China’s Political Discourse July 2021: Floods in Henan; Matter of national importance 国之大者; Tedros
By China Media Project
Floods in Henan
In July, the curtain opened on the celebration of the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the major propaganda event of the year. Centennial celebrations pushed many key Party slogans and buzzwords to a relatively high frequency of use in the official People’s Daily newspaper. As the month progressed, however, China’s media came to be dominated by the story of historic rainfall and heavy flooding in Henan province, perhaps the most jarring news story since the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic in early 2020.
As flooding devastated Henan there were calls once again – as in the case of Covid in January and February last year – for mutual aid and support. And there were also public calls for greater action as flooding exposed the drawbacks of a system in which responses had to filter through layers of bureaucracy before being translated into real action. Internet users, for example, expressed frustration with Henan TV, which continued to broadcast anti-Japanese dramas even as the floods became the sole and urgent concern in the province.
The response to the Henan floods provides our first Focus Topic for July 2021. But we look also at how World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has gradually faded from official reports in China as his remarks have focused more recently on the need for a further investigation into the origins of Covid-19 – and less on positive assessments of China’s early response to the virus.
Moving on to our analysis.
The Hot and the Cold
About the CMP Discourse Scale:
According to the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016, based on a historical analysis of keywords appearing in the China Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, we define a six-tier system of discourse intensity based on the total number of appearances of a given discourse term on a per article basis for the full year in the paper. The scale is as follows:
For 2021, CMP will adjust its classification method for CCP discourse, determining the intensity (热度) of Party terminologies according to the absolute number of articles including those terms in the People's Daily newspaper. Previously, CMP used a proportional method, which looked at the number of articles including a particular catchphrase (提法) as a ratio of total articles in the newspaper over a given period. Our monthly classification standard, based on the six-level scale created in 2016, is as follows:
In July 2021, key CCP terminologies continued the warming trend observed through June. For the first time this year, “Marx” (马克思) and “Belt and Road” (一带一路) entered Tier 1 territory. In the case of “Marx,” this reflected an emphasis on Marx and his influence on the CCP’s founding history during centennial celebrations. In the case of “Belt and Road”, this reflected mention of the initiative in greetings from other countries for the CCP anniversary, several Xi phone calls with foreign leaders, and meetings held by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, legacy. “Comprehensively building a modern socialist nation” (全面建设社会主义现代化国家) experienced a moderate decline in use, dropping to Tier 2 from Tier 1 in June.
There were a number of fluctuations between Tiers 2 and 3 in July. The phrases “matter of national importance” (国之大者), the “four comprehensives” (四个全面), “five-in-one” (五位一体), “the national governance system and the modernization of governing capacity” (国家治理体系和治理能力现代化), “law-based governance” (依法治国) and “comprehensively deepening reform” (全面深化改革) all rose from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in July, again reflecting the importance of these terms as part of Xi Jinping’s legacy since the 18th National Congress of the CCP in November 2012.
The phrase "matter of national importance" was first mentioned by Xi Jinping in April 2020, during an inspection tour of Shaanxi, and from that point became a term used with relatively high frequency. It essentially calls on CCP cadres and officials to be vigilantly “speak politics” (讲政治), being fully mindful of the priorities and directives of the CCP Central Committee, and strengthening the so-called “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), “Four Confidences” (四个自信) and “Two Upholds” (两个维护). But these three terms, which can be referred to collectively as the “442 Formula,” are used also to signal loyalty to Xi Jinping. The first of the “Two Upholds” is to protect the core status of General Secretary Xi Jinping, while the second is to protect the unified leadership of the Central Committee. For this reason, “matter of national importance,” or guozhi dazhe, points not just to policy priorities but to the role and power of Xi himself.
Several other key phrases, including “innovation drive” (创新驱动), “Chinese intelligence” (中国智慧), “independent innovation” (自主创新), “institutional advantages” (制度优势) and “top-level design” (顶层设计), dropped from Tier 2 to Tier 3 in July.
Terms moving two tiers in July included: “industrial robotics” (工业机器人), rising from Tier 6 to Tier 4, corresponding to the release of mid-year economic data and related analyses mentioning the term; and “the dominant position of the people” (人民主体地位), which dropped from Tier 4 to Tier 6 – though this drop is not particularly significant. The phrase “the dominant position of the people,” which dates back to 2012, was mentioned as one of eight "must adheres" (必须坚持) at the 18th National Congress of the CCP in 2012, essentially the idea that the masses – and not individual human beings – are the driving force in the creation of history, and that they are the primary force, under the “correct leadership” (正确领导) of the CCP, for the realization of so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色社会主义). The phrase is essentially, then, about the legitimacy of the CCP as the leader of the masses in making history. During celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC in October 2019, Xi Jinping said: "On the journey forward, we must adhere to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, adhere to the dominant position of the people, adhere to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, fully implement the basic theory, basic line and basic strategy of the Party, constantly meet the people's aspirations for a better life, and constantly create great new historical undertakings."
