Chinese leaders like to talk. They are fond of making speeches, which are then covered in detail in official newspapers, on state-run television, and which often become core planks of the Party’s propaganda campaigns. Within this leadership discourse, there are certain commonalities and patterns. Keywords, as the work of Qian Gang, Bandurski and others have shown, rise and fall in terms of their currency. What are the core series of words for Xi, and what clues do they give as to the underlying ideological preoccupations of the Party in the China he leads?
First of all, we need to think about the genealogy of the term ‘Keywords’ itself. It was a Cambridge scholar, Raymond Williams, who popularized the concept in his celebrated 1976 book, ‘Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society’. He analysed around one hundred words which had proved influential and important in the discourse of leftist political development in the UK, moving beyond their etymologies to what he called their change over time according to the different social, cultural and political contexts in which they were situated. ‘I called,’ he wrote, ‘these words Keywords in two connected senses: they are significant binding words in certain activities, and their interpretation; they are significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought.’ (, 1983, 15) A focus on keywords has proved fruitful in scholarship about Chinese political discourse.Footnote 15 For Xi, there are 12 distinctive terms that have been promoted as part of a campaign since 2014–15 to support socialist values. These are the keywords of the Xi era.
Fuqiang – ‘strong’, a term with deep resonance in modern Chinese rhetoric and practice. This first appeared in the late Qing, at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was deployed by modernizers such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao to indicate their desire for a modernized, stronger China which emulated the Meiji era of Japanese reforms of the mid-1860s. The concept of a ‘strong’ but also rich China appeared throughout the Republican Period, referencing back to the era of colonial humiliation, when a backward China was attempting to face down the modernized military and economic forces of both the West and Japan. After 1949, the term was to remain within Chinese political discourse despite the radical political changes, with Mao, Deng and almost every other leader using it to point out the aspiration of building a country that would never again be the victim of foreign aggression.
Minzhu – ‘democratic’ – used here in the very specific context of ‘democracy with Chinese characteristics’, literally the ‘power of the people’, as represented by the CPC. Mao Zedong had written extensively about the term ‘new democracy’ in January 1940, stating that ‘the Chinese democratic republic which we desire to establish must now be a democratic republic under the joint dictatorship of all anti-imperialist and anti-feudal people led by the proletariat, that is, a new-democratic republic, a republic of the genuinely revolutionary new Three People's Principles with their Three Great Policies.’Footnote 16 The use of ‘democracy’ in recent years in Chinese political discourse has pushed back against the perceived annexation of this term by western liberal democracies. This use, therefore, asserts an indigenized iteration, one which, as Document Number Nine issued by the Chinese propaganda organs in 2013 made clear, was uncontaminated by ideas of western bicameral parliamentary systems, multi-party democracy, and the separation of powers. ‘Democracy’ here means democracy for the Party, by the Party, on behalf of the Party, all of which act as servants of the people they serve.
Wenming – ‘cultured/civilized’ as opposed to ‘wenhua’, culture/al, which is a term still overshadowed in political language by the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Linked to notions such as ‘improving the quality of the population’ (tigao renmin de suzhi) that had appeared in the mid 1990s, this asserts a notion of Chinese social civility, based on its ‘five thousand years of continuous civilization’ and pushes back against the notion of a country that is backward and undeveloped.
Hexie – ‘harmonious’ – discussed above in the context of Hu Jintao, who had made intensive use of this term in the 2000s, and linked to classical concepts introduced by ancient philosophers from Confucius to Mencius. This term had been lambasted by bloggers because of the ways in which its Chinese language version was also a homonym for ‘river crab’. Despite this, and in an era of deepening social tensions and conflict, this term remains as important, albeit contextualized in a wider marketplace of terms, as before. It is seen as part of a process of moral urging on the part of the CPC in response to a society fragmented by material wealth and other differences, drawing attention to the catastrophic results of disunity in the past, and calling for continued focus on the collective goals of achieving a ‘rich, strong, powerful’ country, as mentioned above. ‘Harmony’ plays to ancient notions of order and hierarchy, ranging from the ‘Tianxia’ (all under heaven) notion to the sense adopted from Hu onwards of maintaining social stability and preventing conflict in society. This gives ‘harmonious’ a slightly ambiguous role in contemporary Chinese discourse – an invitation to unity and joint purpose, but also a slight threat to those who raise any objections to the means used to achieve this. Thus, the deep irony is that the term ‘to be harmonized’ is applied to those who are to be silenced or simply locked up when their ideas become too contrarian.
Ziyou – ‘freedom’. This again is a term that sits awkwardly within Chinese political discourse in the PRC, being linked to notions from outside China of free elections and western liberalism. As with ‘democracy’, this figures as an attempt to situate a word in a CPC context in which it is decontaminated and pacified. The term is particularly loaded as it appeared in the slogans used by demonstrators during the June 1989 unrest. In Xi era discourse, it largely applies to the notions of economic empowerment, and the freedoms of the Chinese to own their own homes, travel where they wish, and have a new status in the outside world, in response to the way in which the country has not been respected and admired in the past. In this sense, Chinese people have never been more free, although, under Xi, the boundaries of this freedom have been more tightly drawn.
