Author: Raphael Chan

In Hong Kong, Learning to Speak Like the CCP

“Profound changes unseen in a century.” “High-quality development.” “Targeted poverty alleviation.” Such specialized political buzzwords may be familiar to observers of official discourse in China. But to many people in Hong Kong, they have the alien ring of a foreign language. Slowly, that may be changing.

Over the past eight months, as Chief Executive John Lee has looked to “start a new chapter” for Hong Kong, the political terminologies of the Chinese Communist Party have increasingly penetrated the language spoken by authorities in the special administrative region, which once enjoyed a unique political culture insulated from the political campaigns across the border.

Hong Kong and Macao are now expected to “better [integrate] into China’s overall development and [play] a greater role in realizing national rejuvenation,” according to Xi Jinping’s political report in October last year. So perhaps it is not surprising that Hong Kong officials have borrowed more and more frequently from the Party lexicon. But in some cases, local authorities are applying CCP expressions with markedly different meanings, or are oversimplifying them — suggesting that they are still struggling to speak this new tongue.

Telling Hong Kong’s Story Well

One such example is the phrase “telling Hong Kong’s story well” (or its official English translation, “telling good stories of Hong Kong”). The saying started to gain traction after the John Lee government took over in July last year.

Monthly frequency of “telling Hong Kong’s story well” on

It presumably originated from “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国故事), a notion introduced by Xi Jinping in 2013 at the National Conference on Propaganda and Ideological Work. As Xi later explained, the concept involves “helping foreign audiences to realize that the [Chinese Communist Party] is truly fighting for the happiness of Chinese people and to understand why the [CCP] can, why Marxism works, and why Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is good.”

“China’s story” encompasses the success of China’s “development path,” the importance of the Party’s leadership, and the image of China as a responsible international actor that contributes to global prosperity. Enhancing the PRC’s cultural soft power by “showing the world an excellent culture which possesses Chinese characteristics, embodies Chinese spirit, and encapsulates Chinese wisdom” is also one important element.

Local “stories” in the PRC have a strong cultural element. They are also meant to be testaments to the success of the China’s systems and the Party’s governance. For example, items under a memorandum on “telling Shanghai’s story well” signed by and the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Economy and Informatization include: “advanced models and touching stories emerging from the deep practice of socialist core values of Shanghai’s economy and informatization systems”; “propaganda on Comprehensively Deepening Reform in Shanghai”; and showcasing Shanghai’s progress in “building a center of sci-tech innovation.” “Haipai culture,” which denotes the city’s distinctly cosmopolitan spirit, is also valued by local propaganda officials as an important part of “Shanghai’s story.”

Likewise, “telling Shantou’s story well” involves efforts in making the local Chaoshan cuisine “go overseas” (出海), and illustrating Shantou’s economic success as one of China’s first Special Economic Zones.

But these elements are not at the heart of the official “Hong Kong story.”

The main theme of “telling Hong Kong’s story” has been advertising the city’s “strengths, achievements, and opportunities” as a financial and tourism hub in the face of “smears” from “external forces.” In a speech titled “Uniting to Tell Hong Kong’s Story Well,” John Lee articulated his government’s goal:

We must unite and tell the world the truthful good stories of Hong Kong, to let the world know about Hong Kong, an international metropolis combining the advantages of China and the world, and to attract them for business, investment, tourism, and education.

This aim was reiterated by Lee’s top officials. Under the section “Telling Good Stories of Hong Kong” in his inaugural Policy Address, Lee spoke of promoting Hong Kong’s strengths: low taxes, large volumes of RMB trade, five of the world’s top 100 universities, a common law system, connections with mainland and ASEAN markets, an abundance of country parks, and so on.

Screenshot of John Lee’s 2022 Policy Address.

Some Hong Kong officials understand that enhancing the “communication power and influence” of Chinese culture is an important element of telling Hong Kong’s and China’s story well. However, attracting businesses, tourists, and students remains the central goal of “telling Hong Kong’s story well.”

