Over the weekend, a post on the official Weibo account of the United Nations said its Committee Against Torture had questioned China insistently over its record on such issues as judicial independence and its use of “black jails.” Responding in the comments section, Xu Xin (徐昕), a professor in the law school at the Beijing Institute of Technology, gibed: “So, what punishment should the United Nations get for improperly discussing China’s legal system?” Another lawyer, Yang Junfeng (杨俊峰), added his own wisecrack: “My solemn advice is that we detain and interrogate the UN secretary general for having the impudence to improperly discuss the policies of the Central Party.”

The humour in these comments is probably lost on those unfamiliar with political jargon in China, but both taunts draw attention to a term that has rightly come in recent weeks to symbolise the Communist Party’s intolerant attitude toward dissenting views under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. The term, “improper discussion of [the policies] of the central Party,” or wangyi zhongyang (妄议中央), kicked up a storm online after being included in the Party’s new Disciplinary Regulations, released on October 21.

Lawyer Yang's remark
Chinese lawyer Yang Junfeng comments on a November 24 Weibo post by the United Nations on China’s torture review, with reference to the term “improper discussion.”

At the centre of the storm was the following section in Article 46 of the regulations: “Improper discussion of the fundamental policies of the Central Party authorities, causing damage to the centralism and unity of the Party, will in serious cases result in expulsion from the Party.”

In Chinese, the term “improper discussion” can be used in a colloquial sense — referring to remarks that are merely speculative. But it also has a deeper history within the discourse of the Chinese Communist Party. So let’s take a closer look at this rare and extraordinary term, and try to understand its importance in the present day.

Looking back through the entire history of the Party’s chief newspaper, the People’s Daily, we find that the phrase “improper discussion” is extremely uncommon, having appeared just 24 times — on a per-article basis — in nearly six decades. Moreover, the phrase has never appeared in any document publicly released by the Chinese Communist Party. Through the entire decade of the 1980s, the term “improper discussion” appeared in the People’s Daily just 6 times. In the 1990s it appeared 4 times. Since 2000, the phrase has cropped up a total of 14 times, with a seven-year period up to 2011 when the phrase completely vanished.

the paper
The cover of the recently released Chinese Communist Party Disciplinary Regulations. Image from Shanghai’s The Paper.

This year, “improper discussion” has appeared in 8 articles in the People’s Daily, the term’s strongest annual showing in the paper’s history. Especially worth noting is the fact that throughout the entire history of the People’s Daily the term “improper discussion” has been explicitly defined as “an internal Party ban” (党内禁令) in just 7 articles — and 6 of these articles are from this year.

When we sift through the People’s Daily to ascertain the various uses of “improper discussion” over time, we find essentially 5 types, which I outline below, along with the number of articles in which they occur:

6 articles — The writer of the article in question uses the phrase to signal their own sense of caution over a political or other matter about which they are insufficiently clear. This basically accords with modern vernacular use of the phrase, and doesn’t merit further discussion.
6 articles — The article criticises a certain person for speaking without substance and making a spurious argument.
3 articles — Foreign governments are criticised for interfering with Chinese affairs through “improper discussion.”
2 articles — The article argues in favour of freer discussion, and on this basis suggests “improper discussion” should be tolerated in order to avoid “incurring guilt through one’s words” (因言获罚).
7 articles — The article refers to “improper discussion of the [policies of] the Centre” (妄议中央) as an internal Party ban against dissent over the high-level policies of the Chinese Communist Party, and against sharing one’s conjectures. This is the definition of the phrase we find in the Disciplinary Regulations.

The pair of articles in category 4, those advocating greater tolerance toward dissenting ideas, were the outliers of the group. I started my exploration with a look at these two.

In 1988, the People’s Daily ran an article called, “Tolerating the Intolerable” (容天下难容之士), by a writer identified as “Shi Feng” (拾风). The piece enumerated the various emperors in Chinese history who had been incapable of tolerating “improper discussion,” and it pointed out that “’intolerance’ actually expressed a common thread in the way successive emperors treated scholars.”