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of July 2021 and how they rated on our scale:
CMP Rating and Total Articles With Term
沸 Tier 1
肺炎 (Pneumonia)、马克思 (Marx)、改革开放 (reform and opening)、脱贫攻坚 (poverty alleviation)、以习近平同志为核心 (with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core)、疫情防控 (epidemic prevention and control)、习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想 (Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for the New Era)、一带一路 (Belt and Road)
烫 Tier 2
中国梦 (the Chinese Dream)、全面建设社会主义现代化国家 (comprehensively building a modern socialist nation)、以人民为中心 (with the people as the core)、新发展格局 (new development pattern)、新发展理念 (new development concept)、人类命运共同体 (community of common destiny)、获得感 (sense of gain)、新发展阶段 (new development stage)、全面建成小康 (comprehensively building a well-off society)、绿色发展 (green development)、不忘初心 (not forgetting the original intent)、党史学习教育（Party history learning and education）、毛泽东 (Mao Zedong)、红色基因 (red genes)、共同富裕 (common prosperity)、两个维护 (Two Upholds)、四个自信 (Four Confidences)、国家安全 (national security)、百年未有之大变局 (major changes not seen in a century)、四个意识 (Four Conciousnesses)、5G、全面从严治党 (comprehensive strict governance of the Party)、供给侧 (supply side)、两个一百年 (two centennial goals)、邓小平 (Deng Xiaoping)、自我革命 (self-revolution)、社会治理 (social governance)、国之大者 (matter of national importance)、四个全面 (Four Comprehensives)、五位一体 (five-in-one)、国家治理体系和治理能力现代化 (the national governance system and the modernization of governing capacity)、依法治国 (law-based governance of the country)、全面深化改革 (comprehensively deepening reform)
热 Tier 3
乡村振兴战略 (rural revitalization strategy)、创新驱动 (innovation drive), 中国智慧 (China’s wisdom)、自主创新 (independent innovation), 制度优势 (institutional advantages)、列宁 (Lenin)、全面依法治国 (comprehensive law-based governance)、顶层设计 (top-level design)、放管服 (streamlining services)、中国方案 (China solution)、复工复产 (work resumption)、反腐败 (anti-corruption)、社会革命 (social revolution)、国内国际双循环 (dual circulation of the domestic and the international)、政治领悟力 (political perception)、政治判断力 (political judgement)、政治执行力 (political execution)、霸权主义 (hegemonism)、习近平法治思想 (Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law)、芯片 (microchips)、中国力量 (China’s strength)、单边主义 (unilateralism)、稳中求进 (seek improvement in stability )、富强民主文明和谐美丽 (prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful)、深化改革开放 (deepening reform and opening)、八项规定 (eight-point decision” [on improving Party conduct] ), 区块链 (block chain)、金融风险 (financial risk)
暖 Tier 4
习近平生态文明思想 (Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization)、习近平强军思想 (Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military)、善治 (good governance)、保护主义 (protectionism)、外部势力 (external forces)、人民日益增长的美好生活需要和不平衡不充分的发展之间的矛盾 (the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life)、系统观念 (system concepts)、雄安 (Xiong’an)、四风 (Four Malfeasances)、政治安全 (political security)、社会管理 (social management)、工业机器人 (industrial robotics)、协商民主 (consultative democracy)、六稳 (Six Stabilities)、六保 (Six Guarantees)、维稳 (stability preservation)、撸起袖子加油干 (rolling up our sleeves and working with extra energy)
温 Tier 5
两学一做 (Two Studies, One Action)、三大攻坚战 (the three critical battles)、红船精神 (Spirit of the Red Boat)、法治政府 (government ruled by law)、简政放权 (simplifying procedures and delegating powers)、中美关系 (China-US relations)、稳预期 (stabilizing expectations)、司法公正 (judicial justice)、三严三实 (the three stricts and three steadies)、稳就业 (stabilizing employment)、知情权 (right to know)、稳增长 (stable growth)、习近平外交思想 (Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy)、政治领导力、思想引领力、群众组织力、社会号召力 (political leadership, thought leadership, mass organization, social charisma)、参与权 (right to participate)、人民民主专政 (people’s democratic dictatorship)、经济体制改革 (economic system reforms)、人民安全 (people’s security)、大众创业万众创新 (mass entrepreneurship and innovation)、政治规矩 (political discipline)、舆论引导 (public opinion channeling)、敌对势力 (hostile forces)、梁家河 (Liangjiahe)、习近平新时代中国特色社会主义经济思想 (Xi Jinping's Economic Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era)、党是领导一切的 (the Party rules all)、稳投资 (stabilizing investment)
冷 Tier 6
人民主体地位 (the dominant position of the people)、政务公开 (open government affairs)、国际影响力、感召力、塑造力 (international influence, ability to inspire , power to shape)、司法体制改革 (judicial system reforms)、四项基本原则 (Four Basic Principles)、以德治国 (ruling the country with virtue)、四大考验 (four major tests)、监督权 (right to supervise)、舆论监督 (supervision by public opinion)、五个坚持 (Five Persists)、量子通信 (Quantum communication )、权力清单 (power list)、军民融合 (military-civilian integration)、稳外贸 (stabilizing foreign trade)、领航掌舵 (pilot at the helm)、定于一尊 一锤定音 (one position in the highest authority, making the final decisions)、下行压力 (downward pressure)、重遏制、强高压、长震慑 (effective constraints, tough measures, long-term deterrence)、依宪执政 (constitution-based governance)、依宪治国 (military-civilian integration)、服务型政府 (service-style government)、国家利益至上 (the interests of the nation above all)、无人驾驶汽车 (driverless vehicles)、国内大循环 (prioritizing the domestic cycle)、稳外资 (stabilizing foreign investment)、表达权 (right to express)、舆论斗争 (public opinion struggle)、合宪性审查 (constitutional review)、把权力关进笼子 (shutting power in the cage)、妄议中央 (improper discussion of the policies of the Central Committee)、重大决策终身责任追究制度 (lifetime accountability system for major decisions)、全国一盘棋 (the whole country as an entity)、保护人民人身权、财产权、人格权 (protecting the people’s rights of person, property and personality)、防止党内形成利益集团 (preventing the emergence of interest groups within the Party)、领导干部职务终身制 (system of life-long tenure)、任何组织或者个人都不得有超越宪法法律的特权 (no organization or individual is to have special privileges that exceed the constitution and the law)、稳金融 (stabilizing finance)
Data Source: People’s Daily
Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016.
