The List

From House Slaves to Banana People

Seven new words that explain modern China.

Last week saw the release of the eleventh edition of the mammoth Xinhua Dictionary, China's official compendium of the Mandarin language. Available in hardcover and softcover, with an e-version in the works, the 711-page tome is the world's best-selling reference book, with over 400 million copies printed since it launched in 1953.

This edition includes slang and online terminology for the first time -- remarkable for an official Chinese publication for which informal language has long been prohibited. Indeed, the Xinhua Dictionary has always been a guide to what's new and modern in China, but a few steps behind, aimed more at the masses less aware of the cutting edge. In the early days, it was like the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary rolled into one, teaching a mostly illiterate country about everything from umbrellas to fertilizer to how to write the word "pigeon." A 1971 edition, published at the height of the Cultural Revolution, contained 46 of Mao's proclamations, which many readers already knew by heart. Today, competing publishers release numerous alternative dictionaries, but the Xinhua edition remains a staple of most schools.

In many languages, there are disagreements about whether dictionaries should standardize how language should be used, or reflect how language is used. The Xinhua Dictionary contains far more words that actually reflect how language is used than in previous editions, yet it still omits sensitive entries. There is unsurprisingly no entry for the Tiananmen Massacre, but it also leaves out shengnv ("Leftover Ladies" a common term which refers to ageing, unmarried women) and the reappropriation of the word "comrade" to mean gay. "We abandoned these words because it's kind of rude to label this group," Jiang Lansheng, a linguistics expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was responsible for the revisions, told Chinese Central Television.

So what does the new edition, compiled over seven years and featuring more than 3,000 new words and expressions, include? Many of the new entries are deeply vernacular, originating from Internet memes, tabloid scandals, and other informal sources. Some, like boke (blog), and tuangou (online group shopping, along the lines of Groupon) reflect today's new, digital world. Others, like fenqing (nationalists, literally "angry youth") and xiangjiao ren (banana person, which usually refers to Chinese-Americans -- yellow on the outside, white on the inside -- though unlike in the United States this is not pejorative), are names for new social categories and subcultures that have emerged. The seven words below offer insights into the movements and preoccupations of today's China.

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 "House slaves" (fangnu)

People "enslaved" to their high mortgage payments are now referred to as "house slaves," a coinage that now joins "car slaves" and "credit card slaves" in the dictionary. Buying a home, often seen as a pre-requisite for Chinese males to get married, has grown increasingly difficult over the last decade as housing prices have skyrocketed in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities. In 2009, authorities banned a television drama called "Snail House," which depicted a couple's struggles to buy and own a home in a Shanghai-like city. The show was popular because the high price of property is a flashpoint in China for anger and resentment over the widening gap between rich and poor -- always a recipe for social unrest. In March of last year, the National Development and Reform Commission announced an aggressive new "social housing" plan, which aims to build 36 million apartments by the end of 2015. Indeed, liangxian fang ("two-limit homes") a housing program referring to apartments limited in both size and price for the urban poor, is another new term included in this year's Xinhua Dictionary.

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Yes, the three letters "N"-"B"-"A", as in the National Basketball Association, are now officially a Chinese word. The NBA is by far the most popular sports league in China, domestic or foreign. The inclusion of this term reflects not just China's rabid passion for all things "Kebi" (Kobe Bryant), "Aifosen" (Allen Iverson), and "Lin Shuhao" (Jeremy Lin), but also the inevitable impact of the United States on China -- and vice versa. Just as English has many loanwords derived from Chinese and various dialects -- including brainwash, yen (as in craving), silk, and even ketchup -- Chinese has absorbed many words from English, like sandwich, sofa, bye-bye, bus, and chocolate. English letters are especially prevalent in online slang because English is much easier to type than Chinese. "3Q," for example, is phonetic slang for "thank you" because the number three pronounced in Chinese (san) combined with Q sounds like "thank you."

