This month, as China has moved into a new phase in the fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic, and as CCP leaders have been keen to claim victory, the question of gratitude has become a contentious one – both inside and outside China. On March 4, a commentary from Xinhua News Agency balked at the suggestion from a host on Fox News that China, as the origin of the virus, owes the world an apology.

Recently, a view is being promoted that China owes the world an apology. This is extremely absurd. China has made massive sacrifices in fighting the coronavirus epidemic, and paid an immense economic cost to cut off the path of transmission of the coronavirus. No other country has made such huge sacrifices and put in so much effort in the midst of this epidemic.

The commentary then turned the tables, suggesting that the world in fact owes China a debt of gratitude. “Right now we should firmly say that America owes China an apology,” it said, “and the world owes China thanks.”

Gratitude now figures heavily in messaging from state media on the coronavirus epidemic. On March 16, following the arrival in Italy of a Chinese shipment of medical supplies and personnel, the People’s Daily ran a story called, “Thanks to the Special Team From China,” which reported contested claims that Italians in one residential area in Italy had played the Chinese national anthem and shouted “Grazie Cina!” – Thank you, China! – from their apartments.

One Italian site convincingly cast doubt late last week on the authenticity of related videos posted by top officials from China’s foreign ministry, including spokeswoman Hua Chunying, by locating sources of footage used to create the Chinese video. Below, for example, is a screenshot from the video playing on Hua Chunying’s Twitter account, alongside a screenshot from the original video – of Italians applauding Italians – from Italy’s AGTW.

The question of gratitude was also the source this month of controversy inside China. On March 7, on the eve of Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan, Wang Zhonglin (王忠林), who has served as the top leader of Wuhan for just over a month, announced that he planned to carry out “gratitude education” (感恩教育) for residents of the city, who should “thank the General Secretary, and thank the Chinese Communist Party.”

As soon as news of this statement from Wang came out, it was met with a wave of anger. Journalist Chu Chaoxin (褚朝新) wrote angrily: “No one with a modicum of decency would demand that the Wuhan people, just recovering from shock, would show their gratitude.” Wang Zhonglin’s talk of thanks brought a wave of such recriminations that continued for an entire day before it was completely brought under control. As the image below shows, the original post about Wang’s remarks from “Wuhan Release,” the official WeChat account of the local government, was deleted within hours in the face of the backlash.

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For many Chinese speakers outside mainland China, in Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan, “gratitude” is a plain and ordinary word for a commonplace sentiment. But when did “gratitude” become transformed into a political slogan in mainland China?

Tracing the Spread of “Gratitude”

Searching for the origins of discourse is not entirely unlike the work of investigating the origins of an epidemic. The use of databases and search engines can help us to trace the paths that certain words and phrases have taken through history.

In ancient Chinese, there is a word “gratitude” that is used in such idiomatic expressions as “being grateful for a kindness” (感恩戴德). The object of gratitude in most of these uses, judging from my search of Taiwan’s Scripta Sinica database, is the sovereign ruler (君王). In the newspapers of the Republican period, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the word “gratitude” appears in many instances having to do with religion, with talk of “Thanksgiving Day” (感恩节) and so on (searching Shanghai’s BKSY database). And newspapers can be located in Taiwan that continue with uses of “gratitude” that accord more or less with either the traditional Chinese sense or the Western religious sense, with a number of instances of “gratitude” to leaders also appearing – such as after the death of Chiang Kai-shek (Taiwan’s Infolinker database).

Now, I grew up “drinking red ink,” and I know by heart practically every red slogan of the Chinese Communist Party that has ever been. But I don’t have any strong recollection of “gratitude” being a part of this tradition. So I had to do my homework, and look back through the People’s Daily database to see what I could find. What I found was that since the newspaper’s launch in 1946, up to the end of the Cultural Revolution and the start of the reform and opening era in 1978, a period of 32 years in the Mao Zedong era, the word “gratitude” appeared in just 163 articles – less than once every two months, or about five per year.

