Author: David Bandurski

Now director of the CMP, leading the project’s research and partnerships, David joined the team in 2004 after completing his master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He is currently an honorary lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre. He is the author of Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin/Melville House), a book of reportage about urbanization and social activism in China, and co-editor of Investigative Journalism in China (HKU Press).

Chance and Defiance on the Front Page

Was it a “serious mistake” or a wilful and desperate act of protest against worsening press controls? This question remains unanswered one week after a headline news editor at the Shenzhen edition of Southern Metropolis Daily, Liu Cuixia (刘翠霞), was fired for her role in a peculiar media scandal — an incident that top political brass at the paper’s publisher, the Nanfang Daily Group, characterised in an internal release as “a serious matter of guidance.”

The February 20, 2016, front page of the Shenzhen edition of Southern Metropolis Daily.

The scandal was prompted by the unfortunate — or defiant? — pairing of two headlines on the front page of the Shenzhen edition on February 20. The bold headline across the top of the page referenced President Xi Jinping’s “important speech” made the previous day in Beijing, in which he stressed the Chinese Communist Party’s supremacy over all media: “Party and Government Media are Propaganda Positions and Must Be Surnamed Party.”

Directly below this banner coverage — which all Chinese media were under orders to prioritise, along with a photo of the president’s tour of core central Party media — was a large photo of the spreading at sea of the ashes of Yuan Geng (袁庚), a key founder of the Shekou Industrial Zone. Yuan, an important local businessman and reformer, died on January 31 at the age of 99. The headline of this article read: “A Soul Returns to the Sea.”

The juxtaposition was either so canny or so casual few might have noticed at all. But once eagle-eyed Chinese internet users had noted a certain friction between the lines, the static energy quickly became electric. If the two headlines were read together vertically, people realised, the “hidden-head” message would be as follows:


Media Are
Surnamed Party
Their Souls Return
To The Sea

The editors, it seemed, were suggesting that the severe controls on Chinese media Xi Jinping outlined in his February 19 speech were a death sentence for all semblance of journalistic professionalism — the last nail in the coffin.

In its statement, the Party committee of the Nanfang Daily Group suggested the editors had merely lacked “political sensitivity,” committing a serious error that had been “interpreted maliciously by others online.”

Staff at the Southern Metropolis Daily have suggested the editors would never knowingly have taken such risks. “It can’t have been deliberate,” one anonymous journalist told the New York Times. “It’s just very, very serious. And these days no one would dare to do something like that.”

Yes, these days indeed. These days are exactly the point.

Intended or not, the message about these days comes across loud and clear between the unfortunate headlines. Xi Jinping’s controls on “news and public opinion,” and in fact on all forms of expression and dissent, have become so draconian that to many the spirit of reform in China seems, like Yuan Geng’s ashes, to be slipping into the depths.

In his February 19 speech, Xi Jinping spoke of the need for “innovation” in the arena of media control, increasing the reach, influence and “infectiveness” of propaganda. During a visit to the People’s Liberation Army Daily back in December, the president described propaganda as a kraken-like monster, its arms twisting through the media-saturated lives of the public. “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles,” he said, “and that is where we find the focal point and end point of propaganda and ideology work.”

But the kraken induces not interest or attraction, but terror. And if the kraken inspires “innovation,” it is defensive only.

For the nearest analogy to the preposterous level of panic and paranoia at work in the recent Southern Metropolis Daily headline scandal, we must return to the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, and to the very newspaper where China’s kraken-in-chief aired his comments last December on the “innovation” of control.

The “Black Box Scandal” (黑框事件)

It was early evening on July 8, 1974. One by one, the members of the Party committee of the People’s Liberation Army Daily — the official mouthpiece of the military and one of just three publications dominating China in the midst of the Cultural Revolution — received phone calls summoning them to the newspaper’s conference room for an unspecified urgent matter.

Page one of the May 19, 1974, edition of the People’s Liberation Army Daily.

The senior editors of the PLA Daily crowded into the conference room. Finally, in walked the young deputy editor from the newspaper’s “Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius Office.” From his leather satchel he withdrew several copies of the paper and said sternly: “Comrade Hu Wei (胡炜), chairman of the military commission’s Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius Office, has sent me here with instructions from the centre. Recently, leading central Party comrades received a letter from the masses pointing out that there is an overlap between the funeral picture of Mr. Lu Han on page two of the May 19 edition of the PLA Daily, and the picture on page one of Chairman Mao meeting with a foreign guest.”

“This is a serious political error,” the deputy editor continued. “The emergence of this problem is surely not an accident.” He read out a letter, dated June 25, from Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, in which she demanded a thorough investigation of this “serious political incident.”

An overlap? What could the young editor possibly have meant?

Page 2 of the May 1, 1974, edition of the People’s Liberation Army Daily, with the obituary of former KMT general Lu Han.

As it turned out, the PLA Daily had run, on page two of the May 19 edition, an obituary for Lu Han, the former Kuomintang general who had defected to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. As was customary, editors had included a photo of Lu bordered by a thick black box, which in China symbolises death.

Page one of the paper had featured coverage of Mao Zedong’s meeting with Makarios III, the first President of the Republic of Cyprus. In an image below the fold, Mao Zedong was pictured sitting in a meeting room with Makarios III.

Separately, the pages were fine. But when the newspaper was held up to the light, the black border around the page-two photograph of Lu Han became a black box around the image of Mao Zedong.

The following composite image is an approximation of what the reportedly scandalised PLA Daily readers would have seen as light filtered through pages one and two on the morning of May 19, 1974.

As in the case of the recent Southern Metropolis Daily incident, there was an immediate question of intention in what became known as the “Black Box Scandal.” Had the editors knowingly designed the paper in such a way as to curse the unassailable Chairman Mao?

