Managing Editor of the China Media Project, Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning Hong Kong journalist who has reported for The Washington Post, LA Times, TIME, Hong Kong Free Press, and other local and international media.
China’s top legislative body has proposed an amendment to a 2005 law that lays out specific punishments for violations that disturb public order. The changes would outlaw dress or speech that is “detrimental to the spirit of the Chinese nation or hurts the feelings of the Chinese nation.” Running afoul of this new stipulation could lead to 15 days in police detention or fines of up to 5,000 renminbi (680 dollars).
What does it mean to hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation? Many Chinese are asking exactly that question. Opened to public comment for 30 days, the draft amendment to the Public Security Administration Punishments Law has drawn a torrent of criticism. Public intellectuals, influencers, and ordinary netizens have lined up across social media to lay broadsides into the new language.
“Who decides what the spirit and feelings of the Chinese nation are?” asked Tong Zhiwei, a law professor in Shanghai.
Professor Sida Liu at the University of Hong Kong called the wording of the provision “extremely vague” and questioned how it would be enforced: “Will it be up to individual police officers to decide what the spirit and feelings of the Chinese nation are?”
Lao Dongyan, a professor in the School of Law at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, wrote that the law threatens to fuel ultra-nationalist sentiments, further isolate China internationally, and damage relations between police and the public.
For many responding online, the prospect of arrests for wearing clothes that offend Beijing’s sensibilities — rationalized as those of the “Chinese nation” — brought to mind the August 2022 case of a Chinese woman detained in Suzhou for wearing a traditional Japanese kimono on the street.
One WeChat user teased that there was no need to stop with Japanese clothing. “China’s relations with a number of Western countries are not doing well now,” they wrote. “Will wearing a suit or jeans hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation?”
Another post predicted that, if the amendment came into effect, it might be advisable for people just to wear the drab tunic suits associated with Chinese Communism in the 1950s, which drew some inspiration from the style of Joseph Stalin. “I am afraid we will have to think twice about what we wear when we go out on the streets in the future…. The safest thing, to avoid being fined or detained, will be for everyone to wear Mao suits.”
Even a sports news feed joined in on the ridicule. One post compared the recent poor showing of the Chinese national football team against Malaysia to Japan’s triumph over Germany, and asked: “If China and Japan face off and Japan beat us again, which side should the police arrest? Who is hurting the feelings of the Chinese nation: Team China, Team Japan, or perhaps the broadcaster?”
A New Feeling?
The reference to “hurt feelings” first emerged in 1959 in the pages of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, the full phrase being “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” (伤害中国人民的感情). However, it was only after 1978 that the phrase was regularized, becoming a permanent feature of the Party’s political discourse.
The text of the “hurt feelings” draft amendment diverges from the longstanding CCP phrase, referring instead to lawbreakers who “hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation” (伤害中华民族的感情). Changes to the phrase reflect a recent development in the political discourse of the CCP.
The word “China” (中国), pointing in the original phrase to the People’s Republic of China, has been replaced with zhonghua (中华), a much broader notion that encompasses the idea of a grand Chinese civilization. Meanwhile, the reference to “the people” (人民), CCP political speak typically pointing to the general Chinese population under Communist rule, has been dropped in favor of the word minzu (民族), which suggests ethnic national identity rather than emphasizing the nation-state.
The new phrasing of the “hurt feelings” phrase has been around for several years, but has appeared only in unofficial media sources rather than in the People’s Daily or other state-run outlets. Appearing for what might be the first time in an official legal text, the new phrase broadens the accusation in keeping with Xi Jinping’s more recent legitimacy claims. It refers to ethnic Chinese around the world, rather than just within the country’s borders, and suggests that violations are a civilizational affront to all people of Chinese ethnicity.
The Chinese leadership has long had a conflicted relationship with Chinese nationalism as it bubbles up from below — as, for example, in the case of the anti-Japanese protests that rocked Chinese cities in 2012. That year, Chinese citizens initiated hundreds of protests to oppose Japan’s territorial claim to the Senkaku Islands, which China refers to as the “Diaoyu.” In response, fearing the protests might get out of hand, local authorities sought through various means to restrain and contain them.
The public outcry this month over the proposed amendment to the Public Security Administration Punishments Law suggests the relationship between the state and the public on nationalist emotion has now been turned on its head. The people are struggling to reign in the out-of-hand nationalism of their government.
Over the weekend, China’s Cyberspace Administration unveiled its 2022 China Positive Energy Online Exemplars Final Selection (2022中国正能量网络精品终选结果). “Final selection” may be something of a misnomer. The lists cover 550 entries in photography, video, events, and the written word — but, taken together, they provide a revealing window into just what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers “positive.”
The phrase “positive energy” (正能量) generally refers to the need for uplifting messages as opposed to critical or negative ones – and particularly the need for content that puts the Communist Party and the government in a positive light. From its unlikely origins in a self-help book by a British psychologist, the phrase has gone on to inform state media policy under Xi Jinping. But ten years after it was declared the most popular new catchphrase in China, the national mood has dimmed noticeably. The defining neologisms of the 2020s are “lie flat” (躺平), “runology” (润学), “involution” (内卷), and “the last generation” (最后一代).
“Positive energy,” clearly, is more important than ever before. So what are the “positive” stories being showcased in these uncertain times?
Hidden among the hundreds of entries are a few human interest stories that genuinely speak to the resilience and compassion of people around the country — suicide hotline counselors, firefighters, and educators, for example. But across every medium, the top winners are invariably stories praising Xi Jinping. The top five articles aren’t works of storytelling at all but merely summaries and commentaries on Xi’s speeches. The silver medalist invites us to “Feel Xi Jinping’s Affections by Attentively Listening to His New Year Greeting.”
Further down the list, other pieces run the gamut of propaganda favorites: the “charming” facilities of the Beijing Winter Olympics; the Hong Kong handover at 25; and the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea” at 72. Guangming Daily’s “What is Xinjiang Really Like?” comes off as more defensive than positive, however. Scraped together in response to the UN Human Rights Office report on Xinjiang, which found that China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in far-western Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity, it is a mishmash of portraits of always-happy and typically dancing Uyghurs. When it comes to the attitudes of some of its interviewees, though, “positive energy” may be an understatement. One describes being “so excited he burst into tears” at the sight of Xi Jinping:
I was deeply educated. And as religious figures, we must remember General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ardent wish, always feel the Party’s benevolence, listen to the Party, follow the Party, and unite all believers firmly around the Party and the government,” said the emotional Maimati Guma.
One person’s “positive” may be another’s “horrific.” One example on the CAC list is “Wuhan’s Taipei Road Ends at Liberation Avenue” (武汉台北路尽头是解放大道). To Chinese nationalists, this piece, which uses street names in a Wuhan neighborhood to suggest the inevitability of Taiwan’s incorporation into the PRC, may sound pleasing. But to Taiwan’s 23 million people, the threat of a grisly war in their homeland (“liberating” Taiwan, a Cold War-era slogan, suggests the Taiwanese government is illegitimate and must be crushed) is unlikely to elicit “positive energy.”
One also wonders what is so “positive” about racial tensions in the United States. Another honorable mention, the Global Times’ “The Tumor of Racism Exacerbates US Social Division,” (种族主义“毒瘤”加剧美国社会撕裂) is little more than a laundry list of American society’s “failures”: poor healthcare access, income inequality, mass shootings, the legacy of segregation, racist violence. As well-earned as these shots may be (and the author cites reports from US media and civil society to substantiate them), few actually touched by these issues would ascribe “positive energy” to them.
But of course, some would. And perhaps the most striking illustration of who is provided by this finalist in the image category:
“Unmask Three-Faced Pelosi,” produced by the Xinhua news agency in response to Nancy Pelosi’s “sneaky visit” to Taiwan, was listed alongside an accompanying listicle on the “Six Sins” of the then-House Speaker, who paid a high-profile visit to Taiwan in August 2022. Little about either scream courage, compassion, devotion, dedication, or any other traditionally “positive” human attribute.
When the media’s sole purpose is to make the Party feel good about itself, however, “positive energy” can lead down some dark alleys.
When TEDxGuangzhou was first held in 2009, organizers said the southern metropolis was a natural host for China’s largest domestic edition of the popular international speaking series. Guangzhou, after all, was “among the first cities to open up to the rest of the world in China,” and home to the country’s most vibrant professional media scene. If any Chinese city epitomized the TEDx mission of “ideas worth spreading,” it had to be Guangzhou.
