Earlier this week, a prominent headline on the homepage of People’s Daily Online announced new regulations from the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party placing stronger restrictions on the business activities of the partners and children of Chinese officials – and that, moreover, a commentary on the subject had been written by “Zhong Zuwen” (仲祖文).
Who was this mystery writer, and what made their appearance so noteworthy? We might picture a hardened senior anti-corruption official putting pen to paper and sounding off about the need for tougher governance: “Strengthening the management of the commercial activities and businesses of the spouses and children of leading cadres is an important political task set by the CCP Central Committee,” the commentary read.
But “Zhong Zuwen” is not a person at all. The byline is just a pen name, an onion-skin layer of brittle pretense covering over an obvious homophone. In fact, this is the piece of writing from the Party office in charge of staffing positions, the zhongyang zuzhi bu (中央组织部). The “wen” at the tail end is Chinese for “article” – so that taken together the nom de plume becomes: “article of the Organization Department of the CCP.”
Such “propaganda codes,” or “homophonous pen names,” are in fact quite common in the Party-state media, and in the halls of power. They form an internal system of not-so-secret codes by which those in positions of power, both departments and individuals, can voice their official positions and put their stamp on a course or policy.
Once you understand how to parse the names, they seem to crop up everywhere.
A Party Unit by Any Other Name
On Friday last week, days before the “Zhong Zuwen” piece made its appearance on page two of the People’s Daily, another commentary made the rounds in state media attributed to a certain “Wang Xingping” (王兴平). The article praised Xi Jinping’s persistence with China’s “dynamic zero” approach to Covid, and as we noted in our analysis at CMP, the commentary resorted to the Mao-era concept of “policies of greater benevolence” (大仁政) to justify suffering under constant lockdowns.
Who wrote this piece of sycophantic loyalty signaling? The article first appeared on the WeChat public account “CAC China” (网信中国), which is run by the China Cyberspace Research Center (中国网络空间研究院) of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the powerful internet control body. “Wang” (王) is one of the most common Chinese surnames. But it is also a homophone of “wang” (网), the word for “net” or “network.” “Xing” (兴), meaning to “rise” or “flourish,” is a homophone of “xin” (信), the first character of the word “information.” Finally, “ping” (平), meaning “peaceful,” is a homophone of the first character of the word “commentary,” pinglun (评论).
“Wang Xingping,” then, stands in for “commentary of the Cyberspace Administration of China” (网信办评论). Beginning to see how the game works?
In both of the above cases, these commentaries would most likely have been written by “writing teams,” or xiezuozu (写作组), within the respective offices, the Organization Department and the CAC. They would then be circulated to top officials – perhaps even, in the case of the CAC, to Zhuang Rongwen (庄荣文), who in the past has placed Xi beside Mao – who would offer feedback and suggest changes.
Pen names backed by such “writing teams” include the Zhong brothers, “Zhong Xuanli” (钟轩理) of the Theory Office of the Central Propaganda Department (中宣部理论局), and “Zhong Zhengxuan” (钟政轩) of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (中央政法委). There is “Wei Minkang” (卫民康), the team writing soaring CCP prose for the Ministry of Health (卫生部).
At the People’s Daily, there are writing teams, no doubt with overlapping members (写作组组员), for various themes and intensities. There is Mr. Important, “Ren Zhongping” (任仲平), reserved for “important People’s Daily commentaries” (人民日报重要评论) – this being the homophone. There is Ms. Make-It-Better, “He Zhenhua” (何振华), whose commentaries deal with “how to revitalize China” (如何振兴中华) – again the homophone.
Crucially in the era of tense relations between China and the United States, there is Mr. Miffed, “Zhong Sheng” (钟声) – literally “bell tone,” but also a homophone of “China + voice” – the official pen name used routinely for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its often scathing view. Finally, there is Zhong Sheng’s slightly calmer cousin, “Guo Jiping” (国纪平), standing for “important commentaries about international [affairs]” (有关国际的重要评论), who sounds off just a bit more rationally from the paper’s international desk, but who can rarely resist the emotional finish: “No one can stop the historical course of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!”
Struggling with Secret Codes
In a 2013 paper on “writing teams” for The China Quarterly, Taiwanese scholars Wen-Hsuan Tsai (蔡文轩) and Peng-Hsiang Kao (高鹏翔) wrote that “the pseudonyms of the Party unit writing teams function as a form of secret code.” This code works, they said, to alert other Party officials to the views of certain departments or units. In the late reform era, these codes, or pen names, became more regular, what Tsai and Peng refer to as a “process of institutionalization.” Consider that “Guo Jiping,” the international affairs writing team at the People’s Daily, was first introduced in October 2005, in a piece about the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. It has since then appeared 104 times, the latest just last Saturday.
In the past, however, these pen-named commentaries, written by teams and powerful individuals, have marked points of struggle and strife within the CCP.
One of the earliest pen names was “Ding Xuelei” (丁学雷), first used in early 1966 by a Shanghai writing team controlled by polemicist Zhang Chunqiao (张春桥) and cultural critic Yao Wenyuan (姚文元), both members of the radical political alliance that would later become known as the “Gang of Four.” Attacks by “Ding Xuelei” on prominent writers in February 1966 were some of the earliest signs of the violence and chaos that would be unleashed later that spring as the Cultural Revolution began in earnest.
On February 12, 1966, Shanghai’s Liberation Daily ran a commentary in which “Ding Xuelei” savaged Hai Rui Submits His Memorial (海瑞上疏), a play by Peking opera actor Zhou Xinfang (周信芳) that tells the story of a principled Ming Dynasty official who speaks out against the actions of a cruel and self-indulgent emperor. Some at the time saw Zhou’s play, along with Wu Han’s Hai Rui Criticizes the Emperor (海瑞骂皇帝), as an allegory about Mao’s purge of Peng Dehuai (彭德怀) during the Lushan Conference for speaking out against the errors of the Great Leap Forward.