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"Awesome" (geili)

Literally "give strength," geili means empower, but it's used as slang akin to "awesome" or "sweet." A version of the term first appeared in a Chinese animation of the classic novel Journey to the West and took off fast. Just a few months later, in November 2010, it was used in an Intel commercial, and, most significantly, in a headline that month in the otherwise staid Communist Party newspaper People's Daily. The headline used the original and not the slang connotation, but was set in quote marks. While it's impossible to say what the People's Daily editors were thinking, netizens were thrilled. It was a big moment: a lumbering, line-toeing, propaganda-spouting mouthpiece of the Communist Party acknowledged and legitimized a cynical, questioning, envelope-pushing, and sometimes renegade online youth culture. This prompted an even bigger frenzy among Chinese Internet users, but an attempt at an English version (geilivable, also meaning "awesome"), was banned for publishing, along with other "Chinglish buzzwords" in what administrators of the media watchdog the General Administration of Press and Publication described as an attempt to "purify" the Chinese language. A December 2010 article in the state newspaper China Daily said, with a healthy sense of irony, that "Chinese netizens who like to create and use cyber words such as ‘geilivable' might find a new regulation very ‘ungeilivable.'"


PM 2.5

Over the last seven years, Chinese have become more aware of the devastating effects of air pollution. PM stands for damaging air pollutants called "particulate matter," and 2.5 refers to their size in microns (a unit of measurement that is a millionth of a meter). Exposure to high levels of PM 2.5 can irritate the respiratory tract, worsen asthma and bronchitis, and eventually lead to increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease.

The word entered the Chinese lexicon with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which runs a popular Twitter feed that posts hourly readings of Beijing's notoriously high levels of PM 2.5. Previously, the Beijing city government only reported PM of 10 microns or higher. Bowing to foreign and domestic pressure, in January, Beijing switched to reporting PM 2.5 as well, and in June, China's vice minister of environmental protection, Wu Xiaoqing, suggested the U.S. Embassy stop tweeting. The Embassy refused, diplomatically. "The monitor is an unofficial resource for the health of the consulate community," said Richard Buangan, its spokesman in Beijing.

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"Shocking" (leiren)

Another wildly popular slang term that took off online over the last few years, leiren literally means "thunder person" and is used to express amazement, like "whoa" or "shocking" or "that's crazy."

Geili may have made it into state media, but that doesn't mean authorities aren't deeply wary of online culture and all that it represents. The term leiren was outright banned during March 2010 in any reporting to do with the "two meetings" of China's National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.  

That may not necessarily be significant -- one could view the directive as analogous to a professor not letting students use informal words like "cool" in an essay. But terms like leiren are used to comment on online memes, often politically loaded ones like the Chinese version of the U.S. "Pepper Spraying Cop": In early July, protests against a planned metals plant in the southwest city of Shifang turned violent. A cop was photographed beating protestors, which spawned a series of mocking, Photoshopped images. Netizens inserted the cop into various well-known images, such as charging at the famous Chinese Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang, chasing down Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, and pointing his baton at the figure in Edvard Munch's The Scream. Similar to Americans who wanted to restrict rap music in the 1990s because they feared its culture would spread violence or antisocial activity, some Party officials view terms like leiren as words of a destabilizing subculture. 

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Otaku or "Internet freak" (zhainan/nv)

Zhainan is the Chinese translation of the Japanese term otaku, which in Japan means someone obsessed to the point of being homebound by their fixation. Chinese zhainan (females are called zhainv) are gamers, Internet addicts, and other people who spend enormous amounts of time glued to the computer. Young Chinese Internet freaks proclaim themselves zhainan and zhainv in the same half-self-deprecating, half-proud way that Americans teens might call themselves "geeks."

For Chinese officials and millions of parents, however, they are a real concern. China, which boasts the world's largest population of Internet users, became the first country to officially recognize Internet addiction as a disorder in 2008, and there are addiction treatment centers operating throughout the country.  


Internet of Things (wulianwang)

A direct translation from the English, Internet of Things (IoT)  is a new technological idea that uses cloud computing, radio-frequency identification, and other sensor technologies to create a universal network of trackable objects. This allows logistics, warehousing, inventory, and other systems to communicate with each other and operate without human input. For example, your refrigerator would know what's inside, how long it's been there, and order items for you when they run out or near their expiration date. 