The article said that early in his reign, the Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) had actually employed scholars on the basis of proven ability, and had extended them respect. Later, however, he had turned to persecuting them. The article told the story of one poor scholar in Hangzhou who wrote out a message for an imperial celebration that read: “Under the light of heaven, a sage is born, his conduct a model for the world.” Zhu Yuanzhong, who had been born a poor peasant and spent time as a novice monk, responded fiercely to the message. He alleged that by using the character “light” (which can also mean “bald”) together with “birth” (a homophone of the word “monk”), the scholar meant to suggest he was a Buddhist monk. On top of this, the emperor chose to understand “being a model” as an oblique reference to “being a thief,” relying again on an inexact homophone. The scholar was beheaded.

The article “Tolerating the Intolerable” appears on page eight of the People’s Daily on April 2, 1988.

Whether one spoke of the “language prison” (文字狱) of ancient imperial times, or of the groundless accusations levelled against political enemies by members of the Gang of Four as they “made selective readings of speech” (言论摘编) — all of these were, for the author of the People’s Daily article, examples of the crazed persecution of intellectuals throughout history as a kind of “cultural autocracy” (文化专制主义). The poison still flows today, the author suggested. But if China’s intellectuals were part of the working class, equal to the leadership class, why should there be any question at all of who tolerates whom?

The “Shi Feng” who penned the 1988 article was in fact the Republican Era newspaper man and playwrite Zheng Shifeng (郑拾风). Decades earlier, he had written a series of essays in which he had revealed internal details about Chiang Kai-shek’s dealings with the United States. Finally, in an essay published in the wake of Nanjing’s “Xiaguan tragedy” of June 23, 1946, Zheng had offered up just 6 words: “Today, there is nothing to say.” This is quite possibly the briefest and most powerful essay in the history of the Chinese essay. For those 6 words, the Kuomintang government in Nanjing had put out a warrant for Zheng’s arrest.
Years later, in a “new China” under the rule of a “people’s democratic dictatorship,” Zheng would witness and experience similar persecution. For him in particular to be writing like this, advocating tolerance for “improper discussion,” tells us just how open the speech environment was in China in the 1980s.

Toward the end of the 1970s, debates over “truth standards” (真理标准大讨论) relaxed the iron grip of the “Two Whatevers” (两个凡是), the idea that all must unswervingly follow and uphold the policies of Mao Zedong. Ahead of the Third Plenum of the CCP’s 11th Central Committee in 1978, Deng Xiaoping suggested Chinese leaders should embrace criticism:

The masses should be permitted to submit some opinions, and even if certain people harbour unhappiness and want to exploit democracy to make a bit of noise, there is nothing terrifying about this. To handle it properly, we need to trust that the vast majority have the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. A revolutionary ruling party should in fact be fearful of not hearing the voices of the people, for the most terrifying thing of all is utter silence.

It was during the Third Plenum that Deng raised the concept of “thought liberation,” which set the tone for the 1980s as an era of relative openness. At the time, a saying from the Records of the Grand Historian, dating back to the second century BC, became common coin among Party officials: “One thousand obsequious yes-men are no equal to a single straight talker.”

In the senior leadership of the Communist Party, the figure who best exemplified the attitude of tolerance toward “improper discussion” was Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦). At a spring tea party event held by the Central Party in March 1980, Hu Yaobang shared an ancient parable called, “Zi Chan Says Don’t Destroy the Rural School” (子产不毁乡校), a classic of the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BC). The story is about a rural school, overseen by the story’s main character, Zi Chan, which provides peasants with a gathering place where they can debate public affairs, and where policies are often criticised. At one point, senior officials from the state of Zheng, where the school is located, suggest to Zi Chan that the place be destroyed in order to silence unwelcome criticism. Zi Chan advises against it, saying that the space is in fact a teacher for Zheng policymakers — telling them which courses of action are popular and useful, and which are despised.

