Few non-Chinese can claim the odd distinction of having forged a favoured political catchphrase of the Chinese Communist Party. But British psychologist Richard Wiseman may have done just that, thanks to the 2012 publication of his self-help book Rip It Up, rendered in Chinese translation as Positive Energy. “Positive energy,” or zhengnengliang (正能量), is now at the very heart of political discourse in the Xi Jinping era, having direct implications for media and Internet control, and extending to international diplomacy and other areas as well.
Delivering the keynote speech to the Fifth China-UK Internet Roundtable in September 2013, China’s cyber-security czar, Lu Wei (鲁炜), who was later sentenced to 14 years in prison for alleged bribery, doffed his hat to Richard Wiseman as he noted that “positive energy” had topped the list of popular new catchphrases for the year. “The phrase ‘positive energy,’” said Lu Wei, “has acquired extra levels of meaning in China today.” At the Central Forum on Arts and Literature the next month, Xi Jinping seemed to embrace the notion, telling artists gathered at the event that works “should be like sunshine, blue sky and the spring breeze, inspiring minds, warming hearts and cultivating taste.” Cultural creation, said Xi, should brim with “positive energy.”
In the context of news control, “positive energy” is akin to another term favoured under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, “emphasizing positive news.” It is also closely associated with the phrase “guidance of public opinion,” which since June 1989 has been a cornerstone of the CCP’s media control regime. For example, when the propaganda chief of the city of Hanzhong, in Shaanxi province, addressed a forum on November 6, 2014, to commemorate China’s official Journalist’s Day, he set “positive energy” right beside “guidance”:
At the forum, speeches were given by representatives from various media in Hanzhong, talking about the results achieved over the past year. Hanzhong Party Committee Member and Propaganda Minister Xie Jingshuai (谢京帅) pointed out that media must have a correct grasp of public opinion guidance (准确把握好舆论导向), and transmit positive energy to society (传播社会正能量).
“Positive energy” remains closely associated with media and ideological controls, and is now routinely found alongside notions like “correct guidance.” An article in the official People’s Daily on February 19, 2021, stressed the need to “sing the main theme, and strengthen positive energy” (唱响主旋律，壮大正能量), the former being a longstanding phrase denoting adherence to the CCP’s line and policy.
But the phrase has come to be used in many other contexts by the CCP as well. In April 2021, as China prepared for a sweeping propaganda campaign ahead of the 100th anniversary of the CCP, an article in the People’s Daily noted that by “using revolutionary cultural relics well,” the country could “invigorate positive energy for development.”