IoT became a buzzword last year when it was named in China's 12th 5-year plan as one of seven "Strategic Emerging Industries" of key importance for economic development; IoT alone will reportedly receive $785 million in government funding. China could have a significant advantage in this emerging field over the United States, where IoT technology is held back by concerns about abuse of information and invasion of privacy -- things that aren't an issue for an authoritarian government.

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National Security

Just How Deadly Is Assad's Arsenal?

From anti-aircraft guns to chemical weapons, a close look at what Syria's strongman has up his sleeve.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Syria's government has been moving its stockpile of chemical weapons -- thought to be the world's largest. It is not clear whether the regime is preparing to use them or simply trying to keep them out of rebel hands, but either way the news was disturbing: The use of chemical weapons would radically escalate a conflict that has already claimed more than 10,000 lives, and the prospect of unsecured stores of nerve agent raises serious proliferation concerns. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned American lawmakers in March: "We need to be especially alert to the fate of Syria's chemical weapons. They must stay exactly where they are."

With the exception of reports that the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies are covertly providing arms to Syrian rebels, the United States has been unwilling or unable to take military steps to stop the slaughter of protesters. That could well change in the event that Bashar al-Assad's regime deployed chemical weapons -- the pressure for international action would certainly increase dramatically -- but any air campaign, like the one that helped oust Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi last year, would have to face Syria's anti-aircraft systems, which have grown more advanced in the last five years thanks in large part to sales from Russia.

Meanwhile, Assad's assault on the rebels -- with armor, artillery, and aircraft -- continues unabated. Building on FP's earlier analysis, here is a detailed look at just how dangerous Syria's arsenal is:

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The latest estimates say that the Assad regime has hundreds of tons of mustard gas, a blister agent, and large stockpiles of sarin and possibly VX, both of which are nerve agents -- all of which can be launched by Scud missiles, artillery, or aircraft, according to Charles Blair, a specialist in chemical and biological weapons at the Federation of American Scientists. "I've heard that Syria has 100 to 200 missiles with nerve agents loaded and ready to go, but that seems extreme," said Blair, noting that the nerve agents are usually stored separately from the weapons and that exact estimates about the size of the regime's stockpile are almost impossible to come by.

Although the U.S. government has released only vague estimates as to the size of Syria's chemical and biological weapons stockpile, Dempsey told lawmakers in March that the arsenal was "100 times the magnitude we experienced in Libya." Libya acceded to the international Chemical Weapons Convention in 2004 and had largely destroyed its useful stockpile of such weapons by the time Qaddafi's regime fell in 2011, according to Blair.

"Outside of the people who actually made and have guarded this stuff, I doubt that anyone could answer your question with any amount of accuracy," said Amy Smithson, a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Although Assad's stockpiles are thought to be considerable, Blair believes the dictator is unlikely to deploy them because using chemical weapons against civilians would only "build support for international intervention."

"I think they are moving them to protect the weapons from a preemptive attack by Israel," Blair said, or because information about the locations of the weapons -- which he called the "top gems" of the Syrian military -- have been compromised by high-level defectors from the Syrian army.

Aram Nerguizian, an expert on the Syrian military with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed, saying that Syria has so far restrained itself from using the most potent weapons in its arsenal, such as fixed-wing bombers and its larger multiple-launch rocket systems, against the rebels for fear of fueling international outrage, the way Qaddafi's government did in Libya. "You haven't had the utilization of mass airpower or mass artillery," such as guided rockets, he said. "If airpower is a red line, using chemical weapons would go well beyond any red line."

"I'm more concerned about a direct strike against the regime or other military actions," said Nerguizian. "Those are the kinds of things that would really make units [guarding the chemical weapons] abandon their posts and expose chemical or biological weapons and major SAM and other systems to acquisition by outlaw third parties. We often hear we need to intervene to secure those chemical weapons. The reality is, if we intervene, we're going to destabilize a lot of the safeguards" keeping those weapons safe.

Blair agreed, saying that it would likely take tens of thousands of people to guard Syria's chemical weapons should the regime crumble, saying, "any cohesive plan that secured all [chemical munitions] sites" would be difficult to implement.

