| Alex Colville
Regularly in circulation since the beginning of the 20th century, this simple modifier is a rhetorical tactic frequently used by state media and the party-state in China to belittle ideas, concepts, or assertions that are at odds with the ideological values or positions of the Chinese Communist Party. At a time of heated relations with the West, its use in political speech in the 21st century seems to be on the rise.

In early February 2024, two Chinese nationals died when their boat overturned as it was being pursued by Taiwan’s coast guard near a heavily fortified islet of the Kinmen Islands, a territory just miles from China’s coast that Taiwan governs. The incident raised the temperature of relations between China and Taiwan and prompted concern that accidents around restricted waters could tip sides into conflict. For its part, China’s official Xinhua News Agency brushed aside territorial disputes altogether with one of the most bruising modifiers in the Chinese Communist Party’s language arsenal: “Following the incident, the DPP authorities have resorted to sophistry,” the newswire said, referring to Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, “and have concocted the so-called concept of ‘prohibited and restricted waters’ to confuse the public and shirk responsibility for the egregious act of disregarding the safety of the lives and properties of mainland fishermen.”

With the use of the simple adjective “so-called,” or suowei[de] (所谓的), China’s state-run news agency disregarded Taiwanese claims to the Kinmen waters in question — and registered the imperious tone of the country’s CCP leadership.

In contemporary usage by the CCP, “so-called” is a simple rhetorical tactic used by the state media and the government — the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) being one of its most enthusiastic users (“so-called freedom of speech”) — to dismiss and belittle ideas, concepts, or assertions that are at odds with the ideological values or positions of the Chinese Communist Party. A close cousin of autocratic “whataboutism,” which is frequently used by leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin to discredit criticism and critics, the “so-called” modifier works to tear down the credibility of an opposing side while avoiding real engagement with factual substance.

While uses of “so-called,” akin to the air quotes used by speakers around the world, can be found throughout the Chinese media and in common speech, with examples in state media ranging from so-called “hangover cures” to so-called “sugar-free mooncakes,” occurrences of the modifier in state propaganda are generally more scathing and serious.

When US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, a release from Xinhua used “so-called” three times in its lead paragraph alone. Meeting with Pelosi, Taiwanese leader Tsai Ying-wen had once again, said the news agency, “exaggerated the so-called ‘military threat’ from the mainland.” In the next sentence, the story said Tsai had “repackaged separatist Taiwan independence as so-called ‘holding fast to democracy.’” In recent years, as China has bristled at criticisms of its repression of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the phrase “so-called ‘human rights problems’ in Xinjiang” has frequently been used.

A section of a 2023 report on human rights in the US includes the phrase “America’s so-called democracy.”

In many cases, uses of “so-called” in China’s state media constitute regular, repeated attacks on concepts like freedom of speech and democracy as they are applied by the ideological enemies of the CCP. For example, uses of “so-called freedom of speech” (所谓的新闻自由) are commonplace in references to the United States, signaling the CCP’s conviction that this value is either hypocritical or non-existent and therefore cannot be used to criticize China’s record on free speech. When, in March 2023, China’s MFA released a special report on the state of human rights in the United States in 2022 —a whataboutism masterwork — the report referenced “America’s so-called democracy.” 

A Political Adjective for the Ages

As the relationship between China and the West has become more strained since the late 2010s, “so-called” seems to have been deployed with greater frequency in discussions of foreign affairs in the state media. By 2021, the number of articles using the modifier in the English-language version of the Global Times, which is chiefly directed at foreign audiences, had nearly doubled in two years.

But for all its currency, “so-called” is not new to politics in China. Its use as a marker of skepticism in political speech goes back at least a full century, and probably before. One early example emerged during the 1924 First National Congress of the Kuomintang of China, led by the revolutionary statesman Sun Yat-sen and held in a school auditorium in Guangzhou. It was at this congress, which saw the passage of the Charter of the Kuomintang (KMT) — founded 12 years earlier by Sun — that the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party, then under the leadership of its co-founder Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀), established a united front for inter-party cooperation against imperialism.

Cover of a printed edition of Sun Yat-sen's 1924 Declaration of the First National Congress of the Kuomintang.

The first formal cooperation between the KMT and the CCP, the congress also set out KMT cooperation with the Soviet Union that had formally begun the previous year with the Sun–Joffe Manifesto. One passage in Sun’s Declaration of the First National Congress of the Kuomintang of China (中國國民黨第一次全國代表大會宣言) seemed to echo communist criticisms of “modern states” (meaning those of the West) as being bourgeois tools of oppression. "The so-called civil rights systems of modern states have often been monopolized by the bourgeoisie and have become tools for oppressing the common people,” Sun’s declaration read.

Shortly after the signing of the Sun-Joffe Manifesto, Sun had dispatched the young military leader Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) to Russia to study the Soviet military apparatus. Two decades later, amid the Chinese Civil War, CCP leader Mao Zedong was scathing in his criticism of KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek, dismissing his “peace talks” as a sham. In a dispatch for the CCP’s Xinhua News Agency, founded in 1931, Mao twice referred to Chiang’s “so-called peace talks” (蒋介石的所谓和谈).

The critical modifier “so-called” would become standard fare in attacks on the CCP’s perceived enemies from the 1940s onward. Like today (and here), attacks in the 1950s in the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper on the bourgeois press in the West, referred to “America’s so-called freedom of speech” dominated by press barons. In one of the newspaper’s more colorful “so-called” attacks, it ridiculed a holiday greeting from the American president to the American people: “Eisenhower’s so-called ‘Christmas message,’” it said, “should be called an April Fool’s Day message.”

Alex Colville


The CMP Dictionary