Author: Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

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.

The Risky Business of Hong Kong Journalism

Once a regional beacon of press freedom, Hong Kong’s media landscape has become barely recognizable under the harsh limitations imposed by the national security law (NSL) in 2020. And while journalists in the city have struggled to adjust to this new normal, there is a fresh chill on the horizon as the government looks to implement Article 23 of the territory’s Basic Law later this year with a more wide-ranging law on national security.

To learn more about the rapidly changing situation for the press in Hong Kong, CMP Managing Editor Ryan Ho Kilpatrick recently caught up with Professor Francis Lee at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communications

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick: You said recently that media in Hong Kong have reached a “new balance” in how they operate under Hong Kong’s national security regime. But now it feels like that newfound balance is already being thrown off yet again by all the uncertainties around Article 23. Do you think that’s the case?

Francis Lee: That’s the difficulty of speaking about these things. When journalists ask me these questions, I say that this is only what applies at 11:52 A.M. on February 15th. Don’t quote me on this one month later. Any equilibrium is bound to be short-lived.

If you’re living in Hong Kong day in and day out, I think this is part of the social psychology of adaptive resilience. Something happens and then you feel bad for two weeks and you don’t know what to do and then after two or three months you kind of adapt to the environment. After a few months, it seems like you can do certain things. It seems like you are not getting yourself in trouble. You look at your peers and they are also doing OK.

CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication. Photo: Ryan Ho Kilpatrick.

At that moment, you feel like maybe there is an equilibrium. Right now in Hong Kong, we all know deep down that any so-called equilibrium can be thrown off-balance tomorrow. No matter how you feel, that sense of being in equilibrium is something that you develop after the fact, after six or nine peaceful months.

Right now, of course, it’s very different, because you don’t know what the law will be. It depends on how you look at it. Like a lot of things these days in Hong Kong, it’s about expectation management. I think that’s how a lot of organizations in Hong Kong have been doing things since 2020. It depends on how experienced and how well-established these news or civil society organizations are. The more systematic, more well-organized and more well-established organizations immediately do an internal risk assessment to study the stipulations as soon as they come out and then compare it with their own work to assess where the risks are, whether certain adjustments are needed, and so on.

RHK: So this is a process media organizations will likely be going through right now with Article 23?

FL: For me, the most dangerous law for the news media is not necessarily Article 23. Like before, in the past two years, we had the NSL and then we have the common law offense of sedition. I think the general idea among a lot of journalists and a lot of media organizations is that they have been worried much more about sedition than the NSL.

“For me, the most dangerous law for the news media is not necessarily Article 23.”

It’s not easy for journalists to run afoul of the NSL as long as you stay away from Hong Kong independence and foreign funding, and follow a few other simple rules. That requires a bit of self-censorship, but at least there are ways for you to stay away from that. But sedition is different because anything that arouses hatred against the government can potentially be seditious. And basically, that means that whenever the news media tries to perform its watchdog role, it’s potentially in the gray area already. Of course, the sentence for sedition is at most two years in prison, which is nothing compared to NSL. But at the same time, it’s much easier for the news media to run afoul of.

When [these laws] are established, Hong Kong media just have to do the risk assessment again. There might be additional lines of self-censorship that they have to implement, but I believe they will find some way to survive. I think the legislation more journalists will be worrying about — or have been worrying about — deals with “fake news laws,” which the government has said they are studying but which we still know very little about. [State secrets] might require you to, again, to self-censor on a number of topics, but you can still avoid it. But disinformation, depending on how it’s defined, could be much harder to avoid.

RHK: You just spoke about how there’s this constant process of risk assessment and management and you yourself have been trying to advise people on how to manage that process. Probably the best example we have of how not to do that so far is the Foreign Correspondents Club, which scrapped the Human Rights Press Awards after, they say, lawyers advised it would be risky, and they decided they had a responsibility to avoid risk. But isn’t some degree of risk unavoidable for journalists in Hong Kong now?

FL: I tell people that my legal advice is not to seek legal advice. When you ask for legal advice, a responsible lawyer will tell you that the safest way is not to do anything. In a sense, they’re doing their jobs and I respect that. The problem is that the answer [to whether it’s perfectly safe to do something] is always going to be “no.”

The tricky thing about risk assessment and risk management [from] my own research in the past two or three years on news media and also civil society organizations is, first of all, that risk assessment in contemporary Hong Kong can be very idiosyncratic. You assess the risk in your own way. Different organizations assess the risk in their own ways. It depends on the organization’s background and the backgrounds of the people inside the organization. What a certain organization or a certain individual can do in terms of risk management may not be feasible for another organization or for another person.

