A revolutionary party learned to survive by wrapping itself in ‘stability’

A word used retrospectively to justify a bloody crackdown has become a commonsense platitude used to explain today’s China, accepted alike by American businessmen and politicians and China’s educated young people. The concept of “maintaining stability” legitimizes and even defines the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including its vast propaganda machine and the apparatus of physical repression that it has become infamous for.

But the idea is a relatively recent invention. None other than Deng Xiaoping—the Party leader who emerged to lead China out of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, opened up its economy, then ordered the Tiananmen Square massacre—came up with it.

“The idea of maintaining stability came after 1989. It was first in one of Deng Xiaoping’s internal talks,” says Chen Kuide, the editor of China In Perspective and former head of the Princeton China Initiative.

The editorial where the need for “stability” first appears was published on the front page of the Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, on Nov. 11, 1989. The country was still reeling from the June 4 protests and massacre, which had nearly toppled the Party. The piece, titled “Even More Resolutely Implement the Policy of Consolidating Control and Deepening Reform,” presented the updated Party dogma to the public for the first time.

“Currently the most important thing is to maintain the stability of the country. Economic development requires stability. … Comrade Deng Xiaoping has pointed out many times that if there is no stable political climate, nothing can be done.”

A soon-to-be-famous sentence followed, for the first time in print: “Stability overrides everything.”

Minting a Term

The phrase can also be translated as “Stability suppresses everything.” This double meaning has been regularly pointed out by dissidents, who are thrown into jails or labor camps for saying or writing things that the Communist Party deems a threat to its “stability,” however defined.

Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar of China’s propaganda system, notes that the phrase “stability above all” was used as a “justification for the lack of political reform.”

According to a quantitative analysis performed by The Epoch Times, the terms “maintain social stability,” and “stability overrides everything,” were adopted and started to rise in use after 1989 once the Nov. 11 editorial—and Deng’s internal speech—had set the new political tone.

Graphs of the data show a gradual increase, and then an explosion in usage of these terms. This vast increase in the use of these terms was across academic publishing, the official press, and all newspapers in China, according to databases consulted for this article.

The propaganda campaign was only one part of the stability campaign. In the drive to institute stability by force, the Party beefed up its coercive apparatus, for example giving extraordinary powers to the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee.

This corresponded with the rise of citizen protests across China, according to He Qinglian, a well-known scholar of China’s society, economy, and media. “Stability enforcement went in lockstep with the rapid increase in social protests. And those protests go in lockstep with the Communist Party’s chosen field of economic development.” Real estate development led to land expropriations, which led to protests, for example, Ms. He said.

Convincing the West

The idea of stability—meaning Party rule—needing to override everything has filtered into Western discourse on China.

Jacqueline Newmyer Deal, president & CEO of the Long Term Strategy Group LLC, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based defense consultancy, wrote via email that the regime has been relatively successful in convincing foreigners that the Party is essential to stability in China.

“Many Western financial experts and business people, along with consultants who work for Chinese entities, parrot the line that without the Party, China would be a mess, and doing business in China would become difficult, if not impossible,” she wrote.

With the Tiananmen Square massacre revealing the Party’s tenuous legitimacy, the justification of communist rule was reasserted. “Jiang Zemin and his circle tried to burnish the Party’s legitimacy by emphasizing certain conditions peculiar to China that require and justify single-party rule. These supposed conditions include the idea that without the CCP, China would dissolve into violent chaos,” Deal wrote.

This discourse has been adopted, often uncritically, among a number of businessmen and intellectuals involved with China.

“Great weight is … accorded to stability,” Martin Jacques writes in his book “When China Rules the World,” before approvingly quoting Deng Xiaoping on the subject.

Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former president of the American International Group and longtime commentator on China, addressed the topic in a typical fashion at a daylong symposium on March 7 this year, held at the United States Institute of Peace celebrating President Nixon’s first trip to China.

“The most important thing in China is political stability. They can’t afford a nation that is in turmoil,” he said. He added that Americans should not lecture the Chinese about their affairs.

“Westerners who have adopted the stability thesis are misled,” says Deal. “They think that stability refers to tranquility and regular, predictable conditions for commerce. What the CCP actually means is the stability of its own rule, the control by a single unelected party over all of China.”

Nevertheless, one young Chinese man in the audience that heard Greenberg nodded vigorously.

Co-oping the Youth

The young man’s reaction mirrors what has been documented by anthropologists, according to the research of ethnography PhD student Lisa Richaud at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium, who spent time in conversation with Chinese youth about their views on China’s political system in 2009 and 2010.

She writes that in post-1989 China, one of the central aims of the Party’s propaganda work has been the maintenance of political stability. This was a reversal from earlier forms of propaganda, which sought to agitate the Chinese people to be revolutionary vanguards. Stability propaganda was more about depoliticizing the populace, Richaud writes in a conference paper.

“Controlling the political behavior of the educated youth, who had been responsible for the ‘political commotion’ and deemed easy to ‘agitate’ appears as a necessity for the CCP,” she writes. Thus, erasing the political potential of the youth has been a priority in post-reform China.

“They know that it is a very official discourse, but … it’s internalized to such an extent that they perceive it as part of common sense,” Richaud said in a telephone interview, referring to the young people she spoke to.

He Qinglian explains the reason for this: “After Tiananmen, they focused on propagandizing two things: democracy leads to chaos—wasn’t Tiananmen about democracy? Look at what chaos it brought to China. It was a plot by Western forces. The second was that if China is not under the leadership of the Communist Party, it has no future and will fall into chaos.”

These ideas are drilled into students from primary school to college. “You’ll be tested on this. You have to memorize it. … This kind of mechanical indoctrination, if you repeat a lie a thousand times it becomes true. That’s the essence of propaganda,” He said.

The proliferation of social media and inevitable incursion of international ideas and models of governance, however, has changed the young people’s assumptions and frame of reference. This is posing a serious challenge to the stability doctrine, according to Chen Kuide.

“The CCP’s propaganda said there were two choices: either that democracy is chaos and bad for everyone; and the other, stability, but with high suppression. Chinese people think that state suppression is better than chaos, at least safer.”

The concoction of this idea, however, relied on citing only the Tiananmen crackdown for its justification. Now that “the window is open and Chinese people can see freedom, they understand this isn’t true,” Chen says. The false dichotomy is breaking down.

“Now Chinese look at Taiwan, which has both stability and freedom, and ask, why can’t we have universal values and freedom? Taiwanese people have safe lives and order and freedom. Why can’t we?”

– Matthew Robertson