China’s Political Discourse May 2021: From “Involution” to “Lying Down” 

By China Media Project

May was a very active month in terms of hot topics in the Chinese media and online. As the results of China's Seventh National Population Census were released, this prompted sometimes heated discussion about the country's population policy and future social and economic prospects. Right at the end of the month, all of these questions crested – with much frustration, and no shortage of humor – over the government’s announcement of a new "three-child" policy

A pair of tragedies in May also drew widespread attention. These included the death on May 10 of a student from Chengdu No. 49 Middle School who mysteriously fell from the 4th floor of the school building, an incident that drew harsh criticism from internet users owing to the government’s lack of transparency. This tragedy was followed on May 22 by the death of 21 participants in an ultra-marathon event in Gansu province, which brought a swirl of accusations over the organizers' poor preparation and the lagging rescue effort – as well as efforts by state-run media to pull the focus away from human error and put it more squarely on natural causes. In discussions of foreign affairs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grabbed attention.

May also gave us the phrase "Hangzhou leopard concealment" (杭州瞒豹), connected to an incredible news story about three leopards that had escaped from a safari park in Zhejiang’s capital city three weeks before park authorities finally reported the incident on May 8, along with an apology. While two of the leopards had subsequently been recaptured, the third remained at large, and this clear threat to public safety had been kept under wraps through the busy May 1 holiday, as park authorities hoped to maintain visitor numbers. 

Among the May Surprises, in addition to the controversy surrounding the student death in Chengdu, was a piece of sensational clickbait on China-India relations from the social media account of China Chang’an Web, a site operated by the powerful Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. The post showed two images side-by-side: on the left, China’s Tianhe space module burning off rocket fuel; on the right, the scene of a mass outdoor cremation of Covid-19 victims in India. “China lighting fires VS India lighting fires,” read the snide text of the post, igniting an unfortunate viral phrase (中国点火vs印度点火) that prompted discussion of China’s image and of the role of official social media accounts. 

Other focuses for the month included the death of celebrated agronomist Yuan Longping (袁隆平), which was reported prematurely in state media, as well as the deaths of medical scientist Wu Mengchao (吴孟超) and Chinese historian He Zhaowu (何兆武). 

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 May 2021, the slogans regularly monitored by CMP remained relatively stable, with just a few slight adjustments: "reform and opening up" (改革开放) dropped from Tier 1 to Tier 2, though the drop was actually negligible; "independent innovation" (自主创新) rose from Tier 3 to Tier 2, a reflection in part of Xi's emphasis on seeking self-reliance in innovation at a conference of scientists and engineers; "comprehensively deepening reform" (全面深化改革) and "dual circulation of the domestic and the international" (国际国内双循环) also rose from Tier 3 to Tier 2; "streamlining services" (放管服) and “top-level design" (顶层设计) dropped from Tier 2 to Tier 3, as did "major changes not seen in a century" (百年未有之大变局), which encompasses the idea of an historic opportunity to be grasped by China internationally even in the face of containment by the US and the West.

The "three critical battles" (三大攻坚战), introduced at the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017 to highlight 1) major global and domestic risks, 2) targeted poverty alleviation and 3) environmental pollution, rose from Tier 6 to Tier 4, reflecting inclusion of the phrase in summaries of work published in the People's Daily for Guangdong, Sichuan, Hebei and other provinces. "Political security" (政治安全) and "financial risk" (金融风险) dropped from Tier 3 to Tier 5, which can be attributed to the April high generated by the commemoration on April 15 of National Security Day. The terms “people's security" (人民安全), "two studies, one action" (两学一做) and the "three stricts and three steadies" (三严三实) dropped from Tier 4 to Tier 6. The drop for “people’s security” also represented a drop from April highs around National Security Day, this concept having been defined as the primary mission of national security, while “economic security” provides the foundation and “political security” (the rule of the CCP being most essential) provides the guarantee. 

The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of May 2021 and how they rated on our scale:

   

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, there were some declines compared to April. The term “people-oriented” (以人为本), having appeared in 24 articles in April, dropped from Tier 3 to Tier 4, with just 16 article mentions. Even as celebrations picked up pace even further for the CCP’s centennial, with the term “Party history learning and education” (党史学习教育) continuing its steady rise through February (Feb. 33, Mar. 116, Apr. 151 and May 159), the banner terms of the past three generations of Chinese leaders, sometimes referred to collectively in Chinese with the shorthand deng san ke (邓三科), saw some decline from March and April levels. It is not exactly clear why this would be the case, though it is tempting to attribute it to Xi Jinping’s dominating role in the “New Era.” 

