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.

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."  

Office of Defense Secretary

Tea Leaf Nation

The Chinese Communist Party Just Opened a WeChat Account

An eclectic social media debut for the world's largest political organization.

HONG KONG — It's a growth story that would make many Silicon Valley venture capitalists swoon: a once-tiny, secretive group of 13 members blooming into a network of around 86 million, plus a killer app that no other competitor can replicate -- near absolute political domination. The organization in question is the Chinese Communist Party, one that has recently decided to take its members, and messages, into the age of the social Internet.

In late August, an internal document of the Organization Department of the party's central committee -- a key organ that serves as the human resources arm of this party apparatus to manage member intake, assignment, and personnel issues -- surfaced on Chinese social media. Dated July 24, the document "urges the vast number of party member to subscribe to the official public accounts called 'Communist Party Members' on WeChat and Yixin," two of China's most popular mobile messaging apps with hundreds of millions of users between them. Chinese organizations, companies, and many independent "self-media" groups use so-called public accounts on these apps to push out articles and contents to users that choose to subscribe to them.

The goal of establishing these two accounts, according to the document, was in part to "open up a new front in party member education." Perhaps mindful of the fact that many party members are not tech-savvy, the document orders local departments to "hold meetings and seminars" to teach members how to use the accounts.

The welcome message of the party's new account, opened August 11, promises to "help [readers] understand party members from a new point of view." The collection of articles pushed out to followers has thus far been decidedly eclectic: on August 22, the top article was a snoozer taken straight out of party moutpiece People's Daily about the propaganda czar's edict to "deepening the understanding of Deng Xiaoping Theory and solidify our strong spiritual force to realize the Chinese Dream." But on August 25, one of the chosen articles waxed poetic about how one should "not to lead life as if it were a cup of instant coffee" and exhorted readers, "If at some point, you want to sit in the sun and listen to the sound of flowers blossoming, go ahead and do it." Meanwhile, the sign-off for new members --"Dear, please come visit me often" -- sounds like the type of Internet slang a teenage girl might use to address her friends.

The strange combination of propaganda and historical anecdote with web lingo and self-help tips marks another step in the party's attempt to jostle for a place in China's clamorous social media. On August 18, surely aware that censorship alone has been insufficient to bring the blogosphere to heel, Party Secretary Xi Jinping called for "new style" media organizations that integrate old and new platforms to form "strong, influential, and credible" voices that speak for the party. Time will tell whether this latest effort to give propaganda a Web 2.0 spin will reach beyond those already disposed to believe what they read.  

WeChat/Fair Use