Author: CMP Staff

Warriors on the Red Road

What do you get when you send a television film crew into the wilds of western China with a dramatic television actor from Hong Kong, a Chinese-Canadian film star, a boy band rapper, a well-known actress, and a survival expert from New Zealand who calls himself “The Kiwi Bushman”? You get a compelling documentary survival series with major commercial backing that might look to global audiences like simple entertainment.

But the six-episode series Journey of Warriors (勇敢者的征程), produced by China’s Tencent Video with the US multinational television conglomerate Discovery, Inc., along with China International Communication Center (CICC), is more than a simple joyride into harmless voyeurism and escapism. It is part of an effort by the Chinese state, with international partners, to be more appealing in its push for global discourse power — an effort that requires all those involved to be less than forthcoming about its origins.

The Art of Foreign Acceptance

Journey of Warriors follows five celebrities as they attempt arduous treks – à la Naked and Afraid – along routes traversed by the Red Army during the Long March in 1934-1935 and during China’s struggle against the invading Japanese army, is meant as a celebration of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial. As these celebrity adventurers scale the face of Jiajin Mountain (夹金山), the first snow-laden peak the Red Army is said to have crossed during the Long March, or as they fashion bamboo stalks into a raft to tackle the Wu River (乌江), where a Red Army regiment once made a difficult crossing, Journey of Warriors is also an allegory for China’s contemporary journey as the country’s leaders envision it.

When Xi Jinping spoke of the Long March back in October 2021, stressing the need to “channel the courage and determination of those revolutionary soldiers on a new march, one toward national rejuvenation,” he might as easily have been speaking about the series.  

It was certainly was no accident that Journey of Warriors was released in China on November 9, the day after the opening of the 6th Plenum that brought the year’s political culmination with the release of a new official resolution on the Party’s history valorizing Xi’s role. The CCP’s general secretary is in the midst of his own long march toward the Party’s 20th National Congress in the fall, where he will likely be draped in the mantle of “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想) and given the mandate to rule China through another decade as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. It was in the course of the historical Long March, as the Red Army traversed 5,000 miles of rough terrain in a retreat to avoid annihilation at the hands of pursuing Republican forces, that Mao achieved his rise as the Party’s undisputed leader.

Actress Zhang Xinyu sums up the sense of historical overlap in a dramatic trailer for the television series as she traverses a steep hillside: “We will retrace the thrill of when our red grandmothers were being pursued. . . . The challenge has begun. This is the journey of the warriors.”

Promotion poster for Journey of Warriors, listing the producers as Tencent Video, CICC and Discovery.

The series can at times be truly entertaining, and within China it has been received enthusiastically, drawing more than five billion views per episode after its November launch, and earning a 9.6 out of 10 rating from users at Tencent Video.

But Journey of Warriors is also domestic entertainment with a serious international mission. China has gambled on the series as an effective form of “external propaganda” (外宣), hoping to influence views of China across the world. At the 11th China Academy Awards of Documentary Film in December 2021, the series took away the prize for best international communication, where it was praised as “boldly innovative,” “perfectly integrating stories of revolutionary history with the international communication discourse system in a way that foreigners find easy to understand and accept.”

An online ad in late November 2021 promotes the new series Journey of Warriors, with broadcast times in Bangkok and Jakarta.

One commentary on the series in mid-November, published on a WeChat public account operated by a research center under the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), bore the telling headline: “Journey of Warriors: Turning External Propaganda Documentaries into Blockbusters for the World to See.”

China has struggled for many years to bring smart story-telling together with high-end production to create propaganda that is captivating and effective. The CCP has yearned for the magic formula to build credibility internationally, to bolster its “cultural soft power,” and to counter what it sees as Western domination of global discourse. And for as many years, state media and government-affiliated producers have failed, often because the system is too inflexible, its message too simplistic.

Journey of Warriors, however, may be the nearest thing to watchable to emerge from the field of external propaganda. The series was released outside China on November 28, 2021. And thanks to the strong distribution channels provided by Discovery, Inc., it has reached substantial audiences across Southeast Asia, as well as in India on Discovery+, and on Prime Video. Given Discovery’s global reach, that audience is sure to grow as the series, which the state-run CGTN blandly referred to as “China’s first international co-produced adventure documentary,” is rolled out in other regions and other languages.

China has struggled for many years to bring smart story-telling together with high-end production to create propaganda that is captivating and effective.

To burnish the series’ international appeal, the producers brought on television star Josh James, who Discovery introduces as “the renowned Discovery explorer and the world’s top survival expert,” as well as award-winning director Phil Stebbing, who has worked in the past with the BBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

In one trailer for the film, the English lyrics “There will be victory . . . there will be breakthrough” accompany cut-in scenes of adventurers Wallace Chung, the actor, and explorer Josh James.

James, who rose to fame through his online adventure vlogs on hunting, trapping and surviving in the wilds of New Zealand, and who starred in the series Dual Survivor, lends the series an air of wild man credibility as well as being the obligatory “foreign friend” on screen. (For more on the history of the CCP’s employment in foreign affairs of the “foreign friend,” or waiguo pengyou (外国朋友), we recommend the wonderful paper Friendlit by another New Zealander, professor Anne-Marie Brady.)

Chinese cast members include Wallace Chung Hon-leung (锺汉良), an actor from Hong Kong who has made his career starring in mainland films and television dramas; Shawn Dou (窦骁), a Chinese Canadian actor who played the lead role in Zhang Yimou’s 2010 film The Love of the Hawthorn Tree; Zhang Xinyu (张馨予), an actress, singer and model; and Yan Xujia (焉栩嘉), an actor, rapper and member of the idol boy band R1SE.

Landing on the program from their living rooms in Southeast Asia or India, television viewers might be drawn in by Journey of Warriors. But once we understand how this series is intended to work its propaganda magic, slipping its message of CCP-led national glory right into our entertainment fare, should we tune in? Or should we change the channel?

Co-Producing with the CCP

Entertaining or not, Journey of Warriors, like many of the programs in which CICC has been involved, raises serious questions about transparency in international documentary and entertainment programming. Before they tune in, audiences across the world – many paying for content through subscription services – should probably be informed about the parties involved in a production as well as its purpose beyond pure entertainment.

For its part, Discovery has been opaque about its longstanding co-production relationship in China. Journey of Warriors was jointly produced with Tencent Video, the streaming channel operated by the Chinese tech giant. Less known, however, is the third partner, the China International Communication Center (五洲传播中心), or CICC, which is listed prominently in Chinese media coverage and on Chinese-language promotional posters. Though CICC routinely bills itself as your go-to co-production partner in China, and as a source of essential video footage through its Video China platform, the company is a propaganda subsidiary under the State Council Information Office, whose clear mission is external communication.

Company registration records prior to 2019 show that CICC was controlled by the Central Propaganda Department, the department being listed along with the Information Office (these essentially being the same office) as the sole shareholder. During that time, CICC worked closely with Discovery in the production of a number of documentary series, including China: Time of Xi, a production attributed in state media coverage to the UK-based Meridian Line Films, which previously was 85 percent held by CICC.