“Democratic politics” (民主政治), the term that since 1989 has generally been used to extol the party’s democratic achievements rather than discuss substantive democratic processes, remained unchanged from the previous month, appearing in six articles. The related term “political civilization” did not appear at all this month. Nor did Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” (和谐社会). “Political system reforms” (政治体制改革), now a relatively sensitive term associated with more earnest discussion of more democratic reforms in the 1980s and directed historically at the problem of abuse of power in China, remained in Tier 6, as did “inner-Party democracy’ (党内民主). 



The Centrality Index

Xi Jinping continued to top the CCP leadership in terms of mentions in the People’s Daily in May, with 639 articles including his name, putting him solidly in Tier 1. Once again, the yawning gap between Xi and other leaders in the Politburo was illustrated by the absence of names in Tier 2. Only Premier Li Keqiang, his 30 article mentions dwarfed by Xi, made Tier 3 in May. NPC Standing Committee Chairman Li Zhanshu, who shared Tier 3 with Li Keqiang in April, dropped down to Tier 3 in May. 

Regional Rankings

With the rapid approach of the CCP’s centennial, May was a time for provincial CCP secretaries to offer their reports, or huibao (汇报) on the "Century-Long Road of Struggle" (奋斗百年路), and these appeared in succession in the People's Daily. In all likelihood, this was a propaganda campaign organized by the newspaper, which provided provincial secretaries a platform to exhibit their accomplishments. Shanghai Secretary Li Qiang (李强) led the pack with five articles for the month, followed by Shanxi Secretary Lou Yangsheng (楼阳生).

Foreign Leaders

With news in May of the expansion of the China-Russia nuclear power project, Russian President Vladimir Putin leapt into the lead among foreign leaders in the People’s Daily, becoming the only leader to make Tier 4. US President Joe Biden was mentioned just seven times in the paper in May, dropping to Tier 5, just below Putin, from a Tier 4 showing the previous month.

French President Emmanuel Macron appeared in three articles in May, the first praising China’s Covid-19 response and proudly mentioning Macron’s reference in March to “a global public health community” (人类卫生健康共同体), portrayed as an adoption of Xi’s “community of common destiny for mankind”; the second addressing the escalation of violence in Gaza and Israel; and the last concerning Chinese Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua’s talks with France’s finance minister. 

As the pandemic swept across India in May, and Xi Jinping publicly offered his sympathies, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared in two articles. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also appeared twice for the month, first in an article addressing the profanity-laced tirade by Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin on China’s actions in the South China Sea, and second in the same article on Xi’s “community of common destiny” that included Macron, with Duterte cited as saying Chinese vaccines had been “a critical step” for his country. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among the foreign leaders who did not appear at all in the People’s Daily in May. 

Foreign Countries

The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France all maintained their Tier 2 positions in May, while Japan dropped down from Tier 2 to Tier 3, joining Germany and South Korea. Owing to the severity of its Covid-19 situation in May, India received more attention, rising two levels from Tier 5 to Tier 3. 

Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict brought much greater attention to both countries in the People’s Daily in May, with Palestine appearing in 16 articles, and Israel in 9, putting both in Tier 4. Articles mentioning Palestine often mentioned Xi Jinping’s “community of common destiny for mankind,” as well as concepts such as “true multilateralism” (真正的多边主义), which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has recently contrasted with “false multilateralism” (伪多边主义), stressing that China, unlike the US-led West, upholds the mutual benefit of all countries rather than its own narrow interests. State media have stressed, based on this definition, that multilateralism must be “cooperative, not confrontational” – meaning that states should emphasize common interests and avoid criticism, or interference in others’ internal affairs. 

 

May Surprises

Official Clickbait and China’s Story

The month of May opened with a hateful May 1 clickbait post on China-India relations from the official Weibo account of China Chang’an Web, a site operated by the powerful Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which is directly under the CCP’s Central Committee. The post, which came as India faced a surge of Covid-19 cases that devastated major cities, resulting in harrowing scenes of families unable to hold proper burials as crematoriums ran out of space, displayed two images side-by-side. On the left was an image of China’s Tianhe space module burning off rocket fuel. On the left, was the scene of a mass outdoor cremation of Covid-19 victims in India. The caption read: “China lighting fires VS India lighting fires” (中国点火vs印度点火). 

