China watchers: Moving with the times

January 24, 2019 08:31
Certain "blazing hot" terms that occurred frequently in People's Daily in the past year are all associated with President Xi Jinping. Photo: Bloomberg

The Soviet Union, along with its status as a superpower, is no more, though Russia still has weapons capable of destroying the world many times over.

That superpower mantle is now snugly wrapped around the shoulders of China, which has also inherited Winston Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

Tens of thousands of China specialists work around the clock to understand that mysterious package. Up to the 1970s, China watchers only had available the official People’s Daily newspaper, which they pored over to extract scraps of information, such as which officials were present on what occasion, and whose name preceded whose. 

Up to his death in 1990, there was the China watcher par excellence, the Jesuit scholar Laszlo Ladany, who spent much of his life listening to Chinese broadcasts and analyzing official Chinese documents.  

Although China is much more open today, textual analysis still yields fascinating information, as research at the independent China Media Project in Hong Kong shows. 

Qian Gang, a veteran journalist and media scholar who started his career in the late 1970s as a reporter for the People’s Liberation Army Daily and later became managing editor of the leading paper Southern Weekly, is a project co-director.

As the project’s website says, Qian “focuses on the evolving political discourse of the Chinese Communist Party as revealed through official state media”. 

The amazing fruits of that inquiry are reflected in the China Discourse Report 2018, which he released on the second last day of the year. 

Certain terms, such as the names of deceased leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, occur frequently. Mao, as founding father, is still revered in China, despite his disastrous Cultural Revolution. Deng, who launched China on the road to economic prosperity, lags behind him. 

Thus, Qian says, while you can say that Deng is “hot”, Mao is “red hot” in terms of how frequently their names appear in the People’s Daily.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Deng’s reform and opening policy, and so there was an uptick in the appearance of his name, as well as of the term “reform and opening”, which was elevated from “red hot” to “blazing hot”. But Deng remained merely hot, with Mao red hot. 

There were three other terms in the “blazing hot” category. All had to do with the current leader, Xi Jinping. 

They were “Belt and Road”, his signature development strategy, “Xi Jinping Thought of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, which provides a blueprint for development, and the “19th Congress”, which wrote this guiding policy into the party constitution in 2017, before it was enshrined in the state constitution. 

The trade war started in spring 2018 and textual analysis of the People’s Daily yields quite dramatic findings. At mid-year, the People’s Daily reported “stable expectations” on its front page, with the article saying “Our country’s economy maintains overall stability”. So the message was not to worry because all is well.

This comforting message appeared three times in the first half of 2018, but it appeared 48 times in the second half of the year. Presumably, there was a greater need for reassurance after the commencement of the trade war.  

Another noticeable difference as the year progressed was a toning down of the boastfulness in the official Chinese media. 

A state-produced documentary called "Amazing, My Country” – translated as “Amazing China” – became the highest-grossing documentary of all time in March 2018. 

“The documentary was a boastful paean to the great technological and economic achievements China has made, particularly under the leadership of President Xi Jinping,” Qian wrote. “The documentary was loudly trumpeted by state media through March. But, tellingly, the film was pulled from store shelves in China toward last spring.” 

Use of other terms that reflected China’s early confidence, such as “Made in China 2025” on the country’s industrial development strategy and “China Solution”, which suggested China’s model for development could be emulated by other countries, also underwent a dramatic change. 

They were far more prevalent in the first six months than in the rest of the year, suggesting that the Chinese leadership was responding to changes in the international environment. 

So, it appears, in these days of real-time communications, the staid People’s Daily can be forced to yield its secrets with the use of modern technology, which enables the search of databases containing millions of articles published over seven decades in little more than the blink of an eye. This surely surpasses the dreams of China watchers in Maoist times.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.