On the last day of February, a pair of new political catchphrases made their way not just into the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper but into a central-level Party document. These were “high-level black,” or gaojihei (高级黑) and “low-level red,” or dijihong (低级红). Before we explore how these two terms emerged on the internet and then made their way into central Party documents (中央文件), let us first take a look at some of the key trends that could be noted in Chinese political discourse in February.

Slogans, Hot and Cold

According to the six-level heat index developed by the China Media Project, here is how various important political phrases appeared in the People’s Daily:

One important thing to note as we look at phrase frequencies is that during February the total number of pages in the Party’s flagship newspaper was reduced to eight in light of the Spring Festival holiday, meaning that the total number of articles was likewise reduced, and so word frequencies were about half of what might usually be expected and we don’t see any dramatic changes in the temperature of various keywords.

At the top of the list in the “blazing” (5) category, the highest category in our index, was “opening and reform” (改革开放), but usage of the phrase continued to decline against previous months. It appeared 173 times in February, nearly half of the 339 appearances recorded in January. Meanwhile, “Belt and Road” (一带一路), “feeling of benefit” (获得感), and the “16-character phrase” (16字长语) all maintained their positions in the “blazing” category. The only phrase too newly join the “blazing” category was “battle against poverty” (脱贫攻坚), which rose notably in January but fell just short of the top, landing instead in the “red hot” (4) category.

This month quite a number of phrases actually made huge leaps across the index, in either direction. “Judicial justice” (司法公正) leapt down from “warm” (2) to cold (0). The phrase “the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life” (人民日益增长的美好生活需要和不平衡不充分的发展之间的矛盾), “Lenin” (列宁), “social revolution” (社会革命) and “economic reform” (经济体制改革) dropped from the category of “hot” (3) to “tepid” (1).

The “three stricts and three trues” (三严三实), a phrase introduced by Xi Jinping in March 2014 in reference to the need to maintain strict discipline of Party members, leapt from “cold” (0) to “warm” (2). The phrase was mostly dormant from its introduction in 2014, but reappeared in Xi’s political report to the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017.

How the Top Nine Terms Performed

Since the beginning of 2019, we have seen the temperature for the top nine political buzzwords — which we have defined as such because each played a central role in their respective eras within PRC history  — generally in a downward trend. In February, naturally, the drop in the total number of articles using particular terms likely went down as a result of the reduction in total articles published in the paper. The only terms maintaining at least a “warm” (2) rating in light of this were “democratic politics” (民主政治) and “people as the base” (以人为本). All other phrases were  in “cold” (0) territory. Among these, owing to the fading of the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of  Opening and Reform as a priority, we saw a very noticeable drop in the banner terms of previous top leaders, including “Scientific View of Development” (科学发展观), “Deng Xiaoping Theory” (邓小平理论) and the “Three Represents” (三个代表), which all fell to a single use from 10, 9 and 9 uses respectively in January. These banners terms only appeared in “Central Committee Opinion on Strengthening the Party’s Political Construction” (中共中央关于加强党的政治建设的意见), a policy published in the newspaper in full, totaling around 10,000 characters.

Central Party Leaders

In February, the intensity of use of the names of many central Party leaders in the People’s Daily dropped. Aside from Xi Jinping, who maintained position in the “blazing” (5) category, no other political figures made even the “red hot” (4) category. Premier Li Keqiang dropped from the “red hot” (4) category in January to the “hot” (3) category.

In light of the Spring Festival holiday, the number of official events attended by Party officials declined. Wang Yang (汪洋), Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪), Hu Chunhua (胡春华), Liu He (刘鹤), Wang Chen (王晨), Huang Kunming (黄坤明), Wang Huning (王沪宁) and Sun Chunlan (孙春兰) all dropped from “hot” (3) to “warm” (2). Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥), meanwhile, dropped two categories, from ”warm” (2) to “cold” (0), appearing just twice in the entire month. Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhao Leji (赵乐际), secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, appeared just four times in February, a lower frequency than recorded for many officials who are not members of the PSC.

