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Say it in Chinese: 2-4-4-2

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

To understand the language of party officials in the People’s Republic, speaking Chinese is not enough. One should also be familiar with political formulas and numbers. At no time since Mao’s reign has language been so ideologized, stereotyped, and cluttered with party-speak as it has been in the ten years of Xi Jinping’s rule. The 2022 Standardized Dictionary of Contemporary Chinese 现代汉语规范词典 captures few words from political language despite the addition of 2000 pages and 1000 new terms. Included are new terms coined by Xi. But his name is not one of them. It will probably find its way into the dictionaries after the 20th Party Congress.     

Party-speak is becoming increasingly important since almost every ninth Chinese is now either a member of the Party or the Communist Youth League. Bloggers sneer that if you want to be on the right side, you should stick to the numbers 2-4-4-2. They are the magic ciphers that open the doors to the upcoming 20th Party Congress in Beijing. 

Meaningless numbers slogan: Slogan on a banner in a Beijing suburb during the political change period (shot from 2013); Text: ‘Strictly follow the 5 prohibitions, the 17 you must not do, and the 5 punishments during the change period.’

But it is not enough to just mutter this number. You have to write it down properly, like the chief ideologist of the Communist People’s Daily, Ren Zhongping (任仲平). In his latest commentary on the Party Congress, he calls for “even closer unity around Xi Jinping” and for that to profoundly make two determinations, show fourfold awareness and fourfold self-confidence, and also make two defenses. (深刻领悟 “两个确立 “的决定性意义,增强 “四个意识”、坚定 “四个自信”、做到 “两个维护”).  

The magic of numbers plays a role at the party conference

The number gibberish is a new oath of loyalty to Xi and is likely to find its way into the party congress communiqué. What does it mean? “Two determinations” stand for Xi as the core of the party and his thought as its guiding ideology. “Fourfold awareness” means that all comrades must be aware of the Party’s policies, the overall situation, the core issues, and how to stand at attention before the CP. “Fourfold self-confidence”, tells them to be full of self-confidence about the socialist path, in theory, in the system, and in culture. The twofold defense asks them to defend, first, General Secretary Xi as the core of the party, and at the same time, the authority of the CC.  

This seems as confusing as the name of the commentator, Ren Zhongping. He does not exist. Behind the pseudonym hides a writing group of the People’s Daily. In the egalitarian political climate of Xi’s China, an increasing number of media are resorting to aliases for their commentaries. Individual opinion is neither wanted nor desired. Once again, courageous bloggers ensured that dozens of such cover names have been uncovered. 

Search for the author’s opinion. “Have you found the author’s opinion? Answer: “I’m already on page 15 and haven’t found it yet!” Critical caricature from 1978 by the old master of Chinese satire, Hua Junwu, on the equalization of the media.

Pseudonyms were also used in China’s socialist society in the past. Today, it is striking how often they appear, as do politicized numbers. Even Mao loved catchy ciphers. When he had hundreds of thousands of capitalists and small businessmen and corrupt officials brutally persecuted as counterrevolutionaries in the early 1950s, he called it his “Three Anti” (三反) and “Five Anti” (五反) campaigns. His mass mobilization to hunt sparrows, flies, and vermin were called “Eradication of the Four Evils” (除四害), his socialist education campaign was called “Four Purifications” (四清), and his cultural revolutionary excesses against opposition intellectuals were called the fight against “the stinking number 9” (臭老九). The previous eight groups were other enemies on Mao’s hit lists.

At least after Mao’s death at the beginning of China’s reform policy, many intellectuals and artists still dared to criticize the party overseers’ rapid reintroduction of media conformity, which was the first thing to suppress diverging opinions. The renowned Beijing satirist Hua Junwu once told me that this annoyed him so much, that in 1978 he drew a Chinese couple scrabbling around in a huge manuscript, searching in vain for the author’s opinion. At that time, such cartoons could still be published in major party newspapers.  

