Less than twenty-four hours ago, Xi Jinping was officially confirmed for his third term as President of the People’s Republic of China at the Two Sessions meetings in Beijing. This ribbon-tying exercise completes a package of norm-shattering consolidation of power put in place last fall at the 22nd National People’s Congress. At each iteration, the NPC shuffles and updates the power structure within the China Communist Party and, a half-year later, the Two Sessions then translates those positions of power into the State Council and other organs of national administration. The CCP controls the “goods” of authority and power, the State Council just “delivers” them.

Faces of the Three Phases of US-PRC Relations

In the week leading up to Xi’s securing a historic third term as President at this year’s Two Sessions, there was a war of words between China and the U.S. about the future of the U.S.-China relationship and, by extension, the world. Over the next week, I will peel back a couple of layers of that particular onion including my thoughts on the role being played by Qin Gang, Xi’s newly-appointed Foreign Minister fresh from his most recent assignment as Ambassador to the United States.

As for today, the focus is on highly-encoded pronouncements…

Politically, the Chinese Communist Party has a well-established practice of formulating, and telegraphing, its most-determined policy directions in Five Year Plans and in periodic, quite abstruse revisions to the pantheon of CCP ideology (such as the replacement of Deng Xiaoping’s “great international circulation” theory by Xi’s “dual circulation” theory in 2020). Although highly-revealing of PRC political intentions, this is head-spinning stuff and requires both facility with the Chinese language and a questing spirit to enter the labyrinth of PRC ideological discourse.

There is a simpler, pithier way to read the tea-leaves, however. Culturally, the Chinese language has a genius for encoding highly complex thinking in short bursts of characters, as illustrated most commonly by the pervasive use of 成语 four-character expressions. This predisposition to distill complexity into concise character sets shows itself in occasional 24-character sets of instruction delivered by China’s top leaders. Very occasional, highly formulaic, deeply revealing.

Until this year’s Two Sessions, the last of these had been delivered by Deng Xiaoping in 1990, following the convulsion of Tiananmen and in the lead-up to his recommitment to capitalism with Chinese characteristics during his Southern Tour. That 24 character edit read:

冷静观察 Observe calmly

稳住阵脚 secure our position

沉着应付 cope with affairs calmly

韬 光养晦 hide our capacities and bide our time

善于守拙 be good at maintaining a low profile

决不当头 never claim leadership

During the past week’s Two Sessions, Xi Jinping provided his oracular update to Deng Xiaoping’s pronouncement (and, in so doing, continued his program of positioning himself center-stage with Mao and relegating Deng to the wings). Xi’s version reads:

沉着冷静 Be calm

保持定力 keep determined

 稳中求进 seek progress & stability

积极作为 be proactive & achieve things

团结一致 unite (under the banner of the party)

敢于斗争 dare to fight

As with Chinese four character expressions, a few words can speak volumes. Xi’s words — and his insertions of change within a decades-old formula of continuity — speak for themselves.

P.S. I am indebted to Moritz Rudolf for his translation of these two 24-character auguries. His translation is better than mine would have been.