“You need people to step inside the gray areas so as to show other people that this is actually possible.”

The problem now is there is a gray area and that gray area is huge. It’s really huge. So can you really stay away from it? What it means to stay away from the gray area now is to listen to your legal advisor and do nothing. What would it mean if we, as the School of Journalism and Communication, were to completely stay away from the gray area? You cannot have everyone completely staying away. You need people to step inside the gray areas so as to show other people that this is actually possible. At this moment, it’s still OK. It gives a sense of security to other people. You have to try to… not to push the boundary, but at least reclaim that small part of the gray area.

Now, of course, the gray area also varies by gradation. Light gray is different from dark gray. You can still make that distinction. I can totally understand why people would stay away from the dark gray area. I’m not going to step inside the dark gray area for too long. But you cannot stay completely away from even the light gray area. Ultimately, of course, it’s also individual. It depends on individuals’ personalities and how exposed they are to economic pressures and threats to their assets or family in Hong Kong.

The Foreign Correspondents Club, Hong Kong. Photo: FCC.

When a lot of people talk about risk, it’s not actually legal risk. The clearest example is school teachers. For primary and secondary school teachers, their imminent risk is to be reported by students or parents to the Education Bureau, which will then take away their job and their license to teach. That is the real risk — not that they’ll be grabbed by the national security police. For civil society organizations engaging with issues like social service provisions or homelessness, they have to collaborate with a lot of other parties. The real risk for them is that if they become too outspoken, they might be criticized by the government or the leftist press, and then others will stay away from them and they can no longer do their work.

Something I’ve come to realize more and more is that the risk that people are facing is, mostly, not legal. For most people, it’s basically about their jobs. That’s why people have to stay away from expressing anything on Facebook. Your boss is watching. Your colleagues are watching. We have so many cases of people losing their jobs because of what they wrote. That is the real risk.

RHK: All this talk about how professionals in Hong Kong need to think about political risk and work around it reminds me of another interview we did recently with Emily Chua at the National University of Singapore. In The Currency of Truth, she makes this distinction between the ethics of truthfulness — the traditional journalistic ideal that’s all about uncompromising truth-telling — and what she calls the “ethics of efficacy,” an alternative ethics she observed among journalists in mainland China that accepts a certain level of compromise and self-censorship in order to continue doing their work and also write meaningful stories. Are we seeing something similar emerge among media workers in Hong Kong?

FL: That’s a good way of conceptualizing it. In the mainland Chinese system or in some organizations, if you are a trusted worker in the organization, you can have much better ways of dealing with [the censorship apparatus]. Many years ago, I had a friend in a state media organization. He was a commentary writer for state for that state media organization. I still remember I was asking him, “You’re very liberal — why would they ask you to be a commentator?” And he said that they needed someone who is relatively liberal to balance out their really conservative commentators. He told me his way of working as a commentary writer in state media was that he would try to push the boundaries. Of course, he had a sense of what was absolutely impossible and he wouldn’t touch that. But then on any topic, he would try to push that topic to maybe nine [out of ten], and then, typically, it was struck down. So he would dial it down to an eight and then maybe strike it down to seven. That was how things worked during the Hu-Wen era (2002-2012), at least. 

The ‘Alternate Ethics’ of Chinese Journalism

In the Russian context, we also talk about ethical self-censorship, which refers to when you self-censor in order to protect your sources or prevent your colleagues or your organization from getting into trouble. I think this is actually quite typical in authoritarian settings because you are not working in an environment where freedom of information is well protected.

In the early years of the NSL, a lot of people were still willing to talk to the media. There were still a lot of outspoken people in Hong Kong who were willing to criticize the government on certain things. And sometimes journalists would actually have to tone down their criticisms [to protect them]. They’d have to say, if I write directly what you said, you will get into trouble, so I’ll tone it down. I think that’s also the kind of scenario that gives you the sense of being in equilibrium.

Photo: Xinhua.

I did a very lengthy interview with a news organization on a sensitive topic and they let me read the whole article before [it was published] even though I didn’t request that. I never request that because if I have any concerns about an interview I say no, and I’m careful to say what is on the record and what is not. I read the whole thing and I suggested deleting two sentences — not because of my own words but because I had mentioned another news organization, so I told the reporter, “Maybe we should just kill those two sentences — we don’t want to put that organization out on the table, right?” And she agreed. You could say that’s ethical self-censorship. I told a colleague who’s a veteran journalist about this and they were shocked. In a normal situation, this whole interaction would’ve been so strange. But what do you expect? This is the nature of the time.

