China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), has recently confirmed the authenticity of a CNPC list of “words to be used with caution” now circulating on the Internet. The list, 3,000 characters in length, includes more than a hundred terms the company regards as “sensitive,” and that should either be “used with great care” or “not used.”
CNPC has defended the existence of the list, saying it’s nothing more than an effort at ensuring that its internal corporate communications are better regulated and of better quality. The company insists that it has never applied the memo to language directed outside the company.
CNPC’s response itself is a game of semantics and sensitivity. As the people who drafted this CNPC memo no doubt understand, and as Chinese journalists know only too well, “use with great care” generally does suggest that use is prohibited. The real point here is that “prohibited” is itself a word that must be “used with great care.” Hence the preference for “use with great care” or “don’t use.”
As for this distinction between application of the memo for internal company documents versus external company documents, this too is a stroke of obfuscation. A section header on CNPC’s list of sensitive words makes it very plain that these rules apply to the control of language use in both internal documents and external documents.
From a corporate communication perspective, the careful selection of words in company communications and documents such as press releases is simply a necessary part of business culture. Companies around the world should be expected to do exactly the same thing. So anyone who believes in market economics should see no particular cause for criticism in the CNPC case. This is simply good and proper business management.
But while CNPC’s internal list of sensitive words might be one of the longest, this does not reflect successful public opinion channeling or public relations on the company’s part. In fact, their actions in this regard might be characterized as incredibly childish.
What those defending the actions of CNPC can’t seem to understand is why exactly an internal corporate management policy should become such a flashpoint of public attention and anger. This is just a corporate action to massage its own public image, so why should the company be accused of avoiding supervision by public opinion, or public scrutiny?
This is something that cannot be understood simply by flipping through the nearest economics textbook. One has to understand this corporate behavior and the social response in terms of the practical realities of China today, and the unique nature of business as it is done here.
First, notice how when CNPC comes up against public criticism, it defends itself by emphasizing its identity as an enterprise, washing its hands of politics. When, on the other hand, it wishes to manipulate public opinion to its advantage, it can emphasize the priority of political stability. When the company is scrabbling for money in the marketplace, it shows an insatiable appetite for capital. But as people call for the fairer application of market principles to combat market monopolization, CNPC upholds its state-owned enterprise status and advocates ‘self-strengthening’ (做强做大) [ie., the need to develop competitive state industry players]. The company’s upper management are all state cadres with administrative ranks. As upper management at enterprises, they can draw high salaries. Meanwhile, as high-level public servants they can be assigned to various departments to serve as officials.
This is why people glimpse the pragmatic shadow of administrative control in this “list of sensitive words,” and a guiding intent whose meaning extends beyond the company itself.
In the nine major sections of this list of sensitive words, there are two things that have most drawn the interest of Internet users. The first is that when company leaders go on visits to local areas, the words “inspection” and
“inspection tour” (which suggest the leaders are acting in an official government capacity) must not be used — rather, they should talk about the leaders going out on “surveys,” “investigations” or tours of “solicitation.” And when talking about the company’s business results, employees are not to use “monopoly” (垄断), “excessive profits” (暴利), “rich and powerful” (豪门), “big shots” (大腕), “recession” (衰退), etc. The words “turning point” (拐点) and “borrowing”
(借债), “downturn” (下滑) and “losses” (亏损) are to be used “with great care.”
These leaders might genuinely be going out in “solicitation” when they visit local areas, but everyone is inclined to feel, given practical circumstances, that this is mostly formalistic and phony, and people have a strong antipathy to the wasteful use of public resources [which is at issue because these are state-owned enterprises].
As for “excessive profits,” “rich and powerful” and “monopoly” — these are irrefutable facts [in our society of Market-Leninism, where business and power are inextricable linked]. The fact that these are stark realities but cannot be talked about is naturally a major joke as Internet users see it.
There are also a number of contradictions in this list of sensitive words, which reveal the public opinion abyss in which these powerful enterprises find themselves in China’s period of social transition.
For example, when company leaders attend various grand celebrations and conferences, the words “personally” (亲自), “cordially” (莅临) and “graciously” (光临) invited are not to be used, because these words create an unfavorable impression. The list also stipulates that when releases are made about speeches given by company bosses, a number of special words, like “issued important instructions” (做重要指示), “made an important speech” (发表重要讲话), “pointed out” (指出), “emphasized” (强调), “demanded” (要求) and “issued a speech” (发表讲话) are to be left to state leaders.
The online jabber surrounding CNPC’s list of sensitive words is a reflection of a social mood in China. Monopoly that relies on administrative power is something people see no end to, nor do they see any genuine effort to address it. In fact, the situation is only growing worse, while small and medium-sized companies are stuck and powerless.
It only makes sense that Internet users search about hungrily for an opportunity to mock and sneer at power. Even if the CNPC amounts to normal corporate behavior, it is bound to be distorted and misunderstood given the realities of China’s political and economic environment.
Look behind this seemingly irrational online display and you’ll discover very rational and intelligible causes.
This article originally appeared in Chinese at the Oriental Morning Post.
CNPC “Sensitive Word” List

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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