China’s liberal awakening is long over. Under Xi, stereotypical propaganda phrases and numerical formulas have regained the upper hand in China, and his speeches are filled with them. In two speeches recently published in the journal Qiushi to get in the mood for the 20th Party Congress, Xi uses terms such as “Ten we insist on” (十个坚持), “Two great layers and five in one arrangement” (两个大局,统筹五位一体), or “strategy of the four comprehensive” (四个全面战略布局). He warns of “16 specific risks in 8 areas” (8个方面16个具体风险) without naming them.

Such meaningless rows of numbers can also be seen as political messages along the streets. In 2013, I photographed a particularly absurd slogan in a Beijing suburb. The red banner said, “In the time of leadership change, strictly follow the 5 prohibitions, the 17 one must not do, and stick to the 5 punishments.” 

The new “Dictionary of Standardized Chinese Contemporary Language” (2022 edition) includes 1,000 new words and terms, including language created by Xi Jinping, but not his name.

It takes a lot of effort and the help of online search engines like Baidu (China’s Google) to decipher party-speak. China’s three major reference works for the contemporary language, “Xinhua Dictionary” (新华字典), “Modern Chinese” (现代汉语词典), and “Standardized Modern Chinese” (现代汉语规范词典) are of little help, although they are constantly updated and can now be used digitally. The widely used Xinhua dictionary, which is used in all schools and has sold more than 600 million copies to date, published its latest version in 2020, with a slew of new words. Along with this, a QR code on every page helps users learn the correct spelling, pronunciation, and origin, and provides example sentences of the characters.

The part official language, however, remains a jargon for insiders. For eight years, 20 linguists worked on updating the “Xinhua Dictionary.” The new 2022 edition was published with a thousand new words and terms.

Among them are nearly two dozen language creations that can be traced back to Xi Jinping, such as his Silk Road Initiative, called “Belt and Road” (一带一路). The added explanation only says, as a reference, that this project, which now spans the globe, “was first proposed by China.” The name Xi does not appear, as it is absent throughout the dictionary, unlike in the term “Mao Zedong Thought” or “Deng Xiaoping Theory.” A “Xi Jinping Thought,” which is quoted every day everywhere in China, has not yet been immortalized as a lexical term, although Xi had the party statutes and constitution amended for it in 2018. 

His name will likely become part of the dictionaries after the 20th Party Congress, once it receives even higher consecrations. Until then, words shaped by Xi, such as “China’s Dream” (中国梦) or China’s “New Normality” (新常态), will remain in the dictionary without his name. The same applies to other included expressions coined by Xi, such as “overtaking in the curve” (弯道超车) aimed at “Made in China 2025,” or “top-level design” (顶层设计) characterizing his authoritarian style of ruling.  

Most new additions to the standardized dictionary reflect China’s transformation since 2014, such as “sharing economy” (共享经济), “carbon vertex” (碳达峰), “climate neutrality” (碳中和),  “particulate matter” (细颗粒物), “mobile payment” (移动支付), or Internet terms such as “WeChat” (微信), “group chat” (群聊) “cloud computing” (云计算), and “smartphone selfie” (自拍).

China’s lexicons can still evade politicization by party-speak. This has not always been the case. Every political movement has been reflected in the Xinhua dictionary, Endymion Wilkinson, then EU ambassador to Beijing and a renowned sinologist and historian, once told me. For example, in the 1971 edition of the Xinhua dictionary published during the Cultural Revolution, 46 quotations from Chairman Mao had to be included. Nearly 2000 entries were given a new Cultural Revolutionary meaning. After Mao’s death in 1976, it took 35 years for a professional dictionary to be published in 2011, with words translated into Chinese for “futures trading,” “white collar,” “sex education,” or “generation gap.” At the time, the official China Daily celebrated the return of depoliticized everyday language with a pun in its headline, “Better read than Red.”

Ideological conversion has long been on the agenda in China. It should not be too long before the meaning of 2-4-4-2 can be found in dictionaries.

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