HONG KONG — As you might imagine, the learning curve is steep for American journalists writing about the People’s Republic of China.
In addition to the language (hard), the history (long), and the political system (opaque), there is the matter of how to present contemporary China’s complexity to a US audience, and make it understandable and interesting.
One way to do this is to rely on clichés.
While clichés lack the elegance of freshly crafted phrases, they’re not innately bad. Journalists on deadline often deploy them — regardless of the subject — to help communicate efficiently with busy readers.
In the United States, we refer to political contests as “horse races” — an effective shorthand for the neck-and-neck strategic posturing that determines who gets elected. We call certain people “hawks” or “doves,” and everyone has a rough sense of their foreign policy attitudes.
Yet when covering the People’s Republic, journalists have a habit of deploying politically charged clichés without regard to the ideological luggage they carry.
In doing so, they unwittingly advance the agenda of China’s Communist leadership.
It’s important to remember that China’s government controls the media, the education system and every branch of government. As such, the regime exercises extensive sway over language. The influence on local citizens is obvious. But the phrases foreign reporters absorb and repeat affect the world’s understanding of the country — and not always for the better.
Below are some of the loaded clichés that commonly crop up.
GlobalPost encourages you to suggest other examples in the comments section at the bottom of this article, or to weigh in on coverage of China in general.
1. Referring to China’s “century of humiliation” — From The Economist to the South China Morning Post, this phrase is used in explaining a certain aspect of China’s touchiness toward the outside world.
The cliché dates to the early 20th century, but since the 1990s it has been emphasized in Chinese education. The “century of humiliation” refers to the years between the first Opium War in 1840, and the communist takeover in 1949, when Japanese and Western powers controlled parts of the Chinese empire.
The “century of humiliation” is a convenient phrase for key propaganda reasons: While there’s no question that China suffered tragically in the 20th century, millions more were killed by Maoist policies than died during foreign occupation.
So the neat turn of phrase deflects criticism, and creates a nationalist fervor that helps cement domestic control. It also, unfortunately, fuels a sense of outraged victimhood, and a desire for revenge — benefitting the ruling elite.
2. Crediting the government with “lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty” — From The New York Times to Time to the World Bank, this phrase has become so standard and ubiquitous that people tend not even to think about it.
The problem is this: Chinese people weren’t “lifted” out of poverty. They lifted themselves. The Chinese economy’s incredible growth since 1980 came about not because of some omniscient Communist Party planning, but because the party backed off from the crushing, destructive Maoist policies.
After the nightmare of famine and chaos in the 1960s and 1970s, it is undoubtedly a miracle that China grew as fast as it did — but the credit for that goes to the resilience and entrepreneurialism of the Chinese people, not to the party that held them back for decades.
3. Needlessly referring to China’s “5,000 years of history” — No one doubts that China has a long history, in which its people take great and justified pride.
What’s strange, however, is how often this particular phrase is trotted out, even in articles that have nothing to do with history. (See recent examples from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.) Reporters typically don’t feel the need to mention the antiquity of India, Greece, Rome, Egypt, Iran or Iraq when explaining them.
So why China?
Again, it’s no accident. The idea of China’s “5,000 years of history” is everywhere in China’s state-run media and propaganda. The government stresses this phrase as a way to build legitimacy, and as a way to assert China’s special, unique place on the world stage.
The reality is, every country and civilization has a history, and China’s is not unique in being old. In fact, the civilizations of Egypt and the Middle East are older. But this history is useful in projecting contemporary political power and for insinuating that contemporary China is entitled to singular respect and deference due to its age.
4. Calling China’s supreme leader “the president” — Pop quiz: What’s the most powerful political office in China?
If you guessed “president,” you’re wrong.
It’s the General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. In China,"president" is a largely ceremonial title that is bestowed on whoever wins the office of general secretary — but it's the secretary position that counts.
There’s a good reason for the confusion over which name to use, however.
English-language media almost exclusively refers to Xi Jinping, the most powerful man in China, as “the president.” A recent Google News search for “President Xi Jinping” turned up nearly 6,000 results, while a search for “Chairman Xi Jinping” (the title by which he’s known in Chinese) turned up three hits.
Even Chinese state-run media call him “president” in English, while calling him “chairman” in Chinese.
The reason is obvious: Using the word “president” makes Xi sound equivalent to a democratically elected head of state. The reality is, in China Xi Jinping is called the same thing Mao Zedong was called: “chairman.” If we’re willing to say “Chairman Mao,” why not “Chairman Xi?”
5. Referring to free thinkers as “activists” or “dissidents” — There are many, many people in China who want more political liberties, freedom of speech, and rule of law. Most of them try to pursue these goals within the political system. Very, very few of them actively seek to subvert the Chinese government.
So why, when writing about people like the sacked professor Xia Yeliang, blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, billionaire liberal Wang Gongquan, or human-rights defender Gao Zhisheng, do we always call them “activists” or “dissidents”? (I also have done this.)
Professor Perry Link, a sinologist at the University of California, Riverside, pointed out this cliché to me. The problem, he says, is that it unfairly marginalizes legitimate Chinese voices.
“Calling free thinkers ‘dissidents’ makes them seem like a fringe, when actually most dissidents have spoken for mainstream opinion,” he wrote in an email to GlobalPost.
“What makes them unusual is only that they are ready to pay the price for speaking frankly, while others are not. The Party explicitly uses the metaphor ‘mainstream’ to refer to its official positions, even when they are way out of line with popular feeling.”
In other words, people only become dissidents when the Chinese government decides to punish or persecute them for views that aren’t necessarily unusual.
And now, it’s your turn. Any other nominees for clichés to avoid? Please let us know in the comments section.