Fourteen years later, TEDxGuangzhou has become the first to fall. Its 2023 event, scheduled to take place today, August 13, was abruptly cancelled by authorities late last month over “concerns about foreign interference,” according to Bloomberg and other foreign media. Official sources rejected this explanation, the state-run Global Timesaccusing the foreign media of “hyping” the incident “to tarnish China’s image” and “cause panic.” The real reason, the paper said, is that organizers failed to comply with relevant laws.
A new set of regulations released on Friday by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) calls into question the dismissive line from state media on the TEDxGuangzhou shutdown. Released jointly by 10 official bodies, including the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department, they suggest the deepening of a broader national campaign since March to curb what the CAC, the country’s top internet control body, called in Friday’s notice “forum activities run amok” (论坛活动乱象).
Laying politics down with the law
The CAC notice outlines 10 requirements for all “forum activities,” which it says includes “forums, annual meetings, and other conferences and events with the nature of a forum.” Foremost among these requirements is the question of political orientation and political control.
Events must “adhere to the correct political direction, value orientation, and public opinion guidance,” the regulations say — the last of these terms a crucial phrase in the CCP’s vocabulary on press and information control dating back to the brutal crackdown on democracy demonstrators in June 1989. The notice emphasizes first, however, that forum activities “must be guided by Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” this being the political philosophy of China’s top leader, and that they must “practice socialist core values.”
The regulations then turn to the question of how to name and designate events — a major priority in a political system where proper naming is a crucial aspect of control, owing to a complex history of totalistic language from Confucius through to borrowed Leninist and Stalinist prose and beyond. In the case of “forum activities,” these must not “arbitrarily” (随意) claim they are “international,” “global,” “national,” “nationwide,” or “all-China” in scope, or identify themselves with words like “summit” — presumably, though it is never made clear, because this suggests a level of official identity or sanction.
Will The Rap of China, a live-streaming event featuring rap battles and artists like MC HotDog, still be able to call itself, in Chinese, the “China Rap Battle Summit” (中國說唱巔峰對決)?
In terms of content, the regulations specify — beyond the demand for socialist core values — that both main events and any breakout groups or side forums must “closely follow the theme of the main forum activities.”
The general push behind the regulations and actions we have seen unfold this year in China on live performances, both online and offline, is to exercise stronger control and oversight, and avoid unpredictability of the kind that the case of comedian Li Haoshi (李昊石) back in May has come to represent for regulators. Keeping events on theme means the authorities can avoid politically unpleasant surprises.
Whose forum is it anyway?
Perhaps the most important aspect of the rules in the CAC notice deals with who hosts these so-called “forum activities,” and how they connect to society and other regulatory or professional frameworks.
In discussing themes, the regulations are clear that speaking events cannot “exceed the organizing unit’s scope of responsibilities.” This functions in precisely the same way as the set of standards introduced last month by the CAC for independent content creators, which demand professional or other credentials for those operating registered accounts on social media platforms.
We pointed out in our reading of the social media rules that if you are operating an account doing professional journalism on the healthcare sector, you could be disqualified under the rules simply because you are not a licensed healthcare provider or other medical business. That would seem to corrupt the quality and integrity of information, but the primary goal for the authorities is to deal with content creators, or in this case “organizing units,” that are clearly identifiable and already connected to licensing frameworks.
The first step in achieving the political goals set out in the CAC notice released Friday is to ensure, as the notice says, that the “various social organizations hosting forum activities [are] legally registered, and have legal status,” and further that they do not overstep their “scope of responsibilities” — meaning that they stay in their lane. If they fail to do so, the authorities will know precisely who to blame, and who to punish.
It is at this point that the new regulations most directly address the hurdle leading to TEDxGuangzhou’s cancellation. “Enterprises and social organizations that are not legally registered, or that do not have an actual hosting body, are not permitted to hold forum activities openly for society,” the CAC notice reads.
Unlike formal TED events, such as the annual TED conference held in Vancouver, TEDx events are independent and can be hosted by anyone who obtains a free license from the American-Canadian non-profit. As such, local event hosts are not necessarily registered bodies. While this model has succeeded across the world, and has given TEDx its unique community feel, the new rules make it clear that this decentralized approach will no longer fly in the PRC.
Like any good act of misdirection, the government’s rationale for the Guangzhou shutdown contains a kernel of truth if one applies the rules set out in Friday’s CAC notice: by attempting to host a speaking event not under the auspices of a locally registered legal entity, organizers were indeed running afoul of the law.
But the more important question is what the law is designed to achieve. For TEDxGuangzhou and many other events likely to be grounded under these rules, it is not really about protecting communities from forum activities “run amok.” Rather, as the political demands that open the notice make clear, it is about controlling who gets to speak, so that the state can more effectively direct what they say.
In China’s CCP-led system, political power turns on the management of public opinion — and ideas worth spreading are often ideas worth stopping.
A wide-ranging new law to “enhance patriotic education” has come before China’s top legislative body, offering a new means to tighten ideological controls both online and beyond the country’s borders. Despite its emphasis on “promoting the spirit of patriotism,” the text of the law makes clear that the broader goal is to legislate love and devotion to the Chinese Communist Party and the top leadership.
“Patriotic education adheres to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” the text reads, adding that it “integrates love for the country, love for the Party, and the love of socialism.”
Submitted for review this week to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the draft bill lays out nine “main content” points of patriotic education. Six of these are explicitly political: they cover Marxism; Maoism; the theories of Xi Jinping; the leadership, achievements, and history of the CCP; revolutionary and socialist culture; national unity; and revolutionary martyrs.
Closing articles in the draft lay out a litany of offenses that range from “undermining the dignity” of the national anthem, flag, and emblems to “denying the deeds of national heroes” and “denying acts of aggression” by foreign countries.
Departments of education, press and publication, film and broadcasting, culture and tourism are expected to “promptly stop and eliminate the impacts” of any violation, then “impose punishments” on violators whether or not they constitute criminal behavior.
In scope, however, it adds significantly to both the technologies and jurisdictions affected. It requires internet content and service providers — as well as broadcasters and publishers — to strengthen the creation and dissemination of patriotic content and to develop new platforms and products to actively promote patriotism online.
This requirement, which comes amid an ongoing crackdown to “clean up” online content and accounts that do not fully align with Xi’s ideology, is a mandate not just for the state-run media to actively promote Party-led patriotism, but for privately-run internet platforms also to demonstrate their obedience with related content and technology innovations.
Party Patriotism Beyond the PRC
Significantly, it is the first patriotic education bill that specifically targets Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese. Article 22 of the draft requires the state “take measures […] to strengthen identification with the country and China’s excellent traditional culture” on all four fronts, although how they will do so in Taiwan, which they have never controlled, remains unclear.
Wong Kam-leung, chairman of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, said yesterday that the Education Bureau in the special administrative region should guide students to safeguard socialism and the leadership of the Communist Party of China. (The federation’s pro-democracy counterpart, the older and larger Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, was disbanded in 2021 following a coordinated smear campaign by the Education Bureau and Chinese state media.)
Hong Kong’s government met widespread public resistance when it tried to introduce a “moral and national education” curriculum in 2012. The student movement that rose up in opposition to what it called “brainwashing education” catapulted teenage activist Joshua Wong to international attention. That movement is seen as a precursor to the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. Wong is now jailed and the major groups that comprised the Civil Alliance Against National Education — including Scholarism, the Civil Human Rights Front, and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China — have all been dissolved in the national security law crackdown.
When passed, the law will not immediately apply to Hong Kong; however, pro-Beijing legislators have pointed out that Article 18 of the city’s Basic Law empowered the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to directly apply national-level laws by adding them to Annex III of the law. This was the mechanism used in 2020 to push through the national security law which has decimated Hong Kong’s once-vibrant civil society. With Hong Kong’s Legislative Council purged of all opposition lawmakers, it offers a convenient constitutional backdoor to enact direct rule by Beijing.
The law could also have global implications. Even those far beyond China’s real or claimed borders are included in the law, with the same article mandating protection of “the rights and interests” of overseas Chinese and the “providing of services to enhance their patriotism and promote patriotic traditions.” At a time when Chinese communities are increasingly viewed with scrutiny as potential agents of the CCP abroad, such moves to tighten and enforce ideological controls on overseas Chinese may in fact prove detrimental to their “rights and interests.”
Ryan Ho Kilpatrick: The preconception I had going into your book knowing it would explore dehumanization is that it would be about the precursors to mass atrocities because I thought that dehumanization is something only monsters do. But you lay out how this is something we have a very natural capacity for, that we do all the time, and sometimes is even necessary. Can you explain what you mean by dehumanization?