While many responded to the post with approval and amusement, millions of others, finding it tasteless and cruel, were disgusted. The fact that it came from an official account was further cause for outrage. Why was China Chang’an Web sowing hatred and division when just the day before Xi Jinping had formally expressed his concern about the situation in India in a message of condolence to Prime Minister Modi?

The post was shared more than 10,000 times before online censors finally caught on and pulled it down.

Among those gleefully in support of the China Chang’an Web post, Shen Yi (沈逸), a young professor of international relations at Shanghai’s Fudan University, called India a “flirtatious slut” (妖艳贱货). Shen labeled those who were critical of the post “sanctimonious bitches” (圣母婊), a common online term leveled at those who are seen to be doing harm through their excessive attitude of tolerance. Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡锡进), known himself for his frequent online provocations, argued that the China Chang’an Web post was inappropriate and out of place, that China should “raise high the banner of humanitarianism.” He asked Shen Yi: “What role should official agency accounts actually play in foreign affairs-related public opinion?” 

In fact, the tasteless Weibo post underscored a far more widespread problem that the government has more recently sought to counter – the mismanagement of so-called “government affairs new media” (政务新媒体). Years ago, these official social media accounts were actively encouraged as a means of better communication with the public. In April this year, however, China’s State Council issued new orders to overhaul social media accounts belonging to government branches and offices in an effort to tackle persistent mismanagement and neglect.  

The controversy surrounding the China Chang’an Web post offered a rare opportunity to discuss China’s global image and conduct, a topic that would emerge again at the end of the month as Xi Jinping hosted a collective study session of the Politburo dealing with “strengthening the building of China’s international communication capacity.” Since 2013, the CCP’s external propaganda or public diplomacy efforts have been encompassed by a phrase Xi introduced in August 2013: “telling the China story well, transmitting China’s voice well” (讲好中国故事,传播好中国声音). 

Since 2013, however, China’s voice in its foreign relations has often seemed brash and combative, belying the goal of greater mutual understanding. Outside China, the term “wolf warrior” (战狼) has since 2019 been applied to the more aggressive communication style emanating from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such as through the Twitter accounts of spokespeople like Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian. Back in March this year, the Chinese Embassy in Paris openly attacked scholar Antoine Bondaz, a researcher for the Foundation for Strategic Research, calling him a “thug” and a “troll.” Defending its conduct as France summoned the Chinese ambassador, Lu Shaye (卢沙野), to voice its objections, the embassy insisted that criticism of China would not be accepted: “If there are truly ‘wolf warriors,’” read an embassy post, “this is because the ‘mad dogs’ are too many and too fierce, including these “mad dogs” who tear China apart in the guise of scholarship and journalism.”

While China has sought actively to publicize its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic as exemplary, and as demonstration of the superiority of the CCP-led political system, there are signs that its brash approach to international communication and “telling China’s story” has backfired. A survey of 14 countries in Europe, Asia and North America released in October last year by the Pew Research Center showed negative perceptions of China reaching their highest point since Pew began such surveys over a decade ago. While Chinese state media have often cited Pew research as authoritative when pushing pro-China talking points, the Global Times newspaper attacked the October survey as “the inevitable result of the constantly strengthening inherent prejudice against China under the anti-China narrative of Western public opinion.”

The Weibo post by China Chang’an Web underscored for some Chinese the shortcomings of a more aggressive and sometimes arrogant tone toward the outside world. Was this pandering to nationalist sentiment really the best way to “tell China’s story”? 

At the May 31 collective study session, Xi Jinping said that China “must focus on grasping the tone, being open and confident as well as having modesty and humility, striving to build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” This prompted some commentators to suggest immediately that the CCP leadership intended to soften China’s diplomatic tone. As CMP’s David Bandurski wrote, this is almost certainly a misreading of the official release from the session. 

The Family Has No Objection

The second discourse surprise in May 2021 came as the authorities in Chengdu responded to the death of a student at Chengdu No. 49 Middle School. The student, who was identified in press reports only as “Lin X” (林某), had apparently fallen to his death while on campus on May 9, a Sunday. On May 10, Lin’s parents made several posts to social media in which they questioned the response to the incident by the school, noting that school officials had taken two hours to notify them and that critical frames seemed to be missing from surveillance footage. 