The Litmus List
Among the nine keywords on our Litmus List, a group including seven terms synonymous with past leadership and two generally indicating discussion of political reform, four terms experienced a rise in use, moving from Tier 4 to Tier 3. These included “people oriented” (以人为本), which was originally at the heart of former President Hu Jintao’s sustainability oriented banner term “Scientific View of Development” (科学发展观), as well as the banner terms of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, “Deng Xiaoping Theory” (邓小平理论) and the “Three Represents” (三个代表). These three banner terms prior to the Xi era are sometimes referred to collectively in Chinese with the shorthand deng san ke (邓三科).
Why did these four terms associated with the previous three generations of top leaders experience greater frequency of use? In fact, this was tied to the political prominence of Xi Jinping as centennial celebrations took center stage. The terms, pointing to the accumulated legacies of CCP governance since the onset of reform and opening in the late 1970s, were mentioned as a matter of course in references to a series of articles on Xi’s banner term that received prominent play in the People’s Daily: "A Study Q&A on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想学习问答).
The coldest term on our Litmus List for July was, not surprisingly, “political system reforms” or zhengzhi tizhe gaige (政治体制改革), a relatively sensitive phrase historically directed at the problem of abuse of power in China. The term “inner-party democracy” (党内民主), which points to more deliberative decision-making within the CCP, was also in Tier 6, appearing just twice in July.
The Centrality Index
Once again in July, Xi Jinping dominated among central leaders in the CCP Politburo, remaining the only leader in Tier 1, with 718 unique articles in the People’s Daily mentioning his name. And once again, Tier 2 remained empty of other Politburo members, emphasizing the yawning gap in position between Xi and the rest of the field. In Tier 3, two levels below Xi, Premier Li Keqiang stood alone, with 26 articles in the CCP’s flagship newspaper mentioning his name for the month. The remaining Politburo members were arrayed across Tiers 4, 5 and 6.
Overall mentions of provincial officials in the People's Daily was at a similar level in July compared to June. Among provincial-level officials, Shanghai’s Li Qiang (李强) and Beijing’s Cai Qi (蔡奇) topped the rankings, each with five mentions for the month. Li’s name was mentioned in articles on “high-level reform and opening” (高水平改革开放) in Pudong, the debut of China’s carbon trading scheme, as well as an end-of-the-month conference on the study of Xi Jinping’s “important statements” on “people’s democracy” (人民民主).
Cai Qi was mentioned when attending events such as the commemoration of 84th anniversary of the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War (抗战), traditionally dated to the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, when clashes between Chinese and Japanese forces outside Beijing (Peiping) prompted Japan’s full-scale invasion of China.
The top leader of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo (陈全国), was third in terms of total mentions in July. He appeared in three separate reports, dealing with “pairing assistance” with coastal provinces and cities for investment and development in Xinjiang (Chinese report here), and a four-day trip to the region by Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang (汪洋).
In July, Putin maintained his Tier 4 rating from June with 14 articles, securing his position as the most frequently mentioned foreign head of state. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un rose from Tier 6 to Tier 5 as he was mentioned in seven articles, including reports on his congratulations on the CCP’s centennial as well as the 60th anniversary of the signing of the China-DPRK Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance on July 11, 1961.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also rose into Tier 5 territory with four articles as the People’s Daily reported on his country’s decision to extend Covid-19 quarantine measures, and on Ramaphosa’s video address to China’s World Political Parties Summit on July 6.
All other foreign heads of state languished at the bottom in Tier 6 in July.
US President Joe Biden was mentioned in just a single article in July, a report about the meeting in Beijing on July 26 between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
In July, the United States, Japan, Russia, the UK and France were all in Tier 2, while Germany dropped from Tier 2 to Tier 3. Germany was joined in Tier 3 by Spain, Mexico, North Korea and Singapore, which all rose from Tier 4. Meanwhile, Poland, Belgium and Laos all dropped from Tier 3 to Tier 4.
While June, in the run up to the Party’s centennial celebrations, was a relatively quiet month in terms of public opinion controversies and breaking news stories, the second half of July brought a number of stunning stories, several of them related to the dramatic scenes emerging from Henan, where prolonged heavy rainfall caused disastrous flooding in the region and caused the death of more than 200 people. For July, we focus on three surprise phrases that offer interesting insights into sentiment in China.
Weaponizing the Weather
On July 22, attention on social media was drawn to a post by an author identified as “Classmate Xiao Wen, Political Commissar's Studio” (政委工作室 小温同学) to the WeChat public account “Political Commissar Canrong” (政委灿荣), an account authorized by Professor Jin Canrong (金灿荣), associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China. The post, called "With Frequent Extreme Weather, We Must Be Alert to ‘Weather Weapon’ Attacks From Hostile Nations” (极端天气频发，需警惕敌对国家“气象武器”的攻击!), said while speaking about extreme weather events: “Aside from natural and man-made disasters, we must also be alert to another possibility, and that is – attacks from hostile nations using weather weapons.”
