The “Other” Radio Free Asia: 1951 to 1953

Most people probably know or have at least heard of Radio Free Asia, the station that was established in the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration as part of the reorientation of the USIA in a post Cold War world before it was ultimately disbanded in 1999. Fewer people may know about the “first” Radio Free Asia, a US propaganda outlet which broadcasted programs between 1951 and 1953, much like Radio Free Europe did in Europe. Unlike its European counterpart, however, Radio Free Asia ceased broadcasting in the 1950s and bears no relationship to the current Radio Free Asia launched in 1996.

While going through old source material I collected several years ago, I came across an interesting declassified (though partially redacted) CIA report obtained from the Declassified Documents Reference System,*  also available in full text here, which discusses the purpose and activities of the earlier Radio Free Asia, as well as its problems as seen by the CIA. Furthermore, the document opens up some potentially interesting research questions about broadcasting initiatives that succeeded the station in East Asia which I would pursue right away if I lived in an ideal world with unlimited time. Because of its short history, much less research appears to have been done on Radio Free Asia, compared to Radio Free Europe or other Cold War propaganda initiatives. So below, I will sum up a few key points from the document that seem noteworthy. I might expand on them at a later point in time or if I come across other related documents from either the US, the Taiwanese or the Chinese side.

Radio Free Asia (henceforth: RFA) was officially run by the Committee for a Free Asia (CFA) out of San Francisco between September 1951 and 1953. Programs were broadcasted in “three Chinese dialects and in English” and comprised of “principally anti-Communist propaganda, except for news and music.” For the origins and details of the CFA and RFA and its development in 1951 and 1952, see Cold War CIA Broadcasting: The Crusade for Freedom & the Birth of Radio Free Asia by Richard H. Cummings, former director of security for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The study behind the 1953 Report, briefly mentioned by Cummings, was conducted to “determine the future course of international radio broadcasting by Radio Free Asia” and communicated in a memorandum dated April 1, 1953. Needless to say the document primarily portrays the position of the CIA: While RFA was clearly fighting for its survival, the intelligence agency opposed the continuation of the station and ultimately prevailed. Nonetheless, the document sheds light on the overall US propaganda strategy in East Asia, the problems RFA encountered as well as the reasons why it was decided to discontinue the station rather than expand it and try to solve its problems.

So what were the CIA’s arguments, and why was RFA disbanded? In short, the Report determined that broadcasts did not reach their audience, the CFA failed to obtain feasible Asian sponsorship for the program, presumably both to alleviate costs and to distinguish RFA from other outlets, and the CIA (citing local US embassies to back up its point of view) preferred local broadcasts targeted at specific groups over the one-size-fits-all programs produced by the CFA.

Even during its two years of operation, RFA was more of a test project without wide reach, whose only tangible outcome, according to the 1953 Report, was the building of “an especially efficient staff, about half of it Chinese.” The programs were relayed through Manila, but on a very weak signal of only 10 k.w., “which cannot regularly be heard anywhere in Asia.” After negotiations with CFA, the State Department had agreed to establish a 100 k.w. shortwave relay station on Manila, but on the condition that CFA obtain Asian sponsorship to cover the costs.

The CFA, however, concluded that such sponsorship was not feasable because Chinese in the Philippines already had a difficult standing and would take political risks sponsoring such a station. Furthermore, if locals provided the bulk of the money, they might actually gain significant control over editorial content and open up possibilities for KMT or even Communist infiltration. Finally, the Report concluded that if Chinese based in the Philippines were to be sponsors in name only,

it is inevitable that the American (even though “unofficial”) character of the operation will become well known, exposing the U.S. to ridicule (for an unsuccessful attempt at deception) and intensifying Asian suspicions of U.S. interference in the affairs of free nations [emphasis in the original].