This pie graph shows four different contexts for the word “gratitude” in the People’s Daily throughout this period:

“Being grateful for a kindness” (感恩戴德) and “endless gratitude” (感恩不尽) are both phrases that the Chinese Communist Party views as having shades of feudalism. Meanwhile, “Thanksgiving Day”(感恩节), being a Western term, is associated with imperialism and capitalism. These uses account for 84 percent of the total.

The “other” uses, seen in yellow, aside from a very few that are positive uses – for example, the “gratitude” of the people after Communist forces occupied former Kuomintang territory), and one use for a place name, “Gratitude County” (感恩县) – all have negative connotations. For example, they might deride the “gratitude” that the running dogs of imperialism show to their masters, and so on.

In the Mao era, “gratitude” was a word belonging to the sphere of feudalism and capitalism. But even as “gratitude” was seldom used, and rarely positive, the headlines were full of slogans like, “Our gratitude to Mao Zedong is higher than the sky” (毛主席的恩情比天高), “Thanks to Chairman Mao!” (感谢毛主席), “Thanks to the Chinese Communist Party!” and so on.

In the Deng Xiaoping era, the words “gratitude” and “thanks” in reference to leaders or the government was quite rate in the People’s Daily. In 1981, the Chinese Communist Party issued mild criticisms of Mao Zedong, passing its Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the PRC. The People’s Daily ran an article called “Feelings of Gratitude Cannot Replace Scientific Analysis (感恩之情不能代替科学分析) that said, using the sense of “leader,” or lingxiu (领袖) that Xi Jinping has now claimed for himself: “If we begin from a sense of gratitude, we are unable to accurately recognize the historical role of the leader, but can easily confuse the distinction between respect for the leader and the cults of personality around Lin Biao and the ‘Gang of Four.’”

Deng Xiaoping was wary of personality cults. It goes without saying that while he was in power we did not see phrases like “showing gratitude to Deng Xiaoping” (感恩邓小平). But even expressions of “thanks” (感谢) towards Deng were rare. One example occurred in 1987, when a Tibetan monk from Qinhai was quoted as saying in the People’s Daily: “[We offer] thanks for such a good policy made for us by Grandpa Deng.” There have certainly been instances where Chinese made genuine gestures of thanks to Deng Xiaoping. The most obvious example was perhaps during the National Day march in 1984, when students hung out a banner that read, “Hello, Xiaoping!” (小平您好).

“Gratitude” Heats Up in the Hu Era

If we look at how the word “gratitude” trends in the People’s Daily through the Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras, this is the pattern we see, where orange represents Deng, yellow Jiang and green Hu:

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In the Deng and Jiang eras we find the word “gratitude” clearly in evidence. As China opened up to the world, “Thanksgiving Day” became an objective noun, without negative connotations. There was even coverage during Jiang Zemin’s visit to the United States of American workers introducing the customs of American Thanksgiving.

But the real increase in use of the word “gratitude” came in the Hu Jintao era. In the 10 years of Hu Jintao’s tenure in office, there were a total of 1,639 articles in the People’s Daily including the word “gratitude.” In the final year of Hu’s tenure, there were 320 articles, making the word a “hot” term according to the CMP heat scale for political discourse.

Some observers have said that the transition from Mao to Deng, Jiang and Hu marked a steady progression from “strongman politics” (强人政治) to “ordinary man politics” (常人政治). As Hu Jintao introduced his slogan “harmonious society” (和谐社会), the word “gratitude” heated up in the state media. For example, one article in September 2006 said: “Always be grateful, and there will be more harmony and less division between people; more unity and less friction; more understanding and less complaining.”

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This was the first time in the Hu Jintao era that the world “gratitude” appeared in a headline in the People’s Daily. At the time the whole country was in the midst of its fight against SARS, and the author of the piece praised science and technology workers and health workers, saying: “Disaster reminds each and every one of us that we must have a grateful heart.” “It’s only when you have a grateful heart that you can better understand respect. Respect life, respect labor, and respect creativity.”