Pingdeng – ‘equality’. This a recognition of the huge disparities that exist in Chinese society as a side effect of the reform process and transformations in the economic realm. ‘Pingdeng’ figures as an acknowledgment that the Party needs to serve its socialist mission of delivering balanced growth for all, which collides with the recognition within and outside China that there are huge inequalities. This term, in particular, marries up with the more traditional ideological commitment of the CPC to create a society along Marxist-Leninist lines, where people strive for a society characterized by common ownership and the collective achievement of development goals.
Gongzheng – ‘justice’. This is linked to the term below, i.e., legality, and asserts the Party’s acknowledgement that it has to govern for and on behalf of all, and that since 1978 the rights consciousness of Chinese people has risen sharply. The desire for justice lies at the heart of the many millions of petitions addressed to the central government, and the recourse to courts in the civil realm. But justice is a term the Party also circumscribes. It controls the sources, as well as the definitions, of justice.
Fazhi – ‘rule of law’, is a term linked to the clear criticisms levelled during the era of Maoism, when there was ‘rule of man, rather than of law.’ This challenges the notion of Chinese society being one that asserts the primacy of relationships and influential connections (renqing, guangxi) and other networks over the implementation of objective laws. Linked to notions of justice and equality, the Chinese Plenum in 2014 concentrated on the notion of ‘rule of law’, whereby there were stronger, more predictable regulations for property, commercial issues, etc., but where the Party itself remained immune from attack by activist, and in the Party elite’s eyes politicized, lawyers.
Aiguo – ‘patriotism', indicates an acknowledgement that under Xi, as under Hu and Jiang, one of the most important new sources of legitimacy for the CPC is to appeal to its patriotic, national mission. The ‘patriotic’ education campaigns of the mid 1990s stressed the ways in which a strong country (see term one above) was also linked to a stable, strong party, and that this was the surest way of delivering a country which would never again be subject to the nightmares of humiliation that it had suffered since the middle of the nineteenth century. The more negative outcome of ‘aiguo’ has been the rise of more assertive nationalism and its impact on China’s relations with the outside world.Footnote 17
Jingye – ‘dedication’, is a less frequently used term, which relates to notions of the Party seeking not just people’s loyalty in exchange for material gain, but also their deeper commitment to a mission they identify and share with the CPC – the creation of a stable, sustainable, rich, strong Chinese state. This is linked to the notion of ‘trust’, covered below.
Chengxin – ‘trust’, is another term, like the one above, that has figured little in Chinese political discourse, largely through the chronic lack of trust that the Chinese people have tended to have in their political leaders, exemplified in trust surveys which have shown that while doctors, teachers, and even sex workers enjoy greater levels of trust within China, national leaders, and in particular local leaders, have an immense challenge to overcome. (, 142–143) This lies at the heart of Xi’s words in November 2012, when he outlined the need to repair the damage done by corrupt officials within the Party, and to close the gap between the rulers and the ruled. This concept also correlates with Xi’s concept of the ‘Four confidences’ (sige zixin), formulated throughout 2016 – i.e., confidence in the path, theory, system, and culture of a socialism with Chinese characteristics.Footnote 18
Youshan – ‘friendly’. This expression promotes the notion that China, as well as the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party and government, are not a threat, but wish to establish friendly relations with the wider world, promoting ‘win win outcomes.’ This lies at the heart of the soft power campaigns that the central government has supported since the 2000s, a ‘China that is a friend to all the world.’
These terms exhibit a number of attributes. They indicate a willingness to mix terms more closely associated with China’s classical philosophical heritage (hexie for instance) and to indigenize other terms that have been taken from external discourses (minzhu). This, as well as terms such as gongzheng, are taken from their more common external roots and placed within a Chinese cultural context, but one which transforms their political implications through linking them to an overarching narrative that sponsors and supports the CPC. These keywords also map out a terrain that is neither overtly intellectual, formulaic, nor emotional, but which attempts to address each of the core areas. In this sense, they do provide a comprehensive core vocabulary. The only issue is that 12 such different terms are hard to meld together into a coherent whole. They often appear in placards in Beijing and other places as a list, just as they are presented here, with no overarching sense of the master narrative to which they belong. In what ways, therefore, do they contribute to a master Party narrative in the China of Xi himself and what actions do they sponsor?
Xi’s Ideology in Action – The Transformation of China into a “Spiritual Civilisation”
What sort of world is the CPC trying to create through the delivery of these 12 keywords? The term ‘spiritual civilisation’ and the notion it covers, i.e., ‘Socialist spiritual civilisationFootnote 19 construction’, first appeared during the post-Mao discursive shift and has since been used by Deng Xiaoping, among others. This phrase spells out more clearly than any other the grand aim of the Party, its power and the contemporary discourse of ideology that drives it.