Likewise, just as the political implications of the recent Southern Metropolis Daily headlines had to be teased out by Chinese on social networks, so had the “Black Box Scandal” been illuminated — ostensibly, at least — by “the masses.”

The above account of the “Black Box Scandal” comes directly from Wu Yongchuan (吴永川), a former deputy director of the PLA Daily who was on duty with another editor, Xue Zhen (薛真), as the May 19, 1974, edition went to press. Wu gave a detailed account of the event in the December 21, 2000, edition of Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly.

According to Wu, a full investigation was conducted into the incident and both he and Xue Zhen were compelled to make full and public self-examinations. The PLA Daily was ordered to make all necessary adjustments to ensure that such offences were not repeated.

And so it was, Wu writes, the PLA Daily became the first newspaper in China to set up a special “searchlight table” (探照桌), its top made of transparent glass under which could be placed an electric bulb. As the proofs were reviewed each night, editors studied pages one and two, pages three and four, and so on, ensuring there were no political violations — real or imagined. The process was called “searchlighting” (探照).

In his essay, “The Reputation of Millions Can’t Stand Up to One’s Man’s Ruin” (万人之誉不及一人之毁), Zhang Xinyang (张心阳), one of Wu Yongchuan’s former colleagues, tells us that “searchlighting” was eventually extended to the inspection of the Chinese characters appearing on the backs of photographs of Communist Party leaders. The editor responsible for searchlighting had to ensure that no words with negative connotations — like “death,” “overthrow” or “criticise” — appeared on the backs of such images. If possible infractions were found, the pages had to be scrapped and redesigned, even if that meant the edition came out late.

“Searchlighting” at the PLA Daily continued through the end of the Cultural Revolution. For Zhang Xinyang, the process was a grotesque anomaly — “a great invention,” he writes acerbically — highlighting the political excesses of that painful time.

Zhang writes: “It entirely surpassed conventional human thought, and innovated methods of reading the newspapers in ways not seen before or since, an entry in the annals of press history.”

But history, when not properly regarded, has a way of returning, kraken-like, from the depths. Xi Jinping’s fearsome “innovations,” should they continue, are likely to spawn new and yet oddly familiar absurdities — “searchlighting” for the 21st century.

The former PLA Daily deputy director, Wu Yongchuan, closed his December 2000 account of the “Black Box Scandal” by conceding that the political context of his experience must seem remote to his contemporary readers.

“I’m afraid,” wrote Wu, “that readers today would find it difficult to imagine such trials and tribulations in getting a newspaper out, or such a way of reading a newspaper.”

Ah, Wu Yongquan!

But these days. These days . . .

[This essay was originally published by CMP in March 2016.]

Writing the Future into History

For the Chinese Communist Party, history is never in the past. It is a political text to be imprinted with a vision of power and its legitimation; a culmination in the present, gathering on the selective foundation of what has come before. It follows, naturally, that history is never simply written. It is drafted in consultation, making its way from one office to the next, approved and rejected, revised and re-revised, chiseled into being like a cathedral of rhetoric and representation — until what emerges is a monument to the Party’s image of itself at that concrete moment in time.

It is in exactly this spirit that we should understand “A Chronicle of Major Events Since the Party’s 19th National Congress” (党的十九大以来大事记), the declaration of the Party and its purpose that today dominates most of the first eight pages of the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper. Like the communique released earlier this week, the “Chronicle of Major Events” is one of a number of official documents that we can anticipate in the run-up to the 20th National Congress of the CCP, set to open on October 16.

The last such chronicle was released in the People’s Daily on October 16, 2017, two days before the opening of the 19th National Congress.

This year’s “Chronicle of Major Events” comes with a special commentary marking the release, printed on page two, as well as a dry question-and-answer recounting on page eight, with an unnamed official from the Central Institute of Party History and Literature (中共中央党史和文献研究院), of the process and principles by which the document was formulated.

The attribution of the commentary to “a commentator from this paper,” or benbao pinglunyuan (本报评论员), marks it as an important staff-written piece representing views in the senior leadership. The commentary concludes with a packed paragraph of loyalty signaling that references the power of Xi Jinping’s guiding philosophy, or “banner term” (旗帜语) — which is expected to be shortened at the upcoming congress to the potent “Xi Jinping Thought” — as well as formulas like the “Two Establishes,” which is meant to seal the position of both Xi and his guiding ideas.

“The banner points the direction; the direction determines the path; the path determines destiny,” it reads, sending a clear message that Xi’s “thought” is the way of the future for China.

Drafting the Past for the Future

The question-and-answer article from the Central Institute of Party History and Literature is mostly uninteresting in its fawning restatement of CCP orthodoxy. The question is asked, not by a human being but presumably by the Institute itself: “Could you please talk about the guiding thought and basic principles in the preparation of ‘Major Events’?” The answer comes from the unnamed “responsible official”: “The writing of ‘Major Events’ adheres in its guidance to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.”

Not exactly gripping or revelatory.

The banner points the direction; the direction determines the path; the path determines destiny.

—    The People’s Daily, October 14, 2022

But the Q&A’s sketch of the procedural process behind the “Chronicle of Major Events” might be interesting to observers of Chinese politics. It explains that a series of internal CCP chronicles since the 19th National Congress in 2017 laid down the foundation for the “Chronicle of Major Events” and that work on these documents “gathered experience and trained the team” at the institute. These official historical documents included “Major Events in 40 Years of Reform and Opening” (改革开放四十年大事记), released in 2018, and “Major Events in a Century of the CCP” (中国共产党一百年大事记), released in late June of 2021.

