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 in her 2008 book Marketing Dictatorship 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.
Continued on the next page: Convincing the West