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Behind the Headlines: China’s Media Landscape (Liveblog)

Live blog on the The Hague Conference on the Chinese Media on May 15th, at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, Clingendael.

Manya Koetse

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Conference on The Chinese Media and Relations with Europe

Date: May 15, 2014.
Place: The Hague, Clingendael Institute
By: Dutch think tank Clingendael and the Modern East Asia Research Centre (MEARC)
Blogged by: Manya Koetse 

What’s going on behind China’s headlines? How have the dramatic reforms in China over the past decades impacted China’s media landscape? And how relevant are these changes for Europe’s perspective on China? These are questions that will be addressed at this event. Today’s conference will give a view on China’s current media landscape and the practice of journalism in the PRC. Check out any updates on the conference on this page (Don’t forget to ‘refresh’ the page every now and then by clearing the cache – something new should come up every 30 minutes). Update: live-blog now closed. See the full report below:

 

Chinese Media in Europe and Media Dialogues (Session One)

10:50-12:45
Chair:
Jan Melissen (Clingendael Insititute)
Speakers:
Vincent Ni (BBC World Service)
Wang Bei (Radio Netherlands Worldwide)
Pal Nyiti (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

Discussant:
Odila Triebel (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen)

11:00

“Chinese journalists are lagging behind on their international colleagues when it comes down to media coverage on Europe”, says Vincent Ni, Multimedia Producer at the BBC Chinese, BBC World Service. There are multiple factors that affect the way Chinese are ‘doing’ journalism on Europe. There are practical issues, such as language barriers, but there are also flaws in the journalistic system and attitudes towards Europe. Ni explains how some Chinese journalists have the idea that European news is just “not that exciting”, making many Chinese people working in the media industry think that American news is just more interesting and important. One factor that might contribute to this idea is that many Chinese journalists have a lack of understanding on how European government systems work and what the EU actually does. There are things that journalists on the European side can do to help Chinese media institutes, but eventually, Chinese media institutes should make a collaborate effort to educate journalists on Europe and its economic and political background. All in all, “Europe deserves more attention from Chinese press,” Ni concludes.

 

“How does one ‘sell’ news on Europe to a Chinese audience that thinks European news is just ‘not so exciting?'”

 

“Our audience is picky about news,” says Bei Wang, Chief Editor at the China Desk Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW). That is why RNW works in a way that is appealing to its (young) audience; not just ‘story-telling’ but ‘experience-telling’. RNW does this by using personal stories that give a different perspective on news. Currently, Chinese state media is expanding its presence in the world. They are presenting China to the world, but are also presenting the rest of the world to China. But the information they are giving is limited- there is a lack of authentic and unpolished information about Europe in Chinese language. Although China does need it, Wang agrees with Vincent Ni that news on Europe just does not ‘sell’ as well as news on, for example, America. So how does one ‘sell’ news on countries such as the Netherlands to a Chinese audience? By telling them the stories they are interested in. This is why RNW focuses on personal stories and social issues. If the Chinese audience is interested in Dutch healthcare or welfare, then this is the kind of news RNW will bring them.

Pal Nyiri is currently writing a book on Chinese correspondents abroad. Pal talks about Chinese media correspondents in Europe, their backgrounds and news focus. It is clear that the presence of Chinese journalists in the worlds is on a dramatic rise. Nyiri lays out the numbers: People’s Daily currently has about 70 overseas bureaus , Xinghua News has 140 international offices and CCTV has 70 foreign locations. China’s media bureaus have many European correspondents (some freelancing), and they struggle with a major challenge: how to make European news interesting to China. What one generally sees happening in the news is that Chinese journalists approach Europe as an exotic place where people enjoy life. ‘How the Dutch ride their bike’ would be a quite funny but realistic example of a Chinese news report on Europe. Due to various circumstances, such as relatively low wages, foreign postings are not as attractive to Chinese journalists as working within the Mainland- this is why many foreign correspondents are rather young. Through their deliverance on the news, a new picture of Europe is emerging in China. What one sees currently happening is that whatever is the news of the day within China, will be the news that is brought on Europe. Issues of environment, welfare and society are particularly popular- these news items are used as a foil to reflect back on what is going on in China.

 

“Chinese international media are not truly international- there is always a Chinese angle to global news.” 