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Syria has invested in upgrading its 1970s air defense systems since the Israeli attack on a suspected nuclear facility outside the city of Deir ez-Zour in 2007, buying at least 36 SA-22 mobile air defense systems from Russia. The SA-22 was developed in the 1990s and 2000s and comes equipped with its own target-acquisition and tracking radars, along with 12 radio-guided medium-range surface-to-air missiles and two 30 mm auto-cannons for close-in engagements. The system is designed to protect ground troops, cities, and more advanced, high-altitude surface-to-air-missiles. An SA-22 might have been used to down a Turkish reconnaissance jet flying off the Syrian coast last month. Still, these missile systems, with a range of about 12 miles, can be handled by U.S. fighter jets using a combination of radar jamming and HARM missiles, which have a range of 60 miles.

Russia may also have provided Syria with SA-17 self-propelled medium-range air defense missiles. These are an upgraded version of the 1970s-vintage SA-6s that shot down U.S. Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady's F-16 over Bosnia in 1996. Like the SA-22, a big advantage of these weapons is that they are mobile, meaning they can briefly turn on their radars, fire at an enemy aircraft, and move before they can be targeted by enemy bombers. Still, while these weapons, with their 16 mile range, can deter jets flying at low or medium altitudes, they could be overcome by a well-coordinated air attack using "enormous force," according to Nerguizian.

More worrisome are reports that Syria has ordered SA-10 (known as S-300s in Russia) long-range, high-altitude surface-to-air missiles that are some of the most advanced in the world. Some variants of this missile have a range exceeding 200 miles. As one Air Force intelligence officer who did not want to be identified puts it, "You wouldn't send a fighter against an [SA-10 series missile]. It could reach out and touch you before you could hit it with a HARM." The good news is that Russia has apparently declined to ship the missiles to Syria.

The Syrian army has also purchased one of Russia's newest shoulder-fired air defense missiles, the SA-24 Grinch version of the Igla missile. The heat-seeking missile entered Russian service in 2004 and has a range of up to 11,000-feet, a top speed of Mach 2.3, and is designed to overcome modern countermeasures. While the relatively short-ranged Grinch missiles might not be much of a threat to NATO warplanes, they could pose a serious threat if they fall into the hands of terrorists who could use them to target civilian airliners.

Besides these modern systems, Syria defends its capital with the long-range, 40-year-old SA-5 Gammon antiaircraft missile and the SA-6 medium range missile. NATO forces have become quite adept at evading these systems after decades of flying against them around the world. (Click here to read a description of what it's like to man an older Syrian air defense battery.)

"What you have is a combination of low-altitude and medium-altitude systems that are relatively modern to very modern and those do fill a significant gap in the Syrian air defense structure," said Nerguizian. "They don't compensate for the fact that Syria's SA-5s are aging systems and heavily centralized and static and geared toward air defense against Israel, but they do send an important message that any air operations against the Syrian military will not be easy and will require contingencies for a potential loss of aircraft by an opposing force. Do they have the best air defense system in the region? No. Do they have enough to make any air operations against them really challenging? Yes."

Barry Watts, a former fighter pilot and air power analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, is more dismissive of Syria's air defenses. "It's older Soviet equipment for the most part. Qaddafi and company had some SA-5s and I can remember a lot of discussion about that, but it was a really old system and the NATO guys pretty much took them out and that was the end of that," said Watts. "I don't think it would be difficult or a stretch for us to do if we decided to it. I think the issue is this administration is not interested in starting another war in the Middle East."

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Although chemical weapons and air defense systems may be the most potent weapons in Damascus's arsenal, the Syrian military has used a host of older Soviet and Russian gear to suppress the uprising.

The Syrian army has been forced to use its fleet of Soviet-designed armored personnel carriers -- mostly BMP-1s -- to fight the rebels, who have become increasingly adept at destroying these vehicles with roadside bombs and armor-piercing rocket propelled grenades. In fact, because of this vulnerability, Soviet and Russian troops made it standard procedure to ride on top of BMP-1s in Afghanistan and Chechnya lest they be caught inside if a bomb or RPG penetrated the vehicles' light armor, igniting the BMP's high-explosive ammunition and its fuel tank, which sits inside the troop compartment.