Early this year, in anticipation of the 20th National Congress, the institute defined the drafting of the “Chronicle of Major Events” as one of its top priorities, and formed a “drafting team” (编写组). The drafting process then involved numerous internal meetings to discuss various issues as they emerged. Once an initial draft had been produced, experts were organized to further discuss the draft and make suggestions. “The more than 500 entries were revised word by word, polished repeatedly, and drafted several times,” according to the Q&A.  

“It can be said that ‘Major Events’ is an important research result completed under the kind care of leading comrades of the Central Committee with the full effort of Party history and documentation departments, and with collaboration from other relevant departments,” the anonymous official concludes.

The nod to “research” aside, this is not the work of professional historians. What to include, and what to leave out? Whom to downplay and whom to emphasize? Such questions are too momentous to entrust to academic historians. The process must instead rely on those we might call, for lack of a better word, historiogrofficials — bureaucratic functionaries who shape the past through the political prerogatives of the present.

So what shape has the “Chronicle of Major Events” taken?

Visualizing the Past Five Years

It would be a mostly pointless exercise to delve into the 500-odd entries in the chronicle, but the consistency of these documents, in terms of form and process, as they are released every five years provides an excellent opportunity for comparison. And one crucial indicator we can observe is how frequently the chronicles mention the Party’s top leaders, the seven men on the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

Comparison is feasible not just because the process, as the official from the Central Institute of Party History and Literature explained, is a highly formal one. The chronicles released in 2017 and 2022 are also nearly identical in length, the former coming in at 49,949 characters, and the second at 50,800 (being just 16-20 lines longer).

If we search full-text versions of both chronicles for the names of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, and then plot the number of mentions for each name, a clear pattern emerges.

The rise in mentions of Xi Jinping in this year’s chronicle (268) represents just over a 25 percent increase over his mentions in the 2017 chronicle (222), clearly reflecting his growing profile within the official account of the past five years.

As for the remaining members of the Standing Committee, the total mentions of all have fallen in real terms, despite the very slight increase in the length of the chronicle. Premier Li Keqiang, the second-ranking official on the PSC after Xi, received 66 mentions in the 2017 chronicle. This year, Li received just 44 mentions, a significant drop of one-third.

Drops for the rest of the PSC members in this year’s chronicle are similar to that experienced by the premier. For example, the third-ranking member in 2017 was Zhang Dejiang (张德江), who had 24 mentions in the full text.  In the chronicle released today, the third-ranking member, Li Zhanshu (栗战书), has just 16 mentions, a drop again of one-third.

This yawning gap between Xi and the rest of the top leadership, and the shaping of history around his person and leadership, is not exactly a surprise, of course. It recalls what we saw back in November 2021 with the release at the Sixth Plenum of the CCP’s third resolution on history, 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).

That decision announced a new direction for the CCP and reconsolidated its claim to legitimacy under Xi’s leadership in the “New Era” (新时代). And it was certainly no accident that Xi’s decade in power, a period covering just 10 percent of the Party’s entire 10-year history, dominated more than one-half of the resolution.  

No one can yet say with a great deal of certainty what the 20th National Congress of the CCP will bring. But in the version of the past offered by today’s “Chronicle of Major Events,” we can certainly see glimpses of the very near future.

The Spirit at the Core

In the communique released yesterday by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), there are plenty of points of substance that might be unpacked — about the “integrating of development and security,” the implication of “patriots governing Hong Kong,” the fight against Covid-19, and so on.

But the central melody, woven throughout the text, is the unassailable role of Xi Jinping as general secretary of the CCP, and of Xi’s governing concepts for the future of the nation. While these may sound one and the same, the dualism of the man and his concepts is a crucial point to grasp just days away from the opening of the 20th National Congress of the CCP.

It may be tempting to focus on the mechanics, on the likely makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), possible amendments to the Party Charter, and so on. But Xi Jinping’s ambitions transcend such matters. To gain sufficient worldly power as the “core” of the Party, clearing the way for his agendas over the coming decade, Xi Jinping’s ideas must also be seen to have sufficient spiritual power.

This is where the dualism of Xi’s status comes in. On the one hand, there is the “core status” (核心地位) of Xi as general secretary. On the other, there is the “leading status” (指导地位) of his ideas. This is a balance that Party propagandists have signaled repeatedly in recent months through the so-called “Two Establishes,” a phrase that emerged at the Sixth Plenum in November 2021, along with a resolution on CCP history that put Xi solidly at the center.

The “Two Establishes” dualism is crystal clear in the language that dominates the midpoint of the communique this week (my emphasis and notation of the pairing):

The meeting emphasized that the major achievements of the Party and the government in the five years since the 19th National Congress of the CCP have been obtained by the whole Party and the various peoples of the whole nation through unity and struggle [1] under the leadership of the CCP Central Committee with comrade Xi Jinping as the core, and [2] under the direction of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era. The Party’s [1] establishment of comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Central Committee, with core status within the whole Party, and its [2] establishment of the leading status of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, expresses the common wish of the entire Party, the entire military and the various peoples of the whole nation, and has decisive significance for the development of the objectives of Party and the state in the new era and for the advancement of the historical process of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Immediately after this long-form rendering of the “Two Establishes,” the concept is repeated in shortened form:

The whole Party must deeply understand the [1+2] decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes,’ enhance the ‘Four Consciousnesses,’ be firm in the ‘Four Confidences,’ and achieve the ‘Two Safeguards,’ uniting more closely around the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, fully implementing Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era . . . .