RHK: I’ve done the same for sources in Hong Kong over the past few years, actually. In journalism school we were taught to never do this — to let your interviewees screen what you would and wouldn’t publish — but I also think we owe a duty of care to the people we interview, and that has to come first if the work we do might put them in danger. 

FL: Frankly speaking, we need to rethink the whole ethics thing. Back in school, when we talk about how journalists should not allow interviewees to dictate what they write, we normally talk about interviewees who are more powerful than us. You’re dealing with power. But what if you are dealing with vulnerable people?

“If [sources] are still inside an authoritarian country, we have to see them as a vulnerable group.”

Consider another example. Let’s say you’re dealing with a MeToo case and the victim wants to be interviewed. Then they say they want to retract something. What do you say? Yes, I think — you have to say yes in that case. Basically, I think we are now applying the rule for dealing with vulnerable people to interviewees speaking on sensitive topics. If they are still inside an authoritarian country, we have to see them as a vulnerable group.

[Hong Kong] society is undergoing an extremely challenging and difficult period for people who uphold certain values of liberty and democracy. It’s not in the early years of the [1997] handover when you could heavily criticize the government. These days, it can be very risky. So you have to adapt. You have to try to feel where the red lines may be. But you still have to try to do something. Even though the situation is very difficult, people are trying to cling to their values, to cling to their beliefs, to hold them dear, and try to do something.

The ‘Alternate Ethics’ of Chinese Journalism

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick: Here at CMP we try to highlight the exceptional work of Chinese journalists and push back against the perception that there isn’t meaningful reporting being done in China. In your book, you warn that too much emphasis on journalistic excellence can lead to the motif of “pockets of exceptional journalists” that stand above the rest. Why is this problematic and how do you push back against it?

Emily Chua: What you focus on really depends on the kind of question you’re asking. If you’re interested in a specific kind of journalistic practice, like investigative or environmental journalism, then it makes sense to go look at the people who do that. But as an anthropologist trying to take up the question of news in China and the practice of journalism in China, I didn’t want to go in with a preconceived definition of what news is. I mean, it’s a discipline-specific thing. 

In the heyday of investigative journalism in China in the early 2000s, journalists like Zhao Shilong (赵世龙), pictured above during a fellowship with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong in 2004, stood out for their daring work, much of it at commercial newspapers.

Anthropologists try to understand what things are like in the field we’re investigating, which we assume will be different from anywhere else. I think that’s a difference between a media studies or political science approach to journalism and an anthropological one. With political science, it may be important to go in with a definition of journalism, but with anthropology we think that news is shaped by context, and can be different things in different places — it’s completely shaped by the context.

I wanted to go in with an openness to exploring what news meant in China. If I only looked at people who are doing a very specific kind of journalism, then I’d be missing most of the picture. I wanted to do an ethnography of the non-heroic journalists, the mainstream ones that don’t get highlighted and, as a consequence, are often assumed to just be cogs in the machine.

RHK: You observe that even these “non-heroic” newsmakers, the so-called cogs in the system, also exercise agency in their daily work. What are some of the ways they do this?

EC: Agency is a complex subject that gets theorized in a lot of ways. In the context of Chinese journalism, I was trying to push back against the way that agency tends to get conflated or even confused with something much more specific — basically, politically independent public speech. That’s a form of agency that’s closely associated with journalistic practices in the West. 

In many Western contexts, that’s the whole purpose of journalism. But if your objective is to understand how news can be made and thought of and lived with differently in other places, then it’s important to broaden our sense of agency.

Everyone who’s done any study of Chinese journalists has said that journalism in China is complex. Everyone talks about how complex it is — and it’s true. That’s something I wanted to convey. 

Even being a very ordinary, un-famous unheroic journalist actually takes a lot of work because of this complexity. All of them are managing these very dense and intricate and shifting political and commercial considerations and networks and relationships. I think their agency is really shown in the decisions they make about how to navigate and manage those demands, how to live with and make the most of and nudge those relationships in different directions.

Everyone talks about how complex [Chinese journalism] is — and it’s true. That’s something I wanted to convey. 

Even the decision to comply with a censorship order at any given moment isn’t necessarily a lack of agency. It can be an agentive decision that’s based on calculations about what the costs and benefits are, what one’s long-term objectives are, and whether it makes sense to compromise in the short term in order to keep working towards a long-term goal that one believes in. Agency is everywhere once we broaden our conception of it.

