Counting Speeches to Understand Xi Jinping

In her 2018 article for The International Journal of Afro-Asian Studies, “Translating Xi Jinping’s speeches: China’s search for discursive power between ‘political correctness’ and ‘external propaganda,'” Tanina Zappone presents an interesting figure:

Zappone used the five volumes of Selected Works of Mao Zedong, the three volumes of the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, the two volumes of the Selected Works of Jiang Zemin, and the then two volumes of Xi’s Governance of China to make this list. She does not explain how she decides her classifications.[1] Having read the two volumes of Governance of China that she uses for the Xi numbers, I am a bit nervous about the results, as many of the speeches could easily fit under multiple categories. But for the point Zappone wants to make with this figure–the unusual rhetorical attention Xi Jinping has paid to foreign affairs–I have less objection to, for most of the “diplomacy” speeches were given in international venues where their diplomatic nature is obvious.

A similar attempt to count up speeches occurs in Min Ye’s The Belt Road and Beyond: State-Mobilized Globalization in China 1998–2018. Ye wants to discover which individuals and institutions are most invested in the Belt and Road, and so graphs up all of the speeches that have been given on it. Here are her tabulations:

Her own description of the figure goes as follows:

 Figure 5.1 shows that political leaders, as represented by the Politburo standing members, include senior officials in charge of party organization, propaganda, politics and law, legislature, finance, security, and internal affairs. They made sixty-nine speeches on the BRI from 2013 to 2016, of which President Xi accounted for the majority at thirty-nine speeches (55%), while Premier Li made only nine speeches and Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli made fourteen. President Xi not only delivered most of the remarks on the BRI but also defined the vision, ideas, and principles of the BRI. President Xi was directly involved in external promotion, signing major BRI contracts and projects abroad.[2]

Zhang Gaoli is given special attention because he was, for the time covered, the head of the Leading Small Group over the BRI. Many of these BRI addresses would have occurred abroad, when Xi met with a foreign leader to showcase BRI Memorandums of Understanding. It would be poor optics to have anyone else handle that task. But even with this sort of inflation taken into account,  there is something unusual and noteworthy in this pattern of speeches. Once again we find Xi Jinping devoting an unusual amount of rhetorical attention to foreign policy, in this case his signature foreign policy initiative.

The story becomes more interesting if you take seriously the arguments put forward in the rest of  Ye’s book, and echoed elsewhere, that most of the business deals and infrastructure projects that have come under the BRI rubric would have happened anyways. I think this is true: Xi Jinping did not create the BRI so much as rebrand a process that was already happening. The Belt and Road Initiative is in many ways less an attempt to transform China’s role in the world than it is an attempt to transform the narrative of China’s changing role.

I wish less analysts asked, “What did Xi hope to accomplish by creating the Belt and Road?” and instead wondered, “What did Xi hope to accomplish by associating the SOE infrastructure-industrial complex so closely with his personal foreign policy?”

Readers interested in exploring more of my writing on the Xi Jinping or his Belt and Road may find the posts “The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road,” “Xi Jinping and the Laws of History,” “The World That China Wants,” and “Two Case Studies in Communist Insecurity” of interest.   To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanina Zappone, ” “Translating Xi Jinping’s speeches: China’s search for discursive power between ‘political correctness’ and ‘external propaganda,'” The International Journal of Afro-Asian Studies 22 (2018), 260.

[2] Min Ye, The Belt Road and Beyond: State-Mobilized Globalization in China 1998–2018 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 122.

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