When US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to Taipei on August 2, 2022, her visit invoked the fury of China, which responded with military drills encircling Taiwan. But official reports inside China did not mention a “visit,” or fangwen (访问). Such a word choice might have seemed to acknowledge the legitimacy of exchanges between Pelosi and her Taiwan hosts, including President Tsai Ing-wen — something the Chinese leadership wished to avoid.
The word Chinese officials and state media used instead was “sneaky visit,” or cuànfǎng (窜访), which suggested that Pelosi’s visit was devious and contemptible, something that could not withstand the light of scrutiny. While the second character in this two-character pairing simply means “to visit” or “call on,” the first is composed of the character for “cave” along with the character for “rat“ — an association that becomes clearer in the traditional version, 竄訪.
The mouse can be associated popularly in China with cunning, deception, and greed. So the word cuàn suggests the scurrying escape of a rodent up to no good, its actions both hateful and destructive.
The word cuànfǎng appeared in 69 separate articles in the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper in August 2022, as the paper vented its fury over the Pelosi visit. In the remarks of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in English-language coverage in state media outlets, meanwhile, Pelosi’s trip was a “sneaky visit.”
But how did this word originate?
In fact, “sneaky visit” is about to celebrate its 20th birthday, according to CMP research. The first report to use the word seems to have appeared on December 15, 2002, as Liu Jianchao (刘建超), a spokesperson in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded to a planned visit to Indonesia by Taiwan’s then-President Chen Shui-bian (陈水扁), characterized by Taiwan as a holiday.
As Liu made clear that “to enter Indonesia in any capacity will harm relations between China and Indonesia,” he referenced a trip to the country the previous August by Taiwan’s vice-president, Annette Lu Hsiu-lien (吕秀莲), who under pressure from China had been denied entry to the capital of Jakarta. During Lu Hsiu-lien’s “sneaky visit to Indonesia in August,” he said, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry had issued a statement reiterating its position of no official contact with Taiwan.
The first use of the word in the People’s Daily came on March 17, 2008, in the midst of protests and demonstrations in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to oppose the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibetans. A report from the official Xinhua News Agency accused the “Dalai clique,” a reference to the government-in-exile headed by the 14th Dalai Lama, of upsetting social stability in the region. The report closed with the line: “During his sneaky visits to Europe and the United States last year, the Dalai claimed repeatedly that ‘2008 is a crucial year, and the Olympic Games may be the last chance for Tibetans,’ and called on all countries concerned to link the ‘Tibet issue’ to the Beijing Olympics when dealing with China.”
“Sneaky visit” has also been used to refer to trips to the UK and Europe by members of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. In December 2021, the Information Office of the State Council released a long document on the “development of Hong Kong democracy under ‘one country two systems.’” The document said that “leading figures” of the pro-democracy movement had “frequently visited foreign countries, wantonly smearing and attacking the country, begging foreign countries to impose sanctions on the country and on Hong Kong.”