Liya Yu: You were actually right to think of dehumanization as atrocities that only so-called monsters commit because the first wave of dehumanization research was exactly framing it as such. A lot of this was from Holocaust survivors or second-generation Holocaust survivors in the US. But the way I look at dehumanization now, using new research methods coming from neuroscience, is to look at it as a brain capacity. And that means that in order for us to make it through one long day and be successful at it, we need to dehumanize certain people in order to get on with our day. Evolutionarily, it made sense: we needed to very quickly distinguish between who was in our in-group and who was in our out-group. And so dehumanization, I think, is a very helpful and powerful lens through which to look at exclusion in our time.
In our post-Cold War, somewhat liberal world order, it is actually not okay to publicly call yourself a racist, to publicly call yourself a sexist. If you look at people on the far right from Trump to Orban, none of these people would call themselves openly racist. They call themselves nationalists, patriots, etcetera. So in a time when people don’t admit to the egregious exclusions that, of course, are still going on, dehumanization is a very powerful lens through which to still detect it.
Dehumanization is important in a political context because in order to make meaningful and stable ties with people — whether that be in our communities or even diplomatically at the international level — you need to be able to humanize somebody else. I like this brain approach because it’s not moralizing. It’s not saying “You need to be a nice person; you need to just see everybody as your friend.” That’s not what I’m saying with this. My neuropolitical framing of humanization is very much located in brain agility and ability.
RHK: Growing up in this post-Cold War, End-of-History world you alluded to, we were often led to believe that liberal democracy is the natural state of the world, the system all humans gravitate toward. But you make the case that, actually, liberal democracy is exceptionally difficult to achieve and maintain. What makes it such a challenge?
LY: That’s a very good question. So I argue in my book that the liberal brain is one of the biggest cognitive challenges of our time — upholding the liberal brain. Liberal values such as inclusion, tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism are all values that might be easy to affirm. But it’s actually very hard to maintain every day over time because our brains naturally form in-groups very quickly. Sometimes these in-groups are irrational. So in our modern world, we often need to cooperate with a diverse group of people, and often we need to change these allegiances over the course of a very short time span. Now, our brains are really not used to this. Our brains are also not used to dealing with difference as something that is pleasant.
Studies in political neuroscience on conservative versus liberal brains, especially in the US Republican versus Democrat context, showed that people who lean more on the Republican side would be disgusted by certain cultural triggers that are novel to them like unfamiliar smells. Not even very political things at first glance. But there’s a kind of cognitive preference for sameness, for continuity, for not trying new things out. And liberal democracy is all about embracing, to a certain degree, people who you don’t agree with. So I think in this context, we could also say that the liberal brain is not just a challenge for those who live in liberal democracies but also for those who are sort of at the threshold of potentially transitioning into liberal democracies. Because it asks a lot of people. My argument is that politicians and educators and political analysts underestimated the cognitive challenges that come with it. And we maybe need to rethink the language with which we approach people and tell them what is in it for them.
RHK: Civilizational discourse has recently become ubiquitous in China. We recently wrote a piece on “Xivilization,” the portmanteau the Global Times invented for what Beijing is now calling a new model for civilization guided by Xi Jinping’s thought. The implication is that the CCP doesn’t just represent a competing ideology but a competing civilization. What are some of the dangers in this way of thinking, in assigning institutional differences and points of friction in international relations to innate and insurmountable cultural differences between insular, exclusive entities?
LY: I speak in my book about Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and how there is specific research on civilization and dehumanization. When you say you’re more civilized than somebody else, you are kind of saying that you’re farther removed from the apes, so to speak. And so in this whole research field, they linked this to behavioral consequences, which is intergroup violence. They tested this. People were less willing to make peace with each other if they felt that they were dehumanized in this kind of civilizational way. And so I would say the international community needs to really wake up in terms of the language that we use and the concepts that we use, including, Huntington’s polemic about civilizational clashes. If Chinese people hear that and they feel that they’re seen as less civilized, their behavioral response will actually be more defensive and aggressive than if they just felt disliked by an individual Western white person.
I would say this civilized version that you mentioned is, of course, very smart of Xi Jinping because he is creating an in-group identity that’s very sticky in our brains. It’s not just about abstract CCP values. It’s about history. It’s about your place in it. It’s about Chinese people having suffered in that history under colonialism. It’s about Chinese people rising again. And so at the brain level, all of that really plays into people’s need for inclusion in the Chinese context and the shame of having had to try to be Western because, you know, I think we all experience this.
I’m German Chinese. I identify as German, really. My parents immigrated to Germany from China. But of course, I never fit in because I don’t look German. I’m a second-generation immigrant. And so first, you know, you try to be white, you try to fit in, and then you start to resent that self that did that. So basically, I’m just describing at the micro level what happens then at the macro level. And then you just need somebody to come in at that moment when you feel that resentment and say, “Hey, I have this other identity for you.”
I would add to this that the whole civilization discourse is inherently dehumanizing because in order to elevate yourself, and your own civilizational status, you have to dehumanize others. To an extent, that’s the dynamic. But traditional leftist and liberal frameworks of analysis against racism and exclusion would be unable really to lay the finger on this. This is why I came up with my theory. Why is Huntington still so successful and why do a lot of liberal people in DC also support this theory? Because it’s not so obviously racist. It’s not so obviously politically incorrect. But with a dehumanization lens, I think you can say no, it’s actually problematic for this and that reason.
RHK: Why do you think we need a new social contract?
LY: I think a lot of people are actually currently in what US researcher Daniel Yudkin calls the “exhausted majority.” Although our societies seem very polarized on both of these sorts of extreme ends, a lot of people are in this exhausted majority. The social contract is literally trying to pitch to people why they should join this liberal democratic project. That means that if you join, you have to make certain sacrifices. You will lose something, but you will gain something else. And I think why right-wing populism, and also people who are touting Chinese authoritarianism as a more effective way of governance — why they are successful is because liberals have failed for a long time to pitch the social contract successfully to that exhausted majority. People ask, “Well, what’s in it for me? You just basically want me to say I’m a bad person because I’m by virtue of being white, I’m a bad person by virtue of being a man.”
I think that as much as identity politics has been important in driving movements, it actually has been quite toxic in a social contract context in convincing people what’s in it for them. Because a lot of the current culture wars don’t really try to pitch to the other side, to say that maybe you don’t belong to this particular identity we’re fighting for the rights of, but actually you need to support us because it’s in your interest, because the alternative, as Hobbes would say, is complete chaos.
RHK: In Vulnerable Minds, you write about how, instead of discussing what unites and divides us, you want to talk in terms of universals. How do you respond to the charge that there are no universal truths to the human experience and saying there are implies a form of hegemony?
LY: This is where I come in with my identity as an Asian woman. The reason why I wanted to create this kind of theory in the first place is because I felt excluded. My field, especially political philosophy, is very white and very male. I always knew that I wanted to go to the heart of power to change the inequality that I had experienced, because I knew that the radical exclusion that comes with racism and sexism that I had experienced as an Asian woman in the West could only be countered with a radical kind of inclusion.
I’m just as critical of that kind of hegemonic universalism as my friends on the left are. But I came up with a new universalism in which I wanted to be radically included as an Asian woman, up from a kind of biological layer of my existence.
I know that a lot of people have issues with neuroscience methods and the claims that they make, which is why in my book I dedicate a whole chapter to methods. It sounds kind of dry, but I think it’s also kind of exciting because I speak about the historical context, how those methods and social neuroscience developed in the wake of the civil rights movement. I know that I have a lot of critiques of this, my universal approach, but I would just say maybe two things.
I’m not using neuroscience in a deterministic or reductionist way. In fact, I haven’t really met any social neuroscientists who would do so. They all say we need context. But for me it’s empowering to know what what the brain does. My students with minority backgrounds, when I taught in the US, would never question why it’s important to universally understand what happens in the brain of the excluder because when you get arrested by the police as a young black man and you sit in the back of the car, you know how to maybe humanize yourself — some strategies how to humanize yourself, such as, you know, something as innocuous as some stating your vegetable preferences or just, you know, talking about your own life and your stories. So to me, in the end, it’s actually white privilege on the left. There are some on the left who are very hostile to psychology, very hostile to neuroscience, and I ask you what privilege in your life allows you not to need to know what happens in the brain of your excluder.
RHK: Your work mainly attempts to understand the rise of far-right movements in the West, but what has relevant research taught you about the phenomenon of online pro-authoritarian leftists, or “tankies,” in Western liberal democracies?