In the Hu Jintao era, “gratitude” had many meanings in the media. These included: the gratitude felt by people in disaster areas for disaster relief workers (2006 being the 30-year anniversary of the Tangshan Earthquake); the gratitude felt by poor Chinese in the countryside for relatives that helped them; gratitude children felt for their parents, and so on. Below is a report in the People’s Daily from December 2006 about two sons who built a cart called “The Gratitude Express” (感恩号) to take their elderly mother traveling.

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In 2005, the city of Shanghai added a clause to its High School Regulations about “learning to be grateful” (学会感恩). One commentator wrote in response to this change that this was a “required course for life,” and that a sense of gratitude was ”the soil in which social responsibility and patriotic hearts are nurtured.”

During this period, in the early Hu Jintao era, we also begin to see more frequent use of “gratitude” in the context of institutions, so that we begin to see “gratitude toward the organization” (感恩组织), and “gratitude toward the Chinese Communist Party” (感恩共产党). In 2010, the United Front Work Department organized a “gratitude movement” for private enterprises in which companies were encouraged to “show gratitude toward the Party, gratitude toward the nation, and gratitude toward the people.”

From this point, as we approach the Xi era, it seems, the word “gratitude” takes on a clear political coloring and association with the Chinese Communist Party. But in the Hu Jintao era, there was no giving of gratitude toward the “leader.” In fact, this was impossible, because Hu Jintao, quite unlike his successor, Xi Jinping, was never designated as “the core” (核心). All of this would change by 2013.

Gratitude for the General Secretary

As Xi Jinping came to power, he launched a concerted campaign against corruption in the CCP’s ranks. In some cases, officials were criticized for corrupt ways of thinking about the their relationship to others in society, and we see the notion of “gratitude” used in a critical way in this context. In 2013, an article in the People’s Daily called “Being Alert to Erroneous Concepts of Gratitude” (警惕错误的感恩观) said that “under the long-term influence of feudal ideas and [incomplete] social development, certain erroneous concepts of gratitude have permeated relations between the Party and cadres, and between different groups.” It continued: “Certain leading cadres regard the gratitude given by the masses for favorable policies by the Party and the government as the fruit of their own labors.”

From 2013 to 2017, during Xi Jinping’s first -five-year term, there were 1,164 articles in the People’s Daily using the word “gratitude,” showing a marked increase from the Hu Jintao era. Before 2015, however, while the phrase “gratitude toward the Party” (感恩党) could be found, expressions of gratitude toward the person of the leader himself did not occur.

On July 23, 2016, the People’s Daily ran a long report on the front page about Xi Jinping’s inspection tour of Ningxia. The article said that “the prosperous people who had thrown off poverty expressed gratitude toward their guide Xi Jinping.” This was a precursor to a phrase we see now, “gratitude for the General Secretary.”

Three months after this report, Xi Jinping took an important step further up the ladder of personal power.

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At the 6th Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP, Xi Jinping was formally designated as “the core” (党的核心). The emergence of a new CCP phrase, “the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” (以习近平同志为核心的党中央) resulted in a reshuffling of political discourse, the upshot being a tidal wave of adulation for Xi Jinping before and after the 19th National Congress of the CCP in the fall of 2017.

Here is the front page of Xinjiang’s Aksu Daily, the official CCP mouthpiece in Aksu prefecture. The headline tells us about a disabled girl who wrote a poem “to express gratitude to the General Secretary.”

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On September 17, 2017, in a huge special report ahead of the 19th National Congress, Guizhou Party Secretary Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) became the first top provincial official in the People’s Daily to shout the slogan “Thanks to General Secretary Xi Jinping” (感恩习近平总书记). Not to be outdone, many top officials at that time, including Wu Yingjie (吴英杰), Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, expressed their “gratitude” toward Xi in this way during the 19th National Congress – and this brought a notable rise in the phrase in the People’s Daily.

This is the front page of the November 9, 2017, edition of Guizhou’s Qianxinan Daily. Notice the wall behind the women in their colorful garb. There is a portrait of the general secretary, along with a red caption that reads: “Great Leader General Secretary Xi Jinping” (伟大领袖习近平总书记). This is a level of elevation of Xi we rarely see even now, putting him squarely on par with Mao Zedong. The headline reads: “The sound of gratitude crosses the river.”