RHK: Perhaps this can take us to what you call the ethic of efficacy. What do you mean by this and how does it differ from the ethic of truthfulness?

EC: The ethic of truthfulness is the way I label the established ideas of what journalistic ethics should consist of and what the role and purpose of journalism are: truthful representations of reality that inform and empower the public. The ethic of efficacy is the term that I use to try to conceptualize the alternate way in which the journalists I worked with went about their practice. Instead of thinking that because they weren’t subscribing to an ethic of truthfulness they therefore had no ethics, the goal was to try to conceptualize this alternate ethic that they had.

At one level, the ethic of efficacy is the ethic that governs the use of news as currency. But if we put that aside for a minute, it is an ethic that I think emerges in an era where the classical business models of the news industry no longer apply. The ethic of truthfulness — and the idea that journalists can and should simply focus on delivering truth — was historically enabled by a certain business model in which newspapers had a monopoly on an audience’s attention.

Agency is everywhere once we broaden our conception of it.

They use that attention to generate advertising revenue, and that steady stream of income enabled them to pay for journalists to do what they believed they should. Marketing and editorial work were completely separate. The revenue keeps coming in. The journalists keep doing their work.

That business model is in crisis all over the world, not just in China. The ethic of efficacy is something that I personally think of as a globally emergent contemporary phenomenon.

I’m not an expert in journalism anywhere else, but I don’t think it’s entirely exclusive to China. It’s an ethic that governs journalistic work in an age where the old revenue streams just aren’t there anymore. Journalists now have to think about survival, about the survival of their newspaper, about their own survival in the industry. And when they have to think about survival, then they can’t be focused entirely on truth, on delivering important truths. So journalists now have a multiplicity of objectives that they have to achieve with their articles. 

Efficacy is the term that struck me as useful to convey the goal of the journalists I worked with who wanted to be effective in using their news articles to survive, to contribute to the survival of their news-making practice, which meant both their own careers and their newspapers as a business.

But at the same time, they also drew limits. They didn’t want to go to the point of treating news only as a means to make money. They had colleagues whom they felt were mercenary that way, or whom they considered to be going beyond an ethically acceptable limit in the way they used their news articles to achieve instrumental ends. So it’s trying to maintain this ethical balance of being practical but not being grossly instrumental and vulgar and selling your practice out completely.

RHK: Let’s walk back a bit to the concept of the currency of truth. What do you mean by that and how do you see it as a product of the digital news era?

EC: In the classical news model, when we assume you have an audience and a monopoly on their attention, you can call that “the public,” and you can think of “the public” as a stable thing that’s just out there receiving the messages you send to it.

But in a digital era, where there’s a lot of content competing for attention, publics aren’t just sitting around waiting for you to give them some information. It comes down to the kinds of business models that newspapers need to come up with under conditions like this, where you don’t have an audience that’s just waiting to pay for and read your content. The argument is that news articles in a moment like this don’t necessarily reach a public.

They have the potential to garner public attention. I call this their publicness. This possibility that this might become an object of public attention gives a news article a certain kind of value. Businesses with products and shares to sell and government and party officials all have an interest in this publicness. So the potential of a news article to garner attention makes it a kind of currency for people in political and commercial networks.

The goal of that analogy was to explore how newsmakers work in a context where news has this quality, and where news articles circulate in this way. Being a newsmaker in such a context involves transactional relationships and a certain kind of strategizing, but it also gives rise to different kinds of ideals and ethics.

RHK: I want to unpack another interesting turn of phrase that you use, which is turning the Communist Party from a main character in the media landscape to background noise. What do you mean by that?

EC: I was trying to push back on what seems like the dominant tenor of a lot of discussions of news in China, where the automatic assumption is that if you’re talking about news in China, the main character is the Party. But it depends on what question you’re asking. If you’re a political analyst who’s interested in the Party, then it makes sense for you to make the Party your main character. But that’s really just one of the facets of the practice and culture and life of news and journalism in any place, and in China in particular.

During a visit to CCTV and other media in February 2016, Xi Jinping emphasized the “Party nature” (党性) of Party-run news media. But is the CCP always the main character?

Ethnography has the capacity to bring out ground-level perspectives, and everyday life and reality on the ground is so much richer and more complex and in a way more chaotic and less mechanical than you’re able to appreciate when you start out with this main character, the Party that does what it wants and gets what it wants. The process of getting there is actually much more fraught and complex and contingent and in a way fragile than we necessarily see.