The post briefly described the history and application of “weather weapons,” or qixiang wuqi (气象武器), what has been referred to in English as “weather warfare” or the weaponization of “geoengineering.” After discussing the development of such weapons capabilities in the US, Russia and the UK, the scholar wrote in reference to floods in Henan: “What we have seen and heard should cause us to wonder: If this disaster was in fact not natural, but was instead a ‘natural disaster’ deliberately manufactured by an adversary, how would we respond?”
The article did not explain how the floods in Henan were related to “weather weapons.” Nor did it provide adequate sourcing for the claims it made about the development of such weapons.
In fact, this speculation about “weather weapons” did not originate with the WeChat public account “Political Commissar Canrong”. Earlier the same day, the WeChat public account “News Brother” (新闻哥) posted an article called, “Do You Believe This? With Constant Rain in Henan, A Web User [Says]: US Weapons Are Doing Mischief” (这也信？河南连续大雨 网友：美国气象武器搞鬼). The article noted that amidst more serious scientific discussions around severe weather, “a strange voice had insinuated itself – talk of ‘weather weapons.’” “News Brother” looked back at a video posted 12 days earlier, on July 10, by Bilibili video host “Xinyi Lin Lin” (心医林霖), in which he asserted that extreme weather events in recent years have been related to American “weather weapons,” which had done damage to the Taiwan Straits and to the global environment. The video, posted a week before Henan province experienced extreme flooding from around July 17, had drawn fresh attention as floods devastated Zhengzhou.
The author of the “News Brother” post also mentioned in his video an article dated August 23, 2019, from the People’s Liberation Army Daily (解放军报), the official organ of the Central Military Commission. The article, “Being Alert to the Development of Weather Weapons” (警惕气象武器发展), looked at the potential devastation that could be wrought be military applications of controlled weather, and that "[since] the Second World War, the US military has advanced the view that 'weather control is more important than nuclear arsenals,' and has been working on weather weapons research, having conducted dozens of secret weather research projects." The UK and the Soviet Union, said the article, had also sought “weather weapons.”
The PLA Daily article was similar in import to the Bilibili video from “Xinyi Lin Lin” and Jin Canrong’s July 22 post, but of the three only Jin’s post explicitly linked “weather weapons” to the floods in Henan.
On August 30, the China Meteorological Association (CMA) sought ran a post on its official WeChat public account called “Can Humanity Interfere with Typhoons?” (人类可以干预台风吗?). Looking at attempts by scientists in the past to slow down, redirect or guide typhoons and hurricanes, the post concluded that, “Typhoons are a natural phenomenon, and current technology cannot intervene, but can only reduce through scientific prevention the damage caused by such storms.”
Please Set Aside Your Habitual Doubt
When a disaster occurs in China, it is common to hear the argument from official state media and the government that the most important matter is to save lives, and that the time has not yet come to pose tougher questions of why and how. But such calls, which have typically been attended by the active suppression of facts, have often encouraged greater questioning and led the public to distrust whatever information is made available.
Before the Xi era, “habitual doubt,” or xiguanxing zhiyi (习惯性质疑), and its relationship to information policy and practice was even discussed as an online and even broader social phenomenon in China. It described the way the public often reacted with skepticism to factual claims from government officials and the media, irrespective of rational or scientific considerations.
In a report for the China Youth Daily newspaper back in July 2012 addressing the release of a survey on "habitual doubt" – in which more than 40 percent of people admitted to having “habitual doubt syndrome” (习惯性质疑症) – a professor at Wuhan University, Zhang Yangbo (张杨波), attributed the prevalence of doubt to lack of transparency of information. Even the official Xinhua News Agency even ran an editorial in August 2012 under the headline, “Eliminating ‘Habitual Doubt’ Demands Greater Openness to the Public” (消除“习惯性质疑”更需开诚布公), which said that: "For the public's full enjoyment of the right to know, from larger and hot-button issues down to small routine matters, being open and honest to the public with information is the most critical thing.”
In the mist of serious flooding in Henan in July, the phrase “habitual doubt” again became a topic of conversation. As Chinese media reported on the disaster, one phrase to appear regularly was “once in a thousand years” (千年一遇), conveying the sense that the force of this natural disaster was something unseen over many centuries. Some on China’s internet called the use of this phrase into question. Chen Taoze (陈涛则), the chief weather forecaster for the CMA’s National Meteorological Center, responded that this statement was impossible to establish on the basis of existing weather data. Such statements, he said, were based on unreliable projection models that determined the likely frequency of extreme flooding events over long historical periods in terms of mathematical probabilities.
As the discussion over the appropriateness of “once in a thousand years” continued, the WeChat public account “Zhi Shi Shu Ju” (知事叔局), an individual account on the platform, defended the use of the phrase, and levelled harsh criticism at those who bickered over such trivial points when the crisis was so immediate. "While the whole country is focused on offering support in the face of this disaster, people on the internet are constantly calling into question the construction of ‘sponge cities,’ or sewer construction in Zhengzhou,” they wrote. “Or they are citing cases of sewer construction in Japan and Germany, and indulging in 'habitual questioning.'” The author accused armchair skeptics of being too rash in their questioning, and too unwilling to turn to science. “As public intellectuals or self-media, [you] must at the very least have the responsibility to carry out investigation and research before you speak,” they wrote.