 

During the after-discussion of this first part of the conference, that has focused on Chinese media in and on Europe, Vincent Ni of the BBC expresses his critique of Chinese international media. “There is not one Chinese official media that is truly international,” he says: “Global news is consumed by a global audience. What Chinese media does, is giving a Chinese angle to international news. This is why my current job at BBC is so different from my previous job at Caixin News. At BBC, we are actually reporting news on the world, to the world.”

One discussant from the audience remarks that this part of the conference has discussed Chinese correspondents abroad and international news in China, but where is the narrative on the foreign correspondents working in China?

Journalist and researcher Garrie van Pinxteren remarks that the situation for foreign correspondents working in China is getting harder. Not only because of practical issues, such as visa, but also because more Western media are now also working with Chinese correspondents to report from within China, instead of using foreign correspondents working from China.

 

“In China, I hardly see newspapers, and I only see people playing games online [and not reading the news], so where is all this news actually going?!” 

 

Another discussant from the audience, Frank Kouwenhoven from Chime Foundation, remarks that if one visits China, one hardly sees any newspapers at all. Upon entering an internet cafe, everybody seems to be playing games. So, the discussant asks, “Where is all this news we have been talking about actually going?”

“There are readers, and there will always be,” says Bei Wang from China Desk Radio Netherlands Worlwide: “Chinese citizens are actually bombarded with news every day, and there are always consumers. Think about social media such as Weibo or Weixin (Wechat)- people are increasingly sharing news through social media. The audience is getting more versatile, and so are the ways in which the news is brought to them.”

12:50 update: Time for lunch break, will keep you posted again after 13.30.

 

The State of Chinese Journalism Today (Session Two)

13:30-15:00

Chair:
Jan Melissen (Clingendael Insititute)
Speakers:
Hugo de Burgh (University of Westminster)
Florian Schneider (Leiden University)
Daniela Stockman (Leiden University)

13:40

How can we explain the Chinese media? Hugo de Burgh, director of the China Media Centre and writer on investigative journalism (specializing in Chinese affairs), remarks how Chinese journalism is often perceived negatively by the English-speaking world. “It is as if there are two types of investigative journalism”, he says: “The Western and the Chinese way.” But according to De Burgh, there are in fact many things the West can learn from Chinese media. Anglophones often demonize Chinese media for various biased reasons. According to De Burgh, Chinese media is actually not a ‘flawed’ edition within some universal media system. “There is no such thing as Western media,” he says. It is not an issue of Chinese media versus Western media, but more so an issue of anglophone media versus non-English media. Chinese media actually have a lot in common with other non-English media. It is useful to make comparisons between the media from different countries- but not when it is continuously approaching the other media form (in this case: Chinese media) in a biased way. Not everything is awful in the Western media, says De Burgh, neither is everything about Chinese media positive. It is about making a more honest balance in the study or critique of the state of Chinese journalism. The best framework for approaching Chinese media? It is a simple “respect for differences”.

14:00

 

“Chinese Media – it’s not just a simple narrative, there is an entire network of actors that collaboratively determine the dynamics of Chinese media today.”

 

Florian Schneider, lecturer of Politics of Modern China at Leiden University and editor of Politics East Asia stresses that there is indeed a lot of bias when talking about Chinese media. There are many people who think that the political control over Chinese journalists is so strong that they are nothing more than a mouthpiece for Xi Jinping and the Party. This is not the case, Schneider says. It makes more sense to talk about what is happening in China in the form of governance from the Party to state vis-à-vis society, and the private actors that also influence China’s cultural sphere. Schneider shows that the discourse of the state of Chinese journalism is complex, and approaching this subject in a ‘political control’ framework is not only biased, but also far too narrow. “People assume it’s a simple narrative,” Schneider says, but leave out all the dynamics that contribute to the state of journalism in China today. Within journalism, there are now a myriad of players besides the State; think of companies as Sina News or Baidu, that have greatly influenced China’s mass communication. Schneider advocates for a change in how we think about Chinese media. There is more than the Party and the State- there is an entire network of actors that collaboratively determine the dynamics of Chinese media today.