Records from 2017 show CICC as being 100 percent held by the “Central Propaganda Department (State Council Information Office).”

The most recent registry records show that CICC is now held by China’s Ministry of Finance. But CICC is essentially an active media arm the State Council Information Office. The group, for example, runs multiple websites designed for external communication on issues such as Xinjiang and Tibet. One of these sites is, the official website of the Chinese Society for Human Rights Studies (国人权研究会), or “CSHRS,” an ostensible non-government organization in fact operated directly by the State Council Information Office.  

The distribution of China: Time of Xi and subsequent productions involving CICC, including Journey of Warriors, apparently stems from a deal inked in 2015 with Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, under which both sides agreed to “produce content related to China.” But the line between content related to China and content brazenly promoting official CCP narratives can be very thin indeed. In the case of Journey of Warriors, the line completely disappears – if, that is, you read Chinese.

Aside from the three joint producers, Chinese-language promotional posters for the series note that the “guiding unit” for the project is the Foreign Promotion Bureau of the Central Propaganda Department (中宣部对外推广局). Outside China, these connections and agendas immediately become invisible to audiences watching the series.

A press release from Discovery promises that Journey of Warriors will “bring global audiences infinitely closer to real historical experiences by means of real-life entertainment,” without being explicit about what historical episodes are being addressed. Readers are told only that the series “relive[s] the dangerous trek that the Chinese military endured decades ago,” which it also calls “[one of] the most epic voyages in history.” No mention at all is made of CICC or the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.

In a description accompanying a trailer for Journey of Warriors on its YouTube channel, Discovery+ India explains:

It’s the journey of true daredevils who will face one of the most challenging environments on Earth. They will give it their all to make their way through the toughest of terrains and uncharted territories, a road not meant for the faint-hearted.

Foreign language coverage of the series from Chinese state media similarly obscures its genesis. An English-language news brief from Xinhua News Agency omits mention of CICC and the Central Propaganda Department, reporting only that Journey of Warriors was “co-produced by Tencent Video, a Chinese streaming platform, and Discovery Channel.” The same brief is shared online by China Daily, the English-language newspaper published by the Information Office. The story, however, includes an image of another Chinese-language promotional poster, sourced from Tencent Video’s Weibo account, that again confirms the involvement of CICC and the Foreign Promotion Bureau of the Central Propaganda Department.

A promotional poster for Journey of Warriors, featuring actor Wallace Chung, posted by the China Daily in its English coverage of the series.

The Road to Transparency

The question is not whether such stories should be told internationally, or whether they are compelling or entertaining. Viewers may feel genuine interest in knowing that Red Army soldiers cut the glare of the sun coming off the snow on Jiajin Mountain by fashioning blinders out of horsehair. They may be amused as they watch Wallace Chung and Josh James imbibing “pepper water” in preparation for their cold ascent.  

But why are the parties involved in Journey of Warriors choosing – and only overseas – to omit key aspects of the story of the series’ production?

In an address on external propaganda and international discourse power back in May, Xi Jinping urged Party propaganda workers to “build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” Xi stressed the same point recently at a congress on literature and art, where he also praised the recent propaganda blockbuster The Battle at Lake Changjin as a great success overseas. In fact, the film is a flop outside China, just one more casualty of the CCP’s insistence on a unified “Chinese story” delivered through rigid frames that alienate global audiences.

Love may certainly arise from compelling and colorful programming. But credibility and respect must come also through honesty and clarity. International viewers have a right to know the deeper story, and the deeper agenda, underlying programs like Journey of Warriors or China: Time of Xi.

For its part, Discovery states in its Code of Ethics: “We act and make decisions with integrity. We are honest, open, genuine and transparent in our work.” Perhaps it is time that the network applies this principle to its production relationships with China.

Remembering Cao Jingxing

Journalist Cao Jingxing (曹景行), whose work impacted media development in both Hong Kong and China, passed away on February 11 at the age of 75.

Born in Shanghai in 1947, Cao was among the first group of students to return to university studies in 1978, the year after the college entrance examinations, or gaokao, were reinstated, having been suspended in 1965 ahead of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1982, Cao joined Yazhou Zhoukan (亚洲周刊), the Chinese-language edition of Asiaweek magazine, which had been founded in 1975 by former colleagues at Hong Kong’s Far Eastern Economic Review. Cao was promoted to editor-in-chief of the magazine, often called “the first Chinese language international affairs newsweekly,” in 1994, the same year the magazine was purchased by Hong Kong’s Ming Pao, where Cao was also an editorial writer.

From 1997, at the time of Hong Kong’s handover to China, Cao was editor-in-chief of the news channel at the Chinese Television Network (香港传讯电视). The next year, he left CTN to become deputy director of the Phoenix InfoNews Channel, a paid television news channel in Hong Kong owned by Phoenix Television.

University of Hong Kong professor Xu Zidong (许子东), a long-time friend of Cao’s, told Shanghai’s The Paper: “He was a very good newsman, exceptionally poised, and he made people feel that they could trust him.”

Xu also said, according to The Paper, that the popular news talk program, Behind the Headlines With Wen Tao (锵锵三人行), a pioneering format at Phoenix launched in April 1998 that spawned many imitators, was first proposed by Cao Jingxing. “He phoned me before the show even aired and said it was going to bring together a few readers for a chat, something that hadn’t been done before,” Xu recalled. “I always remembered after that that he said something like, ‘The point of the show is not the content of the talk, but the method of the talk.'”

Among Cao’s best known works are a pair of memoirs, Drifting Over the Sea of Life (浮過了生命海) and Me and My World (我與我的世界).

Cao Jingxing’s father was renowned Republican Era journalist and author Cao Juren (曹聚仁), who was reportedly close to such May Fourth writers as Lu Xun (魯迅) and Zhou Zuoren (周作人), and was active as a writer in Shanghai before arriving in Hong Kong in 1950.

Empowering China’s Digital Informants

At a meeting in Beijing last month, Zhuang Rongwen (庄荣文), head of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and a deputy minister of the Central Propaganda Department, issued written comments on the construction of what he called an “integrated national system for the reporting and handling of illegal and undesirable information” (全国互联网违法和不良信息举报受理处置一体化机制建设工作). Zhuang urged officials across the country to push for “new breakthroughs” in 2022 in what he called “online reporting,” or wangluo jubao (网络举报).

What does this mean? And what are its implications?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards the control and manipulation of public opinion, a process known since 1989 as “public opinion guidance,” as being of “extreme importance” to regime stability. The “guidance” mandate is achieved on a constant basis both through a vast and evolving human architecture (including propaganda officials, media personnel, public security staff and so on) engaged in what is broadly called “news and public opinion work” (新闻舆论工作). It is also, in the information age, achieved through a vast and evolving technical architecture restricting access and filtering content on the internet and social media.

Crucially, human and technical controls are also imposed through private, commercially operating internet websites and platforms that are pressed into service through a constantly evolving system of administrative rules and regulations that enforce “guidance” as a condition of doing business. (For a recent example, refer to the new “opinion” released last month tightening controls on chat groups).