Despite the name Radio Free Asia, the choice of broadcasting languages already indicates that RFA was primarily targeted at the People’s Republic of China and Chinese-speaking audiences in Southeast Asia because other countries and groups were covered by other programs. Because of public listening centers, the PRC did not have a sufficient number of home-owned radio devices, so there was no chance that a substantial portion of the population would secretely listen to RFA on their home radios. The 1953 CIA Report estimates fewer than 20,000 radio receivers were produced per year, possibly not even all of these functional. People who owned a radio had to register it, making “listening to Western broadcasts very risky business.” This meant that the target audience was limited to “short-wave radio broadcast monitors” as well as military and civilian officials who were officially allowed to listen to all types of broadcasts. Since they often used headphones, the Report concluded, “the opportunity for clandestine listening does exist to some extent” and “it cannot be determined that… the listening audience has necessarily decreased since July of last year” [i.e. July 1952, when the fate of RFA had already been up for debate].

In order to understand one important reason why RFA was discontinued nevertheless, one needs to understand the difference between white propaganda outlets, openly broadcasting the official US government position and black outlets which were officially presented as independent. Both RFA and Radio Free Europe fell into the latter category (hence the concern about being discovered and exposed to ridicule). By contrast, the Voice of America (VOA) was acknowledged as an official outlet for the US government, communicating official US policy. At the time, the VOA was preparing to install two 1000 k.w. transmitters in the Asia-Pacific, and the Report concluded that it was

quite clear that there is little which RFA can say to the Mainland… which cannot be said by the VOA or by Formosa. The line which Stalin’s death makes most applicable to the PRC — that Malenkov has succeeded to a position of influence over the Communist movement to which not he, but Mao alone is entitled — can as well be used by VOA as by RFA.

In fact, the CIA Report continues, it would be better for VOA to broadcast these statements so that they would be clearly recognized as official US policy. (At the time, it needs to be added, some within the US government were apparently hoping that Mao might “defect”, something that is also mentioned in the CIA Report, though whether from China or from the Socialist bloc is not immediately clear to me at this point. Perhaps someone with more information can help me out or point me to a source that sheds some light on US aspirations for China’s and Mao’s future right after Stalin’s death.)

Overseas Chinese, the Report assessed, continued to be an important potential target audience for RFA, and also possessed radios to listen to broadcasts, but both the VOA and the KMT (“Formosa”) were working on locally produced programs. In general, local programs for very specific local audiences were a better choice for the region than broadly distributed international programs such as RFA. The CFA, the CIA concluded, should therefore work with local radio in various countries, while RFA would be discontinued. The idea that local programs would be more efficient wasn’t new, of course. It had been brought up by the CIA in discussions with RFA as early as in November 1951. By 1953, the Report argued, the CFA had started a sufficient number of new initiatives, including local cooperation, so that it was no longer necessary to maintain RFA simply to keep up the morale of the organization.

As Overseas Chinese became increasingly wary of the PRC, it became easier for Taiwan to get its messages heard: Stations such as RFA were no longer needed as an “in-between” in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Taiwan-based Radio Free China had contacted the CFA and offered to air “CFA-influenced broadcasts to South China.” These broadcasts would not be attributed to the CFA, so that the organization would not become associated with the KMT, which could endanger its operation in other countries. It also made it possible to broadcast “dark grey or black” content that the CFA, something the CFA did not want to do in its attributed programs.

As the CIA Report elaborates,

phrases such as “Down with Mao Tse-tung, Long live Chou En-lai” could be broadcast from Radio Free China on the same frequency as Radio Peiping during pauses by the Peiping commentator. Radio Free China’s signal into South China would probably be strong enough to override Radio Peiping

Radio Free China of course refers to the Taiwanese radio station and should not be confused with RFA.Were these or similar broadcasts actually realized? I haven’t had the chance to look further into these initiatives and to research whether and to what extent they had an effect on the PRC, but I suspect this could be a potential research topic that might yield some interesting results. If anyone knows more about these initiatives or can point me towards other sources or literature, please drop me a line or leave a comment.


*Memorandum for: Special Assistant to the President. Subject: International Broadcasting by Radio Free Asia. April 1, 1953. Document no. CK3100139128. Unless indicated otherwise, the information and quotes in this article are from the Memorandum and the attached report.