RHK: Another interesting way you characterize the media landscape in China is as a jianghu world reminiscent of wuxia novels. And is that because of the chaos and the confusion that you saw there, and was that different from what you expected to find?

EC: A comparative literature scholar, Petrus Liu, has written extensively about Jin Yong’s novels and their handling of the notion of jianghu. Liu calls Jin Yong’s characters “stateless subjects.” Reading him, I came to think of jianghu as a term that captures the relational quality of social existence. It’s an imaginary that focuses on the weight of relationships as opposed to the weight of the individual will. 

Building on that, I try to use jianghu as a counter concept to Charles Taylor’s idea of the modern social imaginary that underlines all our modern institutions. This is the image of a world made of free, autonomous, equal individuals who voluntarily come together to form societies. When that’s your imaginary, it makes sense to think of the newspaper as something that people voluntarily come together to do, to benefit individuals, collectives, and societies.

But if you start out with the jianghu as your social imaginary, then you don’t imagine autonomous individuals voluntarily getting together to form a society. Instead, you start out with the idea of these binding relationships and everybody being born into and having to live within these networks of binding relationships, which are shifting and contingent, but also asymmetrical. 

The book’s experiment was to approach journalism from the perspective of this very different imaginary. I found myself observing the weight of these relationships at the newspaper and the way an individual newsmaker, in their day-to-day actions, was not forced to do one thing or another but always had to consider the implications of their actions on the networks of relationships that they were embedded in.

The jianghu analogy tries to bring out the question of what it means to be an ethical subject in this social world. What is it to have ideals in a context where you are constrained not simply by censorship orders and commercial considerations, but by these relational obligations, these imperatives and responsibilities that come from the specific interpersonal relationships that one had with others.

RHK: So much has changed in the media landscape in China since you did your fieldwork in the early 2010s. Whereas the ethics of efficacy might have meant killing one story to do another meaningful one in a few months back then, now it could be a matter of years until they get to do something they find meaningful. How do you think these dynamics are different now?

EC: That’s a really good question and a tough one. I would agree with you completely that it seems to have pushed that horizon so much further. And you really have to have faith now. I think everyone recognizes that a lot of people have left the profession — and for a very good reason. The horizon is so far into the future that you really don’t know if it’s going to happen within the lifespan of your active career.

At the same time, I think that the usefulness of thinking about an ethic of efficacy rather than just looking at a lever of control that goes up and down, is being able to see that if and when things change, there is a whole world of people and ideas and relationships and practices that are there, that are going to respond to these changes. 

It’s a pretty heavy-feeling industry. There’s not a lot of immediate excitement about imminent change. But at the same time, there are these deep channels of potential and thoughtfulness that it’s important to see.

RHK: I wonder if even it’s possible now to do the fieldwork you did back then.

EC: No, I don’t think so. It was a moment where people were a lot more relaxed and open. This is not the case anymore. I’ve spoken to people trying to start ethnographic projects around news in China and they don’t get anywhere. Even people I spoke to then are more guarded now, more careful.

No Class War Please, We’re Communists

“For years, the regular ‘Clear and Bright” (清朗) online cleanup campaigns of China’s top internet control body have been a constant reminder to platforms and citizens to keep their behavior in check. But in recent months these campaigns have come with such dizzying frequency that keeping track of them has become a daunting task.

The latest case in point is an expansive list of regulatory priorities released earlier this month that includes not just concerns such as doxxing and cyberbullying — shared by regulators and citizens around the world — but also vague value labels that have the authorities at the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) meddling directly into areas such as “regional prejudice,” “gender antagonism,” and “class antagonism.”

Here’s a quick look at some of the most contentious forms of conduct identified in this latest “Clear and Bright” campaign.

Gender Antagonism (性別對立)

“Gender antagonism” (性別對立), identified as a key target of the latest Clear and Bright campaign, is a well-established dog whistle for feminism. The accusation has frequently been brought against women’s rights activists in China, framing their actions as a cantankerous attempt to upset harmonious relations between men and women.

A cartoon showing a broken home illustrates a 2021 report in the China Youth Daily about online posts fomenting “gender antagonism.” 

In 2020, stand-up comedian Yang Li (杨笠) was censured for “creating gender antagonism” after a set that took digs at men. The following year, the official Xinhua News Agency was up in arms about an online discussion about whether Chinese-Canadian Sinologist Florence Chia-ying Yeh (葉嘉瑩) should be referred to with the honorific xiansheng (先生), which is typically translated as “mister” but is also more generally a term of respect for teachers. 

“There are no winners in gender antagonism,” the newswire said.