The majority of the Syrian army's main battle tanks are Soviet T-72s that were designed in the 1970s. For all this tank was feared when it was first deployed in the late 1970s, the ones Iraq fielded during Operation Desert Storm were soundly defeated by American M1A1 Abrams tanks. Still, the T-72 has much better armor than the BMPs and other armored personnel carriers, allowing it to better withstand attacks by the rebels while punishing them with its 125 mm main gun. The tanks can be defeated by well-trained infantry, however, if they take advantage of the vehicles' lack of external visibility and maneuverability in urban settings. That's likely why Assad's tanks have reportedly been escorted by soldiers on foot.



While the Syrian government may not be using its heaviest rockets against the rebels yet, it has been using the world's largest mortar system, the Soviet-made M240 "Tulip" breech-loading mortar system. Originally designed to take out NATO bunkers during the Cold War, the Tulip has been used to lob massive, five-foot-long, 240 mm mortar rounds onto civilian populations, including in the Syrian city of Homs. Here's a video of it in action.

And that's not all: The U.S. State Department has posted photos suggesting that the Syrian army has positioned its Soviet-built D-30 122 mm towed howitzers outside of several cities. The D-20 dates to the 1960s and can fire a rocket-assisted artillery shell up to 21 miles. The State Department also published pictures of what may be Syria's Soviet-made self-propelled 2S1 Gvozdika122 mm howitzer, which uses the same gun as the D-30 system. The State Department photos also show what might be the self-propelled 2S3 Akatsiya 152 mm self-propelled howitzer, which is capable of firing chemical weapons, anti-personnel shells, and laser-guided high-explosive shells.

Assad's army may have also parked Soviet-designed BM-21 Grad rocket launchers around Homs, according to the State Department. The Grad dates to the 1960s and consists of 40 launch tubes sitting in the back of a six-wheeled truck that can fire two 120 mm unguided rockets per second up to 20 miles. The Grad is an evolution of the World War II-era Soviet Katyusha rocket, a weapon sometimes fired into Israel from southern Lebanon. The three-meter-long Grad rocket is not very accurate, but it can carry everything from high explosives to mines, radio jammers, chemical weapons, and cluster bomblets. These rockets have been used for decades by forces that just want to batter large areas. (Its name, Grad, means "hail" in Russian).



In addition to pummeling civilian centers with tanks, artillery, and mortars, the Assad regime has reportedly used its Soviet-built, Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, along with Mi-8 and Mi-17 Hip transport helicopters outfitted as gunships. As you can see in this video, the Mi-8/Mi-17 can carry quite a bit of firepower. Still, the Mi-24 is even more ferocious, armed with a 23 mm main auto-cannon and a mix of dozens of S-8 rockets, the AT-6 antitank rocket, and up to 2,000 pounds of bombs carried on its stub wings.

It's also heavily armored, with the fuselage capable of withstanding hits from .50 caliber ammunition. In fact, some argue that the Hind is so good at suppressing ground fighters that the Soviet war in Afghanistan was only swayed in favor of the mujahideen once the CIA began to send the insurgents shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to deal with Soviet Mi-24s. Russia is reportedly trying to ship three Hinds that it repaired back to Syria -- along with an air-defense system -- a move that has been met with widespread international criticism.

So far, Syria is not thought to have used its Soviet- and Russian-made fighter jets. Of these, the most advanced are the newly purchased Mig-29 Fulcrums, a Mach 2 fighter first fielded by the Soviets in the 1980s to achieve air superiority against U.S. jets like the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Viper. Although the MiG-29 is a relatively new airplane, the Fulcrum did not perform well against NATO fighters in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq. Should the Syrian air force begin attacking the rebels with fast jets, it would likely use its Su-24 Fencers and Su-22 Fitter supersonic ground attack jets, which were built by the Soviets in the 1970s and early 1980s. That might not end well for Assad: Qaddafi used both to attack Libyan rebels, but the rebels were able to shoot down both with heavy anti-aircraft guns.

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