14:20

Stockmann

Daniela Stockman, writer of Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China, addresses the question of how Chinese media fits in the political system of today’s China. Stockman does not believe in a one-way state-to-society power relation. Instead, she argues that the state and society can mutually reinforce each other, as long as the state can walk the fine line between tolerance and control – the state actually walks this line on a daily basis. There’s a myriad of examples on how Chinese government is both maximizing control while bringing about more liberalization. It is the impact of market forces in the media that contribute to this mechanism of control and liberalization, Stockman says. Media marketization has boosted the credibility of today’s journalism – because new media sources are branded in a certain way, people assume it is not propaganda and thus have more trust in these types of media. Chinese readers have a preference for ‘non-official’ papers, because they generally believe these are more credible than the ‘official’ ones. Note that Stockman says that there actually are no 100% ‘non-official’ papers, although they are addressed in this way. Stockman’s research has pointed out that ‘non official’ papers are more effective in changing people’s opinions due to their credibility, and in this way, somewhat contradictory, do help propagating authoritarian rule in China.

During the audience Q&A, Peter Gries, US-China Issues Director&Professor at University of Oklahoma, addresses his question to Hugo de Burgh, noticing that on one hand De Burgh is advocating for perceiving Chinese media in a balanced way – yet his own frame of reference in doing so is the demonization of Chinese media in the ‘western world’. “How do you escape this political space that is central to this type of discourse?” Gries asks. Another attendee talks about how this conference has stressed the anglophone ‘demonization’ of Chinese journalism, and wonders if there is also such a phenomenon as the Chinese ‘demonization’ of Western media.

15.10-15.30 break, the final session on China’s 21st century journalists will start after the break.

 

China’s 21st Century Journalism: A Chinese View (Keynote Session)

15:30-17:00

Chair:
Garrie van Pinxteren
Speakers:
Wu Gang (The Global Times)
Michael Anti (Blogger & Internet Journalist)

15:40

Michael Anti (also known as Zhao Jing) internet journalist and renowned Twitterer (you can follow him on @mranti), starts off the keynote session by remarking how time is the biggest problem for scholars who write on China and media. Developments in China go too fast for scholars to keep up. “The academic world should work together with bloggers,” Anti says.

 

“Weibo is no longer the Weibo it was. The Golden Days of Chinese social media ended in 2012.”

 

China’s Internet policies are getting stricter, Anti states. It has become easier for reporters and bloggers to end up in jail. Nevertheless, social media can change China to a more liberal and democratic society. “Sometimes we have freedom just because someone allows us to. When they don’t allow it- the door is closed,” says Anti. He explains that it is often allowed for netizens to criticize local governments. As long as one keeps to one rule: do not direct your criticism towards the central government. Anti calls the years up ’til 2012 the “Golden Years” of Chinese media- it was in these times (roughly from 2009-2012) that netizens enjoyed the most freedom to write what they wanted. Weibo is no longer the Weibo it once was- because of the implementation of new laws and online guidelines, people are scared to write what they want; they can be detained if the government decides their social content is not allowed. But China moves fast, Anti says, and we can now see that online movements are shifting from Weibo to Weixin (Wechat), where groups can connect and organize themselves in a more secret way. But, when netizens are quick, the government is quick to follow. Comments within the seemingly private Weixin app are already being checked by censors. This makes it harder for journalists to do their work. “My industry is dying,” Anti says. The fear for detainment (“I have a very beautiful wife”) has lead Anti to shift his focus towards international news, which is less censored by authorities.

 

“We are not innovative because of governmental censorship, we are innovative in spite of it.”

 

Anti encourages the western audience to really interact with Chinese media: “We need your support to understand China better. You should not just read China Daily. Get a Wechat account. Engage with the Chinese people. Whatever the government does, Chinese people are nice. Like me.” Ending his talk, Anti remarks the inventive nature of Chinese netizens and journalists: “We are not innovative because of governmental censorship, we are innovative in spite of it.”

16:10

Global-Times-as-real-newspaper-medium1

Gang Wu, news editor and deputy director at the English Edition of the Global Times, talks about the development of the Global Times and the complexity of Chinese media- news editors are often walking a fine line in deciding what (not) to cover. Wu tells about an important turning point in the influence of the Global Times in China. The year 1999 was important because of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in BelgradeThe event evoked many angry reactions from Chinese citizens, who threw eggs and stones at the US consulate in Beijing. (“I would’ve thrown a stone myself,” Wu says: “But I couldn’t find any..”). Global Times thoroughly reported on the developments of the story. Following the growing circulation of the Global Times, changes have been made in reports and decisions on what to cover, and how to cover it. Wu remarks how the attention is gradually shifting towards domestic news now, which is more controversial. “Talking about domestic politics is really dangerous,” Wu states. He explains how writing about national politics, compared to covering international events, is always a tricky matter. In covering Chinese politics, the media source might be perceived as being a mouthpiece for the government, or of speaking against the government- which are both dangerous territories. Global Times does not want to speak for the government or the elite; it aims to speak for China’s mainstream audience. 