Tifa Time! The Role of Slogans in Chinese Politics

If you follow events in China, then most likely the “Four Comprehensives” popped up in your mail box, your time line or your Twitter feed during the last couple of days. This slogan refers to Xi Jinping’s contribution to political theory. Each generation of leaders, or each paramount leader, is supposed to add to what has been called the “theory system with Chinese characteristics” since the Hu-Wen Era, making sure that there is both a sense of continuation with older theories and a sense of innovation with each new generation of leaders.

A quick summary: So far, we have Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, Jiang Zemin’s Important Thought of the “Three Represents”, Hu and Wen’s Scientific Development Outlook,  and now Xi’s Four Comprehensives. The Four Comprehensives fit a lot better into the tradition of dry-sounding, seemingly empty formulations than the “Chinese Dream”, which had previously been rumored to be Xi’s contribution to CCP theory.

That said, slogans, or specific formulations (tifa 提法), aren’t limited to the theoretical contributions of top leaders, even though these may be the most prominent examples. In fact, they are everywhere in Chinese politics. These specific formulations are among the reasons why Chinese texts, speeches or documents can be difficult to understand and often become even more obscure in translation. As Qian Gang, former managing editor at the Southern Weekly (Nanfang zhoumo 南方周末) and now a head researcher at Hong Kong University’s China Media Project studying these formulations, stated,

To outsiders, the political catchphrases deployed by China’s top leaders seem like the stiffest sort of nonsense. What do they mean when they drone on about the “Four Basic Principles,” or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”?

Nonetheless, Qian Gang argues, tifa, or what is translated as “watchwords” in his writing, are essential to understanding the CCP and the direction in which it is moving. If you haven’t taken a look at Qian Gang’s work, I strongly recommend you check it out.

I developed a bit of a fascination for slogans myself while trying to decipher documents and policy directives on China’s external propaganda work. I’ve written a little bit about it in my doctoral thesis (see pp. 217-224 in particular). One thing that’s been particularly interesting to me is how slogans are used to communicate and translate central policies (方針政策) into local and sectoral policies, and this is the function of slogans I want to talk about in this article.

Tracking and understanding slogans can be very helpful for understanding Chinese politics, but I have also found that their function is more complex than simply indicating the CCP’s overall political direction or who is winning a particular political struggle (though that is an important function as well). They are also an important tool in policy making and implementation, a shorthand for complex and regionally different policy programs. At least this is my conclusion after wading through countless policy documents and speeches and their interpretation of the central and local level in the propaganda sector and the occasional cursory look at other sectors.

So how does this work? Basically, a leader gives a speech, an important newspaper publishes an article, or a bureaucratic organization issues a new policy directive. These kinds of texts tend to be dense, often consisting of long lists of slogan after slogan, both old and new. People in organizations affected by this new text are then asked to study it and its “spirit” (jingshen 精神) and come up with ways to apply it to their own work. In the case of many central documents, that can mean the whole Chinese bureaucracy; in other cases, a text may only be relevant for a particular sector.

Oftentimes, you can also watch a slogan or document trickle down through the bureaucracy. Say Liu Qibao 刘奇葆, the head of the Central Propaganda Department, gives a speech at the Annual Central Work Plenum for Propaganda and Thought Work. Attendants will then “discuss” it and likely get some further clues as to how to interpret and implement certain things. They might already be asked to think about how to turn some slogans into concrete policies in their home departments. Later during the year, the provinces will convene their own annual propaganda conferences, and the delegates to the central conference as well as some other central-level bureaucrats will be there to discuss speeches and texts with attendants, giving participants some oral instructions on how to interpret slogans and asking them to come up with concrete measures of their own and report them to the higher-ups. These steps are then repeated at levels even further down the bureaucracy.

The slogans will then show up in local documents, both public and internal. At the public level, they will seem like meaningless lists of empty words, but internally, concrete policies will be explained orally or in writing. So in the papers, both central and local, you see a list of shorthands, but people at each level of the bureaucracy tasked with implementing new policies will have a better idea what these slogans mean in the overall (全局) interpretation and for them, concretely, target numbers and quotas included.