The repetitiveness of the language in these passages is core to what it is intended to convey — the drumbeat of Xi’s political dominance. Unpack associated buzzwords like the “Four Consciousnesses” and the “Two Safeguards” (the first to protect the “core”) and the same basic meanings emerge, the emphasis on Xi as the “core” of the Party and the fountainhead of the ideas propelling it into the glorious future.

Behind the “Two Establishes” is the notion of Xi as the political embodiment of a tradition of thought reaching deep into the historical roots of the CCP’s legitimacy. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this passage from an official commentary released by Xinhua News Agency back in July, which depicted Xi’s ideas as the culmination of two centuries of profound intellectual ferment that began in 1818 with the birth of Karl Marx in the German city of Trier:

Originating with a red seed in the small German city of Trier, taking root in a vast land in the east of the world, weathering the wind, rain, and snow of the great experiences of the Chinese revolution, [national] construction and reform, drawing on the nutrients of China’s excellent traditional culture, a fruit has been produced that contains the spirit of China and the essence of the times — Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.

As the communique itself says, these are times of uncertainty. But the sense that modern Chinese history — and even world history — is converging in a resplendent moment of historical return (the “great rejuvenation”), focused on the spirit-person of Xi Jinping, will likely define the mood of the upcoming 20th National Congress.

Arguably more important than all other matters of substance is the question of what imprint this mood of adulation will leave on politics in China for months and years to come.

No “Lying Flat” on Covid

While much of the world is now living beyond Covid, dropping quarantine, testing, and even masking policies, China has become the exception, increasingly out of step with the world. Though some no doubt support the government’s rigid “people’s war” approach to Covid, resentment has been on the rise as Chinese struggle to live not so much with the virus as with the government’s inflexible and often arbitrary “zero Covid” measures.

As the policies go in China, so goes the propaganda. And on page two of the People’s Daily newspaper yesterday, readers can find the latest robust official defense of the Party’s handling of Covid-19, which speaks of continuing danger with familiar slogans like “persistence is victory” (坚持就是胜利) — a battle cry harking back to the Cultural Revolution.

But one phrase stands out from the official speak. Three times in yesterday’s article, the neologism “lying flat,” or tangping (躺平), is used to describe a weak and contemptible attitude of complacency toward Covid. “In doing a proper job of normalizing epidemic prevention and control, ‘lying flat’ is no way out,” the newspaper says.

Immediately after:

Some people see certain countries outside choosing ‘lying flat’ in the face of the epidemic. They believe that the costs are too great for our country in adhering to dynamic zero, and that we should follow suit, achieving coexistence with the virus. This is an extremely wrong and irresponsible view.

The deployment of tangping as an object of mockery in the official discourse of the Chinese Communist Party is an interesting turnabout for a phrase that emerged to wide popularity in 2021 as a shrug of apathy, urging Chinese to relinquish ambition and reject overwork in hedonistic protest — a kind of anti-battle cry.

But since May this year, when tensions crested over the inept and often dehumanizing tactics used to respond to Covid cases in Shanghai and other cities, “lying flat” has become a mainstream CCP buzzword for unacceptable lassitude, contrasted with the responsible and resolute attitude of the leadership.

In a May 16 article, the People’s Daily mocked the approach of countries like the UK to the spread of the Omicron variant. “The choice of ‘lying flat’ has not only led to the crowding out of health care resources in these countries and continued strain on health care systems, but mass infections have also had a long-lasting social and economic impact,” the paper said. And in an article two days later: “We have not chosen to ‘lie flat’ in the hope of avoiding more deaths and serious illnesses, and of promoting economic and social development on the foundation of safeguarding people’s lives and physical health.”

“Facts had shown,” the newspaper said on May 19, that “the ‘lying flat’ epidemic prevention of certain Western countries cannot eliminate the epidemic.” Another report on May 23 said that while marginal economic growth in the Eurozone could be attributed to many factors, the “choice of the ‘lying flat’ and ‘coexistence’ policy [toward Covid] has clearly not had the positive effect anticipated.”

An illustration of the “lying flat” phenomenon appears on the Q&A platform Zhihu in early May 2021.

Not surprisingly, “lying flat,” which during its rapid rise in 2021 prompted concern from the leadership, is now pitted against the attitude of “struggle” Xi Jinping has encouraged in the Party’s ranks. Over the summer, an article lionized the “revolutionary spirit” of resolute action: “In the face of difficulties and setbacks, to not ‘lie flat’ and give in to demoralization . . . working hard and forcefully — such is the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party member.”

There has been some moderation of Covid-related language in the official Chinese media in recent weeks as the Party has prepared for the 20th National Congress, to open in less than two weeks, and we shall have to see if any compromises on the rigid “Covid zero” policy follow once the crucial political season has passed.

But for now, resoluteness and rigidity are the order of the day, at least as much about political messaging as considerations of public health. No one within the leadership and its mouthpiece media can be permitted to relax.

Tibet, By Any Other Name

The state-run Global Times said in an English-language report this week that nearly 70 other countries had called on others to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs on [the] Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Xizang regions.” This came amid efforts by the United States to encourage a debate on human rights in Xinjiang at an upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council, following a report released last month by UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet.

But contained in this standard language about interference — hiding just in view — is an intriguing clue to how diplomats and state media are moving to reframe debates over sovereignty and human rights in another region, Tibet, and with the most basic of tools: the place name.

Speakers of Mandarin educated in the pinyin system, created by Zhou Youguang in the 1950s, shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, will instantly recognize “Xizang” as the pinyin rendering of Tibet (西藏) — which in the local Tibetan language is called “Bod” (བོད་).

How long has “Xizang” featured in English-language coverage by the Party-state media? Only for a matter of months, it turns out.  