The reality of Chinese media is that any media office can be closed at any time. Nevertheless, Global Times has had breakthroughs in reporting sensitive topics. Journalists have to be careful with the tone of their narratives, and sensitive news has to be taken step by step- in this way, the government, hopefully, can slowly get used to the pace of China’s current media coverage.

16:50

mranti.jpg

 

“Who will arrest the government?”

 

During the Q&A, Wu Gang addresses the difference between himself and Michael Anti when speaking of Chinese media. Wu states that Anti is more critical than him about governmental issues. Wu Gang does have the hope and the belief that Chinese media and the government can collaborate and work side by side within the Chinese media landscape. Since the government is particularly strict about the publication of so-called ‘false rumors’, Wu feels that journalists need to be especially careful that the news they bring is absolutely factual. Anti expresses his dissatisfaction with China’s law on the start of ‘false rumors’ – “what happens when the government says something which is not true,” Anti says: “Who will arrest the government?” Democracy, Anti adds, actually suits any country. There are those who say democracy is not for China. “That is racist,” Anti says: “Democracy is just as good for China as it is for any other country.”

17:10

Huub Wijfjes, Professor of Journalism Studies and Media History at the University of Groningen, takes on the closing remarks. Today we have learned that from the western view, one tends to discuss Chinese media within one’s own framework. ‘Chinese media’ is often seen as being identical to the governmental voice, and is associated with Party control. “There’s more to Chinese media,” Wijfjes says. We should look beyond propaganda and think deeper about how the Chinese media system works, without denying the fact that there is still authoritarian rule and dictatorship, deeply affecting the current landscape of Chinese media.

This live blog is now closed. For any remarks or questions, feel free to email at manya@whatsonweibo.com,
or contact the blogger through Twitter at @manyapan.

 

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Backgrounder

Explainer: Ten Key Terms and Concepts of the 20th CPC National Congress

Take a look at the essential keywords and concepts surrounding the 20th Party Congress.

Manya Koetse

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What are the key terms and concepts mentioned in Xi Jinping’s speech that are propagated all over Chinese social media this week? Here, we explain ten important concepts and keywords that you are probably going to see much more of in the coming five years.

It is the week of the 20th CPC National Congress, China’s quinquennial major political event that is all about discussing and deciding on important Party issues, appointing Party leadership and officially announcing new governance concepts, thoughts and strategies proposed by the CPC Central Committee.

The Party Congress opened on Sunday, October 16, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his nearly two-hour-long speech reflecting on the recent past and the future of the Communist Party and the country at large, signalling the direction China will be heading.

In our earlier article covering Xi Jinping’s speech, we focused on how Chinese official channels turned parts of the work report into hashtags that were promoted on social media and then became trending topics.

Here, we will go over some of the terms and words that were used in the political report delivered by Xi and were propagated on Chinese social media as ‘key terms’ through general hashtags such as “Understanding These Key Terms from the 20th Party Congress Report,” “Studying the Essence of the 20th Party Congress” or “The New Era and Journey of the 20th Party Congress” (#看懂二十大报告中这些关键词#, #学习二十大精神#, #党的二十大新时代新征程#).

During the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Party newspaper People’s Daily published a vocabulary list containing 100 relevant words and terms. That list included terms such as “5G Era” (5G时代), “Sharing Economy” (分享经济), “The 20th anniversary of Hong-Kong’s return to China” (香港回归祖国20周年), “Made in China 2025” (中国制造2025), and other key terms that were deemed relevant in 2017 for China’s nearing future.

This Congress, there has not been a comparable official vocabulary list, but there have been various shorter lists and hashtags encouraging netizens to study key terms that are important to this year’s Congress and the Party goals. Many of these terms are visualized in infographics or explained in online posts and articles.

We’ve gathered some of these key terms from Xi’s speech here that are important to understand, not just for the fact that they are mentioned in Xi’s speech but also because they are specifically highlighted by various official channels.

