“Low-level red,” or dijihong, which originated on China’s internet over the past decade, now refers in official CCP parlance to language or conduct that is intended to praise the Party or government, but which ultimately has the opposite effect because it is patently false, cheap, or ill-considered. Internet users in China may refer to cheap displays of nationalism or pro-Party feeling as “low-level red.” In a 2019 policy document, the Party’s Central Committee warned against “low-level red” as well as satirical language and “false reverence,” suggesting it is sensitive to the implications of overwrought praise as much as unwelcome criticism.
The phrase “low-level red” became widely popular only in November 2018, following the November 18 incident in which long-distance runner He Yinli (何引丽) was interrupted during the last stage of the Suzhou marathon by a volunteer trying to force a national flag into her hands. He fell back in the race as a result, which drew scorn from internet users who felt this was a shameless and stupid display of nationalism that was self-defeating. In a post made on November 22, the WeChat public account “Chang’an Sword” (长安剑), operated by the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, wrote: “To put it a bit more severely, this is classic high-level black through low-level red (低级红高级黑), and even more it is a profaning of patriotism.”
One online personality associated early on with the notion of “low-level red” was the nationalistic internet writer Zhou Xiaoping (周小平), who took part in the Central Forum on Arts and Literature (中央文艺工作座谈会) on October 15, 2014, where he shook hands with Xi Jinping. Many internet users, disgusted by Zhou’s shameless pro-CCP stance and often mindless sense of nationalism, attacked him for his blog posts. After Zhou wrote in a post in 2013 criticizing the entrepreneur Charles Xue (targeted that year by China’s authorities for his outspokenness) for “causing stagnating sales at Chinese cutlassfish farms by claiming China’s water is poisoned,” he was subjected to bitter ridicule – after all, cutlassfish cannot be farmed. This earned Zhou the online nickname “Cutlassfish Zhou” (周带鱼). While Xi Jinping initially upheld online writers like Zhou as exemplars who could work to “spread positive energy,” Zhou subsequently became something of an embarrassment. The blogger Yang Hengjun wrote warningly of Zhou in November 2014:
Zhou should keep this in mind: in the history of the CCP, people like Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao, who sought to curry political favor and make some small profits by praising and flattering officials, wound up on the garbage heap of history.
The first time that “high-level black” and “low-level red” appeared in the People’s Daily was in July 2018, in an article by deputy director of the commentary department Fang Zhengwei (范正伟) called “Using ‘Political Results’ to Measure Political Capacity” (以“政治效果”检验政治能力). In it, Fang wrote: “Therefore, to speak politics one must use discerning eyes to distinguish ‘high-level black’ and ‘low-level red’, resolving the problem of ‘fulsome expressions of loyalty, with little real action.’” Fang’s warning against both embarrassing and counter-productive praise on the one hand, and cloaked criticism on the other, foreshadowed the high-level action on the issue that would come eight month later.
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 “low-level red” along with the phrase “high-level black,” or gaojihei (高级黑). The 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).”
Further Reading: David Bandurski, “Working Around the CCP’s Insecurities,” Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies, Vol. 1, 2020.