For the Global Times, the grumbling nationalist tabloid under the umbrella of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily, 2022 has been a grand coming out for “Xizang.” Before this year, “Xizang” appeared only within proper names in Global Times coverage. The sole appearance in 2021, for example, was a May report using the official name of the “Xizang Minzu University.” All three uses in 2020 referred either to the official name of the regional PLA military command, or to Shanghai’s “Xizang Middle Road.”

Since January this year, however, the Global Times has used “Xizang” in more than 200 English-language articles. For the first time, there are headline uses of the pinyin name for the region — and many of them. “New Record for Horizontal Drilling Tech Set in Xizang Hydropower Project,” read one headline back in July. “Xizang Authorities Offer Support for Local People After COVID-19 Flare-up,” read another last month.

The first four Google results returned for “Xizang” from the Global Times website are headline uses.

Global Times reports are now salted with casual references to “Xizang.” A report back in January, about China’s construction of a bridge across Tibet’s Pangong Lake that has prickled border tensions with India, noted that “Xizang still lags behind other provinces of China,” and that infrastructure construction is essential to development.

In May, when China fulminated against the creation by the US State Department of a “Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues,” the newspaper paraphrased the remarks of foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, noting that “any Xizang-related affair is purely China’s internal affair and allows no interference by any foreign country.”

Favored by Diplomats

In the state-run media to date, the “Xizang” change appears to apply only to the Global Times. Core state media like People’s Daily Online, and China Daily, published by the State Council Information Office, have not yet followed suit.

A recent report on regional education by the China Daily notes that “Tibet has more than 920,000 students studying at various schools in the region.” The headline: “Tibet Will Send Students Out of Region Soon.” In 2021 and so far in 2022, the People’s Daily Online has still generally used “Tibet” in its English-language coverage. “Prior to its peaceful liberation, Tibet was ruled by feudal serfdom for hundreds of years,” read an article in May 2021. And a headline in March this year made the issue of sovereignty crystal clear from the outset: “People Celebrate Tibetan New Year in China’s Tibet.”

But at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), where “Xizang” was used just once in English-language material before 2022 — in a 2018 release by the Chinese Consulate General in Vancouver — a shift seems to be underway. It may have started on September 16, 2021, when a statement about a meeting between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, noted that “Russia firmly supports China’s positions on issues related to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Xizang and human rights.”

In 2022, the use of “Xizang” seems to have been standardized by MOFA within this list of sovereignty-sensitive territories. The latest mention came just last month, as Wang Yi met with Mongolian Foreign Minister Batmunkh Battsetseg, and an official release noted that “Mongolia reaffirms its firm commitment to the one-China principle and opposes interference in China’s internal affairs related to Taiwan, Xizang, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, among others.”

Placing Sovereignty

The retirement of “Tibet” in favor of “Xizang” by the Global Times and MOFA is likely an attempt to shift the discussion of issues relating to the region away from a place name that has come in Western languages to symbolize China’s human rights abuses, and to have toxic associations with wrangling over sovereignty. The name “Tibet” in the West has long been synonymous with the struggle for its freedom, culture, and identity, and of course with the region’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Erasing “Tibet” is a rhetorical obliteration of related debates, claims and criticisms.

In 2022, the use of “Xizang” seems to have been standardized by MOFA within this list of sovereignty-sensitive territories.

Perhaps the change at the Global Times and at MOFA is also a trial balloon that will prompt similar changes at other state media down the line.

There are also parallels in China’s past re-labeling in the official discourse of other places and features on the map. For seven decades running, China has promoted the use of “Mount Qomolangma” over “Mount Everest,” spurning the latter’s association with imperialism and colonialism. The peak was named in the 19th century after the former Surveyor General of India, George Everest.

By the time the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, the name “Everest” had already taken hold in the general population. And in January 1951, right in the midst of China’s annexation of Tibet, editors at the People’s Daily made a political slip when they captioned a photo of the peak — part of a series called “Our Great Mother Country” (我们伟大的祖国):

The Himalayas tower over the southwestern frontier of our country, stretching for about two 2,500 kilometers. Our People’s Liberation Army is now marching in this direction. This is its main peak, Mount Everest, which is 8,880 meters high and the world’s highest peak.

It was an oops moment for the flagship newspaper of a newly victorious CCP claiming sovereignty over the lands of the Tibetan plateau. Several weeks later — this being long before the instant controversies of Weibo — the People’s Daily ran a correction, noting that Everest was “an incorrect name” (错误的名称) and the mountain should instead be called “Zhumulangma Peak” (珠穆朗玛峰).

An image of Mount Qomolangma (Everest) appears in the upper left-hand corner of the People’s Daily in January 1951.

The article noted that while Everest had “secretly surveyed the Himalayas and discovered this peak” in the 19th century, arrogantly giving it his own name, the peak had in fact already been “discovered” as early as 1717 by a Qing emperor who had “sent many people” to survey the area. That emperor would have been Kangxi (康熙), though no mention was made in the article. In any case, a “map was later made,” it said, and the name “Zhumulangma” was placed where the proud Everest would eventually arrive 135 years later.

In an aside following this tale of competing imperial ambitions, and without the slightest sense of irony, the People’s Daily correction noted, “This name was given to the peak by the local Tibetan people.” The correction finished with a Chinese saying that today seems jarring in its frankness about what was then happening on the ground in Tibet, and the cultural, historical, and religious controversies that would reverberate through to the next century: “The name comes from the master” (名从主人).

“And so, we must correct the name of the world’s highest peak,” the article said.

For at least two decades, the Chinese government has been urging a similar transformation of the peak’s name in English. In 2002, the China Daily quoted a Tibetan scholar as saying: “It is time for the Western world to respect us Tibetans by recognizing the highest peak on Earth by its Tibetan name, Qomolangma.” The article began by reminding readers that “[the] days of empires and overt colonialism have long passed,” and that it is time to move on.