Gathering their own information, the author of the post concluded that a once-in-a-thousand-year event was simply a matter of probability, and it was senseless to get hung up on how rare a natural event was, or to use cases from Japan or Germany to suggest they could avoid flooding like that seen in Zhengzhou. Even the Japanese media, said the author, had characterized flooding in Henan as “once in a thousand years,” and this had not prompted any questioning.
The headline of the “Zhi Shi Shu Ju” post was: “We Face a ‘Once-In-a-100-Year’ Flood in Henan! Please Set Aside Your Habitual Doubt” (面对河南“千年一遇”的暴雨！请收起习惯性的质疑). The headline gives us our second surprise phrase for July 2021 – “please set aside your habitual doubt.”
Though it was shared widely, the “Zhi Shi Shu Ju” post did not draw criticism from social media users – despite the fact that the author himself was hasty in his conclusions, apparently not making an effort to understand the origin of the "once-in-a-millennium" statement before coming to its defense. The author’s conclusion was that the statement was convincing enough for the moment, and that “habitual questioning” (习惯性质疑) was a distraction. But was this a legitimate questioning of “habitual questioning?”? Or was it habitual questioning of acts of questioning one could argue are natural and understandable responses to information restrictions in the midst of a major crisis? We note this surprise phrase in particular because it is an interesting reflection of different attitudes toward crisis reporting and transparency of information.
“Get Out of China, Kneeling Girl”
For many Chinese, the medal count – and particularly the gold medal count – during the Tokyo Olympic Games was a matter of national pride. But the sense of pride and national dignity could sometimes be tested online by nationalist nitpicking over the patriotism of Chinese athletes themselves, underscoring the pitfalls of the fostering of nationalist sentiment by the Party-state. This was perhaps best illustrated by the case of sharpshooter Yang Qian (杨倩), who won China’s first gold medal in Tokyo on July 24 but was soon taken to task by some nationalist internet users over her collection of Nike shoes.
As Yang claimed victory at the Games, and the PRC flag was raised above those of Switzerland and the Russian Olympic Committee, many Chinese cheered. One user on Weibo, using the handled “Xi Li Ya Chu” (西莉雅厨) wrote gleefully: “Congratulations on the first gold at the Olympics! Yang Qian!!!! Go go go!!!”
But the celebratory tone changed for many as Yang Qian made her own post to the Weibo platform in which she shared a photo of her many pairs of Nike brand athletic shoes. Nike has been one of many foreign brands shunned by nationalists in China this year following its announcement that it would address concerns over human rights abuses in Xinjiang by ensuring its China-based suppliers did not use workers from the region. For some, the feeling of national pride over Yang Qian’s gold medal quickly came into conflict with national feeling over the issue of Xinjiang and foreign brands.
In a post to Weibo just 6 minutes after the first declaration of pride over Yang Qian’s media, the user “Xi Li Ya Chu” shared another social media post that read: “Get out of China, Kneeling Girl” (跪族女孩滚出中国). The term “kneeling tribe,” or gui zu (跪族), refers to those who bow down cravenly before others and lack a sense of backbone. In this case, the accusation was that Yang Qian, in showing pride in her collection of shoes made by a foreign brand that had bowed to human rights concerns voiced by the international community over China’s national interests, had failed to show backbone in representing China.
Former Xinhua News Agency reporter Wang Xiaolei (王晓磊) remarked through his WeChat public account, “Liu Shen Lei Lei” (六神磊磊) that online nationalist “keyboard warriors” (键盘侠) like “Xi Li Ya Chu” were conflicted in their claim to the right to two different things. “First, they want a cheap sense of glory, and second, they want the legitimate right to inflict harm.” Most keyboard warriors, said Wang, are willing to spare others from harm so long as their desire for cheap glory is satisfied – and so most were willing to forgive Yang Qian’s Nike post.
But “Xi Li Ya Chu,” he said, was a different sort, and more extreme. For such online nationalists, the desire for both one and two had to be satisfied in one person, and in this case, Yang Qian was the target. This is why “Xi Li Ya Chu” was unable to understand Yang Qian, and even demanded of her in a subsequent post: “Why don’t you just set fire to the shoes, and demonstrate your love for your country? Do that and we will forgive you!”
On July 25, a total of 65 accounts on Weibo, including that of “Xi Li Ya Chu,” were removed by the platform – likely at the request of the authorities – and accused of attacks and “malicious slander” (恶意诽谤).
Focus Topic: Media Insights on the Henan Floods
Beginning on July 17, the Henan capital of Zhengzhou experienced floods such as had not been seen in recent memory. Day after day, the Zhengzhou Meteorological Bureau (郑州气象局) issued yellow, orange and red warnings, but these were not given sufficient priority, and in the end the whole city was unprepared. According to information on the official website of the Zhengzhou city government, an incredible 201.9 millimeters of rain came down between just 4 and 5PM on July 20, breaking national records for rainfall. For the week that followed, thunderstorms moved toward the north, endangering upstream reservoirs and overwhelming flood control infrastructure. Many villages were flooded, and villagers forced to evacuate. Henan’s provincial government announced on August 2 that 302 had been killed in the floods, and 50 remained missing.
As the situation worsened in Henan, the floods came to dominate discussion in Chinese society. On the night of July 20, videos began appearing on social media taken in Henan and its capital city by those directly impacted by the floods. The videos showed streets completely inundated by floodwaters, cars carried along by violent currents, and people struggling in the water – some eventually rescued and others whose fate was unknown. Video also emerged of people trapped underground in subway cars as the floodwaters raged past the closed doors.