This is manifest in the responsibilities of the newly formed Taskforce on Promoting & Branding Hong Kong, which is responsible for “telling good stories of Hong Kong.” It is composed of official members as well as representatives from foreign businesses and various sectors. Its mission: “Advise the Government on the overall strategy of promoting Hong Kong’s advantages, and a series of promotional plans and activities overseas and in the Mainland.” This will “raise the city’s international profile and enhance its branding and image so that all parties can better understand Hong Kong’s advantages, potential and opportunities.”

The phrase is also used very loosely to refer to any good news about Hong Kong, such as the success of Hong Kong contestants in a vocational skills competition.

It appears that “telling Hong Kong’s story well” has more to do with promoting Hong Kong and bringing business back to the city in the aftermath of strict Covid restrictions and earthshaking political changes. Unlike the examples of Shanghai and Shantou, it is not primarily about contributing to “China’s story.”

Targeted Poverty Alleviation… In Hong Kong?

“Targeted poverty alleviation” (精准扶贫), the PRC’s national strategy for lifting rural villages out of destitution, is another phrase that has recently been picked up by the Hong Kong government.

Monthly frequency of “targeted poverty alleviation” on

The policy was first introduced by Xi Jinping in 2013 while visiting Shibadong Village in Hunan. It was later expanded by Xi into “Targeted Efforts in Six Areas” (六个精准): precisely identifying the poor; arranging targeted aid programs; utilizing capital efficiently; taking household-based measures; appointing first Party secretaries based on village conditions; and achieving precisely defined goals.

It is a strategy that involves not only the allocation of resources but also the ruling party’s internal discipline and effective personnel management.

Targeted poverty alleviation was launched in order to realize the CCP’s “centenary goal” also known as the First Centenary Goal (第一个百年奋斗目标): “building a moderately prosperous society in all respects.” One obstacle to achieving this goal was extreme poverty in rural areas, and for this reason the CCP vowed to lift all rural populations and impoverished counties out of poverty by 2020 using “targeted” measures.

The strategy is also presented to the world, in particular to other developing countries, as the key to the China’s “victory in the fight against extreme poverty” and the “Chinese solution” to poverty. Representatives from Shibadong Village have given talks on how strong party leadership and Xi’s important instruction of “targeted poverty alleviation” helped raise local living standards.

It is clear throughout these examples that “targeted poverty alleviation” is a strategy for eliminating absolute poverty — conditions so desperate people cannot afford food or housing — among rural populations. Rarely is the phrase ever applied to first-tier mainland cities, except when these cities are providing aid to less well-off regions. Yet Hong Kong officials are of the view that the strategy applies to their own city.

The Hong Kong government says it, too, “adopts the strategy of targeted poverty alleviation.” Multiple officials have interpreted this simply as “directing resources to those most in need,” including underprivileged students. This understanding does not capture the Party governance aspect of the strategy, its connection to the First Centenary Goal, or its aim of eliminating absolute poverty. As stated by Labour and Welfare Secretary Chris Sun:

Hong Kong is indeed different from the mainland in social and economic terms. Hong Kong had already entered a very advanced state after years of development. When we practice ‘targeted poverty alleviation,’ it is not about the basic issues of food and shelter but about the problem of intergenerational poverty or the abilities of disadvantaged groups to generate wealth and work.

Why the Hong Kong government decided to use the label of “targeted poverty alleviation” in the first place is perplexing.

Getting it Right

The above examples show that not every policy phrase from the Party’s official vocabulary is applicable to Hong Kong’s distinct historical, political, and socioeconomic situation. 

But there are other terms that Hong Kong officials have mostly gotten right.

“Profound changes unseen in a century” (百年未有之大变局) describes the Party’s interpretation of the the current international order. The phrase has been making regular appearances in Hong Kong policy documents and officials’ speeches. These changes are, for the most part, accurately highlighted by Hong Kong officials: the eastward shift of the world’s economic and political axis; the intensification of geopolitical tensions; the rise of anti-globalism, unilateralism and protectionism, and so on.

Monthly frequency of “profound changes unseen in a century” on

“High-quality development” (高质量发展), described by Xi as “the first and foremost task in building a modern socialist country in all respects,” is another focus of John Lee’s government. Some elements of “high-quality development,” such as science and technology innovation, green development, and digital economy, are featured in the Finance Secretary’s latest budget.

