Two years ago, during Mike Pompeo’s first months on the job as US secretary of state, his public mentions of Chinese President Xi Jinping were cordial.
He was “honoured” to attend a working dinner with Xi in Buenos Aires; he thanked Xi for his role in “bringing North Korea to the negotiating table”; and he spoke gratefully of a “productive meeting with President Xi” during a visit to Beijing.
But today, with US-China relations in free fall, not only has the tone of Pompeo’s public statements regarding Xi soured considerably, his appellation of choice has also changed.
To top US officials, most notably Pompeo, Xi is now no longer the “Chinese president”, but the “general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)”, a sign, say analysts, of efforts by the administration to delegitimise Xi’s rule, drive a wedge between party and populace and evoke loaded connotations with the Cold War-era.
Xi holds three official titles: head of state (guojia zhuxi, literally “state chairman”), chairman of the central military commission, and general secretary of the CCP. Though none of those translate directly to “president”, and despite the fact that official Chinese missives and state media reports almost always lead with Xi’s party title, the English-speaking world has by and large favoured “president”.
For 2018 and most of 2019, so did Pompeo. But over the past several weeks he has entirely abandoned that term in favour of “general secretary”, coinciding with a barrage of actions the Trump administration has taken against Beijing on matters ranging from Xinjiang and Hong Kong to Huawei and the South China Sea.
In a week in which the administration ordered Beijing to close its consulate in Houston, Pompeo’s declaration on Thursday that “General Secretary Xi Jinping is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology” marked the 15th time he has used the party title this month.
Pompeo is not alone in adopting the new appellation. In a month-long, coordinated series of speeches hammering China on all fronts, other top officials – FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General William Barr and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien – have all followed suit.
The administration’s “shift to using ‘general secretary’ should be seen as very deliberate,” said Alison Szalwinski, vice-president of research at the National Bureau of Asian Research and an expert on US policy toward China. “They want to draw a distinction between the leader of a representative government and one that is autocratic and authoritarian.”
The State Department did not respond to a request to explain the recent change in US officials’ descriptions of Xi, saying only in a statement that “the People’s Republic of China is an authoritarian regime run by the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping is the General Secretary of the Party”.
A US government official who was not authorised to speak publicly described the shift as an effort to speak “plainly about each issue, so that there’s no sugarcoating, there’s no self-delusional approach towards what the CCP is”.
The move by the executive branch gives the highest profile platform yet to a debate over nomenclature that had, until now, taken place largely among academics, foreign policy experts and some US lawmakers.
“There comes a point when the simple truth is he’s not president in the liberal democracy sense of [a] president who is elected and enjoys the political support of civil society and the population,” said Robin Cleveland, chair of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC).
“He is an authoritarian dictator that sits atop a self-serving party,” she added. “So words matter.”
Set up by Congress to advise lawmakers on the national security implications of the two countries’ economic ties, the USCC declared in its last annual report that it would no longer call Xi “president” but “general secretary”, which it called “the title by which he derives his authority.”
The alignment of the USCC and the executive branch on the matter marks just one of the ways that the panel, once considered significantly more hawkish than the mainstream, is now representative of the growing appetite in Washington for a tough response to Xi’s government.
“I’m glad that others are reinforcing the authoritarian nature of his leadership,” Cleveland said of the administration’s linguistic shift.
Among the developments that have fuelled US perceptions of an increasingly hardline rule under Xi were his removal of term limits; the treatment of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang; the imposition of a sweeping national security law over Hong Kong; and Xi’s campaign to strengthen party supervision over all elements of civil society, including the news media.
“To the extent that you are seeing the ‘partification’ of every apparatus and every organisation, there is a difference [from previous leaders] in terms of the elevation of his own self-importance,” said Cleveland.
As that “partification” has continued apace, so too have the Trump administration’s efforts to portray the will of the CCP as separate from – and counter to – the will of the Chinese people, a strategy that analysts said likely contributed to the decision to frame Xi as head of the party and not a head of state.
“It is designed to distinguish China – its history, culture and people – from the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party,” said Elizabeth Economy, Asia studies director at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
“To the extent possible, the White House would like to deliver the impression that it is supportive of the Chinese people, just not the Communist Party,” said Economy.
That strategy was apparent in May, when deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger delivered a speech trumpeting the power of “democratic populism” to either keep a “remote and self-interested” governing class in check or throw them “overboard”. In an unmistakable effort to appeal directly to the Chinese people, Pottinger gave the address in Mandarin.
Pompeo sought to further drive the wedge between the governors and the governed on Thursday, declaring during an address on China policy that “Communists always lie, but the biggest lie is that the Chinese Communist Party speaks for 1.4 billion people who are surveilled, oppressed and scared to speak out.”
That binary approach has been met with criticism from some in the foreign policy community who say the administration’s portrayal of the Chinese people as a monolithic, suppressed entity misses important nuance.
“China is not a land of innocent captives and evil master trolls,” said Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
People there were often frustrated by a government that “ignores their wishes, moves too slowly or moves in the wrong direction”, he added, “but the available evidence is that, as citizens of the PRC, most Chinese people feel proud and enabled, not constrained”.
As to the timing of the administration’s hardening rhetoric against the CCP and Xi, analysts said it was no coincidence that it has come as doubts grow about China’s ability to fulfil the terms of a trade deal signed in January.
Although administration officials insist the deal remains intact, China’s purchases of US goods are currently far below projected targets, and White House trade adviser and vociferous China hawk Peter Navarro said recently that trust between the two countries was now non-existent.
“The collapse of the phase one trade deal, which was weak to begin with but is now further undermined by the pandemic, has eroded the standing of pro-China trade advisers and officials” in US President Donald Trump’s administration, said Szalwinski.
“The idea that maybe there’ll be a purchase agreement that is meaningful – all of that is completely in the background now,” said the government official. “That’s completely repudiated.”
That in turn, the official said, has given more latitude to the “side of the administration that says: ‘No, we need to stand up for human rights’.”
Pompeo, for instance, used the term “concentration camps” for the first time publicly on Thursday to describe China’s mass internment facilities in the country’s northwest, becoming the highest ranking US official to adopt the term.
By contrast, in the middle of trade negotiations two years ago, Trump had encouraged Xi to go ahead with the camps, according to an account by former national security adviser John Bolton.
Trump’s administration also held off on sanctions against Beijing officials over the facilities – which China describes as vocational training centres – for fear of jeopardising the trade talks, a fact he later openly acknowledged in an interview with Axios.
Though Trump has not yet joined the ranks of officials adopting the term “general secretary” to describe Xi, he has stopped referring to him as a “friend” and said recently that he had no interest in speaking with his Chinese counterpart.
Regardless of any personal affinity for Xi, as Trump’s polls drop ahead of the November presidential election, “China becomes a convenient domestic tool for shifting blame and attention elsewhere”, said Szalwinski.
And when it comes to the term “general secretary”, the White House is “betting” that it will carry with it “negative connotations from the period of the Soviet Union”, said Economy.
Regarding its reception in Beijing, however, observers said the new language in itself was not likely to ruffle many feathers, though it would serve as a useful barometer of Washington’s intentions.
“I don’t think they’re worried about what we call him,” said Cleveland, stressing that Beijing’s primary concerns were about the various punitive measures coinciding with the hardening language.
“The name is parallel,” she said, with global concerns about China’s “increasing assertion of authority”.
All great changes are preceded by chaos.”