Local Leaders

As local people’s congresses came and went, ahead of the March National People’s Congress, the appearances of top provincial leaders in their respective provincial-level Party newspapers also notably declined. The exception to this rule in February was Shandong Party Secretary Liu Jiayi (刘家义), whose frequency in the provincial newspaper rose from 58 in January to 85 in February.

Liu’s rise can be explained, however, by the announcement on January 11, 2019, that Shandong would push its provincial people’s congress back to February, so that Liu’s coverage bump came later than that for others.

Aside from Liu Jiayi’s explainable high this month, the highest performers were Hebei Party Secretary Wang Dongfeng (王东峰) and the Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Wu Yingjie (吴英杰), both of whom were also at the top in January.

Wang Dongfeng has had his hands full, with many projects and scandals that demanding his attention, including the construction of the Xiong’an New Area (雄安新区), preparations for the Winter Olympic Games in 2022, an outbreak of African Swine Flu, investigations into illegal property developments and other matters – including an ideological campaign to “prevent and deal with major political risks” (防范化解重大风险).

The most obvious decline for a provincial leader was recorded for Fujian Party Secretary Yu Weiguo (于伟国), who ranked third in January with 109 article mentions, but fell to just 27 in February.

Foreign Leaders

In February, foreign leaders continued to perform in the “cold” (0) category in the People’s Daily. The average mentions for key foreign leaders dropped from 2.8 in January to 2.2 in February. US President Donald Trump remained in the “warm” (2) category along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuelle Macron. British Prime Minister Theresa May, who did not appear at all in the People’s Daily in January, appeared 7 times in February, chiefly because of ongoing discussions with the European Union over Brexit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped from “warm” (2) to “tepid” (1) in February, but this drop will almost certainly be reversed in the coming months as China and Russia celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which they date back to the establishment of relations between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rose in February from the “cold” (0) category to the “tepid” (1) category, but the change in his numbers was not significant.

Nations in the Spotlight

Just as in the previous two months, “America” (美国) has remained in the “blazing” (5) category in the People’s Daily, the only country to do so. The main theme throughout February was the ongoing trade negotiations between China and the United States. Aside from trade negotiations, the United States was most likely to appear in the context of reporting on science and technology, often as a frame of reference for China’s own development.

The majority of foreign countries wavered in February between the “warm” (2) and “hot” (3) categories. But there were three countries that dropped from “red hot” (4) to “hot” (3), namely Spain (西班牙), South Korea (韩国) and Australia (澳大利亚).

Malaysia dropped from “hot” (3) to “warm” (2). Meanwhile, Indonesia, which had for two months running been in the “hot” (3) category, dropped down into the “cold” (0) category in February, the reason being the previous focus on the December 2018 tsunami caused by the Anak Krakatau volcano, a story that has now cycled out.

In January, many Party newspapers reported on Chinese aid to Indonesia, for example the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway. In February there were no reports devoted to Indonesia specifically, although the country did appear in a report on the Belt and Road Initiative.

Monthly Highlights

“Political Gaps”

On February 23, 2019, the People’s Daily reported that a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party had been held the day before, on February 22. At the meeting, one of the most important agendas, as relayed by the paper, was the “2018 Situational Report on Important Work by the Central Inspection Work Small Leading Group” (关于2018年中央巡视工作领导小组重点工作情况报告). The meeting emphasized the need to “deeply search out political gaps (政治偏差) in the implementation of the Party’s political line, guidelines and policies.”

On February 28, the People’s Daily published a long article, totaling more than 10,000 characters, called “Central Committee Opinion on Strengthening the Party’s Political Construction” (中共中央关于加强党的政治建设的意见), which again talked about “working energetically to discover and correct political gaps” (着力发现和纠正政治偏差) as an important focus of the work of the Central Inspection Work Small Leading Group. Moreover, on February 21, the day before the meeting of the PSC was held, Zhao Leji (赵乐际), the PSC member in charge of discipline inspection, mentioned in his work report to the 3rd Congress of the 19th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection that there was a need to “prioritize investigation of the situation with regard to implementation of Xi Jinping Thought of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for the New Era and the spirit of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, searching out political gaps, serving a political monitoring and political guidance role.”