But in an era of explosive digital development, with an online ecosystem shaped by nearly a billion active Chinese internet users, these intersecting human-technical-regulatory webs, which form the biggest thought control system in human history, are still not regarded as sufficient by the CCP. The answer is to create a further layer of control by mobilizing the population, again with the help of internet platforms, to flag “illegal and undesirable information” (违法和不良信息).  

In 2014, the same year the CAC was formed, the CCP began building a nationwide system for “informant report acceptance” (举报受理). Coordinated out of the CAC’s “Reporting Center for Illegal and Undesirable Information” (违法和不良信息举报中心), this system was about ensuring that all websites and platforms had reliable mechanisms in place to source reports from the general public about content violations. In December last year, the CAC announced that an eighth batch of 450 websites had joined the system, bringing the total number of sites involved to more than 3,500.

According to the CAC announcement, these 450 new additions to the reporting system included news and information sites, social media platforms, livestreaming platforms, browsers, e-commerce sites, education sites and so on. New additions included the Hong Kong-listed education service provider Koolearn Tech, Shenzhen-listed Offcn Education and Uxin (优信二手车), an online site for the sale of used cars.

The purpose of this national reporting system, and the coordination of the CAC’s reporting center, is to leverage the eyes and ears of the general population to ensure that websites and platforms comply with Party-state mandates on information control, and that they do so in a way that is consistent and actionable.

But a further role of the system is to help legitimize controls through broader social involvement in the process. The authorities talk about “monitoring by society and the public” (社会公众监督), and about “properly safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of netizens.”

The formation of the CAC reporting center in 2014 came with the launch of a national reporting website at The “About” section of the CAC site makes the role of the CAC reporting center clear:

The Cyberspace Administration of China (State Internet Information Office) Reporting Center for Illegal and Undesirable Information coordinates the work of reporting illegal and undesirable information on the internet; [it] leads and supervises local websites in standardizing the work of reporting illegal and undesirable information on the internet; [it] accepts and assists in the handling reports from internet users on illegal and undesirable information; and it conducts propaganda to mobilize the general public in actively participating in the reporting and supervision of illegal and undesirable information.

Despite the talk of safeguarding the public interest, the homepage of also offers a glimpse of the CAC’s prioritization in the reporting of “undesirable” content. And the political goal of enforcing “correct guidance” is front and center.

Screenshot of the CAC website at allowing users to submit reports on “illegal and undesirable content.”

The site provides users with nine categories of information to report, including “fraudulent” (诈骗类), “rumor-mongering” (谣言类) and “pornographic” (色情类). But the list is topped at the upper left-hand corner by the content type most critical in the enforcement of the CCP’s guidance – “political” (政治类).

Clicking on the “political” button, users are taken to a landing page that urges them to understand the specific nature of this category and inform on content accordingly – lest their report not be properly processed. Here is how the category is described:

Please report here: Illegal and undesirable internet information involving attacks on the Party and state system and its major policies, attacks on the “Two Safeguards,” endangering of national security, leaking of state secrets, undermining national unity and territorial integrity, damaging the national image and honor, undermining national policies on ethnicity and religion, promoting cults, defaming heroes and martyrs and so on.

The reference here to the “Two Safeguards” (两个维护) is an important one. The “Two Safeguards,” which were stressed in the November 2021 CCP resolution on the history of the Party (read more in this recent CMP analysis), are about the protection of 1) the “core” status of Xi Jinping and 2) the central authority of the CCP. Internet informants, in other words, are invited to report anything that might undermine the position of Xi or the CCP.

Once users at the CAC reporting center website understand the virtually unlimited scope of this “political” category, they must click the box next to “I have already read the text.” Two buttons then offer a simple choice: “I accept” and “I do not accept.”

A Listicle for Cyber Control

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s central agency for internet control and regulation, has now released its list of top ten keywords for 2021. True to form, the office does not go for excitement.

The CAC listicle does not include popular buzzword superstars like the zeitgeisty “lying flat” (躺平) or “broken defenses” (破防), terms expressing a rising sense of social exhaustion. Nor does it fuss with terms like “double reduction” (双减) marking the government’s attempts to grapple with the pressures weighing on Chinese families. How about crackdowns on so-called “fandom culture,” or fanquan wenhua (饭圈文化)? Nope, not a mention.

The CAC’s 2021 buzzword list is all business. Party business, to be precise. The fundamental message is the power and legitimacy of the CCP, and its need to maintain control of cyberspace. For starters, here are the top three:

  1. “Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the CCP” (庆祝中国共产党成立100周年)
  2. “Party history study and education” (党史学习教育)
  3. “6th Plenum of the 19th CCP Central Committee” (党的十九届六中全会)

Please stop, you are saying. These keywords are just too exhilarating.

The third term above is important, of course, because it was at the 6th Plenum that the CCP released its new resolution on its history, just the third such document since the Party was founded over a century ago. The crus of the Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议) is its positioning of Xi Jinping as the Party’s unassailable chief, paving the way for the possible elevation of his banner term as “Xi Jinping Thought” and his continued leadership through the coming decade.

But the Party is missing, in name at least, from the fourth term on the CAC list: “online civilization” (网络文明). The CAC notes that “as our country marches toward becoming a cyber power (网络强国), the building of online civilization is an aspect that cannot be overlooked.” This keyword makes the list because China hosted its first “Internet Civilization Conference” on November 19, 2021, the crux of the meeting being the imperative of CCP speech controls. Read more in CMP’s “Civilizing Cyberspace.”

Number five on the CAC list, “community of shared destiny in cyberspace” (网络空间命运共同体), turns toward the international dimension of the CCP’s ambition to exercise greater influence over internet development and governance. Related to Xi Jinping’s foreign policy concept of a “community of shared destiny for mankind,” this phrase is about promoting international co-operation and development in the area of digital technology – particularly in Africa and the Asia-Pacific. It is also about countering attempts by the United States to coalesce action against China over issues such as 5G infrastructure security (wink, Huawei).

The CAC list noted the hosting on November 29, 2021, of the 8th Forum’ on China-Africa Cooperation, held in Dakar, Senegal, at which participants – said the CAC – had heartily approved of China’s released of its Action Initiative on Building a Community of Destiny in Cyberspace Together (携手构建网络空间命运共同体行动倡议). The initiative’s first principal is “respect for the cyber-sovereignty of each country” (尊重各国网络主权), which is fundamentally about shaping the global governance of cyberspace in order to legitimize China’s tighter controls over information.

Interested in the rest of the CAC list? See it here.

A Long Road to the CCP Congress

At a meeting in Beijing yesterday meant to set the tone for the propaganda work of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the coming year, Wang Huning (王沪宁), head of the Central Secretariat and the Party’s most influential ideological theorist today, sent a clear message that all endeavors in news and public opinion in 2022 would tilt toward the opening in the fall of the 20th National Congress of the CCP.  

Speaking to propaganda ministers from across the country, Wang emphasized the preeminent importance of Xi Jinping’s banner phrase, or qizhiyu (旗帜语), as the principle guiding the propaganda work. A mark of Xi’s power and legacy, the banner phrase, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), is likely to be shortened in the coming months to the far more potent “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想), putting Xi on par with his predecessor Mao Zedong and paving the way for his leadership beyond his current second term.

