Chinese Politics and Wishful Thinking

Recent comments by Chinese premier and media darling Wen Jiabao have made waves in the China observing community. On a recent trip to Shenzhen, the city where Deng Xiaoping announced his great economic reforms, Wen said: “We need not only to promote economic reform, but must also promote political system reforms. Without the guarantee provided by political system reforms, the results of economic reform will be lost, and the goal of modernization cannot be achieved.

As usual he did not elaborate on what exactly he means by political systems reform. For all I know it could mean that he is jockeying for his own protégé to take power after Hu Jintao steps down. Chinese political rhetorics are mostly devoid of literal meaning, catering to a closed audience of party members and only mimicking Western talk of democracy so as to throw would-be critics off guard.

I remember when I was living in Hong Kong I developed a small dictionary of what Communist jingo actually meant.

“Democracy”: Whatever the Chinese Communist Party does;

“Harmonious society”: suppressing dissent;

“One country – two systems”: Beijing decides; etc.

This article has the same idea and adds the real meaning for the term “Political system reform” to the list. It means tinkering with the internal workings of the Party, not undermining the Party’s monopoly on power.

China and everything Chinese is the subject of intense scrutiny these day but when political leaders speak in terms that are so completely removed from reality whoever has the time and access to a computer is free to come up with his or her interpretation.

Not everyone, however, is content with simply guessing or projecting own values onto the CCP and have instead resorted to science to figure out what the talking heads are on about.

The techniques are actually similar to what I encountered back when I was studying classical Japanese at university. Classical Japanese, like Latin, is a so-called dead language in the sense that no one speaks it as their mother tongue and no one can therefore say with authority that one interpretation is more correct than another. Lacking authoritative references linguistic researchers resort to giving qualified guesses. They will for example spend a year counting the number of instances that the grammatical particle “が” appears in Kojiki, interpreting each of them (is it signifier of agens, subject or possession or something else an how does it compare with “は“) and finally counting and comparing the contexts in which it appears.

It’s like linguistic archeology and some people get a massive buzz out of stuff like that.

Another example of vague authoritative references combined with massive wishful thinking is the concept of “jihad” in Islam. What does it actually mean? Is it an inner or outer struggle or both? Do the central texts reveal a relative weight in emphasis between the two interpretations? Researchers in this case also count the instances that the term appears and then look at the contexts to gather an opinion. It turns out that both in the Qur’an and in Bhukari’s hadith collection, jihad is almost exclusively connected with violence and warfare. Go figure…

In the case of Chinese politics researchers are left equally unsure of what anyone is talking about – and if what they are saying has meaning outside the specific context of a National Congress. Researchers therefore resort to the same tools as above to find out what a particular word means when it comes out of the mouth a Chinese political leader.

At the 17th National Congress back in 2007 the term “political system reform” was also hot on the agenda and one researcher decided to subject Hu Jintao’s speeches to linguistic analysis. Although it was positively established that the term did in fact appear, it was found that it had declined in relative importance compared to how it appeared in 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th congress reports.

The term also appeared in the mouth of Wen Jiabao himself when he used it at the National People’s Congress back in June. An analysis of subsequent media reports reveal that, as expected, it was all talk and no walk. The conclusion to draw from such an exercise is that the term “political system reform” is in fact empty – when it comes from a CCP official.

However, with the amount of wishful thinking connected with politics in China, there is a large market for ignoring realities and coming up with yet another random analysis.

When Wen Jiabao goes to Shenzhen and makes a few remarks there is sure to be someone out there eager to promote himself as an expert bringing good news.

One blogger writes that: Wen went well off-message. Instead of engaging in platitudes, Wen insisted that strengthening socialism depended on producing political reform to protect the gains that economic restructuring had already provided.

Wen did not stop there. People have the right to criticize and monitor the government, he intoned, and the bureaucracy needs to start paying greater attention to those made most vulnerable by economic success. Wen did not bother to use code words such as “democracy with Chinese characteristics” or “accountability,” and he also lashed out at what he cast as the overcentralized and unrestrained system of power in China. For a trip that was supposed to be a simple celebration of success, Wen’s comments were pointed and profound reminders of what was still lacking.

We probably all agree, Wen Jiabao included, that something in China is still lacking. He is, however, mainly talking about what to do in order to strengthen socialism, i.e. the CCP’s monopoly on power. Any talk of Western style democratic reform is in the mind of the reader. Or in this case the blogger.

Apparently he has enough experience as an “expert” to hedge his analysis on the fact that there is no real evidence to support his conclusion that the CCP is curbing its own power: For now, there is no panic in Party ranks or any signs of the leadership in Beijing losing its grip.

Trust any Chinese politician to build a dam or a highway in record time but Chinese leaders also have a long glorious tradition of talking big about political reforms and not doing anything about it. That includes Wen Jiabao.


  1. Great post Jonas! Yet another article that would be worthy of a book or two and perhaps it's own university course! It would be very interesting to compare what is said, by what is meant between countries and political leaders.

    This reminds me of the Japanese "Honne 本音 and Tatemae 建前" except specifically designed for the political class.

    This has also happened in the USA, especially with the last two Presidents. They use a very broad, general statement that would seem positive but instead means something very specific.

    1. When a politician regrets "the loss of life." – Usually murder was involved and the politician may or may not be responsible for the policies that lead to the murder

    2. Shock and Awe – A very large bomb is going to be dropped

    3. Protecting freedoms – This means war

    4. I'm a bi-partisan – This means the he/she will be extremely partisan

    5. My party can create jobs – Blame the other party for the weak economy. This is just a dig at the party in power, the economy will move on its own regardless of which party is in power.

    6. That's Socialism! – Specific dig at Democrats and all of their policies. Most people who use this one have no idea what it means, but believe it to be something bad.

    7. Lower Taxes – This means increase taxes. (Both parties)

    8. Fair and Balanced – Not fair and extremely unbalanced.

  2. In the odd world of Chinese politics where politicians speak in code-language and no one is usually there to ask them what it really means, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s comments urging "political reform" did apparently manage to spark some courage into reform minded people. Besides increased internet chatter, recently a letter signed by nearly two dozen Chinese Communist Party elders used Wen’ comments as support for blasting the government's clampdown on free expression.
    "We have for 61 years 'served as master' in the name of the citizens of the People's Republic of China," the letter says. "But the freedom of speech and of the press we now enjoy is inferior even to that of Hong Kong before its return to Chinese sovereignty, to that entrusted to the residents of a colony."
    The letter's signatories, now mostly retired, include former top editors of the People's Daily, the official Communist Party mouthpiece, and Xinhua, the state news agency—positions of serious power in China—, as well as a number of other leading journalists and scholars.
    Read more about the letter and surrounding debate in the Wall Street Journal:

    For those interested in China affairs and human rights, be sure not to miss this article featured on our very own Globalcitizenblog ( and here

    The post has some valuable, if also to some extent mind-boggling, translated op-ed comments on and reactions to Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace prize. I hardly see the peace prize as a recognition of Chinese Han culture (as opposed to the works of Gao Xingjian that were first translated into English and then considered for the Nobel Prize for Litterature), as one of the comments states.
    The author of the piece also strangely applauds suppressing the news of the award because then he will not have to listen to nationalist blowhards complaining about foreign interference in Chinese affairs. Well, if he wants democracy then listening to people that he doesn’t agree with will sort of come with the territory.

    Oh, the world of Chinese politics…

Comments are closed.