News, analysis, and commentary on Chinese-language media from the PRC and beyond.
Welcome to Lingua Sinica:
I recently returned from the Civic IDEA conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, which brought together experts from around Europe and Central and East Asia to discuss “small states in the changing world order.” The focus during the two days was on China’s increasing influence in the South Caucasus, a region that throughout history has been an arena for the “Great Game” of superpower rivalry. One key point I took away is that more must be done to close the gap in understanding of China’s official diplomatic and political discourse, and its real implications for this and other regions of the world.
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Though still a relative newcomer to the region, China’s influence is being felt more strongly there. Over the summer, Georgia signed a strategic partnership with China that promises increased trade and infrastructure development but threatens to strain the country’s ties with long-standing Western partners. In the opening paragraph of the agreement, Georgia affirmed the One-China Principle (一個中國原則), endorsing Beijing’s claim over Taiwan in a way that went far beyond what most Western countries have accepted in order to maintain cordial ties and deeper trade with the PRC. Despite this major concession to Beijing, most Georgians I spoke to, including local journalists, had little understanding of what exactly the One-China Principle entails and how it differs from other countries' one-China policies (一個中國政策).
By providing research and analysis of official media discourse and policies, we can equip others to listen to Beijing with the same critical ear with which they should listen to other major powers, including Moscow and Washington. Take two examples just from today's edition of Lingua Sinica: how the latest grand buzzword, Xi Jinping Thought on Culture, masks questions of power and legitimacy behind an elaborate facade; and how state media's lack of real interest in the Gaza conflict reveals that it is more concerned with glorifying the country's top leader than grappling seriously with one of the world's most pressing concerns.
Ryan Ho Kilpatrick
CMP Managing Editor
IN THE NEWS
A Long Time Coming
Australian journalist Cheng Lei was freed last week after three years imprisoned in China on vague charges of sharing state secrets. Cheng spent years working as a reporter in the PRC, and at the time of her detention in 2020 was a business anchor for state-owned broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN). She and fellow Australian Yang Hengjun — who remains in detention — were arrested as relations between Beijing and Canberra deteriorated amid a growing trade war. In a closed-door trial with no publicly disclosed evidence, Cheng was convicted of “illegally sharing state secrets” the following year.
Jailed for Jumping the Gun?
Chinese coverage of Cheng’s homecoming has been predictably terse and unforthcoming. As with the 2021 release of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — who were seized in 2018 in retaliation for extradition proceedings against Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou — headlines in China, most citing the Ministry of State Security, have reported that Cheng was “expelled” from China rather than freed.
In an interview with Australia’s Sky News on October 17, Cheng revealed that the reason for her three-year detention was that she broke a press embargo on a Chinese government briefing by just a few minutes.
Tired of Hearing About Gaza? Read China’s Party-Run Media.
While the international community, and international news readers, have been keen to understand China’s official media treatment of the conflict — and have noted rightly that state media have generally “come down hard on Israel” — the fact is the Gaza story has been almost entirely missing from the headlines in Chinese newspapers and on news portals over the past week.
Sure, official outlets have released reports on various aspects. Xinhua reported on October 8, for example, that “Hamas had launched sneak attacks on an unprecedented scale” — a phrase that hardly captured the extremes of brutality visited on Israeli citizens, including children, the previous day.
But anyone this past week who trawled Xinhua’s website, or turned through the pages of the official People’s Daily newspaper, found just one major focus in the headlines: Xi Jinping. The top stories consistently were 1) the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative; 2) the introduction of the phrase “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” to the CCP’s political lexicon; and 3) Xi’s supposed innovation of Marxism for the 21st century. On October 17, one of the most prominent stories in the Chinese state media was the arrival in Beijing of foreign heads of state, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, to attend China’s Belt and Road Forum. Even when they were ostensibly about trade and development, the common thread in all of these stories was the glorification of China’s top leader.
On October 19, Xi Jinping fronted every single headline on the front page of the People's Daily. The focus was again the Belt and Road Forum and Xi's handshakes with leaders from Argentina, Kenya, Nigeria, and the United Nations. Prominent coverage of Xi's meeting with Putin mentioned friendly relations and the need for a multipolar world — but nothing about the situation in Gaza. Incredibly, the readout of Xi's meeting with UN Secretary General António Guterres also mentioned nothing about Israel, Gaza, or the Middle East.