Wang also stressed the need for propaganda leaders to maintain a firm grasp of the so-called “442 formula,” another formulation meant to consolidate Xi Jinping’s personal power as the leader of the CCP. The formula comprises the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), “Four Confidences” (四个自信) and “Two Protections” (两个维护). The first of these terms refers to the need to 1) maintain political integrity, 2) think in big-picture terms, 3) uphold the leadership core (in other words, Xi Jinping), and 4) keep in alignment with the CCP’s central leadership.

Propaganda leaders, said Wang, must “firmly grasp the main line of welcoming, publicizing and implementing the 20th National Congress.”

Echoing Wang words, Huang Kunming (黄坤明), head of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, said that “must implement the main line of the CCP’s 20th National Congress in the conduct of propaganda and ideology work.”

Buckle your seatbelts for a long road trip through the official discourse of power and succession. 2022 has hardly begun, but for the propaganda ministers of the CCP there can be no doubt that the year’s biggest news story – the Beijing Winter Olympics notwithstanding – will be unfolding more than 10 months from now.

Buzzwords at the Biden-Xi Talks

Virtual talks between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden reportedly stretched to three and a half hours and covered a range of issues, from trade and cooperation to democracy and human rights. How were these issues reflected in coverage from the Party-state media in China? Here are just a few notes.

On the issue of democracy and human rights, Biden had sought to frame confrontation between China and the US as being about the broader struggle between autocracy and democracy. State media emphasized that Xi pushed back by asserting China has its own functioning form of democracy – and that outside meddling amounts to “undemocratic behavior.”

The assertion corresponds, in fact, with a strong push by Xi at home to champion what he calls “whole-process democracy” (全過程的民主), essentially arguing that China has found a democratic system distinct from “that in the West.” According to Xinhua News Agency:

Xi Jinping stressed that civilization is rich and abundant, and so is democracy. Democracy is not a customized product (定制的产品), with one model for the whole world, and one standard. Whether a country is democratic or not is to be judged by the people of that country themselves. To exclude different forms of democracy simply because they are different is itself undemocratic behavior. We are willing to conduct dialogue on human rights issues on the basis of mutual respect, but we do not support the use of human rights issues to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

While a senior US official told journalists that the tone of the exchanges remained “respectful and straightforward,” perhaps the most contentious issue was that of Taiwan. The White House readout was measured in its statement following the talks. “On Taiwan, President Biden underscored that the United States . . . . strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the statement read.

Xi was firm in his tone on the Taiwan question. “China is patient and seeks peaceful reunification with great sincerity and effort,” he told his counterpart, “but if Taiwan secessionists provoke, or even cross the red line, we will have to take decisive measures.”

As state media reported the issue of Taiwan in coverage of the talks, two phrases in particular came into focus. On its official Weibo account, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper shared a quote card with US and Chinese national flags that read: “The Taiwan situation faces a new round of sensitivities, and the reason is that Taiwan authorities continually ‘lean on America in the pursuit of independence’ (倚美谋独), and certain people on the US side intentionally play [a game of] ‘using Taiwan to control China’ (以台制华).” 

These phrases are in fact relative newcomers to official CCP discourse. The phrase “lean on America in the pursuit of independence” has appeared just eight times in the People’s Daily, having first emerged in the paper on September 2, 2020, with a headline that read: “US Six Assurances are Illegal and Void, Democratic Progressive Party Authorities Leaning on America to Seek ‘Independence’ Will Have Terrible Consequences” (美方“六项保证”非法无效,民进党当局倚美谋“独”必食恶果).

Four separate articles using “lean on America in the pursuit of independence” appeared in the People’s Daily in January this year, followed by one article in April and two more in August. The first of the two August articles was a commentary under the name “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), which is used for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its view. That article included the second of the above phrases, “using Taiwan to control China,” in the headline, which read: “‘Using Taiwan to Control China’ is Doomed to Fail” (‘以台制华”注定徒劳).

The “Zhong Sheng” commentary read:

The DPP authorities are caught in the American dream of ‘leaning on America to seek independence” dream, and this is entirely empty. Some Taiwanese scholars have hit the nail on the head by pointing out that in the eyes of the United States, Taiwan is merely a pawn, a pawn that can be abandoned and sacrificed at any time. As the comprehensive strength of the motherland continues to advance, the gap between the strength of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait continues to widen, and the dominant power in the development of cross-strait relations is increasingly firmly with the motherland.

The phrase “using Taiwan to control China” has appeared a total of 14 times in the People’s Daily, all but one of these in the Xi era (all since 2019). The first use of the phrase occurred in June 1995, following a visit to the United States by Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui. A page 6 commentary accused the United States of playing the “Taiwan card,” and said that “Lee Teng-hui has transgressed national righteousness and held foreigners hostage in order to aggrandize himself, essentially giving the United States a bargaining chip ‘using Taiwan to control China.”

Visas and Vitriol

In a statement on November 12, The Economist’s editor-in-chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, issued a statement revealing that the magazine’s Hong Kong correspondent, Sue-Lin Wong (黄淑琳), had been denied a visa for work in the city. “We regret their decision, which was given without explanation,” Beddoes wrote. “We are proud of Sue-Lin’s journalism. We urge the government of Hong Kong to maintain access for the foreign press, which is vital to the territory’s standing as an international city.”

On November 13, Wong Tweeted that she would miss reporting from Hong Kong, and that she had “loved getting to know the city and its people.”

In a statement on November 14, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, Hong Kong, said it was “deeply concerned that another journalist . . . has been denied an employment visa in Hong Kong.” The denial of Wong’s visa without explanation, said the FCC, “further highlights the concerns raised in the FCC’s survey of correspondent and journalist members on the state of press freedom in Hong Kong.”

What have the reactions to the denial of Wong’s visa been inside China? The following rundown offers a taste of related coverage and commentary.  

In a post called “Not At All Wrong for Reporter for British Media to Be Denied Visa” (英媒记者被拒签,一点都不冤) on November 14, Guancha Syndicate (观察者网), an online media portal based in Shanghai that capitalizes on nationalist topics (a good dig into its affiliations can be found here), immediately went on the attack, alleging bias in Wong’s reporting on Hong Kong: “So how has Sue-Lin Wong covered Hong Kong issues over the years?”

During the period of the “legislative amendment controversy” in Hong Kong, Sui-Lin Wong worked at the Financial Times. In a series of reports on the “amendment controversy,” she smeared the Hong Kong government’s “crackdown” and the Hong Kong police’s enforcement of the law, and glorified rebellious elements and thugs as a common practice; she ignored the tremendous damage caused by the latter to Hong Kong society and said they are “fighting for democracy.”

The Guancha Syndicate article criticizes Sue-Lin Wong’s reporting back in July on threats to academic freedoms in Hong Kong, a report based on interviews with numerous sources. It then broadly criticizes reporting by the Guardian, the Associated Press and Reuters, suggesting that they “all coincide in throwing out absurd arguments such as the so-called ‘suppression of freedom of speech’ under Hong Kong’s national security law and the “erosion of freedom of the press in Hong Kong.”