What exactly is a “political gap”?

Searching through the People’s Daily database,  we can find that this phrase has appeared 27 times in the paper’s history. The first time was in 1991, in a summary of a forum about the publication that year by the People’s Musical Publishing House of a book called Everybody in China Sing: Karaoke Songlist (中华大家唱:卡拉OK曲库). Published in May, this was essentially a pre-approved catalogue of revolutionary songs, songs from the 1930s, folk songs, and some songs from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Cheng Zhiwei (成志伟), who at the time was head of the Arts and Culture Office of the Central Propaganda Department, was quoted as saying: “In entertainment, we also must have a proper grasp of the relationship between diversity and the main theme [of the CCP], the relationship between social benefit and economic benefit, the relationship between promoting folk cultures and inviting excellent cultures from the outside, the relationship between high culture and popular culture – otherwise, entertainment might also cause major cultural gaps, or even political gaps.”

In November 2016, “political gaps” first appeared at a high-level meeting of the Central Committee. At the time, Wang Qishan (王岐山), who was serving as director of the Central Inspection Work Small Leading Group, emphasized that the Party “needs to strengthen the ‘Four Consciousnesses,’ being firm in the political direction, raising political positions (政治站位) and seeking out political gaps (查找政治偏差), focusing the leadership of the Party, construction of the Party,  fully [ensuring] strict governance of the Party, the building of an honest Party and the struggle against corruption.” It was from that point that “political gaps” entered the work and vocabulary of the Central Inspection Work Small Leading Group.

The phrase “prioritize the searching out of political gaps” (重点查找政治偏差) has also appeared previously. In July 2017, the revised CCP Ordiinance on Inspection Work (中国共产党巡视工作条例) was released in full-text form. Three different heads of the Central Inspection Work Small Leading Group all separately wrote articles for China Discipline Inspection News (中国纪检监察报) discussing how to implement the revised Ordinance. All of them included the phrase “prioritize the searching out of political gaps.” Zhu Baocheng (朱保成), for example, wrote: “Deepening political inspections means using the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speeches as the ‘mirror,’ the Party regulations of the Party Charter with measuring tape, and the ‘Four Consciousnesses’ as the political benchmark, we must work to search out problems in terms of politics.”

On September 6, 2018, Yangzhou Daily (扬州日报), the official mouthpiece of the city-level CCP leadership in Yangzhou, ran an article called “Inspection Oversight to Accurately Scan ‘Political Gaps’” (巡察监督精准扫描“政治偏差”).

The article talked quite directly about how the leadership of the Party is weakening, that Party members are confused in their belief in its tenets, that Party members are generally lax in their political studies, with a weak sense of political consciousness. This description allows us to understand a bit more clearly the basis sense of “political gaps.”

“The Two Protections”

A simple internet search can reveal that there are two permutations of the shortened phrase “Two Protections” (两个维护). The first is: “Protecting the core status of General Secretary Xi Jinping, protecting the authority and the unified collective leadership of the Party’s Central Committee” (维护习近平总书记核心地位、维护党中央权威和集中统一领导). The second, quite common, is: “Protecting General Secretary Xi Jinping as the core of the Party’s Central Committee, and [his] core status within the whole Party, and resolutely protecting the authority and the unified collective leadership of the Party’s Central Committee” (维护习近平总书记党中央的核心、全党的核心地位,坚决维护党中央权威和集中统一领导).

These two distinct phases for a single four-character political phrase appeared at different times. The first formulation first appeared in the People’s Daily on March 29, 2017, and had appeared a total of 52 times (again, total articles using the term) up to the end of February 2019. If we include usage that substitutes “Comrade” for “General Secretary,” the total is then 56 uses. The second phrase first appeared in the People’s Daily on October 26, 2017, in an official commentary (社论) called “The Resolute Leadership Core Leading a New Era” (引领新时代的坚强领导核心). The phrase has appeared a total of 79 times since then (90 times if we include substitutions with “Comrade”).

