Tifa Time! The Role of Slogans in Chinese Politics

If you follow events in China, then most likely the “Four Comprehensives” popped up in your mail box, your time line or your Twitter feed during the last couple of days. This slogan refers to Xi Jinping’s contribution to political theory. Each generation of leaders, or each paramount leader, is supposed to add to what has been called the “theory system with Chinese characteristics” since the Hu-Wen Era, making sure that there is both a sense of continuation with older theories and a sense of innovation with each new generation of leaders.

A quick summary: So far, we have Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, Jiang Zemin’s Important Thought of the “Three Represents”, Hu and Wen’s Scientific Development Outlook,  and now Xi’s Four Comprehensives. The Four Comprehensives fit a lot better into the tradition of dry-sounding, seemingly empty formulations than the “Chinese Dream”, which had previously been rumored to be Xi’s contribution to CCP theory.

That said, slogans, or specific formulations (tifa 提法), aren’t limited to the theoretical contributions of top leaders, even though these may be the most prominent examples. In fact, they are everywhere in Chinese politics. These specific formulations are among the reasons why Chinese texts, speeches or documents can be difficult to understand and often become even more obscure in translation. As Qian Gang, former managing editor at the Southern Weekly (Nanfang zhoumo 南方周末) and now a head researcher at Hong Kong University’s China Media Project studying these formulations, stated,

To outsiders, the political catchphrases deployed by China’s top leaders seem like the stiffest sort of nonsense. What do they mean when they drone on about the “Four Basic Principles,” or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”?

Nonetheless, Qian Gang argues, tifa, or what is translated as “watchwords” in his writing, are essential to understanding the CCP and the direction in which it is moving. If you haven’t taken a look at Qian Gang’s work, I strongly recommend you check it out.

I developed a bit of a fascination for slogans myself while trying to decipher documents and policy directives on China’s external propaganda work. I’ve written a little bit about it in my doctoral thesis (see pp. 217-224 in particular). One thing that’s been particularly interesting to me is how slogans are used to communicate and translate central policies (方針政策) into local and sectoral policies, and this is the function of slogans I want to talk about in this article.

Tracking and understanding slogans can be very helpful for understanding Chinese politics, but I have also found that their function is more complex than simply indicating the CCP’s overall political direction or who is winning a particular political struggle (though that is an important function as well). They are also an important tool in policy making and implementation, a shorthand for complex and regionally different policy programs. At least this is my conclusion after wading through countless policy documents and speeches and their interpretation of the central and local level in the propaganda sector and the occasional cursory look at other sectors.

So how does this work? Basically, a leader gives a speech, an important newspaper publishes an article, or a bureaucratic organization issues a new policy directive. These kinds of texts tend to be dense, often consisting of long lists of slogan after slogan, both old and new. People in organizations affected by this new text are then asked to study it and its “spirit” (jingshen 精神) and come up with ways to apply it to their own work. In the case of many central documents, that can mean the whole Chinese bureaucracy; in other cases, a text may only be relevant for a particular sector.

Oftentimes, you can also watch a slogan or document trickle down through the bureaucracy. Say Liu Qibao 刘奇葆, the head of the Central Propaganda Department, gives a speech at the Annual Central Work Plenum for Propaganda and Thought Work. Attendants will then “discuss” it and likely get some further clues as to how to interpret and implement certain things. They might already be asked to think about how to turn some slogans into concrete policies in their home departments. Later during the year, the provinces will convene their own annual propaganda conferences, and the delegates to the central conference as well as some other central-level bureaucrats will be there to discuss speeches and texts with attendants, giving participants some oral instructions on how to interpret slogans and asking them to come up with concrete measures of their own and report them to the higher-ups. These steps are then repeated at levels even further down the bureaucracy.

The slogans will then show up in local documents, both public and internal. At the public level, they will seem like meaningless lists of empty words, but internally, concrete policies will be explained orally or in writing. So in the papers, both central and local, you see a list of shorthands, but people at each level of the bureaucracy tasked with implementing new policies will have a better idea what these slogans mean in the overall (全局) interpretation and for them, concretely, target numbers and quotas included.

Needless to say, since slogans change their concrete meaning (sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically), context is important in order to understand them properly. If you happen to have a concrete definition of how the policy program of the “Four Comprehensives” is supposed to be translated into action at the Propaganda Department of Haidian District in Beijing over the next couple of months (and no, I don’t), it will be different from the concrete policy program Anning County in Yunnan comes up with. Makes sense. Having one program or local interpretation of the policy package might give you some broad clues how the “Four Comprehensives” is interpreted elsewhere (though not always).

Take the example liang shou zhua (liang shou dou yao ying) 兩手抓(兩手都要硬), “grasping with both hands (both hands have to be strong)”. In its most basic meaning, it has referred to the need to not only pay attention to economic development, but also propaganda and ideology post-1989 (see for example Brady, Marketing Dictatorship, 2008, pp. 44-45). But I’ve found the same slogan used in many different contexts and with different meanings. For example, I’ve seen it as “developing the Internet while at the same time managing/controlling it”, “quantitatively expanding China’s global media while also ensuring that the quality improves”, “continuing to pay attention to domestic propaganda while also ensuring that external propaganda is expanded”, etc. etc. This is only a small sample of meanings, and it’s only taken from the media and propaganda sector. All of these meanings will also invariably have different concrete policy measures attached to them. Sometimes, the concrete meaning is highly related to the “overall” or “original” meaning of a slogan; sometimes the concrete meaning may be more of a stretch. So what’s important when reading Chinese political documents is to be aware that there are many many concrete meanings to any slogan.

To conclude, this is a pretty basic description of how slogans are used in policy-making, and further research is needed to fine-tune it and get a better understanding of the process. I am not going to declare that this form of handing down and translating slogans into concrete policy measures is the perfect way of policy making. But there are some advantages to this, particularly from the perspective of the CCP. It allows the Party to provide a basic linguistic framework for policy-making, offering a sense of unity and continuity while at the same time giving local and sectoral bureaucracies some leeway to come up with policies that match the “local conditions”, another important concept in the CCP’s political vocabulary.