Westerners Aren't the Only Ones Flummoxed by China's Reform Plans

After the Third Plenum, a high-level meeting to discuss China's future, ended on Nov. 12, Beijing released a major document likely to affect many of its 1.3 billion citizens' lives for years. Western media responded to the 5,000-plus character document, called the Plenum Communiqué, with a collective head scratch -- CNBC and the Wall Street Journal both promptly declared it "vague." But the confusion isn't the result of language, or even cultural differences: Many Chinese citizens also cannot make heads or tails of this document.

If they're failing, it's not for lack of trying: On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, a search for "third plenum" yielded over 2.7 million recent mentions, and among those comments, over 154,000 used the word jiedu, which roughly means "to decode." Frustration is palpable online. One Weibo user complained, "I glanced at the Third Plenum communiqué; it surpasses my ability to understand it." Another wrote, "I made myself dizzy reading it three times." And another: "It's a pile of words on top of words, without saying anything." And this: "I can't understand why after a meeting lasting three days, the only thing they can produce is ... a document that has to be decoded. It's like a high school exam."

Readers who think they're smarter than the masses of confused Chinese citizens should boil up a pot of coffee, then try to decipher the below, a particularly turgid sentence from an unofficial translation posted on the blog China Copyright and Media

The Plenum stressed that to comprehensively deepen reform, we must hold high the magnificent banner of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, take Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important 'Three Represents' thought and the scientific development view as guidance, persist in beliefs, concentrate a consensus, comprehensively plan matters, move forward in a coordinated manner, persist in the reform orientation of the Socialism market economy, make stimulating social fairness and justice, and enhancing the people's welfare into starting points and stopover points, further liberate thoughts, liberate and develop social productive forces, liberate and strengthen social vitality, firmly do away with systemic and mechanistic abuses in all areas, and strive to open up an even broader prospect for the undertaking of Socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Some media outlets have tried to illuminate the document by turning to statistical analysis. Tengxun, a Chinese news portal, released an infographic ranking the words most often mentioned in the communiqué. (The winner was "reform," followed by "system," "development," and "economy.") The Beijing News, a liberal Chinese newspaper, compiled a detailed set of graphs, one (above) showing how mentions of the word "reform" were higher than in any previous Third Plenum release.

That's not insignificant; mentions of "reform" are likely to please many hoping for just that. And in the communiqué's defense, it is meant only to provide a broad sketch of where China is headed and to set the tone for implementing steps that will take years. Its function is to signal to high-level actors what they will need to prioritize, not to explain each reform in exacting detail. The document may also be trying to shoot the moon, somehow satisfying all readers at the same time. One Weibo user speculated, "In the end it's not important whether the document is consistent from beginning to end, because everyone can find what they need in it."

The communiqué may contain the right words, but Chinese are struggling to pick up the logical thread connecting them. Any readers who breezed through the earlier quote (and hold a Chinese passport) may wish to sign up for the nation's civil service exam, scheduled for Nov. 24. We hear the Chinese government is hiring. 


Did the New York Times Just Get Blocked in China -- Again? [Updated]

Updated: A New York Times spokeswoman has told FP that T Magazine's Chinese language site is "once again accessible" in Mainland China. Although the cause of the outage is "unclear," it "appears to be technical and has been resolved."

The New York Times' flagship English and Chinese-language websites are already blocked in China. Now, the Times' latest hope for avoiding the wrath of censors there may have suffered a setback. Portions of the Chinese-language site of T Magazine, the Times' lifestyle publication, have been inaccessible in Mainland China since the afternoon of Nov. 13, Beijing time.

Problems accessing the site first came to light when social media users complained on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, where T Magazine maintains an active presence. A Nov. 13 test using the servers of Greatfirewallofchina.org, a site that tests web addresses for accessibility behind China's so-called Great Firewall, found that T Magazine's Chinese site is "most likely NOT accessible" from the Mainland. A Tea Leaf Nation contributor in Beijing said that while she was able to access the magazine's front page without the aid of a virtual private network, articles she clicked on would not load.

It is unclear why T Magazine's Chinese-language site is not currently accessible from the Mainland; it could be censorship, or merely a glitch. A spokesperson for the New York Times told FP via phone that the publication is "aware there is an issue" with site accessibility, but is still investigating the cause.

If there's a block, it's impossible to say how long it will last. Beijing does not officially admit the existence of the Great Firewall, publish a list of blocked sites, or officially confirm or deny what it has censored. However, the timing is suspicious, falling soon after a Nov. 8 New York Times report stating that Bloomberg News editors spiked two stories likely to be offensive to Chinese authorities, one detailing financial links between a Chinese tycoon and some of China's top leaders. (Bloomberg has denied the allegations.)

T Magazine has been a source of optimism for a news organization that had run afoul of Chinese censors before. The T Magazine Chinese-language site launched Oct. 10, 2013, about 10 months after Chinese authorities blocked both the English and Chinese language sites of the New York Times, likely in retaliation for the outlet's Oct. 2012 story about possible corruption associated with family members of then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. T Magazine's Chinese language site does not publish stories about politics, economics, or foreign policy, focusing instead on less controversial topics like fashion, design, education, and real estate. The day of the launch, the Times thought it possible the T Magazine site could, according to the Wall Street Journal, "pave the way for the unblocking of the publication's English and Chinese news websites" in Mainland China.

The New York Times is not alone among international media in its struggle with Chinese censorship. The Chinese-language site of the Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post is intermittently blocked in the Mainland. Bloomberg's news sites were blocked in China after the service ran a June 2012 story about the wealth of Chinese President Xi Jinping's extended family. On July 17, censors deleted the official Weibo account of Asahi Shimbun, Japan's second-largest newspaper. Time will tell whether the Great Firewall has just added another brick.