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The portrait actually appeared on the newspaper’s front page the very next day:

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This was the triumphal atmosphere that spawned the phrase “gratitude for the general secretary.” In 2018, the Party leadership actually moved to regulate the tide of enthusiastic praise for Xi Jinping, which risked going overboard. Qianxinan Daily quietly removed the November 9, 2017, front page from its online archive, replacing it with a fake front page. The Central Committee issued a notice specifying that the phrase “cherished by the whole Party, loved and respected by the people, and worthy of the title” (全党拥护,人民爱戴,当之无愧) could be used to praise Xi Jinping. But even this phrase fell out of use rather quickly. What did remain, and continue to flourish, was the phrase “gratitude to the general secretary,” which we can find in many articles in state media. 

In Guizhou, Party media chanted the slogan, “Forging ahead with gratitude” (牢记嘱托感恩奋进), and Party secretary Sun Zhigang managed to say in his report to the provincial people’s congress in 2019: “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s gratitude for the people of Guizhou is heavy as a mountain, and the people of Guizhou will forever be thankful to the General Secretary!” In the city of Ningde, in Fujian province, the Party Committee stated in its mouthpiece newspaper, the Mindong Daily, in January 2019: “[We] must in our ideology express gratitude to General Secretary Xi Jinping, love and respect General Secretary Xi Jinping, moving with the General Secretary in our actions, and protecting the General Secretary.”

In his “Spring Address” early this year, Zhangjiakou’s Party secretary, Hui Jian (回建) “express[ed] gratitude to General Secretary Xi Jinping for the unprecedented opportunities he has brought to Zhangjiakou.” Also in January, Liu Ning (刘宁), the governor of Qinghai province, wrote the phrase “showing gratitude to General Secretary Xi Jinping” into his government work report. And a report from the standing committee of the municipal CCP committee in Xi’an said in January that “[we must] always remember and always have gratitude toward General Secretary Xi Jinping for his care and concern for Xi’an.”

Through January this year, as the coronavirus outbreak exploded in China, and the entire country was prioritizing the fight against the epidemic, the People’s Daily stubbornly maintained its focus on the anti-poverty series it had already planned for the year. And twice these special reports spoke of having “gratitude for the General Secretary.”

This larger political context, and the cult of gratitude emerging around Xi Jinping, is crucial to understanding why Wang Zhonglin made his remarks about the need for “gratitude education” in Wuhan.

But in fact, Wang Zhonglin’s idea was not at all new. Others blazed this trail after the 19th National Congress of the CCP. Here is a report from Chun’an County in Zhejiang province. The headline reads: “Our county carries out ‘gratitude for the general secretary, advancing bravely in the new era’ study and propaganda education campaign” (我县开展”感恩书记, 奋进新时代”专题学习宣传教育活动). 

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Wang Zhonglin was merely following what has become mainstream direction on managing public opinion since the 6th Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee back in 2016. He was reading from the same hymnbook as other CCP officials, with the same lyrics, his thought being to express his loyalty to the General Secretary. His failure was in misapprehending the current state of things in China. As Chinese face life and death concerns and harbor deep resentment over early missteps in dealing with the epidemic, their nerves are especially sensitive to the way leaders seem so keen on showering themselves with tributes and praise.

The evolution of “gratitude” can tell us a great deal about political evolution in China today. It can tell us, we might also say, about the evolution and spread of the political virus that has infected the body of the Chinese Communist Party.

Like me, Xi Jinping grew up “drinking red ink.” Since coming to power, he has revived many red terms from the Mao era, including phrases like: “East, south, north and center, Party, government, military, society and education – the Party rules all” (东西南北中,党政军民学,党是领导一切的). But in Xi’s new era, “gratitude,” that black word once associated with feudalism and capitalism, has become a bona fide red political slogan – and this is something entirely new.

(Additional research for this article was contributed by David Bandurski.)