Early in the morning on May 11, the Education Office of Chengdu’s Chenghua District, where the school is located, issued notice saying that the incident had been a “personal suicide” (个人轻生). This conclusion was not accepted by Lin’s parents, who charged that “only the section where the incident happened was not covered by surveillance,” and said that they would “continue to pursue our right to explore [the incident] and appeal, arriving at the truth.” At this point, online public opinion over the incident exploded. 

Later in the day on the 11th, people massed outside the entrance to Chengdu No. 49 Middle School, where they laid out flowers for the deceased and chanted "Truth!" (真相). The crowd was later dispersed by local police, but the child’s death continued to have major repercussions online as speculation took hold. 

The brewing controversy even impacted the government’s release of the Seventh National Population Census. As Ning Jizhe (宁吉喆), the economist and director of the National Bureau of Statistics who led the census, introduced the results on streaming video platforms, danmaku (弹幕), “barrage” or “bullet curtain” comments that appear on a video as it is streaming, flowered across the screen with comments about the Chengdu case. Many messages simply referenced the name of Lin’s school with “49 Middle” (49中), “Chengdu 49 Middle,” or simply “49.” “Help that pitiable mother,” another comment read. 

The face of China’s statistics chief, Ning Jizhe, is obscured by bullet comments on a student’s death in Chengdu as he introduces China’s latest census results. 

At 7 PM on May 11, a Weibo post from the Public Security Bureau in Chenghua District announced that Lin had died after a fall from a height. The police ruled out any criminal findings, saying that “the parents have no objection to the investigation’s conclusions” (家属对调查结论无异议). 

The notice, which was shared directly by many official news outlets, provoked skepticism online, with many internet users finding it suspicious that the police were now to be laying claim to the “truth” and speaking on behalf of Lin’s parents. It did not escape notice that Lin’s mother had not updated her own microblog account since 8AM that morning. As the official notice dominated news of the story, the words “no objection” came to symbolize the questioning of procedural justice and the search for the truth. Many users clearly did not believe that the parents had agreed with the conclusion.  

On May 13 the official Xinhua News Agency released additional findings in the Lin case, providing a detailed picture of Lin's life and his activities at school. The report also offered an explanation for the lack of surveillance footage of Lin's fall. The incident, it said, had happened on a platform linking the school's laboratory on the 4th floor and its gymnasium, an area not covered by cameras.

In the wake of the Xinhua report public opinion on the incident began to subside. In a jarring turn, however, some internet users now began directing anger at Lin's parents, accusing them of "setting the tempo" (带节奏) by suggesting the incident was a case of injustice. They suggested those who had gathered outside the gates of the school to chant "Truth!" had actually been incited by "external forces" (境外势力), a phrase often used in official state media to direct blame for instances of unrest – for example in Hong Kong – toward foreign governments or groups said to harbor "ulterior motives" (别有用心). Voices criticizing Lin's mother and demanding that she be held to account grew louder and louder. Meanwhile, questions about the school's responsibility in the incident, how it had been handled, and the role of the government were entirely drowned out.

This dramatic turnaround in the tone of coverage and discussion can be seen as a case illustration of how propaganda authorities in China conduct “public opinion channeling” (舆论引导), in an effort to control public opinion online through a combination of suppression (for example, of online posts and comments, and through limited reporting by commercial newspapers and magazines) and amplification of counter-narratives. This approach was first outlined in June 2008 by Hu Jintao as a refinement of information controls in the face of the rapid development of new media. In the Chengdu case, once alternative channels of information were brought under control and the counter-narrative prepared, the Xinhua report stepped in to effectively close the gap. Responding on May 14, the Global Times reported that the Xinhua report had “cleared up online rumors and accusations by the mother one-by-one by releasing surveillance footage, on-site pictures and testimony, which dismissed the brewing online sentiment against the school and local authorities.” 

Focus Topic: 

“Involution” and “Lying Down”

One of the most defining events in Chinese discourse in May 2021 was the widespread discussion of the neologism "lying flat," or tangping (躺平). The word reflects a growing social mentality in China that responds to a general sense of desperation about the crush of work and consumption by opting for a toned down approach to life. As the concept spread in May, popular among young people both online and offline, "lying flat" came under more direct criticism from official state media.

Things started brewing back in April when an internet user who goes by the handle “kind-hearted traveler” (好心的旅行家) made a short post to Baidu called “Lying Flat Is Justice” (躺平即是正义) in which they shared their thoughts on life after having idled their way through two jobless years. 