Breaking Down Xi Jinping’s Latest Grandiose Buzzword
With all the talk in recent months in China of “new civilizational splendor” (文明新辉煌) in everything from sports to Marxism, heritage protection to village life, it is impossible not to sit up and take notice of the country’s fulsome messaging on culture. Surely, something must be happening. No? As officials emerged last weekend from the latest Chinese Communist Party work conference, the language mounted further. They unveiled yet another eponymous phrase for the country’s top leader: Xi Jinping Thought on Culture (习近平文化思想).
In the Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, a front-page tribute on October 11 deemed the phrase a “significant milestone” (里程碑意义), suggesting excitedly that the general secretary had “accurately grasped the trend of mutual ideological and cultural agitation worldwide.” What does all of this nonsense mean? Why is China building the rhetoric over culture and civilization to such dizzying heights?
If we avoid becoming distracted by the monumentality of the cathedral of language before us, and gaze past its gothic flourishes, the answer is deceptively simple. Xi Jinping’s obsession with culture is about the need to disguise basic questions of power and legitimacy behind the elaborate stonework of political discourse.
Grab your chisels. In Xi Jinping’s Cathedral of Pretense, we take a hard look at the foundations of Xi Jinping Thought on Culture.
New Hong Kong, New Culture
In line with the newly minted Xi Jinping Thought on Culture (習近平文化思想), Hong Kong must develop a “New Culture with Hong Kong Characteristics” (香港特色新文化), according to a commentary in the state-affiliated Ta Kung Pao newspaper, which is owned by the Central Government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong.
The piece, penned by an unnamed researcher at Jinan University’s Research Base for Forging a Strong Sense of Chinese National Consciousness, urges Beijing to “utilize” the city as “a base for external propaganda,” extolling its diversity and international connections.
Perhaps the author has failed to grasp how fully Beijing’s actions have undermined those strengths, compelling a flight of international talent and investment. As the efforts of local authorities to “tell good Hong Kong stories” have shown, laundering the city’s own reputation is challenging enough. Cleansing global views of China through Hong Kong? That is a big ask.
What exactly constitutes New Culture with Hong Kong Characteristics remains an open question, answerable by whichever authority seeks to remold the city’s identity in a way more amenable to Beijing’s interests. As with Xi Jinping Thought on Culture itself, here talk of “culture” is used to disguise basic questions of power and legitimacy.
To break down what Xi Jinping Thought on Culture really means, read “Xi Jinping’s Cathedral of Pretense.” And for an in-depth look at how political language in Hong Kong is increasingly mimicking that of mainland China — with something lost in translation — read “In Hong Kong, Learning to Speak Like the CCP.”
Today Taiwan, Tomorrow Okinawa?
In Tokyo, the “Taiwan contingency” — a buzzphrase encompassing the question of what to do in the event of a PRC invasion of Japan’s near neighbor — has lately become a hot-button issue. As China becomes increasingly aggressive and pushes its air force, navy, and coast guard further across the Strait, it has become clear to Japan that Taiwan’s problems are also Japan’s problems. In the event of a PRC invasion, Japan’s support would be a critical factor in defending Taiwan. However, for the people of Okinawa, Japan’s southern and westernmost prefecture, the problem has already become more than hypothetical. Just over 100 kilometers from Taiwan’s eastern coast, the prefecture is already feeling the effects of this contingency.
To better understand Okinawa’s concerns, Taiwan’s The Reporter (報導者) traveled to several islands across the Japanese island chain. Home to US armed forces bases since WWII, Okinawa is no stranger to military presence. It is one of the regions on Earth with the greatest concentration of military bases and installations. Some residents in the area told the independent Taiwanese news outlet that they are sick of the “burden of everyday injustice” they have had to endure, from environmental destruction to noise pollution and the crimes of US soldiers. One preschool teacher, now an anti-base activist, described to The Reporter how falling debris from a military aircraft came within meters of crushing his students.
For a fisherman on long-neglected Yonaguni island, however, the increasing presence by the country’s Self-Defense Forces is welcome. Aggressive behavior by Chinese ships has scared many fishermen away from fishing grounds within Japan’s waters, he told The Reporter. When the then-US House Speaker visited Taiwan last year, China fired five missiles into the country’s maritime economic zone. High time, he says for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to defend them — something they need US military support to accomplish.
To get the full picture, read “Today Taiwan, Tomorrow Okinawa” by The Reporter.
