With Chinese authorities having shifted away from a zero-COVID policy at the end of November, the country now faces an unresolved dilemma as to its future approach to economic development and public health policies. A critical question is: will the Dengist doctrine of “Reform and Opening-up” return to the political discourse? But the most critical issue revealed by People’s Daily is how Chinese propaganda has portrayed the recent chaos, as well as how it has promoted General Secretary Xi Jinping’s image in spite of the failure of the zero-COVID policy. These questions are of particular importance ahead of the second plenum of the 20th Party Congress, which is planned for February 2023. A brief analysis of the theoretical section of the People’s Daily, “An Intersection of Thoughts” (思想纵横), throughout December 2022, may offer some preliminary answers. The critical points introduced in People’s Daily indicate how China is likely to be led moving forward, with major features such as governing within a “one way” approach and a Chinese-style modernization process representing what is seen as a rational path of development going forward.
How Will China be Governed?
The first important signal found in People’s Daily indicates that China’s development is seen as perpetual, never ending and in constant flux. On the one hand, taking this approach as a basic perspective, party members and the general public should understand the nature of these changes, seek after changes and respond to these changes. This approach had previously justified the zero-COVID policy as necessary, although omitting any mention of lockdowns across the country or their impact on the national economy.
In the official account, comprehending shifting circumstances requires a scientific approach and ought not to be “disordered” (杂乱无章). Effectively responding to changes entails a conscious understanding that reform and innovation will never end. In order to promote the continuous and in-depth development of reform, it is necessary to take firm actions while “keeping a cool head” and exercising strategic sobriety (战略清醒). However, rather than merely being passive observers, the people should actively promote reforms. At the beginning of December, People’s Daily urged people to actively seek changes and create new opportunities (People’s Daily, December 1, 2022).
Encouraging people to do more aligns with the discussion about the role of the market and the state in the development of the national economy. The responsibility for governing the party and the people is placed on the party members, who should focus more on the institutional dimension. Although the role of bureaucratic cycles is important, it does not mean that the market always prevails. Nevertheless, the market still has a decisive role to play in resource allocation. In this context, the role of the state is to serve as a lead actor in the redistribution of wealth, allowing the market to participate in China’s economic development. As stated by the Chinese media, economic development is only possible by creating strategic national scientific and technological strength, as well as through the promotion of continuous progress in self-reliance and self-improvement, both in science and technology, which are controlled by the government (People’s Daily, December 8, 2022). In this regard, recognition of the theory and thoughts as leading forces within the party and the state are important, as is theoretical innovation. In announcing this approach, however, Xi has not rejected the development model of Deng Xiaoping. In fact, People’s Daily announced that in this new era and a new journey, the government will continue to promote theoretical innovation based on practice and continue “to write a new chapter in the modernization of Marxism in China, which cannot be separated from the guidance of scientific thinking, a scientific worldview or methodology” (People’s Daily, December 2, 2022).
This approach to reform, however, should not be seen as adequate for governance alone. In order to win the technological competition with the West in the fields of information and biomedicine, an effective organizational model of coordination as well as scientific and technological innovation must also be introduced as soon as possible (People’s Daily, December 8, 2022). However, promoting Xi’s ideas as the guideline undermines Deng’s logic of practice—a true dichotomy. Now, the efficiency of this approach depends on the world outlook and methodology of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Xi’s method or fangfalun (方法论) generally refers to the means and behaviors, which are adopted to obtain something or to achieve a certain purpose by following the masses, without precise instructions from the central leadership (People’s Daily, December 2, 2022). This superficial advice holds that party members should “always maintain flesh-and-blood ties with the people” and follow the views of the masses, constantly helping them to achieve a better life. Interestingly, the party should “constantly realize, maintain, and develop the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people,” meaning that China should predominantly focus more on the less developed rural areas in China. But as described by the “Intersection of Thoughts” section, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the vanguard of the Chinese working class, as well as the Chinese people and the Chinese nation. These Maoist-style narratives center on the supremacy of the people, which “is one of the historical experiences of our party’s century-old struggle” (People’s Daily, December 6, 2022).
“One Way” Forward
Although the masses are correct, Xi Jinping is even “more correct.” Articles published in People’s Daily with the title ending in the “only way” (必由之路) refer mainly to Xi’s thoughts and the position of the core leadership. This concept holds that since 2017, under Xi’s leadership, “the country has adopted a series of strategic measures, promoted a series of transformative practices, achieved a series of breakthroughs, as well as a series of landmarks results”. Furthermore, the country’s economic strength has achieved “a historic leap to a higher position” (历史性跃升) (People’s Daily, December 12, 2022).