LY: What always struck me with tankies is that they actually dehumanize Chinese people — often very explicitly so and without being aware of it at all. I mean, they’re not that different from Stalinist back in Russia or Maoists who would say, well, we need to sacrifice so many people for my ideology. They’re just super ideological. And I think what my neuropolitical theory offers is breaking through ideologies. It allows us to think from within our brains, saying neither that our brains are very good or very bad. It’s more looking at the capacities that we have and, given the capacities that we have, what kind of society can we achieve or do we want to achieve? It’s also about, well, here you have to set yourself some goals. And with tankies, of course, it’s very much so that they the goals have already been set by their ideology. And so they need the reality to fit ideology. This is very typical of how our brains work. It’s a need for control.
If we try to humanize tankies for a moment, why do they do it? They feel overwhelmed by a certain social economic order that they live in. They are very frustrated with US imperialism, with the way the US capitalist market works, and they see injustice… I mean, just to be fair to them and also so that we can eventually roll them back into our common project because otherwise the alternative is mutual destruction, right? So I have some faith in tankies that, maybe, when you tell them basically, I humanize you, I understand your thoughts, your motivations behind your frustrations — and that you actually are motivated by a sense of justice. Many of them are, but then when they apply that sense of justice to China, Chinese people don’t count. It’s just about how it fits into their own experiences of misery in the West and I think I would say in this context also — because I talk in my book about teaching pro-Trump students in Virginia in 2016 — what’s really very counterproductive for our brains is shaming and basically dehumanizing you, putting you in a category of just being dumb.
Offer them humanizing stories of Chinese people in China that would challenge their ideologies. I believe that some of them will not respond, but some of them might or some of them might feel, hey, this person is somewhat on my side and at least getting my motivations.
RHK: What role can the media play in helping to humanize each other?
LY: The media has a lot of power over framing people and situations in a humanizing way. A Norwegian study showed that disgust-based framing of Roma refugees in the media led to an increase in support for hostile refugee policies in people. Disgust is usually a neurocognitive trigger for dehumanization, meaning that it can lead to dehumanization of an out-group, such as if they are associated with disgust-based descriptions about their cleanliness, for example. Describing people as animal-like, machine-like, or their bodies having superhuman qualities can also increase dehumanization. This was highly relevant in the context of Black Lives Matter, where young Black men were framed in police descriptions as having superhuman, hulk-like bodily qualities. If you describe someone like this, you automatically assume that their body is different from others’ and can take more pain, leading to pain-denial in punitive and even medical settings. It’s important that journalists are aware of theses dehumanization triggers, especially because some of them might seem innocuous.
RHK: What new insights have your three years living in Taiwan yielded?
LY: I would say something that we should pay attention to, and that the Western world and white people won’t do for us because it’s not really in their interest, is to talk about intra-dehumanization in Asia. Of course there’s also racism but I think it’s more helpful to put it in dehumanization terms because especially in the Taiwan, China, Hong Kong context, where you have people who share the same or similar ethnicities, people are like, well, that’s not racism, so what is it? And of course, you know, in the bigger East Asian context, there’s so much more to say about dehumanization in Japan, Korea, and all of that. But I think just in this kind of triangle [Taiwan-China-Hong Kong], I have witnessed a rise in dehumanization going hand-in-hand with a rise of authoritarianism in China.
I have seen an increase in dehumanization between Taiwanese people and Chinese people. Even commemorating the Tiananmen massacre. There are fewer Taiwanese people coming. A lot of Hong Kong people are keeping it up. There are Taiwanese young people saying, what does this have to do with me? And I get it. I really get it that there’s frustration, but I think our brains have to overcome some of that. It’s called meta dehumanization. Taiwanese people feel dehumanized by China and trying to attack Taiwan and obliterate its existence. And so they’re like, well, guess what? I’m not interested in you either then. But if that leads to a withdrawal of political solidarity, I think it’s not in Taiwan’s political interest. I think it’s not fair that this is put on Taiwanese brains, so to speak, that you have to overcome yourself. But I’m saying that we are at a crucial, very volatile point in in geopolitics in Asia where we can’t really afford not to know what’s going on in Xi Jinping’s brain, not to know what’s going on in Chinese people’s brain — to mentalize them.
Humanizing them doesn’t mean that you love them. It doesn’t mean that you have excessive empathy towards them. It just means you can imagine, what are they thinking? What are they feeling? What are they dreaming about? What is their next move? And currently, I don’t know how many people in Asia are doing that towards China and Chinese people. What’s their next move? And the A4 Revolution (白紙運動) was a great moment of humanization of Chinese people. Very powerful images as well that people could relate to. That was a great like little opening and I think we should do studies to see how that has translated into more humanization.
A gaggle of reporters is herded along rows of grape vines, led by beaming bureaucrats. They stroll past hardworking, ruddy villagers who invite them to their homes to share memories of Xi Jinping’s “inspection” of the area two years earlier and the momentous changes that have transpired since.
When they return home, these reporters will file paeans to the beautiful scenery and industrious people they found in rural Guangxi. National, regional, and industry publications will praise the “Long March spirit” of its workers and the wisdom of local technocrats.
The spectacle of foreign press junkets enjoying all-expenses-paid tours in China — themed around the achievements of government-led development programs, the promotion of up-and-coming tourism destinations, or the denial of mass atrocities —is all too familiar. But this one is different. The reporters are all Chinese, hailing from the China Daily, China Culture Daily, China Travel News, Farmers’ Daily, and other publications.
Given a strong propaganda and censorship culture and the leadership’s constant emphasis on discipline, one might assume that Chinese journalists are already well primed — unlike their international counterparts — to “tell China’s story well,” focusing on the positives of local and national leadership. Notwithstanding, themed propaganda tours offer a further opportunity for authorities to “guide” coverage at media across the country.
The tour around the southwestern Guangxi region was arranged in May by the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA), which describes itself as “a national non-governmental organization” but in fact serves as an important layer for exercising the Chinese Communist Party’s control over news organizations and the country’s more than one million registered journalists.
Unlike your typical industry organization, the ACJA is also an enforcement agency, rewarding compliance with the CCP’s demands and punishing perceived failures. The ACJA’s collection of the articles produced by the tour said that China’s journalists “need to be like the Red Army on the Long March.”
One month earlier, the ACJA and the Information Office of the People’s Government of Zhejiang co-organized a tour of the eastern province tailored for foreign journalists. Reporters from the Irish Times, Voice of Vietnam, and Korea’s Asia Economic News visited the provincial capital Hangzhou, Huzhou, Shaoxing, and Jinhua. The whistle-stop tour followed a familiar template: demonstrations of traditional crafts such as silk weaving, wood carving, and calligraphy, followed by visits to model housing developments, an e-gaming center, and the mammoth Yiwu International Trade City, the world’s biggest small commodities market.
From practitioners of ancient traditions to forward-looking young entrepreneurs, it was a buffet of “good China stories” for the guests, some of whom said they were serial participants of such official press tours. This particular series of tours, started in 2020, invites tourists “to experience China’s economic, social and cultural development at the grassroots level and to present a realistic, three-dimensional and comprehensive China.”
In a way, both tours shared a common overarching theme: the Party as both the great modernizer and the protector of China’s history and environment, the prism through which the light from past glories is refracted into an even brighter future.
For the foreign press, the narrative is national in scale, playing out in one of China’s wealthiest provinces, with its former imperial capital famed for its beautiful scenery and sought-after products. For domestic raconteurs, the story of the Party’s largesse and leadership is best embodied by the rural hinterlands of Guangxi, which has languished economically behind its far more successful twin, Guangdong.
The area of the region explored also has the distinction of being the site of a pivotal event in the Long March, when retreating Communist guerrillas wound their way from the Jiangxi Soviet to the arid Loess Plateau in the 1930s. On the banks of Guangxi’s Xiangjiang River, the Red Army broke through the National Army’s blockade at the cost of 50,000 soldiers out of a total of 86,000. The domestic press tour was replete with calls for media to emulate the “Long March spirit” (长征精神), stressing the importance of “red genes” (红色基因) — a kind 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 CCP regime.
The tale of these two junkets, though they may be packaged differently for two distinct audiences, together provides an illustration of how the party-state shapes coverage in both the domestic and international press through nominally independent industry organizations such as the ACJA. It also shows that there is nothing exceptional about the foreign press junket. It may be deployed somewhat more subtly than its domestic counterpart but is just a different version of the same, well-worn tool as effective on state media “news workers” — as the ACJA calls them — as it is to supposedly savvy foreign correspondents.
Ryan Ho Kilpatrick: How long had you been in Beijing before the events of June 4th, 1989?
Mak Yin-ting: I went to Beijing to cover Sino-British affairs in relation to Hong Kong. I was among the first batch of Hong Kong reporters to be officially allowed in to cover news in mainland China. That was in 1985, when we were allowed to cover the National People’s Congress. In 1989 I was assigned specifically to the protests in April.