Needless to say, since slogans change their concrete meaning (sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically), context is important in order to understand them properly. If you happen to have a concrete definition of how the policy program of the “Four Comprehensives” is supposed to be translated into action at the Propaganda Department of Haidian District in Beijing over the next couple of months (and no, I don’t), it will be different from the concrete policy program Anning County in Yunnan comes up with. Makes sense. Having one program or local interpretation of the policy package might give you some broad clues how the “Four Comprehensives” is interpreted elsewhere (though not always).

Take the example liang shou zhua (liang shou dou yao ying) 兩手抓(兩手都要硬), “grasping with both hands (both hands have to be strong)”. In its most basic meaning, it has referred to the need to not only pay attention to economic development, but also propaganda and ideology post-1989 (see for example Brady, Marketing Dictatorship, 2008, pp. 44-45). But I’ve found the same slogan used in many different contexts and with different meanings. For example, I’ve seen it as “developing the Internet while at the same time managing/controlling it”, “quantitatively expanding China’s global media while also ensuring that the quality improves”, “continuing to pay attention to domestic propaganda while also ensuring that external propaganda is expanded”, etc. etc. This is only a small sample of meanings, and it’s only taken from the media and propaganda sector. All of these meanings will also invariably have different concrete policy measures attached to them. Sometimes, the concrete meaning is highly related to the “overall” or “original” meaning of a slogan; sometimes the concrete meaning may be more of a stretch. So what’s important when reading Chinese political documents is to be aware that there are many many concrete meanings to any slogan.

To conclude, this is a pretty basic description of how slogans are used in policy-making, and further research is needed to fine-tune it and get a better understanding of the process. I am not going to declare that this form of handing down and translating slogans into concrete policy measures is the perfect way of policy making. But there are some advantages to this, particularly from the perspective of the CCP. It allows the Party to provide a basic linguistic framework for policy-making, offering a sense of unity and continuity while at the same time giving local and sectoral bureaucracies some leeway to come up with policies that match the “local conditions”, another important concept in the CCP’s political vocabulary.

For-Profit Censorship in China

China’s media censorship system is frequently in the headlines, be it for its “pun ban” or its censorship of Empress Wu Zetian’s breasts. Last year, China was rocked by a series of potentially pretty damaging scandals regarding for-profit censorship. The basic concept: Officials working at China’s online censorship offices or websites implementing censorship orders take money from companies, or potentially anybody, in return for ensuring that negative coverage is removed. A few days ago, the website of the People’s Daily ran an article on “ten representative cases” of such extortion and for-profit censorship.

The potentially most damaging case is that of Gao Jianyun, a former CCP official with the rank of vice bureau head, working for the Cyberspace Administration and earlier its predecessor, the Fifth Office of the State Council Information Office. According to the People’s Daily article, Gao “used his position to provide assistance” to an unnamed company or companies to delete negative coverage online.

It’s unclear how widespread the phenomenon really is, but it’s a safe guess to say that there are many more cases than those that have officially come to light. In any case, the existing censorship system certainly provides a very convenient infrastructure for companies and anybody else considering how to most effectively manage their reputation online.

Real name requirement for Chinese online authors

As Amy Qin on the NYT’s Sinosphere Blog reported, China is taking new measures to force writers publishing online to register their real name. The document announcing the tightened requirements was  published on January 5, 2015 and covers a whole range of measures to “promote the healthy development of online literature” (推动网络文学健康发展).

It’s a pretty typical document, divided into three parts:  1. ideological underpinnings, principles and goals of the initiative, 2. core measures and 3. supporting measures. Here is what it has to say about the real name requirement, listed under “core measures”. Note that this is my own preliminary and rough translation, but the gist and basic structure of the section should be good enough to get an idea:

(Seven) Improve editing management mechanisms. Perfect the management system for editors of online literature, implement a licensing system, as well as build and improve management systems for the real name registration of authors of works published online, for responsible editors, and publishing units. Strengthen the ability of online literature editors to judge the direction of content and the serve as gatekeepers regarding artistic standards, reinforce the professional ethics education and professional training for online literature editors and guide enterprises in establishing evaluation measures and incentives that encourage the implementation of a system to hold editors accountable. [This latter part should be done] with a focus on clarifying the scope, standardizing procedures, strengthening supervision and tracing responsibility.

