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State Messaging about China's 20th Party Congress on Chinese Social Media



File:18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

In this blogpost CDP member Dr Gillian Bolsover analyses the social media discourse surrounding the recent National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

The National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is the most important event in the Chinese political calendar. Held every five years, the National Congress is an event of political theatre at which top-level leadership changes are announced and major policy directions are outlined in speeches. The 20th National Congress took place in Beijing between Sunday 16th and Saturday 22nd October.

This congress marked an important occasion: the start of an expected third five-year term for Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping. After Mao, the CCP introduced a term limit of two consecutive five-year terms for the presidency to prevent establishment of a cult of personality around one single leader. However, Xi formally abolished this term limit allowing him to continue his rule for a third term and potentially indefinitely.

Xi opened the Congress with a two-hour-long speech that was expected to set the tone for his next five years in office. The speech suggested that China's zero-COVID policy - characterised by forced quarantines, mass lockdowns, mandatory testing and digital surveillance - was set to continue. China's economy has been hugely impacted by the zero-COVID policy but there was little hint of major economic reform. However, by far the most remarked on aspects of the speech concerned Xi's words on Taiwan.

Xi said that China will "never promise to give up on the use of force and reserves the option of taking all necessary measures." He continued that "complete reunification of the motherland will surely be achieved" and that the "historical wheels of national reunification and national rejuvenation are moving forward and the complete reunification of the motherland must be realised and can be realised." Many commentators saw this language as signalling an increased likelihood of military action against Taiwan in Xi's third term, leading The Guardian to ask 'Could Xi Follow Putin’s Example and Try to Annex Taiwan?', Voice of America to ask ' Will China Try to Take Taiwan in Xi’s Third Term?' and the Telegraph to state that ' Xi Jinping Wants to Seize Taiwan “on Much Faster Timeline” than Previously Thought.'

However, these reports are based almost exclusively on Xi Jinping's speech and expert commentary on that speech. Although the speech has given reporters and analysts indications of the publicised direction of Xi Jinping's historic third term, it is only one single text. However, much more can be learned about China's intended messages about its foreign policy plans in the speech by the nature and content of Chinese state propaganda efforts on domestic social media, as the CCP has a long history of cultivating domestic nationalism through its patriotic education campaigns.

In a recently published data memoI present an analysis of discourse in hot (trending) topics on the Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo around Xi's opening speech of the CCP National Congress. I find a very homogenised information environment, which serves part of a wider narrative of widespread unity and support around Xi's messages. Nine of the ten top hot topics during the period under investigation concern the CCP congress and within these the main substantive focus is Taiwan and foreign/military policy.

As expected, discourse within these topics is highly controlled. All posts come from either the media or police, judicial or public security state organs. This is much more focused on official voices than foreign policy discussion on Weibo on Taiwan during a less politically sensitive time. Also unusual is the form of this messaging, although retweeting is usually very common on the Weibo platform, none of these messages are retweets. Instead, these news organisations and state organs are posting identical original messages, quoting the same sections of the speech or the same information, and using the same adjectives and descriptors to refer to the speech. This results in a homogenised and repetitive information environment around the 20th Party Congress on Sina Weibo, which increases the power of this messaging since information seems more truthful when it is repeated.

The content of these propaganda messages struck a delicate discursive balance in two main ways. Firstly, the most publicised of Xi's messages on Taiwan was: solving the Taiwan issue is the Chinese people's business. This message is consistent with previous messaging that any other country's support of Taiwan's democratic political system is "meddling" in China's internal affairs. However, this also presents an interesting contradiction because in presenting the solving of the Taiwan "issue" as the Chinese people's business it ignores the feelings of the vast majority of the Taiwanese people, who are included as Chinese in Xi's discourse.

In order to get around this issue, Xi frames China's activity as "aimed at the interference of external forces and the very few "Taiwan independence" separatists and their separatist activities and is by no means aimed at the majority of Taiwan compatriots." This representation of the views of Taiwanese on the political future of their island is not backed up by data. Polls by the national election study centre in Taiwan for the past 17 years have consistently found only a small minority of individuals supporting reunification.

In order to bolster this weak point of the justification for China's reunification, social media messaging around Xi's speech included a number of CCP-supporting Hong Kong and Taiwan media organisations who posted about the specific support of "relevant" Taiwanese political parties for Xi and the National Congress. It was notable that only these organisations, which largely target individuals in and around these border areas, posted this additional information that strengthened ideas of support of the Taiwanese and precedent for reunification in Taiwanese policy.

A second delicate balance was communicated in state propaganda messaging around ideas of maintaining peace by preparing for war. The second most disseminated quote from Xi's speech was: China will never seek hegemony and never engage in expansion. This is another delicate act of legitimation, seemingly designed to counter the opposing arguments to China's planned reunification. This constructs the idea that not only would military force to reunify China not be an act of aggressive expansion but also that China would never engage in expansion. This phrasing has a secondary implication of attempting to undermine those voices who might call CCP forceful reunification of Taiwan an act of aggression as this is something China would 'never' do. Thus, to accuse the CCP of planning or considering an aggressive act of territorial expansion would be an affront to China.

Interestingly the third most disseminated quote from Xi’s speech - we must comprehensively strengthen training and preparations for war - were extended, at points, from being simply about military preparation but also to the training and preparation of the people.  Although subtle, I argue in the data memo that, given the CCP’s history of cultivating domestic nationalism and numerous instances of grass-roots activities inspired by that nationalistic messaging, it will be important to pay attention to this. The extent to which  the Chinese state's messaging to the Chinese people emphasises not just discursive justifications for Taiwanese reunification (forceful if necessary) but also the extent to which this messaging might be designed to actively mobilise citizens may be an important indicator of China's intended policy toward Taiwan during Xi's history third term.

Read more about this and the data underpinning these insights here