There is of course a glaring difference between the case of Mount Qomolangma, the renaming of which the Tibetan scholar urged as a matter of respect for Tibetans, and the case of Tibet/Xizang. Unlike Qomolangma, “Xizang” has no relation to the local language or culture. And for reasons that are only too obvious, no one at the Global Times or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is urging the world to mind its own business when it comes to the land of “Bod.”  


For more on the history of language used to describe the Tibetan plateau, we recommend historian Elliot Sperling’s Tubote, Tibet, and the Power of Naming.

“We Must Wake Up!”

As anger flared across Chinese social media yesterday following the deadly crash in Guizhou of a passenger bus transferring positive Covid cases, Gao Yu (高昱), the deputy executive editor and head of investigations at Caixin Media, posted a reflection on the tragedy to his WeChat friend group that was subsequently shared outside the chat.

In his post, Gao urged an end to China’s zero Covid policy, which he argued was unscientific, pursued out of unnecessary fear, and out of step with the rest of the world. “We must wake up! We must return to normalcy!” he wrote.

An image of the WeChat friend group post by Caixin Media deputy editor Gao Yu, posted yesterday.

As the post was shared more widely on the internet, censors moved quickly to stamp it out. An archived version is still available from China Digital Times.

Our translation of the post follows.


For someone to be afraid of Covid is completely normal, and something understandable. When I stand and look down from the third floor, I feel fearful too. But what is not normal, and what is not understandable is to hold 1.3 billion Chinese people in bondage because an extremely small number of people could contract Covid and die.

Right now the entire world is declaring that the Covid pandemic has ended. But in this huge country still, an entire building of people can be dragged away to quarantine because a single person is positive, and an entire city can be forcibly locked down. Entire countries are living normally. But still there are people [here] holding their copies of the People’s Daily and saying that China’s epidemic prevention and control policies are the most scientific, the most humane, and the greatest.

China’s population is huge, [they say], so even if the number of deaths is at just one in ten thousand, then out of 1.3 billion Chinese there will be 130,000 who die. Can’t you be responsible for those 130,000 people? Sure, but the number of people who die each year in car accidents is far greater than the number who die of Covid. And why don’t you prohibit the driving of cars?

So far in Guizhou, not a single person has died of Omicron. But the fear of the possible spread of Omicron has put six million people under lockdown and has resulted in the forced removal of 30,000 people to quarantine facilities, of which some 10,000 have been distributed to other cities.

And now, 27 people who were possibly infected have been killed in an accident that happened during transport [to a quarantine facility outside the city]! Just look at this doomed driver who doesn’t know what’s even happening, and he wearing a hazmat suit and two layers of masks, and senselessly he’s wearing goggles too, and probably two layers of protective gloves. And for the entire journey, he was prohibited from using the air conditioning. And it was 2:30 AM. This is the foggy trance in which this bus was driven toward death.

We must wake up! We must return to normalcy!

Resolutely oppose PCR testing of the whole population!

Resolutely oppose zero Covid!

Resolutely oppose the lockdown of the country!

Mixing Science and Politics

In the midst of more pressing stories, including a wave of Covid lockdowns and an earthquake in Sichuan, a government notice issued over the weekend on “the popularization of science,” or kepu (科普),  may not command attention. But it is the latest sign of how politics and ideology have in recent years crept back into the heart of all endeavors in China.

Released by the general offices of the CCP Central Committee and the State Council, the notice encourages the spread of knowledge about science and technology, both in the government and in the wider population, in the interest of establishing a firm foundation for innovation and development. It speaks of “advocating the spirit of science,” and “promoting scientific approaches to activities,” and it signals concern over the fact that “the supply of high-quality science products and services remains insufficient.”

But science quickly moves aside for politics.

Point one in “General Requirements” opens with a clear declaration that the guiding ideology for science popularization is the top leader’s 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). The second point then addresses concrete “work demands”:

[Work must] adhere to the leadership of the Party, implementing the leadership of the Party through the whole process of science popularization, highlighting the political properties of science popularization, strengthening the leadership of values, practicing socialist core values, and vigorously promoting the spirit of science and the spirit of the scientist.

This talk of the “political properties” (政治属性) of science popularization is a salient reminder that through much of its history, particularly in the pre-reform period, the CCP has regarded science on the one hand as both a crucial contributor to national development, supporting economic growth and self-reliance, and on the other as intimately inter braided with political claims to truth as a source of political power.

Even as Xi Jinping has re-emphasized the need for self-reliance in science and technology, and has made innovation a key buzzword, his rule has reconsolidated Party control over the sciences. In science education, as in other fields, “ideological and political education,” or sixiang zhengzhi jiaoyu (思想政治教育) — sizheng (思政) for short — has been redoubled.

Biology textbooks in China now explicitly link the study of the subject to patriotic goals and love of the CCP. One textbook encourages an attitude of thankfulness and indebtedness, concluding: “Inspiring and leading students to use scientific knowledge to repay the kindness of the mother country is the best means of passing on red genes.”

Image from a Chinese biology textbook for universities, with a passage urging teachers to equate a lesson on DNA to the inheritance of “red genes.”

The phrase “red genes,” or hongse jiyin (红色基因), refers to the revolutionary spirit and history of the CCP as a form of political and cultural inheritance, the celebration of which is a means of consolidating the Party’s position within the national identity and thereby constructing the legitimacy of the regime.

Point 25 of the notice released on September 4 is crystal clear about the implications of science popularization for public opinion, the control of which the CCP regards as essential to maintaining political stability. The language emphasizes the need to “strengthen public opinion channeling in the field of science popularization,” “adhering to the correct political positions, and strengthening the construction and supervision of public opinion positions in science popularization.”