(七)健全编辑管理机制。完 善网络文学编辑人员管理机制,落实持证上岗制度,建立健全网络文学发表作品的作者实名注册、责任编辑及出版单位署名等管理制度;以明确范围、规范程序、强 化监督和责任追溯为重点,加强网络文学编辑人员内容导向判断和艺术水准把关的发稿能力建设,加强网络文学编辑人员的职业道德教育和业务培训,引导企业建立 有利于落实编辑责任制的考评办法和激励机制。

This is the seventh out of a total of eleven “core measures” listed. I might translate some of the others later and also comment some more on this particular excerpt, but in the mean time, here is a point that helps to put this section into the context of existing measures:

While the document states that the real name registration of authors must be improved, the real focus appears to be on their editors, i.e. the people responsible for the content on whatever platform online authors publish. That’s not to say that online authors themselves won’t be held accountable, but it goes far beyond that.

What we have here appears to be an extension of the responsibility system that also exists in the “regular” press and publishing sector in China. The principle behind this is to ensure that people in charge are held accountable for the mistakes of their subordinates, in a broad sense, in this case simply the authors that they chose to publish. The idea is pretty simple: By punishing people in a position of power, the CCP and Chinese government hope to drastically improve “gatekeeping” in accordance with their own standards.

For instance, in the Chinese press, if a “mistake” of some sort appears in an article, it is not only the person who wrote that article, but also the editor responsible for the page it was published on, anybody else who had the responsibility to check the content, and potentially their bosses. Note that all these people are personally held responsible, although collective fines on the medium as a whole may also be meted out. The worse the offense, the more people will get drawn into the “investigation” and be personally fined or worse. This ensures that people pay attention to the stuff that they are formally responsible for.

Similarly, each publishing unit (anyone publishing papers, magazines, books, audiovisual material etc.) has two superordinate units under the current licensing system established in 1993: The sponsoring unit 主办单位 and the supervising unit 主管单位, who have a clearly defined leadership position over the medium, i.e. they can give binding orders. These units are also responsible for the medium they sponsor or supervise; they will have to conduct investigations if anything goes wrong and may also be held accountable if things really go south to ensure that they put enough pressure on their subordinate media to stick to the rules and pay attention, that people they trust are appointed to positions of responsibility, etc. etc.

So my first impression, at least of this particular section of the document, is that the authorities want to make sure that online publishing is firmly and formally tied into this system of personal accountability where people can be traced and held accountable both downwards and upwards in the hierarchy.

Revisiting China’s “Pun Ban”: Five Points

It’s been almost two months since the news that China was banning puns hit the headlines and media were having a field day coming up with puns on the pun ban. Commentators were quick to point out that the main target of the pun ban was politically subversive Internet language. Nikhil Sonnad has argued in Quartz that the real reason why the “pun ban” was published at this point in time was  to prevent the spreading of puns such as “Marijuana Era” , a joke based on the song “Uncle Xi loves Mama Peng” 习大大爱着彭麻麻 that went viral shortly before the pun ban (also see the China Digital Times for more details). This type of pun, just like the famous Grass-Mud-Horse, Sonnad explains, are much more of a threat to the CCP than the examples mentioned in the issued by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), the administrative body in charge of regulating Chinese media.

I have been trying to write an article for the German journal Mediale Kontrolle unter Beobachtung (Media Control Monitor) explaining the pun ban to a general, interdisciplinary audience, and I figured this would be a pretty straightforward task. Once I started reading up on the SAPPRFT directive, however, I soon got the sense that things were slightly more complicated than I had originally thought based on the coverage I had read in the media.  While I generally still agree that politically sensitive puns are more likely to be affected by the “pun ban” than others, there are also a number of aspects about the the underlying document (officially called the “Notice Concerning the Standardized Use of the Common National Language and Script in Radio, Television and Advertising” 《关于广播电视节目和广告中规范使用国家通用语言文字的通知》 ) that have been somewhat neglected and led to some confusion.