The vocabulary describing this economic situation as a historic leap, is reminiscent of the propaganda from the Great Leap Forward (大跃进) period, although, at least for the moment, Chinese propaganda has resisted labeling this period a “New Era.” Nevertheless, as People’s Daily is now placing da yuesheng (大跃升), a great leap, in a higher position within its articles, this rhetoric may well be adopted in the future. However, the announcement of an economic leap to a higher position needs to be justified. In this matter, the zero-COVID policy helps, as the worse the current position of China’s economy, the more marked the economic recovery and success that follows will be made out to be. At the same time, according to Chinese propaganda, the national governance system and governmental capabilities have been significantly improved. “One way” means that the party’s leadership is the only way to uphold and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics through unifying the whole country under the party banner, “a solid piece of steel” (一块坚硬的钢铁) (People’s Daily, December 12, 2022).
The critical issue is to rectify and consolidate the source of this development. The publication goes on to declare, “With the great historical initiative, great political courage, and strong responsibility, we have adopted a series of strategic measures.” All approaches promoted a series of transformative practices, and the historic achievements provided a more complete foundation for the realization of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. This in turn is declared to lead to the realization of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which has entered an irreversible historical process (不可逆转的历史进程). According to the People’s Daily theoretical page, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese people are confidently promoting the great leap to a higher level (伟大飞跃) of the Chinese nation by standing up, getting rich and becoming strong (People’s Daily, December 13, 2022).
The official narrative holds that rejuvenation is only possible through unity, and struggle is the most significant spiritual symbol of the Party and the Chinese people. An oft-repeated mantra is that over the long course of history, the Chinese people have united as one and worked together to forge (铸就了) the great Chinese civilization that has lasted for thousands of years (People’s Daily, December 14, 2022).
An important observation that illustrates the logic of “one-way” is the need for the redefinition of the Deng era. The People’s Daily states that development is an ever-changing process and that the current, export-oriented development strategies have exhausted all possible levers for growth. While China is losing its comparative advantages in resources and labor, the environment and conditions for economic development have undergone profound and complex changes in the new era. In this regard, the race for economic growth has caused many problems and challenges along the way, including “the increased prominence of unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable development, which manifests in extensive development methods, weak innovation capabilities, unbalanced development between urban and rural areas, and resource constraints.” This situation requires that the Chinese government promote an economic development shift from high-speed growth to high-quality development and solve the long-term accumulation of unbalanced and insufficient economic and social development (People’s Daily, December 15, 2022). In order to fulfill the aforementioned promises, the only possible way is to trust the party to have the courage to revolutionize itself and fulfill the promise that the Chinese nation will have a long and bright future. The People’s Daily then states that the party needs to manage the structure in a very strict manner, always maintaining the party’s advanced nature and purity through anti-corruption campaigns that serve the purpose of “eliminating diseases and governing (curing) any chaos” (祛疴治乱) supported by disciplinary meetings within the party structure (People’s Daily, December 5; People’s Daily, December 16, 2022).
Realizing The Chinese-Style Modernization Miracle by Opposing the West.
The last point raised by the theoretical sections of People’s Daily is the need to achieve an understanding of Chinese-style modernization, which is contrasted with the Western development model and intended to act as an example for the developing world. Any environmental issues created during this time are simply an inescapable consequence of this dramatic transformation and were also part of previous leaderships’ policies.
A key theme is that Chinese-style modernization is a “miracle,” which is unprecedented in history and makes a special contribution to the future concept of the development of humankind. More to the point, this process is not based on either a single modernization model in the world or a universal modernization standard (定于一尊). In other words, countries in the Global South should try to reform themselves in their own particular way based on their respective, local circumstances. In the context of China, modernization adheres to the people-centered development philosophy, promotes common prosperity through high-quality development, supports whole process people’s democracy, enriches the people’s spiritual world, promotes the sustainable development of the Chinese nation, and interacts positively with the world and cooperates for win-win results. This approach is illustrated by self-proclaimed opposition to the old western modernization of capital-centered modernization, polarized modernization, materialistic modernization and external expansion and plundering. People’s Daily adds that China’s modernization also expands the path for developing countries to modernize (People’s Daily, December 19, 2022). China has abandoned its old modernization path of foreign aggression as well as expansion and always advances modernization based on the path of peaceful development. People’s Daily praised the speed and efficiency of China’s development, saying that to industrialize, a process that took developed countries centuries, has taken China mere decades. Moreover, during this span, China has achieved two miracles: rapid economic development and long-term social stability. The great achievements of Chinese-style modernization “are not due to anyone’s gift, nor do they rely on foreign military expansion and colonial plunder, but are made by the Chinese Communist Party and lead the Chinese people to rely on self-reliance and hard work.” Moreover, the narrative claims that that peaceful policy of win-win cooperation, embracing the world, learning from the world, and contributing to the world, has been part of the China story (People’s Daily, December 26, 2022). More than this, western development over more than 200 years had gone through “the pollution period” first and has tried to resolve the environmental issues…while creating huge material wealth, they have also accelerated the plundering of natural resources and brought serious ecological and environmental problems creating deep-seated contradictions between the people and the environment. Since the 1930s, many environmental incidents have occurred in Western countries, one after another, causing huge losses that “shocked the world” (People’s Daily, December 23, 2022).