“Lying flat,” they said was about maintaining an independent attitude toward life, and the pressures of life had been largely manufactured by traditional ways of thinking and by the older generation. But real independence could be a choice: “I can be like Diogenes, who sleeps in his own barrel taking in the sun, or like Heraclitus, who lives in a cave and thinks about the 'logos.'"

This small post caught fire on the Chinese internet, and by May it had drawn the attention of Party-state media. On May 20, Nanfang Daily, the official mouthpiece of Guangdong’s CCP leadership, ran a commentary right at the center of page four that was snidely dismissive of the concept: “’Lying down’ is shameful. Where is the sense of justice in this?” 

Page Four of the May 20, 2021, edition of Nanfang Daily.

The same day, a commentary by Hubei Economic Television (湖北经视) grabbed the attention of even more Chinese online. “Resignation is fine,” the television commentator said with a sense of finality, “but ‘lying flat’ is not.” The condescending line, included in the lower-third of the broadcast, was screenshotted and forwarded across internet platforms. The sentiment expressed in the commentary was widely discussed, and thoroughly ridiculed. 

The original “Lying Flat Is Justice” post had soon been deleted, and a related discussion group on the social networking service Douban was also shut down. The search function for “lying down” on WeChat was similarly restricted, all in an apparent effort to restrict discussion.  

In recent years, a number of buzzwords reflecting the social mentality have become popular in China. These include “little joys” (小确幸), “Buddha-like” (佛系), referring to a life lived with a sense of indifference, “low desire” (低欲望) and “laborer” (打工人), which can also be translated “commuter.” In a sense, “lying flat” is a continuation of the notion of “Buddha-like” living that has been much discussed in the past two years, expressing passive resistance to current pressures and ways of living. 

The most recent development in this evolving fabric of words relating to existential concerns is the transition to “lying flat” from the popular word “involution” (内卷), or “turning inward,” a term that refers to a hopeless environment of white-hot work competition in which one does not grow or progress but merely spins in place, becoming more and more exhausted in the process. Last year there was growing discussion of the so-called “996 culture,” the idea that employees should expect to work from 9AM to 9PM six days a week. There was also growing bitterness over the “chicken child” (鸡娃) phenomenon, the idea that parents must exhaust themselves to pay for the raising of children, and must encourage and push them extremely hard at their studies, but with ever diminishing returns. This term arose from the notion of “drinking chicken soup” (喝鸡汤) as a source of health and nutrition, and from the idea of “injecting chicken blood” – a real therapy used during the Cultural Revolution, but here a reference to trying everything – to turn one’s children into dragons (of success, of course). 

Over the past 40 years, China’s economy has experienced remarkable development. At the same time, however, problems such as the widening gap between rich and poor have grown worse. Even as the gap has widened, many Chinese feel that real opportunities for social mobility are declining. In the last decade a wave of internet-driven entrepreneurship brought many opportunities for new wealth creation, and helped to build up the middle class. But the window of opportunity seems more recently to have closed as monopolies in the sector have taken hold and the state has taken on an ever more central role (国进民退). 

Many young people in China these days enter university in an atmosphere of intense competition, only to become laborers at large firms (such as leading internet companies) after graduation, facing a market that has already matured. At these companies, they must face an intense overtime culture that is a vestige of the entrepreneurial fervor prevailing in the earlier days of the internet. These young workers face rising housing prices and other costs, as well as pressure from society to strive for even more – having not just one but two, and even now three, children. 

One of the key takeaways of the Seventh National Population Census results announced on May 11 was that China’s population is in decline and that its fertility rate is dropping, exacerbating the problem of an aging population. As a result, experts said, China could before long enter an era of “negative growth.” In apparent response to this challenge, the government announced shortly after a Politburo meeting on May 31 that Chinese couples would now be permitted to have three children.  

The news almost instantaneously drew ridicule online. One reason was that while the government said supportive measures would be introduced to help ease the financial burden of having children, none of these were made in advance of the announcement. Nothing was said about child allowances, paternity leave, educational subsidies and so on. While this was a source of frustration for many Chinese in light of the announcement, it is in fact quite typical in China for concrete policies and measures to be introduced by relevant ministries and regional administrations only after the Politburo has set the broad direction. 

Another concern expressed by women’s rights advocates was the fact that the Politburo meeting had stressed the need to "consider marriage, childbirth, raising children and education as a whole, strengthen interest in marriage among marriageable young people, and educate and lead on concepts of the family.” It was frustrating to think that women’s rights, one of the few issues that has been open for public discussion in recent years, might in the future become taboo as marriage and childbirth are actively encouraged.