer to self-confidence in “… the path, theory, and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics”; cf. Klimes (2017: 7).

  29. 29.

    One possible reason behind the political strife could be the party center’s decision to charge Zhou Yongkang in an open trial, which reportedly took place in March 2015. In April 2015, Zhou Yongkang was formally charged with the abuse of power, bribery, and intentionally leaking state secrets, and was scheduled to face trial at the Tianjin First Intermediate People’s Court, which, however, took place behind closed doors. The final verdict was made public in June 2015, with Zhou being sentenced to life imprisonment.

  30. 30.

    People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) [56]. Speech given to important leading cadres above ministry level during the symposium on thoroughly implementing the spirit of the Fifth Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Party Congress. 10 May: 1.

  31. 31.

    Zhang Xiaoying and Derek McGhee [39] argue that under the leadership of Xi Jinping the CCP has launched an “ethical revolution” to sustain its legitimacy. The anti-corruption campaign is an important, though not the only element in this ongoing revolution.

  32. 32.

    Before March 2015 and after January 2015, we observe the opposite of the anticipated trend, whereby we would have expected to see a higher numbers of articles entered into the databank by the time of the second round of data collection. I would like to thank Chen Mei for her meticulous cross-checking of collected data. The significant percentage of articles that have obviously been deleted retrospectively from CAJD are of course highly worrying and suggest that this widely used digital compilation of academic work in the PRC is subject to direct, ex-post censorship. At the very least, this is the only conclusion we can so far infer in relation to this statistical puzzle.

  33. 33.

    For a recent account of the domestic and international target audiences of Chinese propaganda and soft power efforts, see Klimes [18].

  34. 34.

    A short version of the speech was released by Xinhua three days later on 21 December 2016 (http://news.xinhuanet.com/fortune/2015-12/21/c_1117533201.htm), while the full text of the speech containing the quoted passages seems to have been made available for the general public via Renminwang only in November 2016 (http://cpc.people.com.cn/xuexi/n1/2016/1117/c385476-28875583.html.)

  35. 35.

    The English version is quoted here from the Xinhua English version: Xinhuanet, 16.01.2016. The full text of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s address at the AIIB inauguration ceremony, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2016-01/16/c_135015661.htm.

  36. 36.

    Prominent productions featured by the Roads to Revival Studios since 2012 have included “How Leaders Are Made” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=M734o_17H_A) and “The Shisanwu” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=m91zBt94Ll0).

  37. 37.

    Fuxing lu shang gongzuo shi (Roads to Revival Studios) [48]: The Kung Fu of the Chinese Economy, released on 11.04.2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QfgXW0drwI.

  38. 38.

    Distinct from “to appropriate” in the sense of “making one’s own” (see above), the etymology of “to authenticate” (Greek: auto-hentes: to make or create oneself) emphasises the act of “establishing something as being genuine, of undisputed origin or authorship”. For a discussion on the term, see Bucholtz [3].

  39. 39.

    Referring to “building a moderately well-off society by 2021”, the centenary of the CCP’s founding, and becoming a fully developed nation by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

  40. 40.

    The English translation of the quotation has been adopted from Zhu [44, 64].

  41. 41.

    People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) [57], The new position of China’s economy (Zhongguo jingji xin fangwei), 14 December: 1-2.

  42. 42.

    Zhu, Qiwen [64], China’s economic slowdown promises fresh opportunities, The Telegraph, 25.04.2015,

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/world/china-watch/business/new-normal-china-economic-slowdown/.

  43. 43.

    See the verbatim quote Xi Jinping’s February 2017 speech quoted in People’s Daily [56] and translated above.

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Holbig, H. Whose New Normal? Framing the Economic Slowdown Under Xi Jinping. J OF CHIN POLIT SCI 23, 341–363 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11366-018-9539-6

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Keywords

  • People’s Republic of China
  • Chinese communist party
  • Xi Jinping
  • Regime legitimacy
  • New normal