RHK: At that point, did you or your editors have any idea it would become such a historic event?
MYT: Of course not. I don’t think people there thought the demonstrations would turn into a massacre or such a large-scale protest. I think at the peak over a million people took to the streets. The first thing that really struck me was in April when protests started from the university area after a People’s Daily editorial on April 26th condemned the movement as a revolution. The students and other people involved were afraid that there would be a lot of trouble if the stance of the central government did not change, so the next day university students organized a march starting in Haidian District and I can only say that it is it was really a mountain people mountain sea (人山人海).
At some points, the police tried to stop them and they clashed before the police finally allowed them to march on. I followed them from the universities to the western part of Beijing and then down Chang’an Boulevard to the Great Hall of the People. It took all day but spirits were high. Their determination was so strong and the support of the people was very enthusiastic. It was very moving. From that time, we got the feeling that if both sides didn’t sit down and talk the result would not be good, but even then I never would have imagined that it would end the way it did. It became very worrying around the end of May when we heard that live ammunition was being dispatched to the front line.
RHK: How did the high spirits at that time affect you as a reporter? Could you feel yourself getting a bit swept up in it as well and was that a challenge to your objectivity as a reporter?
MYT: I wouldn’t say that I didn’t do a good job, but at some points I found that I wasn’t acting professionally in a way. I remember how supportive the people were. When the protesters were marching all day, the people came out to give them water and ice lollies. When they started singing their marching song, it was so moving that I sang along with them for two or three lines before realizing that was unprofessional and stopping. I had been in the industry for five years at that time and I knew I could only watch and report [that] seeing the support of the people was so moving.
RHK: You mentioned how toward the end of May you heard that bullets were being dispatched to security forces and you started fearing for the worst at that point. Did you feel the atmosphere among the protesters themselves also darken at some point?
MYT: I think the protesters’ emotions were going up and down. When you are supported by the people you feel quite encouraged. And when the movement simmered down they tried doing things that would attract the support of the media and the public in Beijing. When you face a huge authority, they have lots of resources to influence you; sometimes you get good news and then you say it seems that you can see the light [at the end] of the tunnel, but then things turn sour and the emotions of the people will also go down. But in all in all, you could see that the support of the public was going up.
I regard May as the turning point when it went from a student movement to a movement that involved all walks of life in Beijing and even outside of Beijing. That’s why, when people describe the 1989 movement, sometimes people will call it the student movement, and sometimes people call it a patriotic movement. When the public actively went to Tiananmen Square to protect the students, the nature of the movement turned from a student movement to a patriotic movement. Afterward, the support from the people was very high.
In May, the local students in Tiananmen Square went back to campus and then students from outside Beijing began to move in to take up their position. So the movement went on and then more and more people came to Beijing from different parts of China.
RHK: Where were you on the night of June 3rd when you first heard that they were firing on the students in and around Tiananmen Square?
MYT: I was in the Beijing Hotel. As a newspaper reporter, I had to write my story and send it back to Hong Kong first. I had been all around in the city and the countryside and my plan was to file the story and then go out again to Tiananmen Square. When I finished at around 10 pm, I went out on the balcony as usual and I could see uniformed officers moving in and searching everyone coming into the hotel. I thought that if I went down again and took photos I might not be able to bring any of the material back in. We had a full view of Tiananmen Square and Chang’an Boulevard, though, so I stayed there to watch what was happening until all the lights went out around 4 am.
RHK: How did your experience in Beijing in 1989 affect your personal outlook or your career plans?
MYT: Covering the protests and the whole movement in Beijing convinced me that I wanted to keep doing this work and that I don’t want reporters in Hong Kong to have to work like our counterparts in mainland China. The limitations imposed on journalists affect people. I remember we were protected by the people, the Beijing people, who just wanted us to report things to the world. They thought that mainland reporters will only follow the instructions of the government — they will not tell the truth to the world. They thought that the journalists there would not report the truth to the world and their voice cannot be heard.
That made me feel even stronger about maintaining the status quo of Hong Kong’s press freedom. That was the reason I started participating in the work of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which was the only trade union in Hong Kong. When I came back from studying abroad, I joined the Executive Committee of the HKJA and served for over 20 years, among which nine years I was the chair of the association. I hope very much that press freedom will remain the status quo. Of course, the situation now is much worse, but I think it is important for us to see what we can do to maintain press freedom in Hong Kong as much as possible.
Covering the protests and the whole movement in Beijing convinced me […] that I don’t want reporters in Hong Kong to have to work like our counterparts in mainland China… I remember we were protected by the Beijing people who just wanted us to report things to the world. They thought that mainland reporters will will only follow the instruction of the government — they will not tell the truth to the world…. their voice cannot be heard. That made me feel more stronger about maintaining the status quo of Hong Kong’s press freedom.
RHK: After 1989, June 4th vigils became an important annual political ritual in Hong Kong. Why do you think June 4th became so important to Hong Kong people and stayed that way for so many years?
MYT: It is important because the persistence of Hong Kong people tells the world that justice should be done. The truth should be told. We cannot tolerate a truth that has been buried. The Chinese government always denies that it was a patriotic movement and say that the Western world or the media is telling lies. Please show us the evidence. Don’t hide all the evidence and just use empty allegations. The People’s Liberation Army actually went to different hospitals on June 4th to search and to get gather information about the injured or the dead. They have the evidence but won’t tell the truth to the world.
RHK: Recently in Hong Kong, we’ve seen the removal and confiscation of the Pillar of Shame and the removal of books about June 4th from public libraries. For over three decades, Hong Kong has been the primary place where this memory is kept alive and passed on but now it looks like that’s not going to be possible any longer. Do you think that the government will succeed in extinguishing this memory in Hong Kong, too?
MYT: I agree with you that the June 4th commemoration will not be as massive as before in the near future, and the government is trying to eliminate the memory of the people by pulling books down. Of course, they will not explicitly say that you cannot talk about it, but the fact is fewer and fewer people will dare to talk about it. The government is trying very hard to eliminate the memory but I don’t think they will succeed in the near future. It is a struggle but we have to be optimistic. The seeds have been planted. The information has been out there online for such a long time. Unless they stop Hong Kong people from accessing information around the world or only let them access the information provided by the government, it will not be successful.
The Tiananmen generation is still in their 50s, 60s, or 70s and the younger generation has picked up the memories. So even if a regime would like to do so, it would take around three generations to successfully eliminate a collective memory. That means unless the government can ensure that from now on, for at least three generations, people can only access information provided by the government, I can not see how the government’s elimination of memory will be a success. We always say the fight against an authoritarian regime is a fight to remember. I hope very much and I believe that the memory will not be killed so easily.
RHK: There used to be space in Hong Kong to be both a democrat and a patriot. Figures like Szeto Wah and Albert Ho were even seen by Beijing as the acceptable face of the pro-democracy movement. But the national security crackdown has seemingly erased any middle ground and anything short of full-throated support for the government is seen as seditious. Is there any space left for the patriotic democrats of the Tiananmen generation?
MYT: I don’t think the movement itself was revolutionary. It’s nonsense that it was trying to topple the government. We still regard it as a patriotic movement. Some pro-establish figures say otherwise but that is what freedom means. Freedom means even though I don’t agree with you, I will safeguard your right to say so.
It’s perhaps an impossible hope that the authorities will think in the same way and wish to maintain the freedom and human rights of Hong Kong people. Some people may self-censor; some will try to protect themselves and use other means to remember; but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Different people will have their own way to keep the memory alive. In that sense, I’m not that pessimistic. I mean, at least in my generation, I do not think the elimination of this memory will be a success. But for the third or fourth generations, it’s very difficult to tell. We have to fight the war of keeping memory.
RHK: This week, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive rebuked a reporter who asked a question related to the 2019 protests, insisting the media call it the “black violence” instead. It was just the latest in an ongoing effort to rewrite the history of these events, which is especially bold considering how many of us witnessed them personally. When you see things like this, are you reminded of Beijing’s efforts to rewrite the events of June 4th, 1989?
MYT: Well, I think the phenomenon you describe was not just specific to 1989. Actually, the whole history of the People’s Republic of China is a history of molding how people think. So that’s why the propaganda department is so important. And when you talk about 1989, of course, it was the case.
Closer to the present day, the Covid-19 pandemic is another example. They will not allow people to relate it to Wuhan. To me, it is very natural for an authoritarian regime to do things like that. The Chief Executive is now trying to change the nature of the 2019 movement and always saying that it is like violence and all that, but I think that for people who experienced these events, they will not change their minds to the government’s line so easily.