In fact, it is not difficult to understand the mentality of the Western media. The entry into force of Hong Kong’s national security law has dealt a serious blow to their Hong Kong-related reports that distort facts and turn black and white. At the November 5 press conference held by China’s Foreign Ministry, a Bloomberg reporter tried to hype the fact that nearly half of the journalists from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Hong Kong were considering leaving Hong Kong.

Yesterday, November 15, the Guancha Syndicate article was widely shared across Chinese social media, including by the official news app of the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily.

Also on November 14, the Global Times interviewed several Chinese “experts” for their responses to the denial of Wong’s visa, all expressing the view that “the Hong Kong government has the right to admit, delay or refuse any applicant for a work visa for security or other matters without explanation to the public.” The article suggested that Wong “needed to reflect” on her actions in the past. This in fact was the sense carried in the headline, which read: “Hong Kong’s Immigration Department Does Not Comment on Denial of Visa to Foreign Media Reporter: There is No Need to Explain, the Reporter Needs to Reflect on What [She] Has Done.”

A November 14 article by the Global Times suggests Economist reporter Sue-Lin Wong “must reflect on what [she] has done.”

Who were these “experts” cited by the Global Times? In fact, there was just one. This was Zhu Jiajian (朱家健), identified as executive director of the Hong Kong chapter of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (CCPPNR), an organization that was founded by the CCP’s United Front Work Department.

Hong Kong Courier” (港闻速递), a verified Weibo account with close to 50,000 followers that aggregates Hong Kong-related news, often with a pro-government slant, posted that the Hong Kong government had no need to explain its decision. “Some things need not be said so clearly, and the outside world can guess the message that is implied,” the account wrote.

Perhaps the problem comes from the applicant’s past words and actions not being in line with the scope of work and the nature of the visa in question. She needs to reflect on the things she has done in the past, and the speech she has published.

To slander the Hong Kong government for “violating freedom of speech, freedom of the press and human rights” is alarmist talk, as Western countries also deny visas and entry at the drop of a hat.

“Lone Smoke and Twilight Cicada” (孤烟暮蝉), a well-known “red V” account – a designation given to accounts deemed highly influential – referred to Wong in a Weibo post as an Australian “[Chinese] traitor,” or erguizi (二鬼子), an insult referring to Chinese who sided with Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). The post seemed to suggest too that Wong’s publication, the Economist, had departed from an economic focus (a misunderstanding of the magazine’s positioning) to wander into politics:

The editor-in-chief of the Economist, which does not talk about economics, has issued a statement saying that the Hong Kong Immigration Department has refused to renew the work visa of Australian dilettante journalist Sue-Lin Wong, asking the Hong Kong government to remain open to foreign media. This person says she is sad she can’t return to Hong Kong, and before she was a reporter for the Financial Times and Reuters.

The general tenor of the comments proliferating under the “Lone Smoke and Twilight Cicada” post was hateful, ugly and personal – expressing hatred for those of Chinese ancestry who do not unconditionally love the People’s Republic of China, showering it with positivity, and voicing general displeasure with Western media.

“The creation of disinformation is the same everywhere,” one user wrote. “Just like the foreign devils and Chinese traitors who have never been to Xinjiang spend the whole day dissing on our Xinjiang.”

“They were a traitor to start with. They don’t even have Chinese citizenship!” another wrote.

“I’m happy this piece of garbage has been thrown away!”

“This person is an anti-China journalist. Eight out of 10 of her articles blackens China, spreads rumors and speculates. What is this pretense of sadness!”

“Sad is exactly how she deserves to feel!”

“Go back home and weave stories there!”

Law Education Plan Stresses Xi Thought

In a notice released yesterday and reported by state media across social media channels, China’s Ministry of Education announced a new five-year plan to promote “rule of law” (法治) throughout the education system for teenagers, or qingshaonian (青少年). The notice follows a spate of actions in recent months focusing on China’s youth and maintaining political and ideological security, including bans on online gaming, a crackdown on “fandom culture,” and even actions against the popular trend of “script murder” games.

While the notice states that the plan’s purpose is to “continuously improve rule of law literacy in the education system,” key sections of the document stress adherence to the leadership of Xi Jinping and to the public opinion objectives of the Chinese Communist Party.

Item 1 of the “General Requirements” (总体要求) section of the “Notice” names Xi Jinping’s “banner term” (旗帜语), “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), as the guide for action, and follows by emphasizing the “implementation” of “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想), a shortened form of Xi’s banner term as applied to the realm of law.

Immediately after comes a reference to the so-called “442 Formula,” which is now used to signal loyalty to Xi Jinping and his leadership of the CCP. The formula includes the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), the “Four Confidences” (四个自信) and the “Two Safeguards” (两个维护).

Item 2 of the “General Requirements,” dealing with working principles, emphasizes the goal of maintaining control of the thoughts and ideas of China’s youth through “rule of law education.” The text begins: “[All must] adhere to the Party’s comprehensive leadership, earnestly implement the work arrangements of the Central Committee and the State Council on strengthening rule of law propaganda and education, and must throughout maintain a correct political orientation and public opinion guidance.”

The phrase “public opinion guidance,” or yulun daoxiang (舆论导向), is a primary term used since June 1989 to refer to the need for controls over media and ideas more broadly in order to maintain social and political stability and the leadership of the CCP.

Fandoms in the Crosshairs

On August 27, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the chief body for internet regulation and censorship, announced new measures that state media referred to as a “heightened crackdown” on China’s so-called “fandom culture,” or fanquan wenhua (饭圈文化). These measures capped a series of actions by the Chinese government this year to tighten control of private internet companies – including a punishing anti-trust fine for Alibaba, the suspension of 25 mobile apps operated by ride-hailing giant Didi Global, restrictions on China’s educational technology market,  online gaming curbs and draft regulations limiting the use of “algorithmic promotional services.” 

Since the internet clean-up campaign was formally launched by the CAC back in May, much coverage in the state media has focused on the above-mentioned actions as a matter of moral urgency. The official discourse from the CAC has stressed the need to “strengthen moral construction in the online space” (加强网络空间道德建设). And fandom culture in particular has been characterized as an attack on the “moral bottom line,” “poisoning China’s youth” (毒害青少年).

While there certainly are any number of legitimate concerns in Chinese cyberspace that might be pursued in the public interest, from protecting privacy rights and data security, to grappling with problems like cyber-bullying and doxing, a closer look at the official discourse around these moves to “cleanse” China’s internet elucidates a clear underlying objective – the re-consolidation of the Chinese Communist Party’s dominance over ideology and public opinion in order to maintain political control.

Moves in recent weeks and months to curb the influence of fandom culture are a clear case in point. For many Chinese youth, fandom culture has been a rare arena of choice, self-identification and community formation. For the Party-state, however, these online communities, although formed around shared infatuations that can seem effete and shallow, pose a real challenge to the CCP’s control of ideas and agendas.