A related criminal charge often brought in such cases is “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (尋釁滋事), which targets perceived threats to the political and social order. The “Feminist Five” (女權五姐妹) were detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels” on International Women’s Day in 2015 ahead of a planned campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation. The charge itself has historical roots in the equally notorious crime of “hooliganism” (流氓罪), which was extensively abused during the Maoist period from the 1950s to the 1970s as a pretext to punish political dissidents and persons suspected of immorality such as sexual minorities. 

“Gender antagonism” is the latest permutation of this long-running crackdown on feminism, which has only intensified in recent years in the wake of the abortive MeToo movement in China. Its inclusion in this latest Clear and Bright campaign is a sign of consistency if nothing else, but it raises serious questions about how the authorities will apply this vague standard to perfectly legitimate and well-founded concerns about the treatment of women in society. 

Class Antagonism (階層對立) 

Another vague category of online conduct the CAC notice cautions against is “class antagonism,” a turn of phrase with a hint of irony considering it was the CCP that for decades waged all-out class struggle (階級鬥爭) under Mao Zedong, who professed that social transformation had to be “long and tortuous” for it to be truly meaningful.

A series of propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution, shown under the title “Never Forget Class Struggle.” SOURCE: University of Pennsylvania Arts & Sciences.

Notably, however, the word used for “class” in the CAC notice is not the jieji (階級) of Mao’s class struggle but rather jieceng (階層), which can also be translated as “strata.” Although largely interchangeable in everyday usage, the two differ significantly in sociological theory. While jieji relates to Marx’s notion that there are only two classes — the proletariat and bourgeoisie — jieceng invokes the work of Max Weber, who saw class as a more complex outcome determined by both economic and non-economic factors such as social prestige and political power.

It may seem contradictory for an avowedly Marxist Party-state to speak of social stratification in such an un-Marxist way, but it is a necessary conceit.

It may seem contradictory for an avowedly Marxist Party-state to speak of social stratification in such an un-Marxist way, but it is a necessary conceit. How else do you reconcile the official CCP line that they have eliminated meaningful class distinctions with the reality of a highly unequal society with the highest Gini coefficient in the region? How else do you take seriously a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that vows to crack down on something like “class antagonism?” 

The CAC is bringing this curious example of doublethink into the digital age. But the notion itself is not new. For decades, the CCP has glossed over this internal contradiction to reconcile China’s market reforms with the CCP’s unrelenting grip on power.

How the Class War Was Won

At the outset of the era of “reform and opening up” in 1978, the CCP’s Central Committee officially replaced Mao’s perpetual class struggle approach with former president Liu Shaoqi’s theory, which held that after the success of China’s proletarian revolution, the remnants of the bourgeoisie could be transformed into good socialists without violent class struggle.

Liu’s idea, when he first proposed it in 1957, was far ahead of its time. During the messy aftermath of China’s forced collectivization, Liu told the nation it was time to make economic development their top priority. “The enemies have been eliminated, the landlord and bourgeois class have been eliminated, the anti-revolutionary has also been eliminated,” he said. “Fundamentally. the class struggle in our country is over.”

Liu Shaoqi was “struggled against” in 1967, early in the Cultural Revolution, and labeled a “capitalist traitor.”

A decade later, Liu Shaoqi was targeted by Mao’s Red Guards, who labeled him the “commander of China’s bourgeoisie headquarters” and a traitor to the revolution. He died in prison in 1969 due to complications from diabetes, his posthumous vindication still another decade off.

When the PRC promulgated a new constitution in 1982, it added this line, almost quoting Liu verbatim: “In our country, the exploiting class, as a class, has been eliminated.” The idea that China in the throes of breakneck, market-oriented reform was a post-class society was, of course, a fiction — but, arguably, a benign one. It enabled the country’s rulers to put the chaos of Mao’s reign in the past and focus on the economy, without undermining the very foundation of their own rule.

It has also stood the test of time. When Xi Jinping spoke last year about the need to “promote harmonious class relations” and “do a good job of United Front work among new social classes,” he spoke exclusively in terms of jieceng. After all, a jieji can encompass multiple jieceng, so one can recognize the emergence of “new jieceng”  — referring to workers in the gig economy, new media, and other emergent industries — without acknowledging the persistent and embarrassing existence of entrenched classes that seem only to be growing further apart.

As the above foray into the history of CCP thinking on jieji and jieceng shows, class divisions and their political framing are thorny and complicated issues. And if the central authorities like the CAC have their way with prohibitions against “class antagonism,” no one inside China will be talking it out. 