Hu Yaobang’s point in telling the story was to urge his Party colleagues to “voice their own opinions on major national affairs.” Here is what he said:

In ancient times, there was a man named Zi Chan from the state of Zheng, who spoke out against the destruction of the local country school. In the Tang Dynasty, [the writer] Han Yu believed this matter had been handled well, and he wrote a piece called, “In Praise of Zi Chan Saying Not to Destroy the Rural School” (子产不毁乡校颂). We can suppose that in ancient times, the rural school was a place where public discussion happened, and a place where complaints were aired out. . . . We’ve [had reforms underway] for just over three years now, and a majority of people believe that our Party under the leadership of Chairman Hua [Guofeng] is very wise, that it’s doing things properly. However, there are a number of people who disapprove. . . . We should apply the same method as Zi Chan of Zheng, adopting those things that are valuable, and spurning those things that might be harmful to our goals. . . . To simply reject things out of hand, to simply shut things out — this is not the best way.

As a pro-reform propaganda chief, appointed to the post in December 1978, Hu Yaobang turned the Central Propaganda Department into a centre of “seeking truth through facts” (实事求是), of “thought liberation” (思想解放) and “thought construction” (思想建设). Within the Party’s ranks, he advocated “criticism and self-reflection,” and outside its ranks he encouraged the “opening of a hundred flowers, and contending of a hundred schools of thought.” He opposed the idea of “unity of public opinion” (舆论一律), a legacy of Mao Zedong’s rule.

The more tolerant attitude within the Party leadership under Hu Yaobang afforded liberal intellectuals outside the Party more latitude. The strategy of “reforming internally and opening externally” had been introduced at the Third Plenum in 1978. And two years later, in his famous “August 18 speech” in 1980, Deng Xiaoping had broached the more delicate topic of political reform.

By 1986, political reform drew a great deal of interest both inside and outside the Party. Leading liberal thinkers published articles in Party newspapers like the People’s Daily and Guangming Daily. They organised academic symposia, launched their own journals and newspapers, and openly advocated freedom and democracy. Ahead of the Thirteenth National Congress in 1987, Premier Zhao Ziyang founded the “Political Reform Research Group of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party” (中共中央政治改革研讨小组), which invited experts and intellectuals to offer their suggestions on what for many had become a core agenda.

As the intellectual climate warmed, a revitalised group of intellectuals pushed actively for greater reform. Dong Fureng (董辅礽), Tong Dalin (童大林), Yu Guangyuan (于光远) and other economists held a forum to discuss the possibility of creating a “commodity economy” in China, and the forum passed a resolution in which this hitherto avoided term actually appeared. On the political reform issue, more outspoken intellectuals like Fang Lizhi (方励之), Liu Binyan (刘宾雁) and Wang Ruoshui (王若水) wrote articles and gave public addresses in which they railed against corruption and advocated the path of democratisation.

Of course, the 1980s was not a decade of unbridled openness. Zheng Shifeng’s 1988 piece in the People’s Daily may have celebrated the value of tolerating “improper discussion.” But he had also witnessed a decade marked equally by political intolerance.

First and foremost, there was Deng Xiaoping’s concept of the “Four Basic Principles,” with its principle feature of “upholding the leadership of the Party,” a serious limitation on substantive political reform. In the arts, many works were suppressed and roundly criticised in the name of “expunging spiritual pollution” — among them the film Bitter Love (苦恋), about the life of trials and troubles of painter Ling Chengguang (凌晨光).

Intolerance gained the upper hand in 1987, as Hu Yaobang was forced to step down, accused of “serious errors of political principle.” These included being too lax in opposing the trend of bourgeois liberalisation. Soon after, Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan and Wang Ruoshui were expelled from the Party. Ultimately, the hopes they and many others had for political reform in China were dashed as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were brutally crushed on June 4.

It would be 25 years before a second article in the People’s Daily advocated, as Zheng Shifeng’s article had in 1988, a tolerant attitude toward “improper discussion.” The article, “Innovating Speaking Habits and Moral Rule” (文风革新与文德之治), again came in a supplement to the newspaper, and it admonished Party leaders by applying the concept of “moral leadership,” or wen de zhi zhi (文德之治), dating back to Emperor Renzong of the Song Dynasty. “[We must] correct the trends of arrogance and ostentation,” the article said, “and promote a style of straight talk and practical action.”