The articles seek to make the case that Chinese-style modernization theory not only aligns with China’s reality, but also embodies the laws of socialist construction and the development of human society. People’s Daily claims this theory enables mankind to have a new understanding of modernization issues and shows a new direction and bright prospects for modernization (People’s Daily, December 19, 2022). Even though this narrative should be understood as China’s ambition to showcase this universalistic development model, the economic “miracle” has also generated challenges. Interestingly, due to its large population, China’s development faces immense environmental pressures and resource constraints. As a result, in order to achieve modernization, the Chinese “must embark on a path different from that of Western countries” (People’s Daily, December 20, 2022). The December 23 “Intersection of Thoughts” article claims that one of the major contributions of Chinese-style modernization to human modernization, in general, is that it has been proved in practice that economic development and ecological and environmental protection exist in a dialectical, unified and complementary relationship. Building an ecological civilization and promoting green and low-carbon circular development can meet the growing needs of the people (People’s Daily, December 23, 2022).
However, what is now critical for the CCP is determining how to respond to the current times of rapid change, which are characterized by an increasing absence of peace, development, security, and governance. People’s Daily sometimes uses the metaphor of a “giant ship” for China that can cleave through the waves and forge ahead in an indomitable manner under the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics (People’s Daily, December 26, 2022). In between lines, the paper also sees the Chairman as a “great helmsman” without whom the country would collapse (People’s Daily, December 22, 2022). As Xi Jinping is an inexperienced economist and practitioner, studying theory has been given priority and should guide practice. Promoting Chinese-style modernization is a long-term and arduous social revolution that cannot be separated from the guidance of scientific theories (People’s Daily, December 19, 2022).
According to general popular belief, the Chinese system operates better within a dictated framework than through coordinated politics. However, the zero-COVID lockdowns illustrated that neither the top-down framework nor the coordinated model of governance worked to the degree that the central government desired. As the theoretical section of People’s Daily does not directly address the zero-COVID policy, but rather only incentivizes its readership with the promise of an upcoming “leap to a higher position,” one might be tempted to suggest that the last three years of lockdowns, which brought major economic disruption to the country, have been artificially created in order to portray Xi as the great savior of the country.
As state planners in Beijing have predicted, the economic slowdown engendered and deepened by the Zero-COVID policy, might soon reverse, becoming a more eye-catching economic recovery, with propaganda successfully translating this conception into reality. Furthermore, the country’s Zero-COVID failure which was unsurprisingly not directly mentioned in “An Intersection of Thoughts,” will be utilized by CCP propaganda to give the chairman an honorary position in Chinese history and declare that China’s economy has begun to “leap to a higher position.” The Zero-COVID policy, as framed by Chinese propaganda, could be presented as a historical challenge that was only met under Xi’s guidance and leadership, thereby allowing the country to “conclude a historical period and enter a new era.” However, as revealed in the “An Intersection of Thoughts” section of People’s Daily, the most significant issue for Chinese-style modernization is environmental pollution. In this regard, apart from the economic recovery being named a “leap,” the environmental issue may be presented as Xi’s biggest theoretical input to Marxist-Leninist doctrine.
The development-environment nexus within the current dialectical approach, as introduced in People’s Daily, allows the Central Party School to organize the new narratives about Xi’s contributions to the universal logic of socialism. However, this is not merely a propaganda problem. The environmental quandaries are listed in the 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP) with seven out of eight binding indicators concerning environmental protection, e.g. reducing carbon dioxide emissions and per capita energy consumption (Gov.cn, March 13, 2021). The second major issue ahead of the Second Plenum is to stimulate domestic consumption and promote high-quality development, thus ensuring more ways to redistribute wealth among the people. However, as the economic data shows, domestic consumption has fallen over the course of 2022. Retail sales were down 5.9 percent year-on-year in November 2022, and the increase in per capita consumption had slowed to just 1.5 percent year-on-year growth in the third quarter of 2022 (China Briefing, December 26, 2022). This means that this “new leap” could involve encouraging people to take more responsibility for the country’s development and leaving the market to decide the allocation of resources, but with the government “keeping a tight rein on” strategic technology sectors, which guarantees the state a continued key role in China’s economy.
This brief was prepared with a qualitative analysis of “An intersection of thoughts” (思想纵横) section published in “People’s Daily” between December 1 and 31, 2022.
Dominik Mierzejewski: head of the Centre for Asian Affairs (University of Lodz); Professor at Department of Asian Studies at the Faculty of International and Political Studies (University of Lodz); Chinese language studies at Shanghai International Studies University; visiting professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing; the principal investigator in grants supported by the National Science Centre (Poland), Horizon 2020, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; specializes in the rhetoric of Chinese diplomacy, political transformation of the PRC and the role of provinces in Chinese foreign policy.