High-Level Black

High-Level Black

| CMP Staff

A Mao-inspired propaganda message, “Serve the People,” appears on a wall in China beside a hand-pulled noodle shop. Image by Gauthier Delacroix available at under CC license.

In common parlance, the phrase “high-level black,” or gaojihei, refers to the act of using humorous language to criticize and satirize, or to offered exaggerated praise on the surface in what is actually an act of criticism. It is not unlike the proverbial “smile that hides a dagger” (笑里藏刀). The term, which originated on the internet, was elevated to a formal concern for the Chinese Communist Party in 2019, in a high-level document that warned against various forms of cloaked criticism within the Party.

“High-level black” first appeared in the People’s Daily on June 30, 2014, in a commentary that criticized journalists online for discouraging a top college entrance exam tester from Jiangsu province from entering the journalism profession. The commentary said that the journalists had engaged in “high-level black” by ridiculing their own profession. 

On December 29, 2016, the Cyberspace Administration of China posted an article called “How to Prevent the ‘High-Level Black’ of Damning Praise” (如何防范明褒实贬的“高级黑”). On April 19, 2018, People’s Daily deputy editor-in-chief Wang Yibiao (王一彪) published an article called “ (The New Era Calls for Building a Favorable Online Public Opinion Ecology” (新时代呼唤构建良好网络舆论生态).  Wang argued that creating a “favorable public opinion ecology,” meaning one free of political criticism and other undesirable content, required “going deep into social networking platforms,” relying on internet users to conscientiously uphold a “clean online space.” In this context, he specifically cited such examples as internet users playing a role in attacking the “high-level blacking” (高级黑) of Liu Hulan (刘胡兰), a young female spy during the Chinese Civil War who has been upheld as a symbol of the courage of the Chinese people (under the CCP), and of the Five Heroes of Langya Mountain (狼牙山五壮士), a CCP story (largely myth) about five Communist soldiers said to have leapt to their deaths after facing off against invading Japanese. Over the next two years, concerns about such “high-level blacking,” essentially the mocking on the internet of the hackneyed and often absurd myths of the CCP, sparked growing concern within the Party.

The “Central Committee Opinions on Strengthening the Party’s Political Construction” released on February 28, 2019, was the first high-level official Party document to include “high-level black” along with the phrase “low-level red,” or dijihong (低级红), which refers to overwrought, tawdry or absurd expressions of pro-CCP or nationalistic feeling that backfire and have the opposite effect. The Central Committee document said: “[We] must with correct understanding and correct actions resolutely enact the ‘Two Protections,’ firmly preventing and correcting all erroneous statements that diverge from the ‘Two Protections,’ and [we] must not allow any form of ‘low-level red’ (低级红) or ‘high-level black’ (高级黑’), permitting no form of two-faced outer devotion and internal opposition (阳奉阴违做两面人) toward the Party’s Central Committee, any double-dealing or ‘false reverence’ (伪忠诚).”

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