Monthly frequency of “high-quality development” on

The civil service is picking up the pace in “studying” the Party’s language and policy. Senior civil servants learned what it means to “strengthen international communications” and “tell China’s story well” in a seminar with Hu Jian, Deputy Director-General of the Information Department of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The culture of “studying” also extends beyond the public service: The social welfare sector, Labour and Welfare Bureau, and Liaison Office jointly organized a study session on the Spirit of the 20th Party Congress with discussions on “targeted poverty alleviation,” among other topics. Similar study sessions and seminars are also held across other sectors and interest groups.

The current understanding of the Party’s officialese among Hong Kong officials might not be fully accurate, but with this growing emphasis on “studying” the language, we can expect the city’s officials to speak the dialect more competently, and even more frequently, as time goes on.

Eliminating Unformed Threats

When Xi Jinping set the tone for his first leadership conference on the internet and cybersecurity policy in April 2016, he drew on the wisdom of China’s past. Quoting from the Han dynasty Records of the Grand Historian, a foundational text dating back to the 1st century BC, he said: “The intelligent hear through the silence, and the perceptive see through what is yet unformed.”

For the Chinese leadership today, the intelligent control of public opinion is about perceiving and removing political risks to the regime by seeing through mountains of data in a rapidly changing information landscape. Party leaders like Xi Jinping see this as a grand and historic project powered by new technologies.

This report is a preliminary study of Chinese patents, both pending and granted, revealing how various actors – including the defense industry, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), universities, and private corporations – have responded to Xi’s call and enabled the state to monitor and regulate the internet. While it is difficult to know just how widely specific patent-registered technologies have been used in practice, the patents nonetheless offer a glimpse into the state’s priorities and methods in policing online activity and guiding public opinion.

The intelligent control of public opinion is about perceiving and removing political risks by seeing through mountains of data in a rapidly changing information landscape. 

Using several keywords directly related to the government’s management of cyberspace – including “public opinion monitoring,” “harmful information,” and “sentiment analysis” – the China Media Project isolated a list of close to 40 Chinese patent applications submitted from 2012 to 2022. The majority of these patents were designed either by tech companies or SOEs, though about a quarter were generated by academic institutions.

In this article, we focus primarily on 20 patent applications submitted by the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a state-owned military technology supplier that has, by the admission of one former top executive, closely studied and put into practice the vision outlined in Xi Jinping’s April 2016 speech. The group’s current top official is Chen Zhaoxiong (陈肇雄), a former deputy governor of Hunan province who served for nearly five years at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology before taking the helm at CETC.

China’s Cybersecurity “National Team”

CETC is widely known as a state-owned umbrella enterprise specializing in dual-use electronics. Its links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and alleged involvement in human rights abuses have also prompted US sanctions on some of its research institutes and subsidiaries, including Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology, the world’s largest manufacturer of surveillance equipment.

Besides military electronics, CETC places a strong emphasis on cybersecurity. It brands itself as the “national team in cybersecurity and informatization work” (网信工作国家队) and the “strongest central SOE” in the research and development of electronic equipment and instruments used for domestic public security purposes. CETC also lists “strengthening cybersecurity” as one of its four major goals.

CETC was formerly a scattered group of research institutes administered by the Ministry of Information Industry, the predecessor of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the agency overseeing the country’s internet and telecommunications infrastructure as well as information security.

These institutes were brought together under the CETC umbrella in 2002 under the direction of the State Council. As a central SOE, CETC is supervised by the State Council’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), which typically has control over top-management personnel decisions at SOEs. The group clearly states in its corporate profile, however, that it is “directly managed” by central authorities under the leadership of the CCP Central Committee, the State Council and the Central Military Commission.

A company filing for CETC shows that it is directly under the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council.