The Tyranny of Full Openness
This month, a new internet regulatory measure could be on the horizon requiring all influential self-media (自媒体) accounts in China — referring to more grassroots social media accounts generally operated by individuals — to publicly display the identities of the people behind them. Such a public real-name system (实名制), some fear, could have a chilling effect on one of the country's more vibrant information spaces, prompting some accounts to cease operating and others to self-censor out of fear of bullying and online harassment.
Rumors of the new requirement were first mentioned in a post to Weibo on October 13 by well-known Chinese investor Hong Rong (洪榕), who wrote: "A front-end real-name registration system is going to be implemented across the entire self-media landscape [in China]. This means the real names behind Big V accounts are going to be displayed on the front of the first level page. Fans will be able to know whether the Big V they follow is a man or a woman, and who they are in actuality. It is probable that some Big Vs will disappear [as a result]."
The rumor immediately prompted fevered discussion online in China, and Hong Rong followed the next day by reporting that the new measure would impact accounts with at least one million followers, exposing a wide range of influencers and key opinion leaders (KOLs) across social media platforms and livestreaming sites.
The news was also reported by a range of outlets in and outside China this week, including Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, and Hong Kong’s HK01 — though without official confirmation. A representative at Weibo told the Southern Metropolis Daily that they “have not yet received a notice, and do not know the details.” They did not deny the measures were on the horizon, however, and even added that “the upfront real-name [system] will at this time be mainly for self-media accounts.”
Curbing Cyberspace Chaos?
A related report on the Netease Chinese news portal asked in the headline whether “the era of the great open box” (大开盒时代) had arrived. For its part, Global Times English, run by the CCP’s official People’s Daily celebrated the still unconfirmed measures, saying that they would “curb cyberspace chaos.”
China’s Online Antisemitism Resurfaces
China’s tightly controlled internet platforms have been awash with antisemitic comments since the Hamas attacks on Israel sparked war in Gaza. It’s been a mask-off moment for widespread prejudices that have long lurked just below the surface.
In an essay for CMP in July, Tuvia Gering and Jordyne Haime explored online antisemitism in China. The essay begins with the Fugu Plan, a popular conspiracy theory that imperial Japan sought to populate its Manchukuo puppet state in northeast China with German-Jewish refugees, and then zooms out to look at other common stereotypes and tropes. Even works ostensibly positive about Jewish people rely on these, portraying them as a successful but shadowy cabal of elites pulling the strings in global finance and geopolitics. As Gering and Haime show, these beliefs aren’t just confined to the online masses but go all the way up to China’s top leadership.
Hong Kong’s Shrinking Internet
While much international press attention has focused on Hong Kong’s national security law and the related arrest of high-profile activists, this is far from the only way society is being remolded in the city. In a recent article for Nikkei Asia, Charles Mok, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and the director of Tech for Good Asia, and George Chen, managing director of The Asia Group, wrote about how the Communications Authority (CA), Hong Kong’s local telecommunications body, has quietly been given expanded powers in Hong Kong to monitor and block communications. To learn more, we reached out to Mok, who previously served as a legislator representing the Information Technology sector in Hong Kong's Legislative Council.
What new powers have legislation granted authorities over telecommunications in Hong Kong?
The problem is, it's not legislation. The example I am citing is the growing use of the administrative and regulatory power that a regulator is using to extend its authority without, or bypassing, the need to legislate. So, in that sense, it is not new — it is not a piece of new or recent legislation. It is simply extending existing power in ways that, arguably, the original legislative intent did not cover. In that sense, it is not really "new power" per se.
The second example in my co-authored article similarly talked about the use of the court to get a targeted injunction, which is similar in the sense that it also bypasses the need to legislate, and ends up with the same sort of broad and vague language in the injunction as in the licensing condition in the first case.
How could this be used to control and monitor communications or stifle speech?
The problem here is that no one will challenge this sort of administrative and regulatory action by the regulator. The telco licensees likely wouldn't, especially under the kind of political environment in Hong Kong today. Note that Google, Meta, and so on are not telcos, so they're not covered, so these types of players will not have to object either. That Google did not object or intervene in the anthem injunction [over “Glory to Hong Kong”] is another story. This kind of arguably arbitrary or over-reaching use of administrative and regulatory power will likely go unchecked, especially with a weak legislature that won't ask the right questions.
Any law enforcement agency — not only the CA and the police — can order the licensees to block websites and to stop calls and messages. No need to go through the courts. No transparency. No certainty whether and how these requests may be based on laws without court or any other kind of oversight.