In February, the first of these phrases did not appear at all, but we can note that it reemerged on March 1 in the People’s Daily – so these are both phrases we can continue to monitor.

Internet Slang Moves Into Party Discourse

In common parlance, the phrase “high-level black,” or gaojihei (高级黑), refers to the act of using humorous language to criticize and satirize, or to offered exaggerated praise on the surface in what is actually an act of criticism. It is not unlike the proverbial “smile that hides a dagger” (笑里藏刀).

The “Central Committee Opinions on Strengthening the Party’s Political Construction” released on February 28 reads, actually includes this pair of phrases, marking their debut in central-level Party documents (as opposed to news media alone). The document said: “[We] must with correct understanding and correct actions resolutely enact the ‘Two Protections,’ firmly preventing and correcting all erroneous statements that diverge from the ‘Two Protections,’ and [we] must not allow any form of ‘low-level red’ (低级红) or ‘high-level black’ (高级黑’), permitting no form of two-faced outer devotion and internal opposition (阳奉阴违做两面人) toward the Party’s Central Committee, any double-dealing or ‘false reverence’ (伪忠诚).”

“High-level black”, which originated on the internet, first appeared in the People’s Daily on June 30, 2014, in a commentary that criticized journalists online for discouraging a top college entrance exam tester from Jiangsu province from entering the journalism profession. The commentary said that the journalists had engaged in “high-level black” by ridiculing their own profession.

On December 29, 2016, the Cyberspace Administration of China posted an article called “How to Prevent the ‘High-Level Black’ of Damning Praise” (如何防范明褒实贬的“高级黑”). On April 19, 2018, People’s Daily deputy editor-in-chief Wang Yibiao (王一彪) published an article called “ (The New Era Calls for Building a Favorable Online Public Opinion Ecology” (新时代呼唤构建良好网络舆论生态).

Wang argued that creating a “favorable public opinion ecology,” meaning one free of political criticism and other undesirable content, required “going deep into social networking platforms,” relying on internet users to conscientiously uphold a “clean online space.” In this context, he specifically cited such examples as internet users playing a role in attacking the “high-level blacking” (高级黑) of Liu Hulan (刘胡兰), a young female spy during the Chinese Civil War who has been upheld as a symbol of the courage of the Chinese people (under the CCP), and of the Five Heroes of Langya Mountain (狼牙山五壮士), a CCP story (largely myth) about five Communist soldiers said to have leapt to their deaths after facing off against invading Japanese.

While the word “black” in “high-level black” makes use of the colloquial meaning of “black,” the phrase “low-level red” now being paired with it operates in a slightly different way.The phrase became widely popular only in November 2018, following the November 18 incident in which long-distance runner He Yinli (何引丽) was interrupted during the last stage of the Suzhou marathon by a volunteer trying to force a national flag into her hands. He fell back in the race as a result, which drew scorn from internet users who felt this was a shameless and stupid display of nationalism that was self-defeating.

In a post made on November 22, the WeChat public account “Chang’an Sword” (长安剑), operated by the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, wrote: “To put it a bit more severely, this is classic high-level black through low-level red (低级红高级黑), and even more it is a profaning of patriotism.”

This first time that “high-level black” and “low-level red” appeared in the People’s Daily was in July 2018, in an article by deputy director of the commentary department Fang Zhengwei (范正伟) called “Using ‘Political Results’ to Measure Political Capacity” (以“政治效果”检验政治能力). In it, Fang wrote: “Therefore, to speak politics one must use discerning eyes to distinguish ‘high-level black’ and ‘low-level red’, resolving the problem of ‘fulsome expressions of loyalty, with little real action.'”

Interestingly, just as these phrases appeared for the first time in a high-level Party documents on February 28, another unfortunate example of “high-level black” meets “low-level red” emerged online in the form of a music video called “Huawei is Beautiful” (华为美). On social media platforms, the video “went red,” as Chinese say in colloquial language to talk about something suddenly grabbing widespread attention. But the video made many Chinese cringe with its shameless anthem of patriotic praise for a domestic technology brand. It was inevitable that many panned the video as “high-level black, low-level red” (高级黑,低级红).