 

1. Modernizing the Chinese Way 中国式现代化

This concept was mentioned at least five times throughout Xi Jinping’s address and it is one of most important themes of this Party Congress: “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化 Zhōngguóshì xiàndàihuà).

While the 19th Party Congress was all about China’s ‘new era’ (新时代), this 20th Party Congress term grasps the idea of further modernizing the country in a ‘Chinese way,’ meaning a type of modernization in which typically Chinese features and characteristics (“中国特色”) are maintained.

This is a relatively new term. A tool that shows searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu indicates that it did not receive any significant amount of searches before spiking during the week 20th Party Congress.

Baidu trend search shows that the term “Chinese-style modernizarion” “中国式现代化” did not receive any significant searches before October 2022.

The concept, however, did pop up in Chinese official media discourse since late 2021, such as in one article published by Xinhua News on September 27 in 2021 titled “Grasping the Main Features of the New Path of Chinese-Style Modernization” (把握中国式现代化新道路的主要特征)

The idea of Chinese-style modernization is closely related to other key concepts such as “common prosperity for all” (全体人民共同富裕 quántǐ rénmín gòngtóng fùyù) and “harmony between humanity and nature” (人与自然和谐共生 rén yǔ zìrán héxié gòngshēng).

 

2. The Central Mission 中心任务

The term “central mission” (中心任务 zhōngxīn rènwù) was mentioned at least once in Xi Jinping’s address to convey how the central task of the CPC is to “unite and lead the people of all nationalities to build a strong socialist modern country,” and to “promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with Chinese-style modernization.”

Although the term “central mission” itself is not particularly tied to the 20th Party Congress at all, it is now because of how it is being used in the new context of the Party’s ‘main goal’ in China’s ‘new era.’ People’s Daily also promoted a hashtag including this term: “The Communist Party of China’s Central Task from Now On” (#从现在起中国共产党的中心任务#”).

 

3. Top Priority 第一要务

The key term ‘top priority’ (第一要务 dì yī yàowù) refers to the Party pursuing the kind of “high-quality development” (“高质量发展”) that will lead to the further modernization of the country.

“High-quality development” was also mentioned in the 19th Party Congress report in 2017 to indicate a shift and a new phase in China’s economic development from a focus on high-speed growth to a focus on more high-quality development, which is also outlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).

This means, among others, that there will be more focus on innovation-driven industries and technological advancement.

 

4. The “Two-Steps” Strategy “两步走”战略安排

In the segment of Xi’s speech where he addresses China-style modernization in the new era, he also mentions the “two steps” strategy (“两步走”战略安排 “liǎng bù zǒu” zhànlüè ānpái). This is not a new term and it has been previously introduced as part of China’s journey to becoming a strong, rejuvenated country – making China great again.

The two steps of this strategy are to realize ‘socialist modernization’ by 2035 and then to enter the next phase from 2035-2050 to build China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful socialist modernization country.” The year 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and this is the moment when China’s “great rejuvenation” should be completed.

 

5. The Road to Follow 必由之路

At the end of Xi Jinping’s speech, he mentioned “the road to follow” (必由之路, bìyóuzhīlù) five times. On social media, the “road to follow” has been reiterated multiple times as well by official channels, including in a propaganda video published by CCTV.

The five ‘roads to follow’ mentioned in the Party Congress and in the state media videos are the following that are together presented as “the only road” the country and the Party must take. They are all linked together and are actually somewhat circular, namely:

– to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics, they must adhere to the overall leadership of the Party
– to achieve the “great rejuvenation” of China they must stick to socialism with Chinese characterics
– to reach this historic undertaking, they must be united in struggle
– to allow China to grow and develop in the ‘new era,’ they must implement the new concepts for development
– to be able to take this new road together & keep the Party full of vitality, they must follow the way of comprehensive and strict Party governance

 

6. Building Beautiful China 建设美丽中国

In the 20th CPC National Congress report, the idea of “building beautiful China” (建设美丽中国, jiànshè měilì Zhōngguó) was mentioned in the segment dedicated to the “green development” of China as part of its overall modernization. This includes environmental protection, pollution control, carbon reduction, and climate change awareness.

‘Beautiful China’ as a concept was first introduced during the 18th Party Congress in November of 2012 as part of China’s long-term environmental protection plan within the context of people’s welfare and the future of China.