From Idol Worship to Shared Community

Fandom culture can be traced back to the idol worship of the 1980s and 1990s, following on trends in South Korea and Japan. In the past, idols were selected and produced by talent scouts or TV shows and then promoted through traditional media. As a result, there was a sense of distance between the idol and their fan base, and idols were seen as superior and unreachable. In the era of interactive new media, however, the gap between fans and idols has snapped shut.

Today, communities of fans, or “fandoms,” have parasocial interactions with their idols that seem far more intimate. According to Lin Pin (林品), a researcher at China’s Capital Normal University: “This kind of idol industry, which has emerged along with China’s digital transformation and the popularity of Gen Z-focussed services like live-streaming, provides fans with a certain type of intimate relationship, or ‘quasi-intimacy,’ whereby fans can imagine themselves as an idol’s girlfriend, wife, sister, boyfriend, husband and so on. Back in the 80s, referring to yourself as your idol’s girlfriend would be seen as pathological, but the fandom culture nowadays completely normalises it.”

For many fans, participation in fandoms has been empowering as well as entertaining, enabling them to actively support and promote their favourite idols. “The rise of fan circles is understandable because they meet the fans’ needs for socializing and self-realization,” Zhang Sining of the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences told the China Daily last month. One example of this process of self-realization can be seen in the hit show “Idol Producer” (偶像练习生), launched in January 2018 on the Chinese online video platform iQiyi. The show allowed fans to directly choose and promote aspiring idols from among 100 contestants, the group pared down over four months to just nine performers forming a male idol group (偶像男团). Fans closely following “Idol Producer” devoted a great deal of time organizing events on Weibo and other social media platforms to promote their chosen idols, then just trainees, and to help them make their debuts.

A promotional poster for Nine Percent, the male idol group comprising the finalists of the 2018 iQiyi show “Idol Producer.”

Fandoms for Social and Political Activism

Viewed purely as entertainment, this type of interaction and opinion formation may seem like innocent fun. But fandom culture also has the potential to impact the ideas and values of China’s youth, particularly those born in the 2000s. And it can give rise to organized communities of interest that impact on other issues and agendas.

In the early stages of the Covid-19 epidemic in China in early 2020, as the government responded slowly on many fronts to immediate challenges like lack of protective equipment, private voluntary groups online offered a crucial avenue of support. The existing networked structures arising from fandom culture were in fact the informal infrastructure that empowered a rapid response in the midst of crisis. “They are a huge population, are well-organized, and have a clear division of labor, giving them an explosive power many would find astonishing,” the Shenzhen-based scholar Chen Chun wrote of fandoms in March 2020.

On January 21, 2020, the day after China confirmed human-to-human transmission of Covid-19, the fan network of Chinese actor Zhu Yilong (朱一龙), organized a charity support platform that solicited donations to purchase more than 200,000 protective masks and other supplies that were sent to the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, within 24 hours.

Fandoms were also organized across borders, one prominent example being the so-called “666 Alliance” (666联盟), a group connecting 27 fandoms from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, with members across the globe. Within days of Wuhan’s lockdown in 2020, the alliance had mobilized to respond to the crisis, with clear division of labor. By January 30, the “666 Alliance” had donated at least 410,000 yuan worth of essential medical supplies, including 30,000 sets of disposable surgical gloves, 1,000 face shields and 8,200 sets of protective coveralls. And all of this equipment was in transit to Wuhan.

The organizational power of China’s fandoms was by this time already evident to anyone studying the phenomenon of online nationalism. Fandom networks were instrumental in the planning and execution, for example, of the so-called “Diba Expedition” (帝吧出征), a self-organized campaign by online fan communities from China to defend the nation in the midst of the Hong Kong protests in 2019. As scholar Du Yannan wrote of this 2019 campaign: “The results indicate that collective fandom actions are enabled by the fandom communities’ collaborative organization, clear division of labor, and proficient digital media skills. These contribute to the speedy nationalist mobilization.”

In the context of “fandom nationalism,” the Party-state has often been obliquely supportive of the actions of fandom culture to the extent that they support national objectives. While state media coverage of the recent campaign to “rectify chaos” in fandom culture has stressed problems like cyber-bullying and doxing, state media have in fact encouraged such behaviour in the past when it has served the Party-state agenda around sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Given the clear power of fandom culture to mobilize youth for collaborative solutions around shared concerns, from the fortunes of a beloved star to political events in Hong Kong, it was only a matter of time before the government sought to restrain them.  

Idols and Ideology

Official scrutiny of fandoms in China came into focus from February to July last year in the wake of what became known as the “227 Incident” (227事件), an online controversy surrounding the actor and internet idol Xiao Zhan (肖战). Xiao, who had starred in the 2019 television series “The Untamed” (陈情令), had millions of adoring fans, connecting online through dedicated fan sites and chatrooms. One such site was “Archive Of Our Own,” known also as “AO3,” a global science fiction and fantasy platform allowing users to freely create their own fanworks, including fictional tributes to idols. The site was the recipient of a “Best Related Work” award at the Hugos, the annual science fiction and fantasy awards, in 2019.

In January 2020, AO3 was host to a work of fan fiction called “Falling” (下坠) that centered on Xiao and his 2019 male co-star Wang Yibo (王一博). While many of Xiao Zhan’s fans enjoyed “Falling,” a work fairly typical of the popular gay fiction genre known as “Boys’ love,” “BL” for short, the overt homoeroticism of several installments of the series in February infuriated some. Fans unhappy with this fictional portrayal of their idol, Xiao Zhan, retaliated by reporting the AO3 website to government authorities, who responded not just by targeting the series but by blocking access to the entire website in China. Furious in turn with this attack on a cherished space for self-expression, fans in China then launched an aggressive campaign against Xiao Zhan and his fan community that included a boycott of brands with which Xiao had been associated, including the likes of Cartier and Estée Lauder. Xiao Zhan vanished from the Chinese internet and social media as brands and platforms rushed to distance themselves from his sudden toxicity.

Screenshot from the 2019 series “The Untamed,” starring Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, who inspired fan fiction, including the controversial 2020 work “Falling.”

The storm of attacks and counter-attacks, of cyber-bullying and doxing, that resulted from the “227 Incident,” named such because it broke out on February 27, prompted the Xiao Zhan Studio to issue an apology on March 1, expressing regret for the incident, which it said had “occupied certain public resources” in the midst of an epidemic.

For state media in China, the “227 Incident” was one of the most obvious illustrations of the social consequences of the dramatic growth of fandom culture in the country. In early May, Guangming Daily (光明日报), a newspaper published by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, addressed the incident in an article called “A Philosophical Reflection on Fandom Culture” (饭圈文化的哲学省思). The article explored the potential impact of fandoms on Chinese culture from theoretical and psychological perspectives, and it spoke of fandom culture in terms of pathologies (病态).