Ryan Ho Kilpatrick: The easiest targets for digital vigilantes are typically foreign individuals, countries, and brands. So when they turn their sights on other members of the same national or ethnic communities, how do they turn people who should be “one of us” into Others?
Qian Huang: In theory, there are a set of values and social norms shared in Chinese society to determine whether a fellow Chinese citizen is “a good Chinese.” These norms are normally very general and therefore porous, such as “love your motherland” and “make contributions to the country.” These virtue words are open to interpretation in different cases, by different people and communities. Instead of defining what patriotic behaviors are, it is more common to define what is unpatriotic; and this list has grown longer in recent years.
For example, Celebrities can be denounced as unpatriotic if they don’t post “I love China” on National Day or “never forget national humiliation” on the anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre. Of course, the party-state plays a very important role in shaping these values as well. Unpatriotic behaviors can also be trivial and linked to current affairs. Being a fan of K-pop groups was regarded as unpatriotic during the THAAD controversy and criticizing China’s zero-covid policies was also regarded as a betrayal during the pandemic. This is the most horrifying part of this phenomenon. There are no stable and agreed-upon standards, which means any behaviors and speech can be interpreted as unpatriotic if needed.
RHK: Why are these attacks so often gendered? What is it about nationalism and misogyny that so seamlessly dovetails?
QH: Women are often regarded as the property and vessels of the nation because their reproductive function is needed to “continue the national bloodline/lineage” in our patriarchal society. Therefore, women’s sexual morals have always been heavily policed, especially by “patriotic men.” Nowadays, because of globalization and international mobility, the sexual moral purity of “our women” is seen as at risk since many of them choose to romantically engage with foreign men. Also, our society has always held higher moral standards for women than other social identities such as mother, daughter, and wife. Therefore, women need to fulfill many more standards to be regarded as qualified “patriotic women.” They are not only evaluated against the already fluid and porous norms of a patriotic citizen but also against the moral standards for “a good Chinese woman.”
RHK: In your research, you point to three main nationalist discourses: the “ungrateful traitor,” the “corrupt elite,” and the “ugly slut.” Time and again, we’ve seen how well-educated, ethnically Chinese women who were educated or work abroad are targeted with particular vitriol — do you think this is because they represent the intersection of these three discourses?
QH: Yes, but in a dialectic manner. On one hand, this is exactly how intersectionality creates amplified vulnerabilities for a certain group of people. Because of their various social identities and characteristics, they are hit by the perfect storm of these three discourses and become victims. On the other hand, these discourses emerge when they become the targets because the patriotic vigilantes need all the justifications to shame and exclude them.
RHK: In the case studies you looked at, what was the personal toll for those targeted in such campaigns in terms of their careers, personal relationships, safety, and emotional well-being?
QH: I didn’t get in touch with these targets because I was afraid that I might cause another round of trauma by asking them to discuss their experience, especially when I don’t have the expertise in therapy. Therefore, I don’t have first-hand knowledge about these tolls. However, based on my observation of these cases’ development, all of them will have a very hard time finding a desired job in China; none of them use publicly visible social media accounts anymore; one of them was expelled from her study at a Chinese university; and one of them is still active on Twitter, where she openly shares that she has been under constant fear that someone is following her because of the amount of harassing messages and calls she gets.
RHK: Who among state media, commercial media, and internet users is most responsible for propelling these attacks? Do you see more often see them emerging organically from the bottom up or being orchestrated from the top down?
QH: The vitriol from internet users is the most vicious and uncensored. However, commercial media are most responsible for propelling and amplifying these attacks because of their reach and framing function. State media is mainly responsible for the “ungrateful traitor” discourse, but stays away from the other two.
I think it is a mutual shaping procedure. In the beginning, the attacks come mainly from internet users and commercial media in a bottom-up manner but were later condoned and further propagated from the top down. However, I don’t have any concrete evidence that this is the case, but we all know that if the party-state wants to censor a certain type of public opinion or discourse, it will be done. Therefore, based on the fact that these discourses still exist online, we can say that the top does not oppose them.
RHK: You’ve written that state-run media avoid directly engaging in misogynistic discourse and populist skepticism, but do you think this is changing? While recent pieces like this China Daily video on female Chinese journalists working for international media do not necessarily throw around gendered insults, they seem to be informed by the same discourse nonetheless.
QH: Yes, definitely. The state media still wants to present themselves as rational and professional, and that image will be undermined if they blatantly engage with misogynist and populist vitriol. However, highlighting individual female journalists or scholars and linking feminist movements (and other social movements related to marginalized groups) to intervention by “foreign forces” have become their go-to strategies.
RHK: Misogynistic, nationalistic abuse from digital vigilantes is a worldwide phenomenon, and harassment of women in the media is commonplace globally. But what is it about the situation in China that you believe is unique or notable? When you write about patriotism being a universal good that precedes other values, for instance, is that is something particular to — or particularly strong in — the PRC’s current political climate?
QH: First of all, I think you are right to say that this is a global phenomenon, and I see more similarities than differences in how these discourses form among populist nationalist groups in different countries. However, these discourses and sentiments are more mainstream in China, exactly because of the current political climate where nationalism and anti-west sentiments are not only condoned but also promoted by the state.
RHK: Do you see any way out of this cycle whereby, as you put it, “gendered identity gets shaped through a nationalist discourse which, in turn, (re)produces a nationalist identity”? Due to their intersectional nature, is it imperative that misogyny and nationalism be addressed in tandem?
QH: I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think that it is very hard for us to change the current power structure and dominant ideologies, but I still want to believe that we can bring some changes.
I completely agree with you that it is imperative to address misogyny and nationalism together because nationalism is always patriarchal. To do that, we should promote individual narratives instead of grand narratives; we should complicate the discourses on social media platforms with various types of storytelling, bringing nuances back to public discussions. However, the fundamental solution should still come from the structure level, for which I don’t have a solution and I’m rather pessimistic about it. I hope I can get closer to that answer in my future research.
For anyone with an enduring relationship with China, the stock phrase “5,000 years of Chinese civilization” (中华文明五千年) sits somewhere between familiarity and semantic satiation. And while historians may question that number — which includes the rule of legendary god-kings — as well as the assumption China’s history has been uniquely continuous, there can be little doubt that Chinese today are the inheritors of an ancient and magnificent civilization.
Perhaps that is why, when Xi Jinping proposed the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) in March, the word at its center raised few eyebrows. But the same cannot be said about “Xivilization,” a portmanteau of “civilization” and Xi’s name coined by the nationalist Global Times tabloid for a new series promoting the GCI.
“Xivilization” is yet to catch on outside the pages of the Global Times. But it may be the pithiest way suggested so far to capture the real assertions being made behind the scenes of Xi’s GCI.
In his speech pitching the GCI to the leaders from political parties from around the world, Xi said “the Chinese Communist Party is committed to promoting the progress of human civilization,” and called Chinese-Style Modernization — another Xi neologism — “a new form of human civilization.” Chinese-Style Modernization, a piece in the Party’s flagship theoretical journal gushed, “represents the developmental direction for [all] human civilization.”
Proclamations like these make it clear that Xi Jinping is no longer considered merely an inheritor or even protector of a great civilization, but the creator of one, too.
‘Civilization’ Comes to China
Despite the long history of civilization in China, the history of the word “civilization” itself is surprisingly short. Like the Chinese for “telephone” or “constitution,” the word for “civilization” in Chinese, wenming (文明), acquired its current meaning through the Japanese translations of European texts made during the island nation’s drive to learn from West during the Meiji-era (1868-1912).
Even then, however, “civilization” and the idea it represented were new to most Europeans as well. When it entered the English lexicon from French it met with stiff resistance from Samuel Johnson, who argued, in compiling his dictionary of the English language, that the word “culture” was perfectly sufficient. What Johnson had failed to grasp, however, was something Chinese thinkers had entertained for centuries. “Civilization” did not merely denote “culture” (wenhua 文化) but a particular, higher stage of culture: one that is more technologically and socially advanced and that crushes other, inferior cultures that stand in its way.
Every nation has culture — only a few have civilization.
In a way, this dynamic was hardly new to the territories we today know as China. As far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907), insulting epithets were being lobbed at those who did not conform to Confucian elites’ criteria for “civilization,” such as having a written language and walled settlements and practicing agriculture. Despite conquering Taiwan in 1683, the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) chose not to govern most of the island until the twilight of their reign, since the territories still dominated by indigenous Taiwanese were considered “beyond civilization” (化外).