Fairy Caves and Diamonds

A number of CETC’s subsidiaries specialize in the “smart” management of public opinion, public order and online activity. Among them are the CETC Smart City Research Institute and the CETC Big Data Research Institute (BDRI), both of which appear in the CMP list of patent applications. BDRI, which identifies itself as a collaborative “innovation entity” between CETC and the provincial government of Guizhou, was formed in 2017 and is engaged in big data technology research and development. It currently cooperates with the tech giant Tencent to devise solutions to public security threats stemming from technology, and in 2020, BDRI and Tencent jointly established a national engineering laboratory in Guizhou on big data applications to improve governance capacity.[1]

The collaboration included the development of the Online Societal Security Risk Situation System (网络社会安全风险态势系统), which enables early warning about possible online threats to political security, which the CCP defines primarily as risks to the regime, the socialist system, and its supporting ideology. The system, which supports the assessment of online public security risks down to the county level, prioritizes political, ideological, and economic risks, but also deals with such things as “online rumors” and vulgar popular culture.

The triangle of cooperation in this instance between a private listed company, a state-owned conglomerate and a provincial government is a testament to just how intensely the CCP has prioritized the use of big data to maintain political security – and how the premium value of data for the leadership has made related technologies a big business. During a July 2020 visit to Tencent’s big data center in Guizhou, now home to what has been called “China’s Data Valley,” Premier Li Keqiang likened the troves of data stored there to treasure. “This is a Fairy Cave,” he said. “You should dig out the gold mine. No, you should dig out the diamond mine.”

CETC Priorities: early warnings and automated functions

Our study of the patents registered and pending for CETC identifies three core priorities in the development of new technologies for the monitoring, detection, and management of information threats in cyberspace. These are (1) early warning mechanisms, which enable the proactive prediction and detection of security threats; (2) automated functions, capabilities for making decisions or generating responses to unfavorable public opinion without human involvement; and (3) visualization, the visual presentation of risk indicators in digestible forms.

Predicting and Anticipating Threats

CETC’s focus on early warning capabilities aligns squarely with the state’s goals on cyberspace administration. Being able to “hear the noiseless” and “see the shapeless,” as explained by Xi Jinping in his 2016 speech, means “knowing where risks are, what kinds of risks they are, and when they will emerge”. That involves getting an accurate grasp of the “emergence patterns, directions and trends” of cybersecurity threats.

In practice, as elaborated by Xi, this requires building a “cybersecurity risk reporting mechanism” where both the government and corporations work in unison to collect and share information and intel on cybersecurity.

The newly patented “composite city cyberspace management system” developed by CETC’s 28th Research Institute (CETC28) demonstrates how threats unformed risks are to be detected at an early stage. CETC28 houses a dedicated department for cybersecurity and was involved in “curbing online rumors” in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A subpart of the system is dedicated to “preventing and controlling” security risks posed by online content. Its early warning mechanism assesses three major indicators: the virality of an online message, how netizens react to it, and its level of “sensitivity.” Early warnings are triggered when “sensitive information” spreads and gains traction. While what constitutes “sensitive information” was never defined, CETC28 developers hinted in their patent application that “sensitive” subjects could be anything ranging from political, security or economic matters to issues relating to public health, the environment, or the livelihood of the people.  

The system also aids with the focused monitoring of online “emergencies.” In “emergency response mode” the system only gives early warnings that pertain to a particular “emergency incident” (应急事件).

In the process of detecting sensitive information, “key netizens” (重点网民) and “key websites” (重点网站), which are to be subject to closer scrutiny, are also identified and tracked. But who might become “key” to public security or cyberspace administration authorities?

In the process of detecting sensitive information, “key netizens” and “key websites,” which are to be subject to closer scrutiny, are also identified and tracked.

To police organs, “key persons” include suspected terrorists, persons that are “unfavorable” to stability, which could mean a broad range of critics and dissidents, and “key petitioners,” referring to those (such as victims of forced demolition or other injustices) that have sought mediation. In the past, Chinese Internet regulators have also identified online rights activists (网络维权人士), foreign NGOs, and groups like Falun Gong as “key” targets for information surveillance. Messages from tracked “key netizens” are to be moderated in real-time by the system.

A tool developed by CETC‘s 30th Research Institute shows how trends in online public opinion are predicted. The following flowchart excerpted from the patent application demonstrates how this might be done:

A flow chart (translated) from a patent document showing how online public opinion trends might be predicted.