Writing on Weibo, Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the outspoken editor-in-chief of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, responded quickly and with sympathy to the situation in Henan: “There are violent storms in Henan, with 201.9 millimeters falling within an hour. This is definitely one of the fiercest rainfalls the world has experienced within such a period of time,” he wrote, emphasizing the extreme weather.
But many internet users took Hu to task for this post, contrasting it with one he made three days earlier in reference to floods in Germany, with a very different perspective. Writing on July 17, Hu Xijin had called the flood response in Germany “anti-humanitarian,” suggesting that it illustrated yet again the superiority of Chinese governance.
But there were plenty of reasons to find fault with the flood response in Henan, particularly in the early days of the disaster. Local government departments dragged their feet in response to the floods. Moreover, Party-state media, which might have provided more information on the situation, were suspected by many, as the shocking images poured in through social media, of waiting for clear instructions from press management authorities.
At around 11PM on July 20, Zhan Jiang (展江), a professor in the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), posted the following criticism on Weibo: “If the information from various sources is correct, certain areas in Zhengzhou and Henan are experiencing disastrous storms such as have rarely in history been seen. Many people outside Henan are paying close attention, and are concerned. Won’t Henan TV please stop broadcasting anti-Japanese dramas, and instead go into emergency mode, offering rolling news on the disaster?”
Twenty minutes after Zhan Jiang’s post, Henan TV responded through its official Weibo account that it thanked the public for its attention, and that it would immediately begin live coverage. But internet users seriously questioned the professionalism of the provincial-level broadcaster.
As communication scholars criticized the performance of the media in the midst of the crisis, some journalists came to the defence of the media. The WeChat public account "Trolling Youth: Cao Lin's Observations on Current Affairs" (吐槽青年：曹林的时政观察) published a post on July 21 called “We Should Reflect on Early Warning Emergency problems, But Should Not Blame the Henan Media" (应反思预警应急问题，但不要苛责河南媒体). Addressing criticism of the Henan media for its failure within the early days to adjust its programming and offer round-the-clock coverage of the crisis, the author of the WeChat article responded: “As you stand in a safe place observing the disaster, setting up your camera in a friend's group, you may think you see everything so clearly – that it should be this way, or it should be that way, or it can't be some other way. But when you're an island isolated in the middle of a disaster it's very difficult to respond quickly."
The author of the WeChat article felt that Professor Zhan Jiang’s message to media in Henan was “a very good interaction between academia and professional circles, between those outside the scene and those inside, between observers and authorities.” “In the midst of disaster, we need this kind of internal-external interaction, sympathy and understanding and joining of forces for mutual defence,” they said. “In the new media era, we are all nodes of information exchange, helping one another. What we need is immersive participation, not caustic demands from the sidelines.”
As the floods drew greater attention online and on social media, topics related to rendering assistance skyrocketed on Weibo, as shown in the image below, and more first-hand information was conveyed in real-time, informing those outside of Henan and better connecting rescue workers, volunteers and those impacted by the storms.
As information about the floods was shared more actively from July 20, there was also greater demand for information about how citizens could become involved, and related posts and threads started to proliferate. Under a topic called "Information Guide for Mutual Assistance for the Henan Floods” (暴雨洪水防灾互助指南) on Douban, a social networking service that allows users to record information on a range of topics, there were 901 articles related to the issue, gathering nearly 11 million views between the time of posting at 22:59 on July 20 and the end of July. The articles summarized a wide range of information on supplies, transportation, volunteer recruitment and many other issues.
On the night of July 20, a netizen named “manto” created an online document on Tencent Document that could be used to gather rescue-related information. The document, “Information on People to Be Rescued” (待救援人员信息), received more than 2.5 million visits by 9PM on July 21. The document had by that point been updated 269 times.
Among the assistance hotspots emerging on social media during the floods was a post called “Torrential Rain Self-Help Guide” (暴雨自救手册) made to Zhihu (知乎), the Chinese question-and-answer site launched in 2011.
The author of the post, Zhen Haoyuan (甄昊元), said that he had composed the article around 3PM on July 20, before rainfall in Zhengzhou reached the level of 200 millimeters per hour. "Reports on precipitation at 12:48 PM on July 20 showed that Henan province had received an average of 86 millimeters of precipitation over four days, but more than 48 monitoring sites had reported receiving more than 300 millimeters of precipitation in 24 hours, and the rain still hadn't stopped,” Zhen wrote. “By my common-sense estimation, there was likely to be much more serious flooding across the province. And once it became a disaster, rescue personnel were sure to be insufficient for a short period of time, resulting in loss of life. Therefore, there would be an urgent need for self-help methods. That’s what prompted me right away to put together this manual.”
Once the rain had diminished or even stopped in certain areas, some local authorities were taken to task on social media for prematurely, and sometimes deceptively, reporting that things were improving. In fact, flooding still continued, and villages in lower areas still faced risk of extreme flooding from upstream, or from breaches of flood control infrastructure.
On July 27, the city of Weihui (卫辉市), just north of Zhengzhou, released a series of articles through the official WeChat account of the Weihui City Convergence Media Center (卫辉市融媒体中心), an office established to monitor and direct local public opinion, that all bore the headline “Great News! Waters Levels Have Started to Drop in Certain Neighborhoods and Districts in Our City!” (喜讯!我市城区部分街区水位开始回落!). Given the continued seriousness of the flooding, such talk of good tidings sparked controversy online.