In the last couple of weeks, for example, Chinawatchers on Twitter have occasionally pointed out puns in Chinese media, wondering why those were allowed to be published given the new pun ban:

So I would like to offer some observations about what the directive does and doesn’t say, what it is and isn’t about, plus what it might be about though we can’t be sure without further confirmation from people working inside Chinese media units affected by the Notice. For anyone who wants to take a look at the original text issued by SAPPRFT, the Chinese version is here, and an unofficial annotated English translation by David Moser was posted by Victor Mair on Language Log.

The Notice is not only about “puns”

First of all, as Victor Mair has already pointed out, the directive is concerned with several types of language “deviations,” not all of which can necessarily be called “puns” in English. The main concern of the document is with chengyu 成语, the common four character idioms. Chengyu are not only “idioms” or “set phrases”, however; more importantly, they are allusions to stories and anecdotes found in the classics and other well-known canonical texts. As a general rule of thumb for writing Chinese texts: The smarter you want to sound, the more chengyu you use. It can be a way of showing off your knowledge and education, particularly if you know how to use less common chengyu properly.

There are, according to the Notice, two types of offending chengyu that have found their way into official media, one which substitutes a character or two to change the meaning of a classical allusion (yup, a pun), and pseudo-chengyu completely made up of four characters from scratch that allude to and have become popular Internet memes (see David Moser’s brief annotations on the two examples, 十动然拒 and 人艰不拆 to get an idea what these are about). The latter cannot really be called puns in English; rather, they are entirely new linguistic creations that mimic the chengyu in terms of form and underlying concept (i.e. you got to know the story behind it to “get” it).

In addition to chengyu, the Notice also condemns any other form of non-standardized language and script covered in the “National Common Language and Script Law”《国家通用语言文字法》(2001). This law regulates anything from the inclusion of dialects and foreign language elements in China’s official media and other contexts to the question under which circumstances people are allowed to use traditional characters in public settings. If you read Chinese and want to get an idea of the scope of Internet language phenomena that Chinese authorities potentially take offense with, you can take a look at this article published on the website of the theory magazine Qiushi that covers everything from 木有 and 神马 to 5555 and V587.

Of course, technically, “Uncle Xi” 习大大, Xi Jinping’s commonly used nickname, is a dialect term that should not be used under the 2001 “National Common Language and Script Law”, either. Needless to say nobody is really expecting  a ban on Xi Dada anytime soon.

But it is about Chinese language only

Second, the directive is concerned with Chinese language use only, in the sense that nobody cares if China’s English-language media make puns in English, at least not as part of this particular SAPPRFT intervention. While the insertion of English phrases or the inclusion of English or other foreign-language fragments into Chinese language media is tightly regulated as well, this Notice specifically makes it a point to protect China’s own “great cultural heritage”, so puns in foreign languages would not fit in well and are a different matter altogether.

The official justification, as media were quick to point out, is to preserve China’s cultural heritage as an important source of its soft power (国家文化软实力), cultural confidence (文化自信) and cultural security (文化安全) as well as to protect the youth from utter linguistic confusion brought about by wrongly used chengyu.* While it is easy to sneer at this type of reasoning, such arguments are frequently made by language purists in other countries as well. So while I don’t buy that this is the only reason, I am more inclined to believe that language purism and fear of the decay of the Chinese language play a part. After all, the CCP has always been serious about control over language as a source of power and has become really serious about cultural security since the 21st century.

The Notice says nothing about print media

As the title of the directive already implies, it is only concerned with radio, television, and advertising, saying nothing about print or print-based online media. Why? The most likely explanation is the administrative division within the Chinese bureaucracy itself. It was not until 2013 that the vice-ministerial General Administration of Press and Publication and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television of the same rank were merged into a single ministerial-level body, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Televion. Despite the merger, there is still a division between press and publishing on the one hand and radio, film and television on the other within the new ministry.

