Tea Leaf Nation

The Problem With Calling Those U.S. and Chinese Planes a ‘School Bus and a Ferrari’

With relations this touchy, even simple metaphors can go awry.

Office of Defense Secretary
Office of Defense Secretary

Communication between China and the United States can often resemble ships passing in the night — or planes passing through international airspace. But when it comes to this particularly fraught bilateral relationship, perhaps metaphors are best avoided. On Aug. 22, after a wing commander in the air force of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) performed a barrel roll over the top of a U.S. surveillance plane in international airspace near the southern Chinese island of Hainan, a U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy’s Gordon Lubold that the Chinese plane, a J-11, was like a Ferrari, while the larger and slower U.S. P-8 plane was akin to a school bus. The official was saying that the PLA plane was the faster and more nimble of the two, but Chinese state media has taken issue with the seemingly innocuous choice of words.

An Aug. 25 Chinese-language editorial on the website of People’s Daily, widely regarded as a Communist Party mouthpiece, imputes a dark motivation to the simile. The piece quotes someone named Wang Zhiming complaining that the turn of phrase "has an ulterior motive, is inappropriate," and contains "severe insinuations and misrepresentations." Wang, whose occupation or identity is not revealed in the article, complains that a school bus is intended to protect children, while Ferraris are strongly redolent of tuhao, a derogatory term for China’s nouveau riche. (Wang adds that the airman’s maneuver was "very normal" and that a safe distance remained between the two planes.)

It’s highly unlikely that the U.S. defense official had a firm enough grasp of the Chinese zeitgeist to intend the simile as an insult. But even accounting for the likelihood that state media was grasping for umbrage, it’s true that the word Ferrari is highly loaded in China, a country with a grim recent history of deadly crashes involving the expensive Italian cars. Most famously, in March 2012, a Ferrari driven by the son of Ling Jihua, a high-ranking politician close to then-President Hu Jintao, crashed in Beijing, killing the son and seriously injuring two scantily clad female passengers. Online images of Ferrari smithereens and swirling rumors about Ling (who was later demoted) reached such a pitch that authorities felt compelled temporarily to block the term "Ferrari" from searches on Weibo, the country’s largest microblogging site. In February 2014, a red Ferrari driven by a 21-year-old crashed into a Beijing guardrail and killed one of the passengers. Then in May, a young Chinese exchange student driving a Ferrari died after being struck by a speeding Hyundai in Monterey Park, California. The latter accident was not the Ferrari driver’s fault, but the image of a glitzy sports car slashing recklessly through crowded warrens continues to represent everything that’s wrong with China’s runaway economic development, and the wealth inequality it’s engendered. 

Although Wang did not mention it directly, school buses also evoke painful memories, in this case of seeming indifference to child safety. In November 2011, Chinese were outraged by news that 19 nursery school children perished after their school bus was struck by a truck in northern China. The vehicle they rode originally had only nine seats, but 64 occupants had been packed in at the time of the crash. In April 2014, eight children died in a school bus after it overturned on a slippery road on the island of Hainan while on an unapproved field trip. In July, another overcrowded bus fell into a reservoir in southern China, killing the eight students and three adults on board — yet the vehicle had been designed for only seven people.

The Daily article, which does not appear to be available in English, ultimately reads as one of several state media attempts to both reflect and shape internal, Chinese anger towards a U.S. plane’s proximity to the mainland. In other words, it’s not really about the words at all. By contrast, state run nationalist outlet Global Times may have put the situation more bluntly. In an August 25 English-language editorial, the Times declared that although "Washington always argues that such short-range surveillance of China is conducted within international airspace and waters," Beijing has "made up its mind to force the U.S. to back down."  

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.

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