Scattered Thoughts on Xi Jinping's Hot Words

Since January 2015 at least, the official website of the Chinese Communist Party has been carrying articles on the vocabulary Xi Jinping uses to talk about corruption and politics writ large. Two examples are "Xi Jinping's Anticorruption Great Vernacular" (习近平的反腐“大白话”), and “Two years' of Xi Jinping's hot words” (这两年,习近平带火的12个热词). These and similar articles have gone unnoticed, perhaps because they are a collection of quotes from Xi Jinping's books (as the one on the Three Severe and Three Real ), and therefore they are deemed to provide little factual information on ongoing events. 

It is well known how Xi Jinping's prose and speeches are often enhanced by quotations from the classics. His references to Confucius and other past philosophers have led commentators to advance the theses of a comeback of Confucian ideas, or the resurrection of legalist philosophies, or both. These comments and analyses apart, Xi Jinping's quotations are normally taken with more than just a grain of skepticism. Western scholars of Chinese law-and-politics have interpreted his references to the past as signaling the enduring influence of Maoism, albeit under a different guise. Alternatively, Xi's quotes have been dismissed as Communist gobbledygook, ridiculed or outright ignored. Not everybody reads the Renmin Ribao or Qiushi on a regular basis - these publications do not make an easy reading. Sometimes, even Chinese friends admit to not knowing what locutions such as “Three Severe and Three Real” or “Three Represents” mean. 

The launch of new values, policies or coordinated actions (the Four Nevers, the Three Severe and Three Real, Socialist Core Values, Balancing Severity and Leniency etc.) has been normally met either with indifference or with criticism.  Criticism has moved along two lines. 

The first one of them holds that the vagueness and broadness of labels as “The Four Nevers” or any other legal or political formulation are intentional, and used to reach certain outcomes. The choice of a vague language can indeed be intentional but, statements to the effect that the choice of vague words in the law, or of a vague term to refer to a policy are indeed intentional carry with them the important implication that readers can glimpse inside the mind of the author, and come to know why the author made such a choice. The point of whether the author's intention can be known, and how, remains debated - with such debates taking place outside of the domain of Chinese law. Various approaches, evidences and techniques may be used to know the author's intention. This endeavour is valuable if and only if it is assumed that the intention of those who first named a policy or drafted a piece of legislation is knowable, and that their intention is more important than the intention of those who interpret and implement policies, or enforce the law. Aside from this, polysemy is a property of all those words that have not just one but multiple meanings. “Vagueness” may be an inherent feature of language as such, rather than being a prerogative of post-1949 Chinese political language, or a deliberate choice of the law-maker. 

This feature of language raises the question about the methods Western scholars of Chinese law and Chinese politics are using to deal with pluralities and ambiguities of meaning in political-legal language. A significant risk is that the encounter with words which are ambiguous, polysemic or vague may prompt the Western interpreter to single out only one of their meanings, normally the meaning that is closer to the political and legal context within which the Western interpreter operates, and use that meaning either to tease out alleged contradictions internal policy, or to provide an interpretation of what “Balancing Severity and Leniency” (kuanyan xiangji 宽严相济) or “Socialist Core Values” means. As a result, the Western interpreter will either move a rhetorical challenge to a policy, or else construct an interpretation that may not correspond to how “Balancing Severity and Leniency” is understood and used by all those who, having spent years in the criminal justice system, and having had ample exposure to this chengyu in their daily lives, have a tacit knowledge of what “Balancing Severity of Leniency” refers to. 

The second line of criticism has denounced the periodic resurfacing of quotes from the classics as signalling a return to ideologies of the past, such as Confucianism, Legalism, or Maoism. That a quote such as “balancing severity and leniency” (kuanyan xiangji 宽严相济) appears in political discourse may not necessarily signal that, rhetorical moves apart, Confucianism is making a comeback as an ideology. An understanding of what “balancing severity and leniency” meant in this or that classical text should be propaedeutic to any further analysis of criminal policy. This understanding should be augmented by the consideration that any vocabulary, no matter how broad and rich it may be, will always be limited in its scope. Given how words that can be used to express new ideas in political discourse are given and limited, changes in policy can only be articulated through pre-existing words, four-letter words (chengyu), quotations from the classics, or by drawing on China's tradition of political slogans. 

Despite their iconographically unchanging nature, Confucius or Hanfeizi quotes or even the “dagger handle” (刀把子 daobazi) of political-legal organs (a dagger handle which, according to Xi Jinping's quotations, should be firmly held within the hands of the Party), do acquire a different meaning over time. As it is being argued from various quarters in continental Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia, perhaps more nuanced attempts to understand the subtleties of the language of politics-and-law could be made.

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