On May 28, 1966, nearly two weeks after the May 16 Notification, which directly mentioned Wu Han’s play, the People’s Daily maintained the pretense that “Ding Xuelei” was a human being. Of Ding Xuelei’s February screed in the Liberation Daily, the paper wrote that “Comrade Ding Xuelei’s article correctly unveiled, adequately unveiled and powerfully unveiled” the fact that Zhou Xinfang’s play, like that of Wu Han, was a “poisonous weed against the Party and the socialist system.” The play had “pointed its spearhead at our great Party.”
The “Gang of Four,” which included Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing (江青), excelled at the creation and weaponizing of pen names. Another was “Liang Xiao” (梁效), a homophone of “two schools” (两校), marking commentaries written by a writing team comprising people from Peking University and Tsinghua University. These writings were commanded by Mao and Jiang, as were those of “Tang Xiaowen” (唐晓文), a homophone of “Party School writing” (党校文), marking the work of the “Central Party School Writing Team” (中央党校写作组).
Cutting Down the Poisonous Weeds
As the “Gang of Four” were arrested in October 1976, just weeks after Mao’s death, these poisonous pen names were unmasked. In the years that followed, writers like Zhou Xinfang and Wu Han were rehabilitated (though both had died under persecution years earlier).
In September 1978, the People’s Daily decried the bitter criticism of Zhou Erfu’s (周而复) novel Morning in Shanghai (上海的早晨) in a 1969 article by “Ding Xuelei” that had appeared in the paper’s own pages. “The Great Poisonous Weed that Sounded the Gong for Liu Shaoqi’s Restoration of Capitalism,” the headline had read. “Ding Xuelei” was referred to by then as “a pen name for that counter-revolutionary deployment force of the Gang of Four, the Shanghai Committee Writing Team” (上海市委写作组).
In an indictment of the “counter-revolutionary group” that included Lin Biao (林彪), Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and others, published in the People’s Daily on November 21, 1980, Jiang, Zhang and Yao were singled out for “leading writing teams that included ‘Liang Xiao’ of Peking University and Tsinghua University, ‘Luo Siding’ (罗思鼎) of Shanghai, ‘Chi Heng’ (池恒) of the Red Flag journal, and ‘Tang Xiaowen’ of the Central Party School.”
The next month, Yao Wenyuan was quoted as having confessed before his court of accusers: “I asked them to write.”
But even as China left the Cultural Revolution behind and began a slow transformation, the pen name remained as a secret code for the voices of the powerful. On November 14, 1979, a front-page commentary appeared in the People’s Daily called, “We Can Talk About Political Issues Too.” Bylined “Guo Luoji” (郭罗基), the piece appeared against the backdrop of internal Party division over the so-called Democracy Wall protests (1978-1979) and the arrest of activist Wei Jingsheng (魏京生). It argued, as Wei languished in prison, that “no one should be held guilty for speaking out” (言者无罪).
The article incensed Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木) and other CCP hardliners. But as the former People’s Daily editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟) revealed in 2004, it had in fact been reviewed and edited by the liberal senior official Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦).
Writing teams continued to play an important role in secret code writing after 1979, one of the most outstanding examples being the “Huangfu Ping” (皇甫平) team, which published a series of commentaries in support of reform policies in 1991 and 1992, ahead of Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour.” The articles, in a series called “Reform and Liberalization Need New Thinking,” were written by a team that included the veteran newspaper editor Zhou Ruijin (周瑞金). They played a crucial role in arguing for continued openness and reform in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, which had ushered in a period of relative isolation and conservatism.
Why “Huangfu Ping”? The pen name derives from two homophones, the first meaning “Huangpu River commentaries” (黄浦江评论), a reference to the river running through Shanghai, a key city on the “tour,” and the second meaning “assisting Deng Xiaoping” (辅助邓小平).
A Secret Code for Political Reform
In late October 2010, shortly after the Fifth Plenum of the 17th Central Committee, and at a time when there was more urgent talk of the need for substantive political reform to grapple with long-term economic development and social inequality, a series of commentaries placed prominently in the People’s Daily and at People’s Daily Online prompted widespread speculation. They appeared under the byline “Zheng Qingyuan” (郑青原), which many internet users surmised was a writing team, and a homophone for “clearing up the source and getting to the bottom of things” (正本清源).
Five articles from “Zheng Qingyuan” appeared in total, the first on October 21, 2010, and the last on November 2. The most outspoken of these, “Promoting Reform with Greater Determination and Courage,” twice mentioned the term “political reform” (政治体制改革), including a forward-looking statement about the need for the CCP to “actively and steadily promote political reform.”
The writings of “Zheng Qingyuan,” which clearly suggested the need to grapple with China’s challenges at the root, surely came from senior officials in the Politburo Standing Committee. Given Premier Wen Jiabao’s repeated references through 2011 and 2012 to the urgent need for political reform, he is impossible to exclude as a key figure behind the pen name.
Since coming to power in late 2012, Xi Jinping has shown an entirely different face, and in retrospect it is difficult to imagine that he too endorsed the words of “Zheng Qingyuan.”
Talk of political reform and constitutionalism has all but disappeared since 2013 – the latter appearing not at all and the former appearing only in references to the past, including the resolution on history introduced in November last year. For Xi, the solution to China’s future lies in the rule of the CCP with himself at the helm and at the “core.” And to accomplish his objectives, he must ensure that the Party is protected from its own excesses, that its “leading cadres” are loyal and clean, and their family members blameless.