This, however, points to what differentiated these historical and contemporary conceptions of civilization. As Chinese empires expanded and people in frontier territories acquired cultural characteristics, the process of becoming Chinese was equated with becoming civilized. Although China already had words that conveyed the notion of civilization, they were all, as historian Wang Gungwu notes, Sinocentric — the idea of a universal ideal of civilization was a much later import.
The modern reinvention of wenming changed everything. It posited the idea that one could produce a single set of criteria for “civilization” for all of humankind. And, most unsettlingly, it raised the specter that the Chinese themselves might be “civilized” by militarily— and perhaps even culturally — superior outsiders.
The Four Civilizations
Throughout the Republican Era (1911-1949), debates about civilization spilled across the pages of the young nation’s newspapers. Commentators described a “clash of civilizations” (文明衝突) that characterized the fraught relations between China and Western countries and proposed that there were two opposing forms of civilization: the material and the spiritual.
China boasts a “developed spiritual civilization,” we read in Awakening (覺悟), a supplement to the Kuomintang-founded Republic of China Daily (國民日報), while the West is a “developed material civilization.” This duality reflected the paradigm of “adopting Western knowledge for its practical uses while keeping Chinese values as the core” (中體西用) favored by late-Qing reformers.
This material-versus-spiritual civilizational discourse, so in-vogue in the pre-war decades, made a dramatic comeback in the post-Mao Reform and Opening-up era. But instead of pitting “the East” and “the West” against one another, it put forward the spiritual and material as two parallel tracts running within a single civilization.
In order to achieve “balanced development” (平衡的发展) as his market reforms pushed China further and further from Marxist orthodoxy, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping resurrected the binary framework of the “Two Civilizations” (两个文明): Material Civilization (物质文明) and Spiritual Civilization (精神文明). The former represented the improving living conditions of the people and the latter their allegedly faltering moral character. To reach a positive relationship between the two was to reconcile capitalist development with Communist doctrine.
Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, eagerly embraced the notion of spiritual civilization. But whereas Deng had grounded the term in socialist ideology, Jiang festooned it in the cultural nationalism that was promoted in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown to bolster regime legitimacy. “Spiritual civilization” became a byword for traditional cultural values, an avatar for the emerging struggle between globalization and nationalism in the age of China’s 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization.
At the CCP’s 16th national congress in 2002, however, Jiang broke the neat “two civilization” duality to introduce a third civilization: “Political Civilization” (政治文明). The construction of a “Socialist Spiritual Civilization” (社会精神文明) was also declared a precondition for achieving the overarching goal of a “well-off society” (小康社会). The equation was knocked off-balance but it raised hopes for deepening political reform, since the idea that political systems had to be “civilized” suggested room for reflection and improvement for the Party itself.
Soon “civilization” was everywhere, at no time more ubiquitous nationwide than in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Up and down the country, propaganda posters lined the streets extolling “civilized cities,” “civilized districts,” “civilized work units,” and “civilized households.”
The mania for national self-civilization exemplified how “civilization” was understood to be both a human grouping as well as a historical process, and also how the Communist Party sought to rebrand itself from a revolutionary vanguard to an elite circle. The CCP, wrote Nicholas Dynon, was “recreated as a party which finds its legitimacy not on the basis of class credentials but on the basis of civilizational superiority.”
Talk of building a “Socialist Spiritual Civilization” thinned out under Hu Jintao, but the “civilizing” mission lived on — both in a domestic imperative to raise population “quality,” aimed primarily at ethnic minorities and rural migrants, and a growing sense that Chinese entrepreneurs, officials, and workers abroad were taking up the torch of the global modernizing mission once championed by Euro-American powers. Pál Nyíri observed how Beijing’s narratives “combine trade, investment, labor export, migration, and development aid with distinctly civilizational overtones.” And while the desire to “civilize” its subjects characterizes the modern nation-state in general, Nyíri notes that, unlike the Western colonial case, China’s internal and external “civilizing” missions are being run in tandem.
Considering Hu’s concept of the “harmonious society” (和谐社会), his addition of a fourth, “Social Civilization” (社会文明) is unsurprising. Like the harmonious society, “Social Civilization” was an attempt to paper over the widening divisions in Chinese society, between the winners and losers of the country’s breakneck industrialization and urbanization. While Hu’s concept lacked the rhetorical strength or staying power of earlier “civilizations,” it showed how deeply entrenched and yet endlessly malleable the idea of “civilization” had become in the political life of the CCP.
Every leader was now expected to create their own “civilization” — and they could attach it to virtually anything they wanted.
Age of Xivilization
When Xi Jinping’s transition to power began in 2012, China was still riding a wave of awestruck international perceptions built around the notion that the emerging superpower was something greater than a nation — it was a civilization.
Throughout the 2000s, Chinese translations of Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order filled bookstore shelves and street side carts flogging bootleg printouts. The American scholar’s theory that the wars of the future would pit loosely-defined “civilizations” rather than nations against one another found an eager readership in the People’s Republic, and neatly dovetailed with the idea of China as a “civilization-state” popularized in Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World (2009) and the work of Fudan University political scientist Zhang Weiwei (张维为).
A little over a decade later, this zeitgeist has not aged well. The notion of the People’s Republic as a singularly harmonious and tolerant “civilization-state” seems farcical in Xi Jinping’s China: one that is increasingly nationalistic, outwardly aggressive, and inwardly repressive.
Zhang’s big idea, meanwhile, was evinced by China’s benevolent treatment of its “ethnic minorities” — questionable even before Xi’s campaign of mass incarceration for Uyghurs and other non-Han peoples in the far-west — and frictionless relations with its neighbors, which now spew sparks regularly as Beijing presses its claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
But where Xi has torn down previous leaders’ civilizational pillars, he is now building anew. While he has yet to formally add a fifth civilization to the pantheon built by his predecessors, his “New Form of Human Civilization” (人类文明新形态) effectively constitutes just that.
Red Flag (红旗文稿), a bi-monthly magazine published by the CCP’s flagship journal Qiushi, ties Xi’s thought to previous “civilizations” (although retconning the contributions of lesser leaders Jiang and Hu), proclaiming that it “harmonizes Material and Spiritual Civilization.” Whereas previous incarnations communicated who deserved to wield power at home, however, Xi is more concerned with who wields power on the international stage.
The rhetorical flourishes of CCP-speak can form a fast and dazzling tapestry, and yet they all share a common thread. Whether it’s Deng’s Spiritual Civilization, Jiang’s Political Civilization, or Xi’s New Form of Human Civilization, the base logic behind these fanciful terms is the raw assertion of power and legitimacy.
China has made its rejection of universal values well-known. The well of resentment toward any criticism levied at Beijing, particularly for its human rights record, runs deep; and unlike its supposed rival, the US-led Summit for Democracy, the GCI is envisioned as a club in which members are expected to mind their own business.
“People need to keep an open mind in appreciating how different civilizations perceive values, and refrain from imposing their own values or models on others,” the State Council Information Office (SCIO) wrote in a piece celebrating the GCI. This alternative vision of value systems can be looked at in opposition to the universal values espoused by the CCP’s critics — a form of “civilizational values” that is informed by national conditions and not subject to criticism by anyone.
Xi Jinping’s “New Form of Human Civilization” is therefore one in which individuals’ rights are immaterial but nation-states’ rights are inviolable; wherein states’ treatment of their people is not open to scrutiny from within or without.
This latest contribution to China’s civilizatory discourse continues a pattern of discussion and reformulation that, as we have seen, goes back well over a century. But it is also, paradoxically, deaf to this process. Instead of building upon the established discourse, Xi — not unlike his predecessors — merely attaches its gravitas to a self-serving policy, giving grand, civilizational airs to what amounts a worldwide carte blanche for his administration.
All this brings us back to Samuel Johnson and his failure to grasp the difference between good, old-fashioned “culture” and this newfangled “civilization.” Why was the Global Civilization Initiative not called the Global Culture Initiative instead, and why did the SCIO not simply write about appreciating different cultural values?
Culture is understood as an expression of a community, bubbling from the bottom up. It is, by its nature, as changeable as any individual or community. Civilizations are superior to cultures, according to the logic that created this discourse, because they are capable of regimenting vast societies through the exercise of power. Cultural values are open to debate by all members of that culture, but civilizational values are whatever the civilizers — or, indeed, “Xivilizers” — tell us they are.
On a cold January evening in 1931, He Yeduo (贺页朵) pledged his life to the Chinese Communist Party. The 45-year-old Jiangxi peasant was barely literate, but at the oath-swearing ceremony on a Red Army base in the Jinggang Mountains, the “cradle of the Chinese revolution,” he took out a piece of red cloth and began writing.