China’s Quiet Fury Over Xinjiang

The release from the UN Human Rights Office on Wednesday of a report pointing to “serious human rights violations” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region came with the Chinese government’s anger baked right in. A state response shared by the UN in its release said the report “wantonly smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs.”

China vented its fury again yesterday during a regular foreign ministry press conference. Asked what steps the government would take to address the concerns raised by the UN, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin waved the report off as a “so-called assessment,” alleging that it had been “orchestrated and produced by the US and some Western forces.” Its real objective, he said repeatedly, was to “contain China.”

Reacting to the response, international media outlets made fury a part of the story. China had “lashed out,” reported the Washington Post. France24 spoke of China’s “furious riposte.” And an Associated Press story shared on scores of sites had everyone asking: “Why is China so angry?”

But perhaps the most revealing fact to note today, 48 hours after the release of the Xinjiang report, is that there has been almost no reporting at all inside China. If the external messaging of the China’s leadership has been all about pique, its internal messaging has been about creating a vacuum.

A search for “Xinjiang human rights report” in China’s Baidu search engine returns the message: “We’re sorry, we cannot find news content related to “Xinjiang human rights report.”

Today’s edition of the official People’s Daily, which might have reported the foreign ministry response, or even offered a rebuttal from the leading pen name in Party fury on international issues, “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), was silent on the question of Xinjiang. A search for “Xinjiang human rights report” in the WiseSearch database, which covers hundreds of Chinese-language newspapers as well as related websites and wire services, returns 127 articles today including the phrase, 13 from publications and 114 from websites. None of these sources are inside China.

Perhaps the most revealing fact to note today, 48 hours after the release of the Xinjiang report, is that there has been almost no reporting at all inside China.

There is nothing from the official Xinhua News Agency in Chinese. There is nothing from Xinhua in English, for that matter. There is nothing in China Daily in Chinese.

The only front-page mention of Xinjiang today at China Daily  in English is an article, tucked away in the corner of the homepage, by Adnan Akfirat, a Representative to China and Member of International Relations Bureau of Patriotic Party of Turkey. Called “No More Tarnishing Xinjiang,” the article is a personal tale of Akfirat’s experiences in Xinjiang. “[In] China, thanks to socialism with Chinese characteristics, the Uygurs, including Uygur women, can study the subjects of their choice, as well as master and develop their language, enrich their culture and modernize themselves by learning from the progressive aspects of Islam,” he writes.

An article by Adnan Akfirat urges readers to stop “tarnishing Xinjiang,” where everyone is happy.

Results in Chinese via Google for the past 24 hours, using the keyword “Xinjiang human rights report,” are entirely overseas Chinese media.

It is possible that China’s state media will find the words — furious ones? — in the days to come. But the silence tells its own story, of Xinjiang as a matter so sensitive to China’s leadership that the only voices permitted to speak are the megaphones intended for external audiences.

Which is why, of course, we have heard from the English-language edition of the Global Times. After an initial response on Wednesday, another story in English yesterday from the paper’s website again relayed the Chinese government view, that the Xinjiang report is a “patchwork of disinformation” and a “political tool” for the United States.

Is there nothing else to say?

All Aboard the Adulation Express

Earlier this week, CMP noted the unusual downward trajectory of a key buzzword signaling the power of Xi Jinping, the “Two Establishes” (两个确立), which seemed to indicate at least a momentary stall in the engine of Xi’s rise in the discourse of the CCP. In today’s People’s Daily, just days after the announcement of October 16 as the probable date of the 20th National Congress, we can clearly see that engine springing back to life.

The “Two Establishes” phrase, which has been a crucial power indicator since the 6th Plenum in November last year — underscoring the unassailable roles of Xi as the Party’s “core” and his “thought” as the guiding ideology — appears in five articles in the Party’s flagship newspaper today.

Two of these articles appear on the front page. The first is a love song for the People’s Liberation Army on the occasion of its 95th anniversary, emphasizing national security, and closing with a call to “unite more closely around the Central Committee of the CCP with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, deeply understanding the decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes.'”

The second is about the publication of the fourth edition of Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China (习近平谈治国理政). The article’s headline explains that Wang Huning (王沪宁), secretary of the CCP’s Secretariat, emphasized the need to “deeply study” Xi’s book, but also to “bring the study, propagation and implementation of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era to a deeper level.”

The “Two Establishes” slipped notably in the second half of August. Are we witnessing a blip today, or the start of a September rally?

The Wang Huning article is a clear act of loyalty signaling, mentioning the “Two Establishes” and elevating Xi Jinping’s so-called “banner term,” or qizhiyu (旗帜语), the phrase that encompasses his legacy and claim to power. In all likelihood, the banner term will be shortened during the 20th National Congress from the current unwieldy 16-character version (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) to the more potent five-character “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想).

Another important article printed on page two reports on the opening ceremony for the fall study term at the Central Party School, the CCP’s top institution for the training of Party cadres. The opening address was delivered by Chen Xi (陈希), the current head of the CCP’s Organization Department, who reportedly emphasized that the “Two Establishes” is “one of the greatest political achievements of the Party in the New Era.” The article also includes the phrase in a large headline: “Firmly Supporting the ‘Two Establishes’ and Resolutely Achieving the ‘Two Safeguards'” (坚定拥护’两个确立’坚决做到’两个维护’).

A report on a speech by Chen Xi at the Central Party School mentions the “Two Establishes” in the headline.

The loyalty signaling continues on page nine, a full page of bright orange that pays tribute to the “great transformations” that have happened in China in the “New Era” over the past 10 years.