Beneath the discourse of pathology, however, the article hinted at the broader political and ideological implications of the fandom phenomenon as it became a kind of “religionized” (宗教化) pursuit of celebrities. In its conclusion, the article voiced concern over the impact fandoms might have on “other ideologies,” an unmistakable reference to the dominant ideology of the CCP:

Therefore, the need for self-identity construction and the indiscriminate promotion of fandoms across many aspects, has caused fandoms to constantly intrude upon or subsume other ideologies to form a fierce and aggressive, and highly-organized machine. As for its possible future trajectory, and the potential social influence in broader arenas, this must not be underestimated. Perhaps from their birth, the trajectory of fandoms has been one of conquest and expansion.  

In Chinese official discourse, such concerns have since 1989 generally centered on the phrase “correct guidance of public opinion,” or zhengque yulun daoxiang (正确舆论导向), the need to maintain political stability by leveraging media and internet controls to set the agenda and establish the CCP’s policies and ideology as the “mainstream” (主流), Mirroring this official prerogative, the Weibo platform announced in mid-July that it had meet with members of Xiao Zhan Studio on July 9 to stress that celebrities like Xiao should be responsible for “guiding and restraining fan behaviour.” At the same time, Xiao Zhan issued a public apology saying that “I do have a duty to ‘guide correctly and to actively advocate [for the correct values].”   

An apology from Xiao Zhan Studio issued on July 14, stating the celebrity has a duty to help ensure “correct guidance.”

Yet again mirroring official language on internet controls, the apology affirmed that both Xiao Zhan and his studio had a duty along with fans and the public to ensure a “clean and healthy internet environment” (风清气正的网络环境). This is identical language to that used routinely in official documents and the state media in the Xi Jinping era to refer to internet governance, “correct guidance of public opinion,” and “positive energy” (the need for uplifting and pro-Party messaging over criticism and negativity).

Buttoning Up China’s Youth

The official discourse on fandom culture in recent months makes it clear that concerns over the impact on the CCP’s “mainstream” ideology are the driving factor, even if this concern is enveloped in moral language. On August 9, Zhejiang Online, a website operated by the Zhejiang provincial government, wrote that fandom culture demanded better guidance of China’s youth across media and education:

In the face of fandom culture, helping young people ‘button the first buttons of their lives’ is of crucial importance. Along with digitalization and the emergence of the information age, the value of the ‘traffic economy’ has been prominent in the market, and the commercial logical behind this is self-evident. To eradicate this ‘chronic problem’ requires not only the correct guidance of online media but also the carrying out of targeted work to guide the youth in education.

Buttoning up China’s youth meant restraining commercial impulses and establishing “correct values” and correct cultural views. It is an apt image to describe the overall agenda of the internet clean-up campaign: to ensure that youth communities online are constrained and confined by the imperatives of the CCP, dressed up as moral imperatives. On August 23, the official China Media Group wrote in an article on fandom culture on its news app that fandoms had become “communities of interest” (利益共同体) that spread poor morals and values, and that “the time had come to drive out evil and support the upright”  (驱邪扶正). In this process, the entertainment industry and online platforms, the article said, had “a responsibility to serve a guidance role.”

As fandom culture in China has come under fire, such moral language has predominated across Chinese media. There is talk of “rectification” or “remediation” (整治), of  “moral bottom lines” (道德的底线), of trends that are “deformed” (畸形). When the Cyberspace Administration of China issued its “Notice on Further Strengthening the Management of ‘Fandom’ Chaos” (关于进一步加强“饭圈”乱象治理的通知) on August 27, however, the notice concluded with a revealing line about the need for the authorities across China to “improve [their] political position” (提高政治站位). This is explicit language (for students of Chinese discourse at any rate) about the need to uphold the power and position of Xi Jinping and the central leadership (including the “442 formula”). The language was immediately followed in the notice with a statement about the urgency of “safeguarding political security and ideological security online” (维护网上政治安全和意识形态安全).

There are certainly excesses to fandom culture that demand greater attention. Cyber-bullying and doxing are very real concerns, as is the right to privacy. But beneath the veneer of professed moral concern over these issues, which have routinely been disregarded when politically expedient, the official discourse points clearly to politics and ideology as the overriding motivations. China’s fandoms are in the cross-hairs because they have become organized and potentially powerful communities of young people, pursuing interests and values that potentially at odds with the CCP’s “mainstream” agendas.


The following is CMP’s translation of an eyewitness account recorded by Freezing Point intern Lu Siwei (卢思薇), and edited by Chen Zhuo (陈卓), of one passenger’s experiences on the night of July 20 as she was trapped inside a subway car on Zhengzhou’s Metro Line 5 — as the tunnels surged with rising floodwaters.

The eyewitness account was shared by Freezing Point yesterday through its WeChat public account. Freezing Point is a supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper, published by the Chinese Communist Youth League. Launched in January 1995, the supplement became known in the years that followed more its in-depth coverage of social and political issues through essays and long-form writing. Reorganized in January 2006 after several of its pieces fell afoul of censors in the Central Propaganda Department, Freezing Point has trudged along ever since, though without the influence it once had under editors Li Datong (李大同)and Lu Yuegang (卢跃刚).


The Account of a Person Trapped Inside a Subway Car on Zhengzhou’s Line 5:  Water Outside the Car is Above Human Height, and Oxygen Inside the Car is Lacking

China Youth Daily / Freezing Point

Many people had no idea that the rains would fall so relentlessly. Beginning on July 17, Zhengzhou experienced rainfall such as has rarely been seen. The data shows that the single-day rainfall in Zhengzhou surpassed historical extremes (since the establishment of monitoring stations), and single-hour rainfall exceeded the daily historical extremes. The amount of rainfall in Zhengzhou over the past three days has approached average total rainfall during normal years.

Vehicles were overturned by water on the roads and the first floors of many buildings were backed up by flood water. Trains were stopped, public transportation blocked, and many people were prevented from getting home.

On July 20, the Wulongkou Parking Lot for Zhengzhou Metro Line 5 and the area surrounding it became serious flooded. At around 6PM the same day the water flowed over a retaining wall and entered the main line section, causing trains in the Metro Line 5 tunnels at Haitansi Street Station and Shakou Road Station to stop running. Flood waters backed up into the underground tunnels and inside Line 5 trains, and passengers were trapped inside the cars. During this time, news and videos continually emerged from inside the Line 5 trains, as water in the cars rose to the chests and even heads of the passengers.

Rescuers arrived at the scene quickly after being notified by the public. By 3:10 AM on July 21, all the people trapped in the subway tunnel had been brought to safety. According to official figures, more than 500 people were evacuated in the incident, 12 people died after rescue attempts were futile, and 5 people were sent to the hospital with injuries. The following is an account as dictated by one of those trapped [inside the trains].

An image shared on social media on July 20 of passengers trapped inside a subway car on Zhengzhou’s Metro Line 5.

In the afternoon of July 20, I took the train from Central Business District Station on the Zhengzhou Metro Line 5 to head home. Probably because of the rainy weather, there weren’t too many people at the station. The subway did not run smoothly, and starting from the Huanghe Road Station there were emergency stops and other issues. Passengers still boarded along the way, so I didn’t think there was any serious problem.

The accident happened between Haitansi Street Station and Shakou Road Station. In fact, as the train arrived at Haitansi Street Station, an emergency stop was already made. But afterward the train continued ahead. At the time, I thought we would quickly reach Shakou Road Station. But before long that train had stopped once again.