The role of ‘socialist spiritual civilization’ has never been as strong as it is today. In the 1986, “Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Resolution on the Guidelines of the Construction of Socialist Spiritual Civilization”,Footnote 20 the term itself only appears as the fourth term within the socialism modernization strategy. The first to be posited in this document, economic development, stands at its core, followed by reform of the economic system, political system reform and, finally, spiritual civilization construction. The main task is explained as to ‘adapt to the needs of socialist modernization construction, to foster socialist citizens with ideals, morals, culture, and discipline, and to improve the moral qualities of the thought and scientific culture qualities of the Chinese nation as a whole’. Informing people about socialist culture can be seen as the key role of this concept. Constructing a spiritual civilization, as presented by Deng Xiaoping, is an addition to the construction of material civilization, (wuzhi wenming jianshe), thus forming ‘the two civilizations (liang ge wenming). Just as during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 and onwards, the aim was to ‘remake man’ – but not in the often brutal manner adopted in that turbulent decade. Instead, the aim was a synthesis, a harmonious balance between the two.
It was in order to promote this idea of public morality, in line with CPC ideology, and to service the needs not just in terms of the material but of the whole person, that campaigns to promote ‘civility’ and ‘being civilized’ were launched throughout the 2000s. Never quite disappearing from the public sphere, the element also made an appearance in Hu’s speeches, presented as something that was not to be sacrificed during a time of rapid economic growth.Footnote 21 However, from 2012 onwards, the ‘spiritual civilisation’ concept entered a new phase. Starting from the 18th Congress, the main line of the spiritual civilization construction agenda was to cultivate and practice core Socialist values, to promote truth, goodness, and beauty, as well as to spread positive energy throughout the whole of society and to generate a strong spiritual power within hundreds of millions of people. It is evident that on comparing the 1986 document, the concept is still in place, although its constituent elements have been remodelled. They are now part of a much grander aim – to make one party rule sustainable and to push China towards the goal of being a great and strong nation by the achievement of the first centennial goal by 2021.
When addressing the topic of ‘spiritual civilisation’ in his speeches, Xi stresses continuity and quotes Deng Xiaoping.Footnote 22 Despite this, innovations in the concept are evident. In Xi’s interpretation, the phrase has undergone both a promotion and a facelift.
First of all, Xi stresses the utmost importance of ‘spiritual civilisation construction’, and puts it at the centre of core Socialist values: ‘The construction of spiritual civilization needs to be inserted into the full process of the reform and opening up, and the modernization, introduced into all aspects of social life, and tightly combined with the cultivation and practice of Socialist core values.’Footnote 23 Xi stresses the craving for the ‘China story’ to be heard all around the world, and this can be achieved via an exposition of the ‘excellent Chinese culture’- yet another intrinsic component of the core values. (ibid.)
Secondly, Xi Jinping demonstrates ownership of the concept, using it alongside his signature keywords: ‘China dream’ and ‘the four comprehensives’.Footnote 24 The new link has not gone unnoticed among Party School think tankers such as Professor Zhang Rongchen, who has called for a ‘focusing on the ‘four comprehensives’, promoting the development of civilization.’Footnote 25 Furthermore, Xi has stressed ‘spiritual civilisation’, a key factor within the building of the moderately prosperous society (xiaokang shehui) objective, thus showing ‘spiritual civilisation’ to be a part of the first Centennial goal.
Thirdly, Xi Jinping centres his new personal ‘people have faith, nation has hope, country has power’ (renmin you xinyang minzu you xiwang guojia you liliang)Footnote 26 punch line around the ‘spiritual civilisation’ notion. Deemed to be of great importance by the PRC media and containing a straightforward ‘strong China’ narrative, the slogan illustrates that a country can only be great if people have faith and hope in its future. That can be achieved by constructing a spiritual civilization, spreading ‘excellent Chinese traditional culture’ (Zhongguo youxiu chuantong wenhua) and core Socialist values. Xi Jinping demonstrates his eagerness to adopt traditional culture right there and then, recruiting the Confucian family-country parallel.
To conclude, it can be argued that the main focus of the discourse element ‘spiritual civilisation’ has shifted from Deng Xiaoping’s introduction of the reform and the opening up of Socialist culture and the balancing of economic goals, to the applied civility-promotion campaigns of Hu’s time, all the way to the stressing of the uniqueness of the Chinese civilization and the notion of proud nation framework-building during the Xi era. In the light of Xi’ s dismissal of Western values as not being suitable for China, the concept of ‘spiritual civilisation’ represents an attempt to contribute to a home-grown value alternative – a non-consistent traditional ingredient mixed in with Socialist ethos-in-transition, known as the Socialist core value outlook (shehui hexin jiazhiguan).Footnote 27