Words in China’s Political Language. Core Leader (领导核心)

At the conclusion of the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China, the international media has started a discussion on the attribution of the title of Core Leader to General Secretary Xi Jinping. The concrete occasioschermata-2016-10-28-alle-17-25-04n was provided by a reference made in the Communique of the  6th Plenum, calling for all CPC members to

Closely unite around the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core.”

The fact Xi Jinping is referred to as the core  of the CPC Central Committee has been interpreted in light of what the attribute of “Core Leaders” may signal for the status of Xi Jinping, personnel changes, the degree of power Xi Jinping enjoys, (also here and here), and whether the term of the current general secretary will be extended. This post presents some brief and simple thoughts on the meaning of “core” against the backdrop of Chinese language, CPC documents, and on-going practices.

Core in Ordinary Language

Core is composed by two characters: 核 (he) and 心 (xin). In both classical and modern Chinese, “heart”, which is sometimes translated with “mind” “heart-mind” is used figuratively, to indicate the seat of emotions, intelligence, will, and consciousness:

Chapter 12, Daodejing:  The five colors blind men’s eyes/the five tones deafen men’s ears/the five flavors numb men’s mouths/racing at gallop in pursuit of the hunt maddens men’s minds (心)/rare objects obstruct men’s conduct/therefore the sage (聖人) is for the belly and not for the eye/therefore he discards the one and selects the other.

Also, as in several Western languages, “heart” can be a popular metaphor for the central point of something, used to designate the capital city of a country,  the crux of of a matter etc. More interesting is the iconography of  核 (he)schermata-2016-10-28-alle-17-52-33

He has a left-right structure

The semantic component of the character he is on the left. This is a stylized representation of a tree, and it means “wood”. The vertical stroke represents the trunk of a tree, while the horizontal, left and right strokes stand for its branches.

Mu – Tree, wood


The component on the right is pronounced “he”. Generally speaking, it carries all the symbols and meanings associated with the corresponding earthly branches and the Daoist tradition. But, in this context, he is used to remind the reader how “that character that has got something to do with trees and round things falling off from trees is pronounced“, or it reminds the reader how “that character I cannot pronounce refers to trees and to round things that fall off from trees, or are on trees, or are somehow related to trees

The seal script version of “core” – he – provides a clearer visual reference of “round objects on trees”

Core. Seal script

The “core” is, then, simply the central part of those fruits growing on trees, and which contain a tough central part where the seeds are stored and protected.

Core in Political Language

The title of “core leader” is not to be found in any official regulatory document of the Chinese Communist Party. The first three sentences of the Preamble to the Constitution of the CPC (English | Chinese)  describe the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, mentioning the “core of leadership”:

The Communist Party of China is the vanguard both of the Chinese working class and of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation. It is the core of leadership for the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics (…)


The “core of leadership” or  the “leading core” is an attribute of the Communist Party of China, rather than of any individual person. Also, the title of “core leader” does not exist among the titles normally attributed to those who occupy a formal position within the hierarchy of the Communist Party of China.

These titles, as well as the powers they entail, are regulated by the Constitution of the Communist Party of China, and other documents. They are:

  1. General Secretary (zong shuji 总书记), of the Central Committee of the CPC
  2. Secretary (shuji 书记), of a central party organ, or of a Party committee, a Party general branch, a Party branch, a basic committee, or a Party group.
  3. Deputy secretary (fushuji 副书记), of a central party organ, or of a Party committee, a Party general branch, a Party branch, a basic committee, or a Party group.
  4. Permanent Member (changwu weiyuan 常务委员), of central and local commissions, committees etc.
  5. Member ( weiyuan 常务委员) of central and local commissions, committees etc.
  6. Chairman (zhuren 主任) of leading work groups, and their internal divisions etc.
  7. Party member – a member of the Chinese Communist Party who does not hold any office within the Party.

“Core” is not the title of a political office. It is a designation which importance goes beyond personnel norms. As the Chinese characters 核心 recall to the mind ideas about trees, fruits, and the seeds that propagate new plants and ultimately refer to life, so do references to “Comrade XXX being the core of the leadership” invoke not Xi Jinping, but one of the vital principles of CPC ideology – collective leadership – 集体领导.

“He who is at the core of the leadership” – the physical person this attribute has been bestowed upon, almost fades (figuratively speaking of course) against the backdrop of the entire political organization he represents. The attribute of “being at the core of the leadership” has been used to refer to  Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping. In the case of Mao Zedong, the use of this title took place posthumously. At various stages of life – at a time when the CPC and its norms were still in formation – Mao Zedong held various titles. Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping, however, acquired the attribute of “being at the core of the leadership” during their time in office. Each one of these political figures rose to office at three critical junctures in the history of the CPC.

At each one of these times in history, the idea whereby decisions within the CPC are made collegially, that is decision-making power is shared within the organs of the CPC rather than exerted by any single individual, was reinstated. In 1980, such a reinstatement took the form of a document titled Some Principles for Political Life Within the Party (here). In the Jiang and Hu era, the importance of sharing decision-making power as a fundamental principle of CPC ideology was reinstated through different means, such as anti-corruption campaigns and the launch of wide-ranging system reforms. The 6th Plenum has once more invoked the legacy of Deng Xiaoping, he who reverted the course of the Cultural Revolution – by updating the 1980 Principles for Political Life Within the Party, and by using the attribute of “he who is at the core of the leadership” to talk about Xi Jinping.

“Being at the core of the leadership” is a moral attribute, that recalls not only the principle of collective leadership – or shared decision-making power. This attribute underscores the dynamism, the plasticity of CPC ideology and the role of its makers through a subtle metaphor bridging ordinary language, political language, and natural processes.

As a tree propagates itself through the seeds contained in the core of its fruits, so does the life of the Party propagates itself through the contributions to ideology (the seeds) made by those political figures (the core) around whom the Party has constructed a consensus.

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