Good Reporters Tell Good Stories

Last week, China marked its annual Journalists’ Day with an hour-and-a-half-long gala on state broadcaster CCTV. It was co-organized, tellingly, by the National Radio and Television Administration, the Central Propaganda Department, and the All-China Journalist’s Association, an ostensible professional organization whose primary role is not to represent media professionals but to regulate and control them.

The theme of the night, for the tenth year running, was “Good Reporters Tell Good Stories” (好記者講好故事). So what makes a “Good Story?” Let’s look at the exemplars showcased on the program: interviews with Korean War vets; PRC industrial breakthroughs; new agricultural technology; rural sporting events; infrastructure megaprojects.

Schoolchildren sing the praises of China’s Korean War vets for Journalists’ Day.

Implicitly, “good stories” are those that put China’s rulers in the best possible light. Huge stories like China’s faltering economy and the purges in the top ranks of the Party-state are, of course, nowhere to be found (like former foreign minister Qin Gang, not seen since June). Where disasters like this summer’s flooding are touched upon, the story is authorities’ miraculous, life-saving response (and not, say, how floodwaters were diverted to people’s homes to keep Xi Jinping’s new capital Xiong’an dry). But there’s no need to read between the lines: as an award-winning reporter from Guizhou puts it, framing her story on rural basketball as a celebration of Xi Jinping’s poverty eradication campaign, good stories are “happy stories.”

Watchdogs or Weasels?

Since Journalists’ Day was created in 2000 as one of three professional holidays in China, the country’s leaders have consistently refused the media’s right to exist as a true profession, rather than as a proxy of Party-state power. But even so, the contrast between last week’s celebration and previous years’ is stark.

In 2011, for example, China Youth Daily marked the occasion by telling the harrowing tale of Fujian television journalist Deng Cunyao. A year earlier, Deng was grievously injured in a knife attack because of his critical reporting, uncovering local authorities’ embezzlements of funds meant for rural doctors.

“We publish this chilling report today,” wrote the China Youth Daily editor, “in order to pay our respects to those colleagues in journalism who are struggling on the front lines of watchdog journalism.”

Sha Chen reflects on his long-gone idealism.

One of the keynote speakers at the CCTV gala last week was Sha Chen, a presenter who joined the network in 2002. When he began his career 21 years ago, he recalls, “the goal we pursued was to get deep into the scene and to question what the truth really was.” Today, things are different. “A good journalist of the New Era,” he says, “uncovers the stories behind mainstream values and dares to speak out against violations of mainstream values.”

The bravery to rat out freethinkers? Whatever you call that, it’s a far cry from Deng Cunyao’s watchdog journalism of 2011.

Desert Power, Discourse Power

Lanzhou, the capital of northwest China’s Gansu province, is a city defined by its geography. Sandwiched between the Yellow River and the jagged, arid mountains of the Loess Plateau, its footprint is long and narrow — a stark contrast to the urban sprawl of other cities. That is why, when the local government sought space to build out, they had to look to another valley far to the north. Even there, hundreds of mountains had to be flattened and villages bulldozed to make way for the Lanzhou New Area (LNA), a satellite city built for a million people but currently home to fewer than half that.

Yet this underwhelming development at the foot of the Gobi Desert has become home to the latest outpost of China’s International Communication Centers (国际传播中心). ICCs, as we have documented elsewhere, are a recent but growing trend in the country’s external propaganda network. Typically formed by provincial and sometimes municipal level governments, they embody how Xi’s dictum to “tell the China story well” has become a whole-of-society effort, no longer the exclusive domain of national-level institutions like the Central Propaganda Department and state-run media like Xinhua and CGTN.

As ICCs have gotten off the ground nationwide over the past year, some have been tasked with leveraging their regional expertise to carry out external propaganda work. Yunnan’s provincial ICC has taken the lead on external propaganda in neighboring Southeast Asia, for instance, while Shenzhen’s is taking care of the Greater Bay Area mega-metropolis created to more deeply integrate Hong Kong and Macau with the Chinese mainland. Initiatives like this contribute to the building of “new mainstream media” (新型主流媒体), an aggressive CCP program of media digitalization to modernize the official media system and thereby maintain leadership over public opinion.

Great Expectations

The LNA center, a first-of-its-kind “work liaison station” (工作联络站) under the Gansu provincial ICC, is similarly geared toward telling both good China stories and “good New Area stories” to China’s partners in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi Jinping’s global development strategy that has long outgrown its original focus on infrastructure to encompass other areas of partnership, including media and propaganda.