Weibo user @SingleLei (@Single磊), a user certified as the director of the Rural Reconstruction channel (新农村频道) at Henan TV, directly refuted the reports of falling water levels issued by the Weihui City Convergence Media Center. “Actually, the real information is water levels in Weihui are rising and the entire city has been evacuated,” @SingleLei wrote, “but this was treated as a rumor by the local authorities and officially rejected."
By early August, both the “Great News!” reported by Weihui authorities and the Weibo post by @SingleLei rejecting these reports had been deleted from the internet. Since early August, the “V” for verified accounts has been removed from the @SingleLei account, and the previous language associating the account holder with Henan TV has also been removed.
On July 27, the day that marked a full week since the first victims of the flooding in Henan – a time typically referred to in Chinese as touqi (头七), literally “first seven” – an image appeared on the internet that again touched the nerves of many Chinese. It showed an impromptu memorial set up in Zhengzhou to commemorate those who had died so far in the floods, with bouquets of floral offerings left outside the B1 entrance of the Shakou Road Station, where at least 14 people had died. The memorial had been fenced in by local authorities, blocking all views of the flower offerings, an action that angered many Chinese. The text accompanying the post suggested that flood prevention mechanisms had been insufficient: "If the flood waters had been blocked the day of the disaster occurred, there would be no need to come today and block the floral offerings made by city residents!"
Focus Topic: Tedros Drifts Away
On July 15, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press conference that the main challenge in tracing the origin of the Covid-19 virus had to do with the sharing of raw data, in particular raw data from the early stages of the pandemic, and that China had so far not shared such data with the WHO.
Tedros said that the WHO was now ready to conduct an “ongoing investigation” into the origins of Covid-19, and he urged China to be open, transparent and cooperative in sharing early data with the WHO team for this “second phase.” Tedros said, moreover, that it was too early to rule out the possibility of a laboratory leak as the original of the pandemic. The WHO chief acknowledged that there had been a “premature push” at his organization during the first phase study in 2020 to eliminate the theory that the virus had emerged from a government-run lab in Wuhan.
For some in China, this seemed to some like an about-face in the WHO’s attitude toward China, Tedros having been generally positive following his first visit to China in 2020, pronouncing himself “very impressed and encouraged” by Xi Jinping’s actions. The news sparked a great deal of interest, and the top search thread for “Tedros” on the Baidu search engine became the question: “Why has Tedros’ earlier attitude now changed?”
Searching coverage of “Tedros” in the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper from December 2019 through to the end of July 2021, we can see that mentions of the WHO director-general have shown a general decline since the first half of 2020, when his Tedros’ remarks on China supported the narrative that Xi Jinping and the CCP leadership had effectively contained the virus.
In December 2019, before the epidemic in China was openly acknowledged, and before the initial WHO announcement on the virus, Tedros did not appear at all in the People’s Daily.
Tedros’ first appearance in the CCP’s flagship newspaper in relation to the pandemic came on January 29, 2020, in an article called, “Xi Jinping Meets With WHO Chief Tedros” (习近平会见世界卫生组织总干事谭德塞). During the last three days of January 2020, Tedros appeared in five articles in the paper, dealing mostly with Tedros’ visit to China. One of these articles reported quite positively on China’s exchanges with Tedros and the WHO:
WHO Director-General Tedros, who is visiting China, has undergone discussions with the Chinese government, and both sides have agreed on the dispatch of a team of international experts to China as soon as possible to work with Chinese counterparts to improve understanding of the outbreak and direct the global response, according to a statement issued by the WHO on June 28. The statement said Tedros appreciates the seriousness with which China has approached the outbreak, particularly the commitment of the Chinese government and the transparency with which it has handled the outbreak, including the sharing of virus data and gene sequencing data on the virus.
In February 2020, the total number of articles mentioning Tedros rocketed to 47, putting the WHO director-general in Tier 2 for that month. This would also mark a peak for Tedros in the People’s Daily.
At that time, the epidemic was still concentrated in China, and the main topic of international debate was whether to restrict travel or trade with China. On these questions, the WHO voiced its opposition, saying there was no need at that stage to panic about the virus. The novel coronavirus was also during this period officially named Covid-19, rejecting any discrimination on a national or geographic basis. In most of the reports in the People's Daily mentioning Tedros, the director-general was quoted a strongly positive on China’s role, and a number of quotes from Tedros were repeated across reports to support the idea that China was exemplary in its treatment of the epidemic. One of the most important quotes was: “The speed and scale of China's actions are unprecedented in the world. This reflects the strength of the Chinese system, and relevant experiences are worthy of study from other countries. We believe that the measures taken by China will effectively control and eventually overcome the epidemic.”
This quote, which was offered in official Chinese reports without quotation marks, leaving open the question of whether these were Tedros’ own words or rather a paraphrase that accorded with China’s own propaganda objectives, could also be found in English-language reports from Chinese state media and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In any case, Tedros’ attitude of praise was unmistakable at the time, the Reuters news agency noting on January 29 that the WHO chief was “lavish in his praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior officials for their commitment to transparency during their ‘very candid discussions’ in Beijing.