An article along the right-hand side of the page reads: “Resolutely Maintaining the Authority and Centralized Unified Leadership of the Central Committee.” It oozes about the past 10 years. “The decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes’ is deeply rooted in people’s hearts,” it says.

Page 9 of today’s People’s Daily, with praise for the “great transformation” of the past 10 years, and two articles mentioning the “Two Establishes.”

Below is an article from Chen Li (陈理 ), the former director of the Academic and Editorial Committee of the Central Institute of Party History and Literature. The article is again classic loyalty signaling. It teems with “greatnesses” — great victories and glory (伟大的胜利和荣光), “great transformations” (伟大变革), “great projects” (伟大工程), and of course the “great rejuvenation” (伟大复兴).

But the key point is that Chen signals loyalty to Xi Jinping, emphasizing the need to “deeply comprehend the decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes’ and resolutely achieve the ‘Two Safeguards.'”  The “Two Safeguards,” or liangge weihu (两个维护), are about the need to 1) safeguard the “core” status of Xi Jinping within the CCP, and 2) to safeguard the centralized authority of the Party. Together, the “Two Establishes” and the “Two Safeguards” lay claim to the basic principles governing China today, centered on Xi himself — and they define the protection of these principles as the chief task of the country.

It looks like Xi Jinping’s train to the foggy heights of CCP discourse is chugging ahead once again.

China’s Front on Human Rights

A long-awaited report released yesterday by the United Nations on the human rights situation in Xinjiang concludes that China’s actions in the region “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The report, published along with a strongly-worded “state response” from China, was seen by international human rights groups as a vindication, and as “groundbreaking.” “We can breathe a sigh of relief,” one rights researcher wrote.

How have media inside China responded? With blistering silence.

A search for “Xinjiang human rights report” (新疆人权报告) in the WiseSearch database, which covers hundreds of Chinese-language newspapers as well as related websites and wire services, turns up 101 articles today. But just one is from mainland China. This is a post to Toutiao by an economics professor from Chongqing University of Technology, who dismisses the report as a “smokescreen” with “no credible evidence.”

“Yao Wen Observes the World,” an account from an economics professor in Chongqing with more than 200,000 followers, is one of the only mentions inside China today of the “Xinjiang human rights report.”

“As we all know,” the professor writes, “Xinjiang has developed rapidly and made great achievements in recent years under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the government.”

Surely China’s major news services must have responded? Or People’s Daily Online, perhaps, the website under the CCP’s flagship newspaper? If all else fails we can surely expect a few words — and harsh ones at that — from the ever-faithful Global Times?

Searches for “Xinjiang human rights report” on the Xinhua News Agency websites, People’s Daily Online, China News Service and Global Times Online return no results — though China News Service has “human rights” related results attacking the United States.

Cricket sounds.

The only results returned at all are a pair of articles from the official China News Service, the first about how US hegemony is harming “digital human rights” globally, the second mentioning “the West’s manufacture of rumors about so-called human rights [problems] in Xinjiang.”

It is safe to assume that the Chinese Communist Party is loading its propaganda blunderbuss, and the next 24-48 hours should bring a torrent of commentaries — including one, perhaps, from “Zhong Sheng” (钟声) in the People’s Daily.

But while we wait, it might be a helpful exercise to look at how China has been talking about human rights in recent weeks and months, and what this reveals about how China engages on human rights issues through international institutions like the UN.

The Civil Society Front

As the focus at China News Service suggests, one of China’s primary tactics on human rights is to attack the record of the United States and its allies in the West.

In December last year, state media widely reported on the release by the China Society for Human Rights Studies (中国人权研究会) of a report called “Politicization of Human Rights by the United States Undermines the Foundations of Good Human Rights Governance.” In April this year, another report, “Anti-Asian Racial Discrimination Rises to the Surface to Confirm the Nature of Racist Society in America,” laid out instances of anti-Asian discrimination. The report was once again prepared and publicized by the China Society for Human Rights Studies.

As the focus at China News Service suggests, one of China’s primary tactics on human rights is to attack the record of the United States and its allies in the West.

Most recently, the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily reported along with other state media in early July that the China Society of Human Rights had released a new report called “US Commits Grave Human Rights Violations in the Middle East and Elsewhere.”

Who exactly is this group, the China Society for Human Rights Studies (CSHRS)?

The CSHRS refers to itself as “the largest national non-governmental organization in the field of human rights in China,” and “a national academic organization in the field of human rights in China.” It notes in an introduction on its website that it “enjoys a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and is a member of the United Nations Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations (CONGO).”

A notice from the OHCHR in 2005 on a visit to China by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights notes that the commissioner met with “non-governmental organizations” that included the China Society for Human Rights Studies.

The group is “active in human rights studies,” and it “endeavors to popularize human rights knowledge in an effort to raise the awareness of the importance of human rights throughout society.” The introduction also explains that CSHRS funding comes mainly from the China Foundation for Human Rights Development (中国人权发展基金会), or CFHRD.

CFHRD calls itself a “public foundation.” But it also states unambiguously in its formal charter from 1994 that “the business unit in charge is the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (Information Office of the State Council).”

These organizations have sought to present themselves as being broadly representative of an alternative vision of human rights, one supported by Chinese society and to be taken seriously in the field of human rights studies. They have inserted themselves into international human rights governance, trading on their supposed status as “non-governmental organizations.” But their direct connection to the Central Propaganda Department, the heart of the CCP’s perception machine, underscores the fact that they are little more than a civil society front for the CCP’s global human rights agenda, meant to distract from criticisms of China’s human rights abuses.

We should expect to hear from them at any moment.