Bloody GDP

A disastrous high-speed train collision in the city of Wenzhou on July 23, 2011, which killed at least 39 people and injured more than 200 others, capped with tragedy two weeks of rising doubts in China about the safety of the country’s high-speed rail network. In the wake of the tragedy, as the government tried to keep public doubts from gathering speed. The Central Propaganda Department told media across the country to avoid hard questions and focus instead on “stories that are extremely moving, like people donating blood and taxi drivers refusing to accept fares.”
But anger swelled and million of Chinese vented their frustrations, asked hard questions and shared information through social media like Sina Weibo. Many Chinese media disregarded propaganda directives, doing harder-hitting coverage of the disaster. One repeated theme was whether safety concerns were recklessly overlooked as Chinese leaders sought quick results and high speeds. Finally, on July 28, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo visited the scene of the July 23 collision and pledged to “punish those responsible.” An editorial on the front page of the Party’s official People’s Daily the same day said that “China wanted development, but did not want “bloody GDP”, or dai xie de GDP (带血的GDP). The editorial called for new and urgent measures and new laws and regulations to ensure greater safety across the country.

Love the Future

As news broke on April 3, 2011, that artist and activist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) had been detained in Beijing, Chinese web censors apparently moved to scrub references to Ai from popular microblog platforms such as Sina Weibo and QQ Weibo. An alternative phrase quickly emerged to substitute for Ai’s name. Literally meaning “love the future,” the phrase, ai weilai (爱未来), could be readily spotted on China’s web, as documented by China Digital Times.

Salt Hysteria

In the wake of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which resulted in severe damage to a nuclear power plant, rumors spread in China of possibly disastrous radiation fallout impacting China. Believing that iodized salt could protect against radiation, Chinese rushed to stores across the country, stocking up on salt. In the days that followed, Chinese media turned to a discussion of this hysteria, and the term “salt rumors” or “salt hysteria” (谣盐) was coined to describe this combination of fear, rumor and binge salt purchasing. The term “salt hysteria,” or yao yan, is created in Chinese by replacing the second character in the word “rumor,” yaoyan (谣言), which is the character for “word,” with the homophone for “salt,” yan.


In a press conference closing the 2011 “two meetings” of the National People’s Congress and People’s Political Consultative Conference — at which the proceedings had largely avoided the issue of political reform — Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) again stressed the importance of political reform and creating the conditions for the people to criticize and monitor the government. During the press conference, Wen introduced a new catchphrase affirming the important of the popular will in Chinese politics: “I know only too well that a nation’s fate lies in the hearts of its people,” he said. This phrase, guó zhī mìng zài rénxīn (国之命在人心), is inspired by the words of Song Dynasty poet Yang Wanli (杨万里).

The Surrounding Gaze 围观

The “surrounding gaze” is the notion, rooted in modern Chinese literature and culture, of crowds of people gathering around some kind of public spectacle. Related to Lu Xun’s notion of kanke wenhua (看客文化), a term the writer used to describe the cultural phenomenon of Chinese who would look on blankly, with cold indifference, as their fellows were dragged off for execution or subjected to other injustices, the “surrounding gaze” has taken on a new and different meaning in the Internet age. The term can now point to the social and political possibilities of new communications technologies, such as the Internet and the microblog, which might, say some, promote change by gathering public opinion around certain issues and events.
The term wei guan can refer to the larger phenomenon of the “surrounding gaze,” including its pejorative sense, but also often refers to its positive or potential dimension as concentrated public opinion. The term “online surrounding gaze,” or wangluo wei guan (网络围观), is also commonly used today.
In an interview with CMP fellow and Peking University professor Hu Yong (胡泳) posted in January 2011, blogger Xiao Mi (小米) addressed the issue of “the surrounding gaze,” and its historical roots and importance. Here is a translated portion of Hu Yong’s response:

Xiao Mi: So exactly what idea does the “the surrounding gaze,” or wei guan (围观),
Hu Yong: Lu Xun once expressed extreme concern over the coldness and indifference of Chinese, and “the culture of the gaze”, or kanke wenhua (看客文化), he chose as an expression for this coldness and indifference is in fact the surrounding gaze. [NOTE: In his short story Medicine (药), Lu Xun wrote about the “culture of the gaze,” referring to the crowds of ordinary Chinese who craned their necks to dumbly watch the spectacle of the beheading of revolutionaries who had fought for the freedom of these same people]. When, though, did this idea (of the surrounding gaze) take on such a strongly positive meaning? The change in [the import of] this expression stems from this technology age in which we now find ourselves. It stems in large part from the age of the Internet. Put another way, there has been some evolution of the surrounding gaze in the era of Internet. In the process of this evolution what might be called “the politics of the surrounding gaze” has emerged.
Xiao Mi: Has the surrounding gaze brought change to the distribution of so-called discourse power in China?
Hu Yong: I want to stress the point that the surrounding gaze is a kind of minimal (or “bottom-line”) form of public participation (公共参与). In fact, it is very far from the process of reaching consensus through participation, or reaching the stage of policy-making and action through consensus. So, if we hold the simplistic view that by means of the surrounding gaze we can change China, this is most definitely based on a naive reading of the Chinese situation. On the other hand, we cannot for these same reasons make the mistake of underestimating the importance of the surrounding gaze online (网络围观). This is because it has lowered the threshold for action, making it possible for many people to express their positions and their demands, and these positions and demands, though small, add up to a great deal (积少成多). Taken together, they can make for a formidable show of public opinion. And there is another important aspect of the surrounding gaze. And that is that the so-called surrounding gaze enables us to see those standing across from us, and this mutual seeing is also very important.
Organized strength without organization rests on the micro-forces (微动力) arising from the voluntary engagement of masses of people (是大量人群自愿形成的微动力). Change in China today does not require a powerful revolutionary force of some kind — what it requires are this kind of micro-forces. Why are these micro-forces important? Because in the past the relationship between the many to the few was fractured. There were always small numbers of people vested with an abundance of force who advanced certain matters or causes [NOTE: such as the revolutionaries in Lu Xun’s Medicine]. But what these [energetic minorities] could never figure out was why the vast majority of people cared so little about what they were doing, even when they were fighting on behalf of this majority. And the majority would often believe that these energetic minorities were too political in their outlook, and suspect that they had their own agendas. In my view, the emergence of micro-forces will serve to build bridges across this fracture between the two sides, and this is one function micro-forces have.

Double Action (against media and journalists)

On October 16, 2010, Wang Lijun (王立军), the top official in Chongqing’s Public Security Bureau, gave a speech during a police conference in Chongqing in which he said that in the future his agency would launch a lawsuit against any media and journalist who attacked the reputation of the Chongqing Public Security Bureau or the civil police force (民警). If individual civil police officers were singled out for attack, said Wang, the officers would bring a suit against the journalist responsible in the courts, and the Public Security Bureau would sue the media organization. This he referred to as “double action.” Wang Lijun’s remarks sparked a discussion in China’s media about increasing pressures facing the practice of “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督), the use of the media to monitor power.

Three Supremes 三个至上

The “Three Supremes,” first introduced by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) during a 2007 session on national politics and law attended by senior judges and prosecutors, represents a sharp change — and many say a clear step backward — in China’s judicial policies. The buzzword was actively implemented as policy in 2008 as Wang Shengjun (王胜俊) became head of the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China.
The “Three Supremes” are as follows:
1. “Supremacy of the business of the CCP” (党的事业至上)
2. “Supremacy of the interests of the people” (人民利益至上)
3. “Supremacy of constitutional law” (宪法法律至上)
What do these mean? Many lawyers and legal scholars in China say that the “Three Supremes” enshrine the notion that the law must serve the basic strategic interests of the CCP by taking into primary consideration the CCP’s own notion of pressing national priorities, interests and realities.
As well-known Chinese legal scholar He Weifang (贺卫方) told Hong Kong’s Asia Weekly magazine in August 2010: “Who is supreme in this Three Supremes? When a family of three has a disagreement, who do they listen to? . . . Between the interests of the CCP, the interests of the people and the interests of the Constitution, who is bigger?”
He Weifang says that legal system reforms in China now face a major challenge in the form of this policy, and the term “Three Supremes” has entirely replaced the erstwhile policy goal of “judicial independence” (司法独立).
The policy means that the work of China’s legal system, and specific legal cases, must now be considered in light of the basic tasks and development priorities defined by the party and government in China.

Stress Faced Builds a Nation

In the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) scribbled the traditional phrase, “Much stress regenerates a nation,” or duo nan xing bang (多难兴邦), on a classroom blackboard to encompass the sense of a national tragedy in some sense redeemed by solidarity and national strength. In response, Internet users, who criticized this sentiment at empty in the face of government responsibility for such problems as shoddy school construction, coined their own related phrase — replacing the third character xing with the character chuan (穿), meaning to “pierce,” “penetrate” or “pass through.”
The result was a new phrase, “Much stress faced and overcome regenerates a nation,” or duo nan chuan bang (多难穿邦). The phrase has much of the same meaning, but implies that the nation cannot become stronger if disasters, and their human causes, are not faced up to openly, and if lessons are not drawn that prevent future disaster.
For more on this phrase, readers can turn to this powerfully worded essay by CMP fellow Zhai Minglei, “You have failed us, Mr. Wen.”

