Author: Josh Chin

Posted on: The Wall Street Journal | March 5th, 2018


When it comes to Chinese politics, President Xi Jinping is increasingly the name of the game.

In an annual government policy report delivered Monday to the national legislature, Premier Li Keqiang name-checked Mr. Xi 13 times. That surpasses the eight times in last year’s report and, for the second year running, makes Mr. Xi the only serving leader to receive so many mentions since Mao Zedong, who died in office more than four decades ago.

Such mentions, while seemingly trifling, are further signifiers of Mr. Xi’s power in the world of Chinese politics, according to China watchers. “Mentions matter. And more mentions mean that Xi and especially his policies matter even more this year than last,” said Russell Leigh Moses, a China-based political analyst.

Counting the repetition of words in official documents is a practice pioneered by 20th century Kremlinologists, who during the Cold War were tasked with divining political trends in Communist regimes from afar. Though access to information abounds now, China watchers say tracking word-counts still offers insights because the Communist Party leadership relies on official documents to communicate with a large bureaucracy and society.

While mentions of Mr. Xi rose, references to the “party” dipped slightly to 28 this year, after making a leap to 30 in last year’s report.

Uses of the word “reform” also increased this year, rising to 90 after hovering in the 70s the past two years. “Reform” was once a catchall for liberalization, especially market-based policies, though, Mr. Moses said, in recent years the word has lost its liberal connotations.

“Reform means tightening and centralizing for Xi and his comrades,” he said. “Reform for him was always about strengthening the Party.”

The increasing references to Mr. Xi in official documents mirrors his growing ubiquity in domestic media, all of which is state-controlled. It’s a change from the first decades after Mao’s death when his successors installed a system of collective leadership as a check against dictatorial excess.

During this year’s annual session, the legislature is expected to repeal constitutional limits on presidential terms, clearing the way for President Xi to govern China indefinitely. Other proposed amendments to the constitution add a reference to Mr. Xi’s political theory and enshrine the party’s leading role in governing the country.

Uses of two political buzzwords associated with Mr. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao —“stability” and “harmony”—have steadily declined since Mr. Xi took over as president in 2013. “Stability” got 13 mentions this year, down from 28 in Mr. Hu’s last year; “harmony” slipped to five mentions from 11 over the same time frame.

“Internet” and “innovation” jumped higher after dips in 2017, reflecting a renewed push by the party to transform China’s economy through creative uses of data and technology.

Another keyword that saw increased use was “debt,” which surfaced seven times this year after appearing only once last year—an indication that Chinese leaders are paying more attention to a problem some economists warn could lead to trouble for the world’s second-largest economy.

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