The pursuit of the ability to anticipate threats also echoes the PRC’s approach to public security generally, which places a premium on  “prevention and control” (防控), the ability to detect potential risks at an early stage. Xi Jinping has emphasized repeatedly to Party cadres that the key to social stability is “proactiveness in preventing and dissolving major risks” in the face of political, ideological, social and other threats. An opinion document issued by the CCP Central Committee and State Council in 2015 on strengthening the “prevention and control system for societal security” also calls for the enhancement of early warning capabilities.

Automated Responses to Threats

CETC research institutes have also made great efforts in developing technologies that “aid decision-making” (辅助决策) in regulating online public opinion. This sometimes involves the use of automated functions, including automatically identifying and predicting the behavior of “key users”, isolating repetitive social media accounts that are engaged in “spreading rumors” — which can be  determining “abnormal users” that are involved in “stirring up” (炒作) activities during online “hot point incidents” (热点事件), and so on.

This is in line with the more general policy of “smart governance” for social and political control. “Smart governance” in the realm of cyberspace administration work translates into the increased use of artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing, with the ultimate goal of transitioning from “technical administration of the cyberspace” (技术管网) to “AI administration of the cyberspace” (人工智能管网).

One patented “smart system” (智能系统) created by CETC’s 54th Research Institute (CETC54), which specializes in “counter-information” (信息对抗), takes this further. The system is developed for responding to online “public opinion emergencies” (舆情突发事件). It not only analyzes online content and detects emergencies, but also recommends a “prevention and control plan” (防控预案). The goal is to reduce the need for manually devising and coordinating countermeasures in the face of public opinion crises.

Here is how CETC54 developers explain the need for such a system:

“Online public opinion (网络舆情) is the common opinion with a certain level of influence and tendency expressed by the public on the Internet about a social phenomenon or social issue. The influence of online public opinion on the order of political life and social stability is growing by the day. If an online public opinion emergency (网络舆情突发事件) cannot be properly dealt with in time, it could very well induce the public’s negative emotions (不良情绪) and the occurrence of harmful behavior (不良行为), thereby causing serious threats to social stability. This calls for an urgent need for a technical means that could enable the automatic monitoring of online public opinion information and could provide decision-making support for handling public opinion emergencies.”

Of particular interest is how recommendations for “prevention and control plans” are made. The following hypothetical scenario illustrates how the system responds to an emergency:

Semantics and analytics of online content are first examined to detect emergencies and their origins. These emergencies are then classified in terms of their threat levels and the type of underlying danger they present. The excerpted hypothetical illustrates a scenario where public demonstrations would likely result from a “high-level” threat. The system in this case recommends a five-step “prevention and control” plan, as presented in the table above, that involves close coordination among government bodies, internet regulators, technical staff, and “public opinion management experts” (舆情处置专家) — with the aim of identifying the perpetrators and dissolving the risk of public protest in time.

The design of this system tells us that automated capabilities and artificial intelligence are meant not only to detect risks, but increasingly also to address and dissolve risks. While it is uncertain how effective the “Smart System” is in practice or how often it is now used by public security organs – in fact, developers at CETC54 made it clear that the “prevention and control plans” work only to guide proposals that require human input – it still signifies the government’s intent to routinize and accelerate responses to public opinion incidents, with a reduced reliance on manual decision-making.

Visualization of Threats

The management of online public opinion often requires close monitoring and quick decision-making. This further demands the presentation and visualization (可视化) of risk indicators. Tools developed by CETC research institutes help visualize data such as the distribution of public opinion “hot points” (热点) across geographical locations, the frequencies of monitored “keywords,” the sentimental tendencies of netizens towards a certain “hot topic,” and so on. This helps the authorities improve efficiency in making risk assessments and responding to “public opinion emergencies.”

Image of the visualization and presentation of data on public opinion in a patent filing.

Under Xi Jinping, the CCP has made its goals clear to Party and government leaders within the larger project of keeping China’s cyberspace politically secure. His insistence on the need to proactively look out for and dissolve potential risks is driving a wave of new technologies designed for that purpose. By making use of tools developed by defense and tech giants such as CETC, China’s security authorities and internet regulators are becoming more capable of eliminating unformed threats to cybersecurity in China.

As Xi said at the first leadership conference on the internet and cybersecurity policy in 2016: “Not realizing where risks are is the biggest risk of all.”