What upcoming legislation could intensify this trend of increased control?
All the laws that the Chief Executive has mentioned in his last policy address — the cybersecurity law, the misinformation law, the Article 23 local security legislation, further updating to the national security law, and so on .... We know very little about any of these since there have been no details from the government, so we have to wait for their consultation papers.
And we can’t forget the consultation on the crowdfunding law, [which is all about political vetting], and Hong Kong’s new cybercrime law consultation by the Law Reform Commission, which threatens to further weaken the IT sector, punish whistleblowers and journalists, and leave the door open for judicial abuse and political repression. And it’s not just about the things they do, but also the things they don't do, like strengthening the privacy law in any area other than anti-doxxing.
How does Hong Kong's approach to internet censorship differ from mainland China's, and do you believe the city will continue to take this different approach in the future?
The Great Firewall can only be useful in China, because China started doing it from the start about 30 years ago. You can't go back from a relatively open regime and revert back to a Great Firewall. Not even Russia can do it.
But countries and governments are using targeted laws and administrative means to censor, like what's happening in Singapore and India. That's good enough for most countries and governments because, just like Hong Kong, they don't really want to kick out all the Googles and Metas. They want to pretend to be friendly to businesses. And businesses want to pretend that they are free so they can stay.
So whether in Myanmar or in Singapore, tech companies will want to see laws or orders, administrative or court, that tell them what to do, then they can simply "follow the local laws." Case closed. Hong Kong will take this approach — not a complete Great Firewall that bans everything, censors everything, and nationalizes internet gateways. Hong Kong can't afford that.
DID YOU KNOW?
An Insider’s View of the Outside
Reference News (参考消息), which claims today to be China’s largest mass circulation daily newspaper, has its origins in the digests of foreign news compiled for senior leaders of the Chinese Soviet Republic, including Mao Zedong, beginning in November 1931. Creating these digests was one of the first tasks at the time by the newly-created Red China News Agency (红色中华通讯社), the communist-run news service that was the precursor to today’s Xinhua News Agency. The digests were originally internal publications intended to inform top officials of news outside communist-held areas, drawing on newswires, newspapers and periodicals. Such internal publications are generally known in Chinese as “internal references,” or neican (内参).
In the 1930s and 1940s, earlier versions of Reference News chiefly drew on information from the Kuomintang's Central News Agency (中央社) — which still exists as Taiwan's CNA — and a small number of foreign reports. After the CCP’s victory in the Chinese Civil War, the circulation of Reference News, though still internal, was expanded to around 3,000 copies daily, distributed to CCP officials and also leaders of the minor and non-oppositional political parties, including the China Democratic League (中国民主同盟).
Mobilizing the Masses Against Mao’s Enemies
The leap to mass popularity for Reference News came after 1956 in an act of political maneuvering by Chairman Mao Zedong in the wake of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” denouncing Josef Stalin, which sent ripples across the communist world and contributed to a disintegration of the Sino-Soviet Alliance.
By November 1956, about nine months after Khrushchev's speech, Mao recognized that criticisms of Stalin, long valorized within China and viewed as a model, posed a serious challenge to his own leadership — "having a major impact on the masses of cadres who were not ideologically prepared," as a CCTV summary decades later phrased the problem. The following month, he issued a directive to expand the circulation of Reference News, which said that “it is necessary to keep our cadres duly informed of the situation of our enemies and of the views of our enemies, as well as of those of our friends which differ from ours.” In the midst of the Anti-Rightist Movement that followed in 1957, purging and persecuting hundreds of thousands, Reference News became a mass-circulation newspaper, and a crucial tool in Mao’s ideological arsenal.
Selectively Focusing Praise and Criticism
Today, the daily Reference News remains broadly popular among Chinese Party-state media. In keeping with its longstanding role as a propaganda tool, or “mouthpiece” (喉舌), of the leadership, it tends to work more as a mirror of PRC positives and foreign negatives, both gratifying the leadership, than as an accurate reflection of foreign news and criticism. One recent example was how the publication made a selective translation of “The Release of Fukushima Wastewater Will Symbolically Hurt Japan,” a column written for The Diplomat by Maxime Polleri, an assistant professor at Canada’s Université Laval, who is writing a book about the Fukushima disaster. While Polleri’s commentary was an even-handed look at the possible impact of Japan’s decision to release treated nuclear waste into the sea, China’s translation served to amplify a key Chinese government talking point — that Japan is an irresponsible and insensitive regional neighbor.
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