Last month we looked at the seemingly unstoppable political inflation of Xi Jinping, as a Party publication called for systematic study of international praise for China’s president, and as the Academy of Social Sciences in one province put out a call for “research” on his formative years in the village of Liangjiahe.
The “genie of hype and triumphalism,” we said, would not be so easy to stuff back into the magic lamp of propaganda.
But China seems in any case to be trying — wary perhaps of the unease self-aggrandizing discourse can generate internationally, and of the dangerous somnolence it can induce at home.
This week, the Party’s official People’s Daily began running a series of commentaries on the pitfalls of “boastful and arrogant” discourse, warning that “certain media” had become careless. These “certain media,” we should note, were not fringe voices, but rather mainstream Party ones.
The first piece criticized is sourced to China Central Television, and was shared on a number of official news sites back in March. The second is a video produced by Weichen Finance, posted to Tencent Video, that quotes Tsinghua University economics professor Hu Angang — who has in recent years loudly advocated the view that China’s current political system is superior to systems in the West — to support the view that China already has a technological edge on the United States.
Missing from the criticism in the People’s Daily, of course, is any acknowledgement that the Party’s own information controls, which have emphasized positive news, trumpeted “positive energy,” and militated against criticism, could possibly bear any responsibility for China’s inflated view of itself.
A partial translation of the first commentary follows.
The ideas expressed in written discourse (文风) are no small matter.
Recently, we’ve seen repeated boastfulness and arrogance . . . which have impacted the credibility of the media, polluted the public opinion ecology and twisted the national psyche, being disadvantageous to public morals, to the coalescing of public feeling, and to the building of a clear online space.
In order to amend the boastfulness and arrogance of certain media, and their flashy but empty discourse, and in order to implement General Secretary Xi Jinping’s demand that written discourse be “brief, true and fresh” (短/实/新) . . . from today on the Opinion Channel of People’s Daily Online will issue a series of commentaries called “Three Critiques of Boastfulness and Arrogance” (三评浮夸自大文风).
The good and bad of an article rests on whether it radiates the truth, and whether it reflects society. When written discourse is boastful and arrogant, when the headlines seek to jar [the reader] and offer specious facts, this is not only irreverent to the reader but forfeits the value of communication and pollutes the public opinion environment.
Online recently, articles talking about how “America is afraid” (美国害怕了), or “Japan is terrified” (日本吓傻了), or “Europe is filled with regret” (欧洲后悔了) have earned a great many hits. But read through these instant-hit articles and you see that they have little fresh to offer, and in fact are cause for concern. For example, some of them exaggerate and generalize and shout out that “In These Sectors China Has Chalked Up Many ‘World Firsts’!” (在这些领域，中国创下多个“世界第一”！无人表示不服).
Some engage in arbitrary overrating, subjecting themselves to ridicule, shouting things like, “Never Fear: China’s Technological Strength Has Surpassed America, Reaching World #1” (别怕，中国科技实力超越美国，居世界第一).
Others resort to wishful thinking, accepting at face value isolated phrases from overseas and exaggerating them into “China Occupies the Centre of the World Stage” (中国在世界舞台上占据中心位置) and “China is Now the World’s Largest Economy” (中国现在是全球第一经济体). The blustering articles have, first of all, not real facts to support them; second, no content to serve as blood and muscle; and third, no intellectual value whatsoever. They are just empty shells that cannot withstand the least bit of breeze.
We have to understand that an article will not grow more colourful just because it makes a boast, and the country will not grow stronger because it is arrogant. If we excite such extreme emotions, and if we spread such prejudices, this could easily become a case of “Yelang thinking highly of itself” (夜郎自大), in which we arrogantly blow our own trumpet, and lead our society into a cognitive trap of splintered information and automated thought.
In communication studies, there is a viewpoint that says that “the best editor is definitely an expert salesman.” For some media, boasting and arrogance has become like a huge balloon constantly inflating, in danger of bursting at the slightest touch. . . But the news is not about feeling pleasure (爽文). If you only think about sales and never about nutrition (讲营销不讲营养), if you only think about eyeballs and not about responsibility, you mislead the masses — even if it earns you a moment’s burst of traffic.