How to Say ‘Truthiness’ in Chinese

Chinese citizens don't think their government should have a monopoly on rumors.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

"Official rumors" is more than just an oxymoron. The phrase -- pronounced guanyao -- has become a useful weapon in Chinese Internet users' linguistic guerrilla warfare against government censorship. That battle has intensified during a government-led crackdown on "online rumor-mongering," which has sought to rein in China's rambunctious social media, partly through the arrest or detention of several high-profile online opinion leaders. Making things worse for China's Internet users is a new judicial interpretation, issued on Sept. 9 by China's highest legal authorities, stating that posting defamatory messages read more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times can lead to up to three years in jail.

In the face of these assaults on their right to speak out, grassroots Chinese are trying to turn the mirror back on officialdom by calling out instances where officials or state-owned media made statements that turned out to be false. The result is two types of "rumors" in Chinese argot: minyao, or rumors spread by Chinese citizens which may or may not be true, and guanyao, official rumors, which are falsehoods uttered by Chinese authorities.

"Official rumors" is more than just an oxymoron. The phrase — pronounced guanyao — has become a useful weapon in Chinese Internet users’ linguistic guerrilla warfare against government censorship. That battle has intensified during a government-led crackdown on "online rumor-mongering," which has sought to rein in China’s rambunctious social media, partly through the arrest or detention of several high-profile online opinion leaders. Making things worse for China’s Internet users is a new judicial interpretation, issued on Sept. 9 by China’s highest legal authorities, stating that posting defamatory messages read more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times can lead to up to three years in jail.

In the face of these assaults on their right to speak out, grassroots Chinese are trying to turn the mirror back on officialdom by calling out instances where officials or state-owned media made statements that turned out to be false. The result is two types of "rumors" in Chinese argot: minyao, or rumors spread by Chinese citizens which may or may not be true, and guanyao, official rumors, which are falsehoods uttered by Chinese authorities.

According to Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, mentions of guanyao — a pun for state-owned kilns (guan) that churned out the finest porcelain (yao) for emperors in China’s dynastic days — date back at least to mid-2010. But searches and media mentions for guanyao spiked in early Sept. 2013, as the government’s crackdown on online speech heated up. Since then, the term has rapidly entered the Chinese lexicon as netizens try to turn the proverbial tables, complaining that citizen lies and official lies are held to two different standards. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, alone, the term has received over 600,000 recent mentions.

Although guanyao can refer to any untruths by government authorities, the typical manifestation occurs at a particular point in the life cycle of a P.R. crisis, when officials or official media react to accusations of wrong-doing with denials or counter-accusations. On Oct. 18, the liberal-leaning Beijing News published a graphic detailing six archetypes of official rumors: "practicing deception," "admitting [the truth] after higher government authorities intervene," "covering up," "not admitting a mistake before seeing the [incriminating] video," "self-deception," and "biting back."

Examples abound. The Beijing News cited the downfall of Liu Tienan, the former chief of the Chinese National Energy Administration (NEA), the entity that governs China’s energy infrastructure, as an example of "biting back." In December 2012, journalist Luo Changping took to Sina Weibo to accuse Liu of taking bribes; Liu was removed from his post and put under investigation in May, but not before the NEA’s press office insisted Luo’s claims of corruption were "pure slander and rumor."

For a classic "cover-up," Beijing News recapped the downfall of Tian Hongzhi, propaganda bureau chief for the medium-sized city of Xiangcheng in Henan province. One May evening, a nightclub in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou had the bad judgment to greet the official with a bawdy neon sign, reading in part, "A Warm Welcome to Xiangcheng Bureau Chief Tian." By late May, a photograph of the sign had spread rapidly on Chinese social media. Tian was removed from his post and punished by month’s end, but not before a spokesperson for the city government claimed that none of the six bureau chiefs surnamed Tian had been out of town on business that evening, so the incriminating photographs were "maybe a prank, or maybe the nightclub’s effort to stir up hype." As the popular official newspaper China Youth Daily opined, Tian’s punishment "should be praised, but in the process, someone lied to the public, and that person was not punished. This should not happen."

The rise of guanyao as a counterpoint to minyao does not mean that the two are equivalent. There’s no denying that good old-fashioned grassroots rumors — minyao — are legion on the Chinese Web, as they are in any other countries. Officials and ordinary citizens may be equally prone to bend or break the truth, but when officials do so, they have the power of the state behind them. As an Oct. 20 article in the local paper Chongqing Times explains, "Perhaps officials have authority. But authority does not represent the truth, and at least sometimes, officials use their authority to hide the truth." That hypocrisy sets the wrong tone for the government’s anti-rumor campaign — one accompanied by official statements about the need to guide public opinion to be more "constructive." Weibo user Yan Zuyou, a Shanghai writer, put it most succinctly: "To punish citizen rumors, you first must punish official rumors."

David 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.

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.