President Hu Jintao had scarcely settled into office in 2002 when he introduced his own signature watchword to the Party vocabulary. On December 5, 2002, just three weeks after the close of the 16th National Congress, Hu Jintao declared during a visit to Xibaipo, a village with symbolic importance as a Chinese Communist Party base in the late 1940s:
“Leading cadres at all levels must continue to work at the grassroots level, going among the masses, listening to the call of the masses, tending to the hardships of the masses, exercising power for the people, empathizing with the feelings of the people, and working for the well-being of the people.”
This utterance was quickly seized upon by Hong Kong media, which summed it up as the “new three principles of the people,” or xin san min zhuyi, a reference to the political philosophy of Sun Yat-sen, dating to the late 19th century.
On September 1, 2010, Xi Jinping, assumed to be Hu Jintao’s successor ever since he was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th National Congress, called on Party members in a speech at the Central Party School to have a “correct view of the world, of power and of their work.” He said:
. . . The Marxist view of power can be summed up in two phrases: power is given by the people, and power is used for the people.
[ABOVE: The headline on this Xinhua News Agency piece posted to QQ.com reads: "Xi Jinping Describes His View of Power at the Central Party School: Power is Given By the People."]
Xi Jinping’s use of the phrase “power is given by the people,” or quan wei min suo fu, is a conspicuous reference to Hu Jintao’s so-called “new three principles of the people.” What’s more, Xi’s statement builds on Hu’s formula by dealing with the question of the origin of power. Guangdong’s Southern Weekly, one of China’s more outspoken newspapers, seized on this Xi Jinping moment as one of the current affairs bright spots of 2010 in China.
[ABOVE: An online article at Southern Weekly defines Xi Jinping's remarks on the origin and meaning of power at a "bright spot" of 2010.]
Across the border in Hong Kong, commentators were more openly sanguine, certain that this comment from Xi Jinping signaled that the Party’s fifth generation of leaders would jump-start political reform.
[ABOVE: A blog in Hong Kong argues in September 2010 that Xi Jinping's remarks on the origin of power signal that the "fifth generation" of Party leaders will jumpstart political reforms.]
Xi Jinping’s speech was reported by both the People’s Daily and People’s Daily Online:
[ABOVE: The Party's official People's Daily runs a front-page report on Xi Jinping's speech at the Central Party School.]
But the phrase “power is given by the people” is not yet a mature watchword in the Party media. The phrase has never appeared in a headline at the People’s Daily — a coming of age ritual for any Party phrase — and it has appeared in just 11 articles in the People’s Daily in the past two years (to July 2012).
President Hu Jintao’s exact attitude toward this phrase is a matter of speculation. In June 2003, Zhu Houze, a known reform advocate who once served as head of the Party’s Central Propaganda Department, openly elaborated on the “new three principles of the people” at a Party meeting, saying:
Party leaders have demanded that cadres at various levels ‘exercise power for the people, empathize with the feelings of the people, and work for the well-being of the people’ . . . What are we supposed to rely on to make this happen? Is it a matter of consciousness, or of conscience? I think the crux still lies in ‘endowment of power by the people’. This, still, is the system’s most fundamental security.
The phrase used by Zhu Houze, quan wei min suo shou, is identical in meaning to quan wei min suo fu, the phrase Xi Jinping used in 2010. It is rumored, however, that Hu Jintao was displeased with Zhu Houze’s outburst, which went beyond the Party’s responsibilities, to the very root of its legitimacy.
Neither Hu Jintao nor Jiang Zemin have ever uttered language of this kind — raising so directly, in the roundabout world of the watchword, the issue of legitimacy of power. For Xi Jinping to make such a remark about power being “given” by the people was something remarkable.
What had Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao said? In his report to the 15th National Congress, Jiang Zemin said: “Our power is vested in us by the people, every cadre is a public servant of the people, and they must be monitored by the people and by the law.” The difference, which might seem trifling rendered into English, is in fact politically significant.
Jiang repeated the language in his report to the 16th Party Congress five years later, saying: “[We must] ensure that the power vested by the people is used to seek the interests of the people.” And Hu Jintao’s phrasing in his report to the 17th National Congress, parroted Jiang Zemin: “[We must] ensure that the power vested by the people is used, from start to finish, to seek the interests of the people.”
These three instances are in fact far weaker than the idea of power being given by the people as a supplement to the so-called “new three principles of the people,” which spell out the spirit in which power must be exercised and sidestep the legitimacy issue.
While President Hu has not invoked the phrase “power is given by the people,” he has on a number of occasions addressed the issue of the Party’s “ruling status,” or zhizheng diwei. Released by the central Party leadership in 2004, the breathlessly named “Decision on the Strengthening of the Chinese Communist Party’s Ruling Ability” said that “the Party’s ruling status is not a birthright, nor is it permanent.”
In 2008, a lead editorial in the People’s Daily quoted Hu Jintao as saying: “The Party’s core ruling status is not permanent, possession in the past does not equate to possession in the present, and possession in the present does not equate to possession in the future.” In his speech to commemorate the Party’s 90th birthday in 2011, he again emphasized: “Leading cadres at various levels must bear in mind that the power in our hands was vested by the people.”
The appearance of “power is given by the people” in the political report to the 18th National Congress is virtually assured. But will this phrase be repeated and emphasized? This question, which will ultimately be decided by internal power plays, is a matter of wordplay that directly concerns China’s political future.