Watchwords: The Life of the Party

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”? Most Chinese are outsiders too, unable to say exactly, for example, the meaning of a “scientific view of development.”

But understanding what the Chinese Communist Party is saying — the vocabularies it uses and why — is fundamental for anyone who hopes to makes sense of the topsy-turvy world of Chinese politics.

As a Leninist party, the Chinese Communist Party has always placed a strong emphasis on propaganda. It is infatuated with sloganeering, and it often turns to mass mobilization to achieve its political objectives. The phrases used by the Party are known as tifa (提法) — what, for the purpose of this series, I am calling “watchwords.” Matters of considerable nuance, tifa are always used deliberately, never profligately. They can be seen as political signals or signposts.