According to the People’s Daily piece, the young Emperor Renzong had encouraged a culture of straight talking in his leadership ranks, and in this way he had established the foundation of “moral rule” and had “innovated [the official] work style.” The same principle, said the author, should be applied in present-day China. Leaders should “transform their work style, change their learning attitudes and reform their way of speaking” (转作风、正学风、改文风).

“Innovating Speaking Habits and Moral Rule,” written by Xiao Ying (肖鹰), appears on page 24 of the People’s Daily on March 19, 2013.

As it happened, this piece ran in the People’s Daily just two days after the March 17 closing session of the National People’s Congress at which Xi Jinping had formally become China’s president, vowing in his speech to “serve the people, do my utmost for the nation, and consciously accept the supervision of the people.” The article seized the opportunity afforded by President Xi’s words to express the hope that the new administration would, like the enlightened emperors of old, encourage more open discussion of public affairs.

Today, more than two years later, as Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” and the “Four Comprehensives” are loudly proclaimed by the Chinese media, language like that in the People’s Daily two years ago about “straight talk” is drowned out by language about “improper discussion of Central Party [policies]” (妄议中央). The attitude toward “improper discussion” is markedly different from what we saw in the 1980s, or even just two years ago. “Improper discussion” now denotes “disobedience toward one’s superiors” (忤逆上级), or “unwarranted criticism” (胡加非议).

On October 23, 2014, during the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP, Xi Jinping criticised some Party officials for “doing things their own way, making a show of complying while opposing [policies] in their hearts, so that leadership was rendered ineffectual by insubordination, and by improper discussion of Central Party [policies].” This marked the first time in recent times that “improper discussion” implied a clear prohibition within the Party.

On December 17, 2014, Wang Xiankui (王宪魁), the top Party leader in Heilongjiang province, published a piece in the People’s Daily called, “Complying With Discipline Means Knowing How High the Sky Is and How Thick the Ground” (遵守纪律要知“天”高“地”厚). The piece argued that Party regulations and discipline are far more rigid even than national laws, and that Party members must uphold the authority of the Central Party: “It is absolutely forbidden to step out and speak improperly of the fundamental policies of the Central Party or of major strategic decisions made by the provincial Party leadership,” Wang wrote. With this piece, Wang Xianhui became the first to discuss the issue of “improper discussion of [the policies of] the central Party” in the pages of the People’s Daily.

One month after Wang’s piece, the People’s Daily ran a front-page commentary called, “Putting Discipline Rules in a More Important Position” (把守纪律讲规矩摆在更加重要的位置), framed as a discussion on the “study and implementation” of a speech Xi Jinping delivered to a session of the Discipline Inspection Commission. The piece once again stressed the importance of “strict discipline,” and said “there are still a few Party members and cadres who do not observe discipline and do not follow the rules . . . . or who speak out, carelessly engaging in improper discussion.”

What followed was a general outpouring of condemnation of “improper discussion” by Party officials at all levels. From January 1, 2015, to November 11, 2015, 3,677 articles appeared on mainland websites including the term “improper discussion.” Of these, 3,641 appeared after the October release of the Disciplinary Regulations.

Lest we think that all of this talk about “improper discussion” is just that, idle talk, we have already had in recent weeks our first case of a Party official being punished under the charge.

On November 2, 2015, Xinjiang Daily, the official Party newspaper of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, reported that Zhao Xinwei (赵新尉), the paper’s former editor-in-chief, had been expelled from the Party and dismissed from office for “improper discussion of the [policies of] the Central Party and major strategic decisions made by the Party leadership of the autonomous region.”

The Party leadership, it seems, is in no mood to stomach dissenting opinion in its ranks. The message to Party members, and to the general population, over core policies and priorities: We’re not having this discussion.