Seizing a Pretext 借题发挥

In the context of Chinese journalism, “seizing a pretext,” or jieti fahui, refers to the strategic use of an opportunity afforded by external circumstances to push one’s own agendas or professional objectives.
One common form of “seizing a pretext” comes as government leaders make a pronouncement on an issue, or on the edge of an issue, that is generally too sensitive to deal with directly or in great depth.
In 2006, the Central Propaganda Department issued a ban on coverage of the fortieth anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution. As a result, there was virtually no coverage, even on the subtle fringes of the topic. Shortly after the anniversary, however, China’s cultural minister made a public statement about plans to eventually create a museum to commemorate the Cultural Revolution. More professionally-minded journalists in China used this public statement to run a brief (but still very careful) burst of coverage on the Cultural Revolution.
More recently, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) mentioned the need for “political system reforms” during a speech in Shenzhen in August 2010 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the special economic zone’s founding, some journalists viewed this as an opportunity. One Chinese scholar remarked on Twitter: “As for Wen’s political reform speech, I think we can seize this pretext. Regardless of what Wen’s real meaning is, we can use this opportunity to talk about what we mean. Those who are courageous, speak directly. Those who are more fearful, speak as a response to Wen’s talk.”

Opposing the Three Vulgarities 反三俗

This policy buzzword for China’s cultural sector entered the official lexicon after a July 23, 2010, collective study session of China’s politburo (中央政治局第二十二次集体学习), at which the focus was discussion of so-called cultural sector reforms (文化体制改革) in China. At the study session, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) said that in order to strengthen Chinese culture and thereby enhance China’s soft power internationally, the CCP must work actively against the trend of “three vulgarities” (三俗) on the contemporary cultural landscape. Only in this way, he said, could the party ensure “the development and glory of socialist culture.”
The so-called “three vulgarities” include vulgar (庸俗), cheap (低俗) and tasteless (媚俗) cultural content. Hu’s address followed his previous statements on media and cultural policy, emphasizing the need for commercial growth and innovation in media and culture while maintaining ideological controls. Some believe, however, that “opposing the three vulgarities” might signify an intensification of ideological controls on media and culture by the CCP.
On August 5, Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily echoed a report from Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily that said mainland China is lately entering a new period of “moral crusade,” signaled first by recent actions against dating programs on Chinese television. The Ming Pao article also cited criticism of the new TV series Dream of the Red Chambers in the official People’s Daily newspaper as further evidence of a new movement against the so-called “vulgarization” (低俗化) of Chinese cultural offerings.
Crosstalker Guo Degang (郭德纲) issued a satirical confession of wrongdoing on August 8, 2010, admitting that he was vulgar thrice over after being mercilessly attacked by official media for his “vulgarity” stemming from a conflict with BTV over whether he had expanded his home onto state-owned land [full Chinese text HERE]. Guo’s confession was a playful but powerful criticism of the Three Vulgarities. And we hope our poor translation will be forgiven:

What TV could be more kick-ass TV than BTV? In being critical of me, that is. The way they managed to rouse the deaf and stir those who couldn’t hear! That was something, and I really had to work to get my head around it! But once I had, I was a bit confused. What does “vulgar” (庸俗) mean? The first character in “vulgar” is yong, which means “ordinary,” so it must suggest that someone is just as common and conventional as ordinary people. And what about “cheap” (低俗)? Well, the first character, di, or “low,” suggests one doesn’t quite come up to where other people are in terms of conventionality. And what about “tasteless” (媚俗)? This character mei, “to charm”, is not an adjective but a verb, and it means to attract. Which is to say that people who are tasteless are not ordinary, but they attract people who are. I know I have problems. But I can’t for the life of me see how I can not be ordinary, but be just as ordinary as everybody else, and then be more ordinary than everybody else all at once. It’s like I know I’m fat. But how can I not be fat, but be just as fat as everybody else, and then be fatter than everybody else too? It makes me think that the people who work for such kick-ass TV must be a lot more gifted than those girls in the KTV. How else could they slap such perplexing phrase on me? And then all at once it came to me. The problem wasn’t the TV [or their phrase], it was me. It wasn’t that they had misspoken, it was that I had [taken their ingenious phrase and] commoned it all up [NOTE: Guo is using “yong,” the first character in vulgar, as a verb]. For such great big TV stations to look past all of those important demolitions and land thefts, and even to look past their own fire that burned up millions of dollars [NOTE: a reference to the CCTV building fire, on which there were news restrictions], just to criticize me — well, would I deserve to be singled out for such criticism from everyone if I didn’t commit a few more acts of conventionality? One conventionality certainly isn’t enough. And three conventionalities [NOTE: he is using the full term “Three Vulgarities” here], that’s just a starting price! If criticizing me isn’t enough, they can go criticize someone else! If I don’t confess, then they’ll have to drag in Xiao Shenyang (小沈阳), Zhou Libo (周立波) and the rest of the vulgar world, right? So I have to confess. And why concern myself with the fact that it’s impossible to be three different things at once? After all, I do have a wife and a child! So I hereby solemnly confess: I am vulgar; and my son, who I brought into this world, he is cheap; and for my wife to have married me, well that was just tasteless!

[ special feature page on Guo Degang and vulgarity]