Most Chinese people know that in just a few days, Xi Jinping is expected to be promoted to the country's highest seat of power. This is despite the fact that no newspaper in China has reported on the widely anticipated succession.
The media blackout stands in stark contrast to the election in the United States where the policies and chances of the candidates have been analyzed and discussed for months in China’s state-backed media.
This may seem odd for a country with a multi-billion-dollar media industry, but Li Datong, a prominent Beijing journalist, says it’s what people expect.
“There is no need to report on this,” Li says. “The common people already know, and they have guessed who it would be from Xi Jinping's unusual promotions.”
State media have detailed the rapid political rise of Xi Jinping throughout the years, as well as that of other politicians whose promotion at this week's Communist Party congress is less certain.
Looking for 'subtle cues'
In a country where the political system remains highly opaque, newsreaders rely on subtle cues such as repeated key terms to figure out not only who the next leaders will be, but also what their policies might look like.
Qian Gang, a research fellow at Hong Kong University's China Media Project, studies political slogans as they are published on Chinese news outlets. He believes that in the absence of a more transparent political debate, those slogans help Chinese understand the temperature and direction of the country’s politics.
“Political change in China over the past 60 years has been attended by change in the meaning and frequency of political watchwords,” Qian writes on his China Media Project blog. “Some terms, like 'class struggle,' have faded into the past. Others, like 'political reform,' have run hot and cold.”
According to Qian Gang's research, "reform of the political system" was an important catchphrase during the 1980s when high-ranking leaders like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang attempted to relax the party's grip on people's freedoms. But after the heavy crackdown on mass demonstrations in 1989, the phrase lost its prominence in Chinese newspapers, signaling that the leadership had chosen deepening economic reforms over political change.
Starting around the year 2007, Premier Wen Jiabao revived the term when he started advocating for "zhengzhi gaige" as the expression "political reform" reads in Chinese, and the phrase’s appearance surged again in Chinese newspapers.
“He wants history to remember him as someone who advocated for political reform and for universal values,” says Li Datong, “he knows that his time is up, and that he did not do anything [concrete] on political reform.”
Hu has his own slogans
Outgoing President Hu Jintao may be remembered for his insistence on “stability preservation” and the promotion of what is called a "harmonious society."
Ever since the turmoil of the cultural revolution, Chinese leaders have stressed the need for social cohesion with slogans like “stability above everything else,” but Hu Jintao shortened the expression into a two character word: weiwen, or stability preservation.
“This is a political word for cadres at all levels, and it means that nothing can be done, that no reform can be attempted,” Li says.
Li was fired from his job as managing editor of the state-backed newspaper China Youth Daily in 2007 after he denounced the extent of censorship over his work. He calls ‘stability preservation’ a “dead kind of social stability” similar to a stagnant pond.
Expected leader Xi Jinping has so far refrained from expressing independent policy views before his appointment as Communist Party chief. Li Datong says this is common for new leaders, and in fact repeating the most common slogans may be a key requirement for politicians with ambition to rise to the top.
“In China there are many old sayings that express one concept, that you are safe when you are like everyone else,” Li says. “If you are exceptional you cannot become a leader.”
However, in 2010 when Xi was already assumed to be Hu Jintao's successor, Chinese media reported on a comment he made during a meeting of the party congress. “The power is given by the people,” he said, “and it is used by the people.”
Xi was elaborating on an earlier slogan by Hu Jintao that called on party cadres to consider the people's interests when exercising their power. The implications of Xi's addendum, that the party's legitimacy comes from citizens, has led to speculation that the next group of rulers may be more interested in pursuing reform.
Li Datong cautions against that reading however, saying that most times in China political words do not mean action.
“One of the characteristics of the Communist Party in China is that they speak beautiful words, even more beautiful than the president of the United States, but in reality they do not do anything,” he said.
Ultimately, Li says that China’s leaders will be judged by the more universal political standard of evaluating their legacy based on what they do, not what they say.