A quarter of the Chinese characters he wrote, professing his faith to the then-embattled and apparently doomed guerrilla forces in his native province, were misspelled. But at the top of the cloth, now regarded as a divine relic of the revolution, are three perfectly formed letters, the name of the organization he would die for: “C.C.P.”
Nine decades later, these three letters have become an unacceptable slur to many supporters of He’s beloved Chinese Communist Party.
“CCP”s fall from the sacred to the profane can be cataloged by an emerging discourse in pro-CCP online circles demanding foreign scholars, journalists, politicians, and everyday internet users defer to the more recent translation currently favored by the Party: the “Communist Party of China,” or “CPC.”
Nationalist tabloid the Global Timessuggested in December 2022 that the word “Chinese” is a racist dog whistle. A 2021 article in Australia’s Canberra Timesargued that the acronym CCP makes the “racist” and “ludicrous” suggestion that “all [Chinese] share the same political beliefs” — a suggestion that the Party itself, which routinely claims to enjoy the “wholehearted support of all Chinese people,” may not find so offensive, if it were being made at all. Across social media platforms, the CCP’s supporters have also taken to branding those who write “CCP” as anti-China, and thereby fair game for mockery or disregard.
Interestingly, however, Chinese-language accounts from state media and even the Party itself do not share the same venom over this — for some, anyway — emotionally charged debate. A post from the Communist Party’s official CPC News (www.cpcnews.cn) website describes the distinction between the two acronyms as such:
Both CPC and CCP refer to the Communist Party of China — it’s merely that the officially recognized wording domestically is CPC… Some foreign media continue to use CCP […] but that doesn’t mean that every article using CCP is negative and every article using CPC is positive; whether it is negative or positive depends upon the specifics of its content.
The terminally-online acrimony over acronyms may be recent but the distinction itself, as the article explains, is not. According to official accounts, the Party made the move from CCP to CPC 80 years ago.
A Historic Reshuffle
“Overthrow the power of the capitalist class,” “eradicate capitalism,” and “join the Comintern”: these were part of the First Program passed by the Chinese Communist Party on the day it was founded in the French Concession of Shanghai on July 21, 1921.
The third item should hardly come as a surprise. Two agents of the Communist International, also known as the Third International, were present at the clandestine meeting and had been instrumental in organizing it. In the CCP’s early years, the Comintern’s Far Eastern Bureau had a profound — and welcome — influence on the Party. At the time, Communists the world over saw themselves as members of a single, global political movement with its central nervous system in Moscow.
Soviet guidance ensured that Leninism beat out more popular schools of leftist thinking such as anarchism. It also pushed the Communists into a tenuous United Front with the Kuomintang. But as time went on, patience with these European advisors wore thin, and a “native Communist” faction stressing the Sinification of Marxism and peasant revolution rose to prominence under Mao Zedong.
The Long March from the Jinggang Mountains to the dugouts of Yan’an was a key moment in this power struggle, with Mao’s guerrilla warfare strategy emerging triumphant from the Zunyi Conference. The influence of the Comintern agents and their Soviet-trained allies was still alive, but just barely. The death blow came in 1943, at the same moment as we are told the change from CCP to CPC occurred.
Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union meant that Moscow joined the side of the Allies in 1941, and it would not do for the Comintern to be actively fomenting revolution in the countries the USSR now fought beside. Many Communists had already been driven away by the pressures to enable Naziism at the expense of their countries in the years of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and on May 15, 1943, the sword dropped: The Third International officially dissolved. The workers of the world had to find their own way.
The demise of the Third International made Mao’s triumph all but a fait accompli: Wang Ming (王明), his Moscow-trained main rival, was cut off from his base of support; China was forced to forge ahead with its own revolution on its own terms; and a cult of personality coalesced around the newly christened “Chairman” Mao. It was a political earthquake for China, but the tremors were felt all around the world.
In the ensuing scramble out of Moscow’s shadow, communist parties the world over created new identities for themselves. The Chinese Communist Party was one of them, rechristening itself, so the official histories say, the Communist Party of China. CPC News again:
From the perspective of linguistic analysis […] “of China” is more focused on the Party’s property of “belonging to China,” emphasizing this subordinate relationship. “Chinese” means “related to China,” focusing more on the properties of it being a Communist Party, which weakens its subordinate relationship to China.
Apparatchiks’ desire to nominally distance themselves from the Comintern and foreground their national identity is understandable. Many other communist parties were doing the same. But their unique “linguistic analysis” presents a more impenetrable logic.
Indeed, every other major communist party rebranding themselves for this same reason in 1943 moved in the other direction, taking their home country from the backs of their names to the most important position according to their own “linguistic analysis”: the front.
Thus in 1943 the Communist Party of Italy became the Italian Communist Party and the French Section of the Communist International became the French Communist Party. When West Germany’s Communists regrouped in the 1960s they also changed their party’s name from the Communist Party of Germany to the German Communist Party. In all these cases, too, the new English names were incidental to the new names in their native tongues. The CCP, uniquely, only changed the official English translation of its name. In Chinese, it is the same today as it was in 1921: 中国共产党 (literally, “China Communist Party”).
Some scholars question this official account that the switch from CCP to CPC occurred as early as 1943, noting the persistence of “CCP” in official language for decades thereafter.
“[CCP] is what I first encountered when I read Peking Review in the 1960s, and later when I read English translations of the Chinese Party’s attacks on the Soviets in the 1950s,” says Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé. “Then there were the Nine Critiques of the 1960s, translated at the time into English as well. That’s just to mention just a few. So the line about 1943 is nice enough, but from my experience not accurate.”
And even if the official translation did change in 1943, it is clear that the change was not strictly enforced, nor imbued with any special ideological significance, for many years. Perusing the publications collected by the Marxists Internet Archives, including both officially sanctioned periodicals from Beijing as well as independent leftist organizations from around the world, presents a disorienting picture.
Some use “CCP” and “CPC” interchangeably in the same breath. Some write of the “Communist Party of China (CCP)” while others refer to the “Chinese Communist Party (CPC),” mixing the acronyms and full names with wild abandon. For decades, the two have been used by Beijing’s supporters and critics alike with no evident prejudice. Indeed as recently as 2016, the official translation of Xi Jinping’s speech marking the 95th anniversary of the Party’s founding, supplied by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, refers to the “Chinese Communist Party” precisely 100 times.
Considering the enduring confusion, it comes as no surprise that the messages put forward by different organs of the party-state are not only inconsistent but even contradictory. The Party itself says “CPC” is superior because it emphasizes the Party’s Chineseness, while the Global Times argues “CCP” is racist because it emphasizes the Party’s Chineseness.
Attaching minor points of language with immense importance comes naturally to the world of Chinese statecraft. State media strictly forbid use of the phrase “mainland China” in favor of “the Chinese mainland,” for example, because they believe the former is a “Western language trap” laid by cunning foreigners to lure unsuspecting Chinese into implying that there is a non-mainland China as well, and by extension more than One China. Native English speakers would likely be shocked to learn that by using the phrase “mainland China” they are, according to Beijing, making a bold statement about the legitimacy of the Republic of China government. (Never mind that the phrase is considered anachronistically pro-unification on the other side of the Taiwan Strait and now is typically replaced with, simply, “China.”)
This paranoia and obsession with establishing the correct “subordinate” relationships through language has been a hallmark of Chinese mandarins since dynastic times. It can be traced back to the Confucian concept of the “rectification of names” (正名), which posits that without names that correctly correspond to reality, social order will disintegrate. Supercharged by Marxist-Leninist dogmatism and all communist parties’ obsession with maintaining a “politically correct” party line, however, it is not entirely ancient — and nor is it uniquely a product of Chinese political culture. Proponents of the CCP from far and wide have likewise latched onto the CCP vs CPC dichotomy is a litmus test for whom they can trust.
Much Ink Spilled
Geremie Barmé compares this high-octane, low-stakes argument to the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin: a debate with no practical value or intellectual consequence, serving only to distract from more urgent concerns. But another way we can conceive of this (non-)issue is as a sort of Rorschach test for observers of China.
Like the test’s inkblots, the decision to write “CCP” or “CPC” has, by the Party’s own admission, no intrinsic meaning — but how one imposes one’s own meanings upon the two can yield insights into one’s ideological biases. Those who see the common-usage “CCP” as an anti-China dog whistle betray their determination to perform obeisance to Beijing and attack its critics’ characters by any means; those who see “CPC” as the badge of a fanatic Communist acolyte similarly betray their own McCarthyite mission to ferret out the apocryphal “reds under the bed.”
Instead of focusing on who uses which acronym, the rest of us would do better to look at who professes to care that much.