Looking out from the carriage, you could already see the water rushing upward on both sides. At the time the conductor walked from the front of the train all the way to the back, and he maintained constant contact with [personnel] above ground. The conductor also tried to take the train back to Haitansi Street Station. But by that time, probably because the subway had automatic safety procedures in place, the train was locked on top of the tracks and there was no way to move. At that time, we could see sparks flashing on the tracks.

Gradually, water started pouring into the carriages. At first, most of the people in the car were gathered at the rear, but because the subway traveled from east to west, and the terrain in the west was higher than in the east, the water rose more quickly toward the back of the train, so at the conductor’s instruction everyone kept moving toward the front part of the train. As we reached the head of the train, the conductor opened the door of the car in the very front.

It was then that I learned that the subway has an internal pedestrian passage. Heeding the conductor’s command, everyone grabbed the railing and continued walking along the subway track. At that time, we must have been very close to the Shakou Road Station, and I felt that it might be just over two hundred meters away. A small group of people at the front had reached a relatively safe position, but the water coming from behind was very rapid and violent, and the pedestrian passage under the subway was extremely narrow and crowded, so not everyone could get through, and most people were forced to go back to the carriage halfway through the attempt. The conductor closed the door again and kept contact with ground personnel, awaiting rescue [crews].

During the time we were trapped in the subway, at least in my section of the car, the overall situation was still OK. Perhaps because I’m not so courageous, I had already begun to cry as I saw water entering from the rear of the train — not making a sound, just tears running down my face. Some others around me were crying or extremely anxious, and others in the same carriage would come over and comfort us. There was one girl in the carriage who kept everyone orderly and calmed us down. Everyone seemed to have agreed not to say anything demoralizing. In the end, most people chose just to stay silent in order to keep up their strength.

Everyone was trying hard to make contact with the outside world in various ways — dialing 119 or 110, contacting family and friends for assistance . . . . but the results were not very heartening. Probably everyone [around the city] was busy contacting rescue crews, and the phone network was maxed, so it was difficult for family members and friends outside to reach one another.

Fortunately, one woman inside the train was later able to reach rescue crews outside. Once she made contact, she continued letting everyone inside the carriage know the situation with the rescue crews outside. For example, that rescue crews had arrived at the exit, that they were setting up a rope for rescue, that they were placing sandbags, and so on.

The most terrible time was around 9PM that evening, as the water outside the window reached the height of a person, and looking back you could see that water at the back half of the train had already reached the top. Everyone moved forward and gathered in the first three cars, and at the time I was in the space between cars 1 and 2, right in the middle of the group. Water continued to rise, and the second half of the group were in basically up to their necks, and toward the front the water reached our chests. It was at this time that hypoxic conditions began. One by one, people all around showed signs of hypoxia, hypoglycemia, shivering, gasping for air, dry vomiting. There were children, pregnant women and the elderly in the train who began suffering a variety of physical issues, mostly due to the long hours standing in the water.

I recall that at the time that woman who was relaying rescue information to us from outside said the government had begun pumping water in the back. At the time, though, I felt that one or two pumping machines couldn’t handle such a massive amount of water. So when I heard her say that, I felt really desperate. At that time, I was truly terrified. When I saw the water level outside the cars was over our heads, I began preparing for the possibility that we wouldn’t make it out.

I hadn’t been able to dial out with my phone, but the network could still be used intermittently. Having less than 30 percent battery power at that time, I closed all of my applications to conserve power, leaving only a WeChat so that I could send messages to family and friends. I didn’t dare to talk to my parents, so I sent messages to my cousins and friends. Before 9PM, I kept asking them to contact rescuers, but seeing the water level rise over our heads, my messages to them became about end-of-life concerns.

Inside the car, I could really feel the sense of terror in the people all around me. There was also a little commotion inside the car, as at one point, when the difference in water levels [inside and outside] was most pronounced, someone tried impulsively to smash open the glass door of the car. But on older man stopped him. I feel truly grateful to that uncle. Considering the difference in water levels at the time, if he hadn’t stopped [the man], and the car windows had suddenly been smashed open, the water would have rushed in and surely would have pressed us in and made it impossible to escape.

In the back, things then took a turn for the worse. After the water level outside the carriage reached its crest, the water lines then seem to stabilize somewhat. At the same time, however, our car seemed to have shifted under the impact of the water so that one side was slightly higher than the other. On the higher side, the carriage windows were above the [rushing] body of water [outside]. It was at that time that some people suggested we use the fire extinguisher inside the car to break the windows on the higher side [to let in air] rather than try opening the doors. Once the window of the first car was smashed, the lack of oxygen situation improved significantly, and everyone gradually began resuming normal breathing. Meanwhile, the water level outside did not rise any further. Those of us toward the front of the train also communicated with those toward the back, telling them to use the fire extinguisher to break open the windows. At first there were one or two people saying it. But before long people throughout the car were saying all together, ‘Use the fire extinguisher to break the windows.”

It was also at about that time that rescue workers appeared outside the carriage. They first used the broken window to pass in a tool for breaking out the windows. Inside the cars everyone was passing the window breaker back in a line.

I was closer up toward the front, so I’m not too sure what the situation was behind me, but I remember looking back at the  people in the blackness. Soon after, the rescuers managed to open the conductor’s compartment at the front of the train, and they tried to smash the windows from the outside. But as the process of chiselling at the glass was time consuming, and the car had already been opened in front, they decided not to continue. One after another, everyone was evacuated from the front carriage.

The first to be rescued were probably the two or three pregnant women, who were weak from having stood in the water for so long and from lack of oxygen. The children were rescued next, and then the women. I was among the women to be evacuated earlier on. While the water outside was then flowing more smoothly than before, it was still very fast, especially in the short distance from the carriage to the walkway. The rescuers mostly carried out their rescue efforts from the car to the handrail. As they pulled me up outside the car passengers below helped push me up. All thanks to their support in pushing and pulling me, I could escape from the current. Once I was out of the car and past the rapids, I walked about ten meters, and the water level reached a safer level just below my calves. And in the roughly 200 meters to the exit, we basically held on to each other so that we could walk, those who could walk helping those who couldn’t, following the guidance of the rescue team members up front.

As we reached the exit, we could see that many rescue workers were there trying to hold back the flood. They guided us along the rescue line they had set up so that we could trudge over.  Once we exited the station we could see a lot of people walking back in our direction – rescue workers, medical staff, subway employees, and others whose profession I couldn’t guess, all heading for the subway cars. I could also see those in charge anxiously making phone calls, and employees in subway uniforms inquired about our conditions. Chairs and beds were set up along the walkway. I also saw a young mother and her child on my way out of the station. The child was fine, but the mother was obviously hypoxic and very weak, probably because she had been nursing her child.

From the beginning of the ordeal to our evacuation to safety, the whole thing lasted around four hours. After leaving the station, because the roads in the area were still in a flooded state, I was concerned about manhole covers being washed away, and also about possible electrical leaks, and so I still couldn’t go home and had to stay at a friend’s house.