Why Did China Recall Millions of Newspapers?
The decision after a slipup involving Chinese President Xi Jinping’s name comes at a sensitive time for the leader.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China recalls newspapers for a “political mistake” amid a periodic nationwide push for Xi Jinping Thought, French President Emmanuel Macron visits China in another attempt to sway Xi away from Russia, and Beijing provokes New Delhi with a symbolic move along their disputed border.
China Recalls Newspapers for Xi Error
Millions of copies of the March 30 edition of the People’s Daily newspaper were recalled after a so-called political mistake, as China calls slip-ups that go against the official government line. The error in question? Chinese President Xi Jinping’s name was left out of a sentence that should have read, “The central government with comrade Xi Jinping at the core assesses the situation.”
As the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the People’s Daily is sold on newsstands and distributed in universities, party offices, and other institutions. All vendors received notices demanding they destroy the offending material. This might seem like an overreaction, but even small mistakes regarding Chinese leaders are dangerous. And in written Chinese, it’s easy to turn a name into a joke or insult by misplacement or omission, even inadvertently. There is no capitalization and no spacing between words; every character has multiple possible meanings.
For this reason, the characters of an emperor’s name were taboo; substitute words were used during their reign or a stroke omitted from the character. Today, Chinese editors tend to triple-check that a leader’s name isn’t broken up between lines in layout. Furthermore, in authoritarian states, subtle language changes such as the omission of a name from a list of attendees or a shift in ranking order can carry a lot of weight in messaging.
Now would be a bad time to make a mistake with Xi’s name, especially one that could be read—with a bit of a reach—as suggesting he might be absent from the heart of the government. China is currently in the middle of a periodic big push for Xi Jinping Thought, in which the leader’s various banalities are trotted out as required reading. Anything related to Xi’s position and his personality cult is even more sensitive subject matter than usual.
These campaigns for Xi Jinping Thought do little to endear the president to party members. Unlike former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, whose works included plenty of blood and thunder and whose ideas were inspiring (if mostly for bad ends), Xi Jinping Thought is boring. It follows a familiar style of Chinese political writing, with every line seemingly used before. If an excerpt from a 15-minute broadcast gives any hint: “It is necessary to promote the spirit of the great founding of the party, never forget the original intention, and keep in mind the mission … ”
For the next few weeks, every CCP branch in China—from local government offices to those within foreign companies—will spend hours going over Xi Jinping Thought, on top of regular meetings and exams on the subject. Part of the reason is that Xi’s position is currently both extremely powerful and somewhat shaky. While he maintains almost unprecedented control over the security services, party, and media, he is still contending with the failure of his key zero-COVID policy and with growing doubts about his economic and geopolitical leadership.
Banality helped Xi ascend to power in the first place. After all, he seemed to be a complete product of the CCP system, which led fellow leaders to underestimate how much power he would seize for himself. And these regular campaigns for Xi Jinping Thought reassert Xi’s control not through making his leadership attractive but by making it seem inescapable. In other words, the readings will continue until morale improves.
This all explains why leaving Xi’s name out of the newspaper is such a big mistake—one that will certainly see the editors involved fired, demoted, or fined, as is routine practice. According to a staff member I spoke to, notices have already gone out within the People’s Daily and subordinate papers such as the Global Times reminding people to avoid similar errors. (Because of the taboo nature of the error, the notice of course didn’t spell out the mistake.)
Romanian newspapers reportedly had staff members whose sole job was to ensure that dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s name was always spelled correctly. Perhaps it’s time for Chinese newspapers to follow suit.
What We’re Following
Macron visits China. This week, French President Emmanuel Macron is in China, reportedly making yet another attempt to persuade Xi to distance himself from Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Any calls to split China from Russia now seem near delusional. Beijing hasn’t signaled any distance from Moscow, with which it shares hostility toward Washington, and which Chinese media portrays as a victim of NATO.
However, Macron’s visit reflects a European discomfort with the U.S.-China rivalry and the belief that European states might need China at some future date. (This doesn’t necessarily reflect the position of the Baltic States, which tend to emphasize working with Taiwan.) In Europe, some hope for reconciliation with China persists even as attitudes toward Beijing have hardened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, aggressive Chinese diplomacy, and China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Of course, the sheer size of the Chinese market plays a role in this approach.
Macron arrives in China fresh off fierce protests back home in response to his heavy-handed pension reforms. Ironically, China is set to announce a rise in its retirement age soon; it is already one of the lowest in the world: 60 for men, 55 for women. The increase could cause its own wave of protests, although much more localized and less dramatic than those in France.
Border tensions with India. China and India’s border dispute is heating up again after Beijing announced moves to “standardize” the names of places that India claims as its territory in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. China claims a large swath of the state as part of Tibet; Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops briefly occupied this area during China’s war against India in 1962. Beijing is also planning to upgrade the official status of two border towns to cities—signaling that more money and more troops are likely to arrive.
These moves come as China effectively expelled two of the remaining Indian journalists in the country through visa freezes—a common tool the Chinese government has used in recent years to dramatically reduce the number of foreign journalists operating inside China. The latest decision came in response to India’s non-renewal of the visa for a Xinhua correspondent.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• DoD’s Making a List—and Checking It Twice by Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer
• China Has Been Waging a Decades-Long, All-Out Spy War by Calder Walton
• Israel Is Somewhere It’s Never Been Before by Aaron David Miller and Daniel C. Kurtzer
Tech and Business
China purges bankers after financial binge. The latest targets of Xi’s purges are prominent bankers, with more than 20 people now under investigation by the authorities, including Li Xiaopeng, head of the government-run China Everbright, and Liu Liange, the chair of the Bank of China. Bankers in China had it relatively easy in the last decade, even as other state-owned enterprises saw periodic purges. But they became a key part of corruption and political indulgence in other industries, offering cheap loans on faulty grounds.
A campaign against corruption in sports also continues with a major Chinese soccer figure scooped up this week, as well as officials in sports as far-ranging as rowing. The scope of these latest purges across multiple fields shows just how little Xi’s campaigns have altered the underlying dynamics of corruption in a one-party state. Whenever anyone falls, there are a dozen people waiting to set up new deals in their place.
Australia joins the TikTok ban-wagon. Australia is the latest country to ban the TikTok app on government devices, which also affects media companies such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Although phone limits are common in the security and intelligence world, they’re generally less onerous across the whole of government.
The video-sharing app, owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, is now fighting losing legal and political battles on multiple fronts, when it once suffered mainly at the hands of censorious regimes. Brendan Carr, a member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, spoke approvingly earlier this year of India’s 2020 ban on TikTok.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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