During the second half of February 2020, Tedros said publicly that there was still a “window of opportunity” for the control of the spread of the virus globally, but that the window was closing. During the same period, a release from the State Council Information Office on February 28 noted that 25 experts taking part in a joint WHO-China mission had spent nine days in Beijing, Hubei, Guangdong and Sichuan.
On March 11, 2020, the WHO announced at last that Covid-19 has become a global pandemic. From March to June 2020, the intensity of coverage of Tedros in the People’s Daily steadily declined, though there was a rise again in April. By this time, a dominant thread of the WHO-China story in the international media centered on whether China had deceived the organization, or whether the organization and its chief had become complicit in covering up China’s missteps.
As the WHO came under fire from US President Donald Trump, who announced on April 14, 2020, that the US would freeze funding to the organization, China’s state media defended Tedros. In an article on April 21, 2020, the People’s Daily highlighted a statement released by China and the Group of 77, a coalition of 134 developing countries, expressing support for Tedros and acknowledging the leading role of the WHO in fighting the global pandemic.
Among the 26 articles in the People’s Daily mentioning Tedros in May 2020, most deal with the escalating war of words between China and the United States over Trump’s characterization of Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus” (武汉病毒), the “lab leak” (实验室泄漏) hypothesis, the American withdrawal from the WHO, and accusations that the US sought to “politicize” (政治化) the pandemic and “stigmatize” (污名化) China. In these articles, Tedros appears as a voice used to legitimize China’s position and speak to its competence.
By May 2020 pressure grew internationally for an independent investigation into Covid-19 as a draft resolution made first by Australia gained the support of more than 120 countries. On May 1, Gauden Galea, the WHO’s representative in China, told international media that the organization had not been invited by China to participate in a national investigation into the origins of the outbreak. "We know that some national investigation is happening but at this stage, we have not been invited to join,” Galea told Sky News.
In June, mentions of Tedros in the People’s Daily dropped to 18 for the month. Coverage mentioning Tedros focused on China’s efforts to portray itself as leading the international response to Covid-19. The WHO director-general was mentioned in articles on the China-Africa Summit On Solidarity Against COVID-19, and on global health and the Belt and Road Initiative.
Not reported in the People’s Daily that month was the news, reported on June 29, that the WHO planned to dispatch a second investigative team to China to further explore the origin of Covid-19, and that preliminary plans were already underway. While the newspaper did not report Tedros’s announcement, however, it did say on July 17, 2020, when reporting on a WHO news conference, that the organization might send more experts to China in the coming days to investigate the virus.
In July 2020, mentions of Tedros in the People’s Daily saw a pronounced drop to just one-third the frequency of the previous month. The focus in the CCP’s flagship newspaper that month was on Tedros’ calls for international solidarity in fighting Covid-19, and such calls from the director-general were included in repeated CCP refutations of the alleged lies and smears directed by the US against China.
Not reported in the People’s Daily in July 2020 was the news, reported by Reuters and others, that the WHO had dispatched a two-member advance team to China to organize an investigation into the origins of Covid-19. According to international news coverage, the experts would work with Chinese experts to develop the scope and terms of reference for a WHO-led investigative mission.
In August and September 2020, mentions of Tedros in the People’s Daily levelled out at 10 per month, remaining at Tier 4 according to the CMP discourse scale.
In an article on August 5, 2020, there was mention of the WHO international team that would investigate the origins of Covid-19. But the article treated an animal origin as a foregone conclusion, reporting: "WHO Director-General Tedros said on [July] 3 that the WHO would form an international expert group, including Chinese experts, to work together to isolate the animal source of Covid-19." Mentions of Tedros in September, which corresponded with a highly publicized official event to commemorate China’s supposedly exemplary response to Covid-19, were largely used to signal international praise for China’s efforts. They included lengthy stories like "Great Battles and Tests to Refine Pure Gold" (大战大考炼真金) and "All in the Same Boat Fighting the 'Epidemic'" (同舟共济战“疫”记).
From October to December 2020, Tedros steadily cooled down in the People's Daily, with 7, 3 and 2 mentions respectively. The low point came in December, during which time one of two articles in the newspaper mentioning the director-general was an article citing the WHO as speaking out against politicizing the question of Covid-19’s origin.
During the first seven months of 2021, Tedros was mentioned no more than 7 times in any given month in the CCP's flagship newspaper. Much of this coverage was related to vaccinations for Covid-19.
As for the previously mentioned investigation into the origins of the virus, the official Xinhua News Agency reported only that China had formed a joint expert group with the WHO between January 14 and February 10 to handle “the Chinese portion” of a global investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Even this news, however, was not not reported in the People's Daily.
In March this year, just one article in the People’s Daily mentioned Tedros, marking his near disappearance from the newspaper. This sole article, published on March 31 using an official release from Xinhua, reported the release in Geneva the previous day of a joint report by China and the WHO into the origins of Covid-19, and noted that the report had found that it was “highly unlikely” that the virus had escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The day after this report, on April 1, an article in the newspaper called "Cooperation Must Be Strengthened for the Virus to Be Defeated” (要战胜疫情就必须加强合作) quoted Tedros as praising the report from the joint expert group. The article said: "WHO Director-General Tedros issued a written statement saying the work of the joint expert group had deepened the understanding of Covid-19. This report does not bring research to an end, but is an important beginning, and the world must continue to investigate the origins by following scientific guidelines.”
In fact, Tedros had said more about the joint investigation that was not mentioned in the People’s Daily or other official state media. “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he said, referring to the question of a potential lab leak. “This requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”