 

7. Whole-process People’s Democracy 全过程人民民主

This concept of ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ (全过程人民民主, quán guòchéng rénmín mínzhǔ) is mentioned at least five times in Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress speech and it is one of the political concepts and terms proposed by Xi himself as part of Xi Jinping’s Socialist Thought with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It was mentioned in the speech Xi gave during the celebration of the Party’s 100-year anniversary in 2021.

This so-called ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ is officially presented as a ‘process-oriented’ democracy that, despite being different from Western democracy, supposedly “covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society” through a combination of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight.

This idea of China having its own particular kind of democracy – or perhaps having invented a Chinese version of what ‘democracy’ actually means – also suits the idea of Chinese-style modernization, in which China’s path to the future will not be like the route Western countries are taking, but instead combining modernization with Chinese features.

 

8. Socialist Culture 社会主义文化

‘Socialist Culture’ (社会主义文化, shèhuì zhǔyì wénhuà) comes up at least four times in the 20th Party Congress report. The term represents a cultural side of China’s modernization, and emphasizes that, in order to build a strong socialist country, there must also be a strong socialist culture.

Although not explicitly stated, official media propaganda inescapably plays an important part in the cultivation of a strong ‘socialist culture’ that is all about cultural self-confidence, cultural innovation, creativity, and ‘spiritual energy.’

At time of writing, the Baidu Trends tool did not have enough information to show any relevant data on the search engine interest in this particular term, but the idea of ‘socialist culture’ is by no means a new one. “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics” was already proposed by Jiang Zemin (江泽民) at the 15th CPC National Congress in 1997.

The idea that building a strong socialist culture is important for the further development of China has been further cultivated over the past few years under Xi’s leadership. Also read this article in English titled “How to build a strong socialist culture” in Qiushi, the CPC Central Committee bimonthly.

 

9. Improve the Distribution System 完善分配制度

This phrase comes up once in the part of the 20th Party System report that disusses a fairer economic system with more equal employment & income opportunities and regulated wealth accumulation, encouraging hard work to get rich.

Although it is the first time that a regulation of wealth accumulation has come up in this way (and it is not explained what this actually means), the idea behind these concepts of the distribution system and wealth accumulation standardization is that of ‘common prosperity,’ one of the most important concepts guiding China’s recent policymaking.

‘Improve the distribution system’ (完善分配制度, wánshàn fēnpèi zhìdù) was explicilty mentioned as one of the key concepts for this week’s meeting by various channels, but it mainly is ‘the regulation of wealth accumulation’ that is featured in social media hashtags (#中国将规范财富积累机制#).

 

10. Focus 着力点

Many of the words or phrases propagated as ‘key terms’ for this 20th Party Congress are insignificant by themselves but are merely used to represent a bigger body of thoughts. The aforementioned “Top Priority,” “Central Mission,” and “Road to Follow” are all just words that only mean something within the context of Xi Jinping’s speech.

Another example is “Major Principles” (“重大原则” zhòngdà yuánzé) which is also included by CCTV in this list of most important keywords, but which actually just goes back to the same ideas that are referred to in the other terms, namely strengthing the overall leadership of the Party, adhering to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, emphasizing people-centered ideology, etc. – which is similar to the idea behind the “Road to Follow” (必由之路) keyword.

Explanation of ‘Major Principle’ concept in English and Chinese by People’s Daily, posted on Weibo.

Then there is the keyword “focus,” 着力点 (zhuólìdiǎn), which is about the focus of China’s economic development.

In China’s coming years, the economic focus should be placed on the real economy (实体经济). This literally is also a hashtag promoted on Weibo by CCTV this week (“Put the Focus of Economic Development on the Real Economy” #把发展经济的着力点放在实体经济上#).

Different from the Financial Economy, the Real Economy is the realm of economy that is about businesses, production, and the direct exchange/purchase of goods or services.

Also part of this ‘focus’ is China’s new industrialization, manufacturing, product quality, aerospace, transportation, new technology, and digital China. Another related term that is proposed as one of the keywords of this Party Congress is ‘innovation’ (创新, chuàngxīn).

Please check in with us again this week as we will keep an eye on social media trends surrounding the CPC National Congress. Don’t forget to subscribe. For previous posts on the Party Congress, check here.

By Manya Koetse 

 

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Backgrounder

“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse

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Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?

 

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.

 

There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM

 

In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.

 

LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND

 

Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.

 

RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

 

Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”

 

A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?

 

But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.

 

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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