- By David WertimeDavid Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.
After the Third Plenum, a high-level meeting to discuss China’s future, ended on Nov. 12, Beijing released a major document likely to affect many of its 1.3 billion citizens’ lives for years. Western media responded to the 5,000-plus character document, called the Plenum Communiqué, with a collective head scratch — CNBC and the Wall Street Journal both promptly declared it "vague." But the confusion isn’t the result of language, or even cultural differences: Many Chinese citizens also cannot make heads or tails of this document.
If they’re failing, it’s not for lack of trying: On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, a search for "third plenum" yielded over 2.7 million recent mentions, and among those comments, over 154,000 used the word jiedu, which roughly means "to decode." Frustration is palpable online. One Weibo user complained, "I glanced at the Third Plenum communiqué; it surpasses my ability to understand it." Another wrote, "I made myself dizzy reading it three times." And another: "It’s a pile of words on top of words, without saying anything." And this: "I can’t understand why after a meeting lasting three days, the only thing they can produce is … a document that has to be decoded. It’s like a high school exam."
Readers who think they’re smarter than the masses of confused Chinese citizens should boil up a pot of coffee, then try to decipher the below, a particularly turgid sentence from an unofficial translation posted on the blog China Copyright and Media:
The Plenum stressed that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must hold high the magnificent banner of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important ‘Three Represents’ thought and the scientific development view as guidance, persist in beliefs, concentrate a consensus, comprehensively plan matters, move forward in a coordinated manner, persist in the reform orientation of the Socialism market economy, make stimulating social fairness and justice, and enhancing the people’s welfare into starting points and stopover points, further liberate thoughts, liberate and develop social productive forces, liberate and strengthen social vitality, firmly do away with systemic and mechanistic abuses in all areas, and strive to open up an even broader prospect for the undertaking of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Some media outlets have tried to illuminate the document by turning to statistical analysis. Tengxun, a Chinese news portal, released an infographic ranking the words most often mentioned in the communiqué. (The winner was "reform," followed by "system," "development," and "economy.") The Beijing News, a liberal Chinese newspaper, compiled a detailed set of graphs, one (above) showing how mentions of the word "reform" were higher than in any previous Third Plenum release.
That’s not insignificant; mentions of "reform" are likely to please many hoping for just that. And in the communiqué’s defense, it is meant only to provide a broad sketch of where China is headed and to set the tone for implementing steps that will take years. Its function is to signal to high-level actors what they will need to prioritize, not to explain each reform in exacting detail. The document may also be trying to shoot the moon, somehow satisfying all readers at the same time. One Weibo user speculated, "In the end it’s not important whether the document is consistent from beginning to end, because everyone can find what they need in it."
The communiqué may contain the right words, but Chinese are struggling to pick up the logical thread connecting them. Any readers who breezed through the earlier quote (and hold a Chinese passport) may wish to sign up for the nation’s civil service exam, scheduled for Nov. 24. We hear the Chinese government is hiring.