A firestorm of controversy broke out online in China late last month after a short video clip went viral along with allegations that Chen Hongyou (陈宏友), an associate professor from Hefei Normal University, had made offensive off-the-cuff remarks ahead of a lecture at Lujiang Middle School (庐江中学) in Anhui province.
“The goal of academic study is to make money,” Professor Chen reportedly said. “Don’t talk about ideals and ambitions; money is power, money is everything.” He apparently added injury to insult by suggesting that academic performance brought opportunities for “gene optimization” (基因优化), meaning broader horizons in finding a mate. Chen’s own son had studied in the United States and found a foreign girlfriend there — so Chen’s future grandchildren would have better genes.
Chen’s crass remarks so infuriated one student that he leaped onto the stage and grabbed the microphone from the professor, shouting him down with Chinese Communist Party slogans. “There is only money in his eyes,” the student, Jiang Zhenfei (蒋振飞), shouted, “and so he says we study only to get rich! He reveres the foreign and panders to foreign powers!” (崇洋媚外). The student’s coup de grace was a bullet of Xi Jinping jargon fired point-blank at Professor Chen: “The goal of our study,” Jiang shouted after a smattering of applause, “is for the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!”
It was a call for China to stand up confidently and reclaim its strong voice and standing in the world. But the words themselves illustrate how individuals’ voices are erased and replaced with the voice of the Party, and how the collective voice of a billion people can still sound so feeble on the global stage.
So far, beyond the proliferation of the short viral video of Jiang Zhenfei’s tirade and related comments, nothing is known about the real context. The few media outlets in China that have attempted to report on the case with more nuance have been harshly criticized by netizens for not simply siding with the students. The whole affair has been steeped in a sense of intergenerational conflict — as if this was a simple moral tale about retrogressive middle age versus idealistic youth. On top of it all, the CCP’s censorship engine kicked in quickly, preventing substantive discussion and fact-sharing.
“He reveres the foreign and panders to foreign powers!”High school student Jiang Zhenfei on associate professor Chen Hongyou
But two fundamental and related issues are rather salient in the Chen Hongyou affair. First and foremost, we can witness the complete hollowing out of public discourse in China, which has systematically robbed the Chinese people of their voices, substituting the heckling voice of Party propaganda. Second, we can see how this act of voice theft is reflexively pinned on foreign powers and foreignness, disguising the real crime. The ultimate outcome is that voicelessness and powerlessness are recast as the assertion of national power and greatness — an affirmation of “China’s voice.”
For many netizens, Jiang’s march onto the stage was an act of self-assurance, and he was quickly praised as a “role model.” Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the former editor-in-chief of the Global Times newspaper, took to Weibo to call the student‘s actions a “show of courage.” But as Jiang makes his theatrical show of strength in the video, the only words he has to rise to the moment are pre-packaged slogans, spiritless for all of the teen’s spiritedness. He spits them out reflexively, and his classmates in the audience echo with ritual hurrahs. Who do these words actually belong to?
Unscripted though it might have been, the scene reminded me of the revolutionary operas popularized across China during the Cultural Revolution, with their moral depictions of heroes and villains, always absent all shades of nuance. In these operas, peerless proletarian characters, cleansed of all bourgeois contagion, are pitted against cruel and oppressive class enemies whose motives have been utterly corrupted. Away in the shadows are the real enemies feeding domestic depravity — the foreign imperialists and their bourgeois values.
This model opera in Anhui apparently worked its magic upon millions responding online, a sign of how effectively the Party has managed to dominate public discourse, conditioning the responses Chinese are meant to have to substantive issues. Surely, plenty of Chinese must see through the phoniness of this model opera. Many likely recognize that the protagonist, Jiang Zhenfei, is merely correcting Professor Chen’s vulgar individual view of education in favor of the elevated vulgarity of Party supremacy — how in both cases, the critical process of learning is defined only as a means to power. But while a handful of such observations may circulate inside China, discussed quietly in private groups, the pervasiveness of political controls on the media, the internet, education, and society have virtually eliminated the precious space that might have existed in years past between Chen Hongyou’s crudely self-interested view of study and the CCP’s moral of self-sacrifice to the state as the highest form of personal conviction.
Jiang Zhenfei’s grabbing of the microphone may be seen by many Chinese as a triumph of the voice. But the cruel truth is that the teen’s voice has been stolen by the Party-state. He speaks the Party’s convictions in the Party’s voice. Beyond this, he has nothing to say that is not captive to the Party’s political will, scripted into a narrative of national greatness. The Party defines the objectives of idealism, and it demarcates the language of idealism. All efforts, in school and in industry, must serve the “Great Rejuvenation,” the heart of which is CCP rule and the “core” power of General Secretary Xi.
This act of thievery is disguised at the same time by an ingenious act of shifting the blame. Why is Jiang’s tirade so inspiring to others? Because he has dared to stand up for China against the real villains in the revolutionary opera at Lujiang Middle School, the ones standing in the shadows behind the scurrilous professor — the foreign powers who have robbed the nation of its voice.
Chen’s real crime is to “revere the foreign and pander to foreign powers,” a phrase that was common during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1960s and 70s, the People’s Daily and other publications regularly carried reports about how Mao’s political enemies, including “Liu Shaoqi and his associates,” “revered the foreign and pandered to foreign powers.” Chinese were urged to “break through the slavishness of reverence for the foreign.” In July 1976, two months before the death of Mao, the purged Deng Xiaoping and his oddball economic ideas remained a symbol of this slavish mentality, even though within a few short years they would lead to a dramatic turnaround in the country’s fortunes. The People’s Daily mocked Deng’s Four Modernizations and the idea of introducing new foreign technologies to China. “This is classic reverence for the foreign and pandering to foreign powers, a big policy of surrendering and betraying the country.”
Just as in the 1960s and 70s, the moral of the revolutionary opera at Lujiang Middle School is that all must rise to the prevailing political program, sacrificing their own voice for the voice of Party power, which promises to lead them to strength and self-sufficiency in a world where the foreigners are bent on infiltration and corruption. The alternative is surrender and betrayal.
But the revolutionary opera at Lujiang Middle School also holds the real secret of the chronic weakness of China’s collective voice in global public opinion, despite nearly constant sloganeering by the CCP about the need to confidently develop “discourse power” and “tell China’s story well,” and despite the investment by the Party of billions upon billions of dollars for external communication.
Xi Jinping has spoken insistently about “cultural confidence” and the need to make China’s voice better heard and better understood. China needs a voice, says Xi, that matches its national strength and international status in a world — so goes the official narrative — of “Western-dominated global public opinion.” But when a billion voices are effectively replaced, and erased, by a system of discourse that serves the narrow values of a single ruling party, embodied in a single charismatic leader, public discourse is not enriched or strengthened. It becomes instead a public monologue, shouted in wooden and spiritless language through a microphone that has been snatched away.