According to official coverage of its grand opening, the center will “positively integrate the New Area into the Belt and Road” and will “create a new mode of international communication” — in other words, more effective overseas propaganda — by “opening relevant overseas [media] accounts” and “creating an array of overseas social media.”

The Gansu New Media Group, the organization behind the provincial ICC and its new outpost in the LNA, was launched by the provincial propaganda department and the Communist Party committee of the official Gansu Daily newspaper five years ago — around the same time the LNA was being unveiled to the world. It was created, according to reports at the time, to “promote media convergence,” “guide public opinion” and “create a favorable public opinion atmosphere” — all buzzwords for greater CCP control of messaging. At the time, the focus was on building a “regional new media cluster” that could host over a hundred different outlets.

The stated goals for the center are as ambitious as those of the Lanzhou New Area itself. The first major central government-backed development zone on the historic Silk Road trading routes linking China to Central Asia, it was intended to “facilitate trade along the routes of the New Silk Road” and “create a forum for cultural and people-to-people exchanges for the Silk Road countries.” Cultural outreach and “people-to-people” exchange are relatively inoffensive frames the CCP regularly employs to characterize efforts to promote and amplify the political goals of the Party-state.

Breaking ground in the Lanzhou New Area.

Lanzhou proper was once a thriving market town on the storied trade route. When the BRI global infrastructure program was launched ten years ago, hopes for the city, long neglected and left behind by the rapid development of China’s eastern seaboard, were high. It was to become the capital of a New Silk Road — a great inland port and bustling railhead reconnecting China’s hinterland to the West. Local officials even talked of hosting foreign consulates like a new Shanghai or Guangzhou, but bounded only by a sea of sand.

The reality for Lanzhou, however, has so far failed to match this grand vision. BRI schemes have been more focused on bankrolling megaprojects abroad that promise to boost China’s international status and tether nearby countries to Beijing’s loans and largesse. Elevating lowly Lanzhou to global prominence has not been a top priority, and as for the LNA, it continues to languish in the capital’s shadow, both figuratively and — beyond the mountains hemming in the city proper — literally.

The fact that the Lanzhou New Area has been included in the ongoing devolution of China’s mission to tell “good stories,” however, is an instructive example of how far down this trend turning local resources toward buffing Beijing’s image has permeated. Nowhere, it seems, is too small to engage in international propaganda.

A Law to Protect China’s Feelings

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.

Weibo posts from Sida Liu and Tong Zhiwei criticizing the draft law.

“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.

Appearances of “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” in the People’s Daily from 1949-2013, via Wang Horng-Luen (汪宏倫) at Academia Sinica.

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.

“Hurt feelings” provisions underlined in red in the proposed legal amendment.

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.

Positive Energy Gets Positive Reinforcement

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?

Positively Horrific

A common theme emerges among the top five entries.

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.

A vintage PRC propaganda poster calling for the “liberation” of Taiwan.

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.

Ideas Worth Stopping

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 Times accusing 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.

The new regulations call into question the dismissive line from state media on the TEDxGuangzhou shutdown.

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.”

Whither, “rap battle summit?”

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.

Legislating Love for the Ruling Party

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.

In keeping with Xi Jinping’s rhetorical appeals to “Chinese civilization” to legitimize his growing power, “cultural traditions” like the Lunar New Year, Qingming, and the Dragon Boat Festival are identified as vehicles to promote patriotism. No cultural or political values beyond upholding CCP rule are clearly identified, however.

The “main contents” of patriotic education, according to the draft bill.

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 spirit, the draft bill reads like a return to the Patriotic Education Movements of the 1990s — a conservative backlash to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that stoked “national humiliation” resentments and patriotism to restore the CCP’s damaged legitimacy in the wake of its bloody crackdown on the protestors and its move away from Communist orthodoxy in favor of market reforms.

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.

Protest against “brainwashing education” in Hong Kong, 2012.

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.

The draft law 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.

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.”

Defending Liberal Democracy with Neuroscience

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 a time when people don’t admit to [being racist or sexist], dehumanization is a very powerful lens through which to still detect it.

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.

The liberal brain is one of the biggest cognitive challenges of our time.

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.

[Civilization discourse] 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.

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 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.

Anti-Trump protest in Chicago, 2016. Photo: Ben Alexander.

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?

The media has a lot of power over framing people and situations in a humanizing way.

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.

We are at a crucial, very volatile point 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 peoples’ brains..

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.

An A4 Revolution solidarity rally in Taipei.

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.

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