So does that mean that Chinese-language print media will not be affected at all? Hard to say. One other reason that they may not have been included in the first place, aside from the bureaucratic division, is that the “news reading” 新闻阅读 system by which older cadres get to read and criticize an assigned publication** already works more effectively for print media and catches most of these “offenses”. Since the Notice technically does not introduce any new offenses that aren’t already covered under broad interpretations of existing law, print media could still get reprimanded.

And it is only concerned with official Party-owned media

The main concern is not with the language of netizens, but rather the normalization or even legitimization of Internet language by having it slip into China’s official, Party-owned media. Such instances are no longer rare. “Grass-mud-horse” has been used synonymously with alpaca in the culture section of the website of the Guangming Daily and even in a test at Nanjing University. It makes a lot of sense that the CCP is more worried about the normalization of subversive language by having its own media adopt the terminology than it is about Internet language used by netizens only. This does not mean that the Party couldn’t find a way to further extend the ban to cover private Internet users as well, but for the time being, this appears to be a campaign targeted specifically at radio, television and advertising in order to prevent new terms from becoming part of the official language. This brings us to the next and final point:

The Notice is not a new directive, but rather a campaign announcement

The text published by SAPPRFT doesn’t strike me so much as a new directive, but rather as an announcement of a short-term crackdown or campaign that is so characteristic of how Chinese politics are run. Think “Three Illegal Foreigners“, for example. The Notice itself and other comments in Chinese media mention that none of this is actually new but only a “reminder” of existing rules laid down in previous laws and regulations, namely the “National Common Language and Script Law” (2001) and the “Regulations for the Management of Radio and Television” (2013), in light of a new problem that has emerged. So it’s really an announcement that a particular set of rules will soon be enforced more rigorously, with a special focus on chengyu.

SAPPRFT has several concrete instructions for media units; some concerning the “consciousness” or “awareness” of journalists and others prescribing concrete actions. Radio and TV stations are, for example, asked to “thoroughly understand” (充分认识) the importance of using standardized language and script. They are admonished to pay close attention to the necessity of using chengyu correctly. Both of these points sound as if people at radio and TV stations may have been asked, following the issuing of the Notice, to listen to some talks or read and study some speeches, perhaps by Xi Jinping, Liu Yunshan or other lower level officials on the importance of proper language, and its link to cultural security, and boosting China’s cultural soft power.

Of course, radio and TV outlets were also asked to exercise better self-control, i.e. to check more thoroughly that their programming does not contain any character substitutions or other non-standardized language and that it neither uses nor “introduces” pseudo-chengyu or other popular Internet language. Fourth, and this is why we know this is really a campaign announcement, the Notice gives explicit instructions what governments and media at all levels are to do:

In the near future, the administrative supervision center will conduct a comprehensive investigation of all television channels, and will deal strictly with any serious violations.  Provincial level radio and television monitoring centers shall also carry out a comprehensive investigation of programs from all channels and radio frequencies within their jurisdiction, and resolutely terminate the broadcast of any programming that contains non-standard usages of the common language and script. (cited from David Moser’s translation as posted by Victor Mair on Language Log)

It would be interesting to hear from anybody who has been a witness to this campaign at a Chinese radio or TV station. How serious was it? What other documents and additional orders were circulated? How permanent will this enforcement be? I’ve looked briefly in the usual places (e.g. CDT’s Ministry of Truth or the China Media Project), but haven’t come across any leaked information thus far, so I’d be interested to hear from anybody with more information.


*Full disclosure: I happen to have first hand experience of what it means to be “confused and misled as a youth”: I consider myself a victim of the German spelling reform of the late 1990s, which was looming over our heads in elementary school (“we’re teaching you these old rules now, but don’t worry about them too much, in a couple of years, everything will change anyway”), implemented when I was 12, revoked when I was 13, and re-implemented a year or two later, though few of our teachers believed it would prevail, so they randomly taught us either the old or the new rules, sometimes both. Perhaps this makes me more inclined to give some credence to the official justification.

**For more on the news reading system, see David Bandurski and Lin Hui, “China’s Shadow Censor Commissars,” Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol. 169, no. 2, March 2006.