Translation: The Fall of Commentary to Newspeak
This year’s CCTV Spring Festival Gala, a four-plus-hour pageant of song, dance, and sketch comedy, turned off some viewers who complained that the propaganda was laid on a little too thick. In an unscientific Sina Weibo poll, 75% rated the broadcast “one out of ten.” Yet CCTV’s flagship evening news program touted the gala’s “tide of good comments” (好评如潮), while gala director Lü Yitao “gave it 100 points.” Some of the negative commentary was weeded out by Weibo’s filters.
Gao Yu (高昱), deputy editor-in-chief at Caixin, reflected on the throttling of critique across traditional and new media in a column published on February 9 by Dajia (大家), a longform website produced by Internet giant Tencent. Gao’s article was removed from Dajia, though it is saved in Google’s cache and archived by CDT Chinese. CDT has translated it in full below.
(The author is not to be confused with the activist and journalist Gao Yu (高瑜), who was recently released from a seven-year prison sentence for allegedly leaking state secrets.)
On the Fall of Commentary and the Total Occupation of “Newspeak”
Judging from mainstream media, there has been a whole slew of positive commentary on CCTV-1’s gala over the last two days. But in my mobile social circle, the mostly widely circulated comment, not at all surprisingly, was reported to authorities and can no longer be found.
A lot of my friends were indignant, but I wasn’t, because I know that news commentary in our society is already dead. The sad fate of some articles is simply the progression of doom from comment on current events literature and the arts. This is a natural progression. Anyone who understands the history of literature and art in China over the last 70 years is aware that they have always served politics.
From 2002, when I took over at Business Watch, to 2011, when publication stopped, I wrote over 200 editorials. Then I transferred to my subsequent work unit and wrote dozens of news commentaries. But when Li Chengpeng, whom I was so fond of, was cut off from writing, I stopped of my own accord. When daggers and spears are no longer tolerated, and your only other option is to mingle with dilettantes and whitewash your speech, in the end my silent refusal to change was my freedom.
I gradually discovered that there’s not one ear that can be convinced by a mouth. Lately, I often hear people say, “you can never wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.” This is placating, but describes only those people who are deceiving themselves because they have a vested interest—in our consumer society, which long ago misconstrued market economy to mean that anything can be bought and sold, “if telling a lie benefits someone, why should he still tell the truth?” However, it should be recognized that there are still some people, old and also young, who honestly believe in the lies and false logic. There are some people who have even been hurt and humiliated by lies.
This is a tragedy created by our one-sided education system. For many years, it has been hoping to mold an affirmative culture and a docile society. After utopia is shattered by reality, like a pendulum, it could then swing back in the opposite direction—a thoroughly contrary culture, and the violence and hostility of populism. On the surface, these seem contradictory, but in reality they are one and the same. Since it’s a one-sided mode of thought, the conductor can always elicit a sympathetic response, regardless of whether it’s an affirmative tool of domestication or a contrary populism. I’ve abandoned my attempts to use my point of view to change theirs. When you say A, they will say B, and when you say B, they will then say C. It’s unavoidable. They will use the neatest and tidiest of conspiracy theories, and you will never be able to compete with their self-confidence.
Ever since Cangjie invented characters, the written language has often been thought of as a little girl who dresses herself up however she pleases. But our ancestors may never have guessed that spoken and written language could become this insipid. Zhang Weiying once reminded us to pay attention to the corruption of language, that is, treating ugliness as beauty, and the idea that the more fake something is the more beautiful it is. When we read the reactions to those paeans, we recognize every word, but have no clue what they mean. The written word is as vacant as the gaze of a scarecrow, and even the shabbiest whitewashing can’t help.
In his novel “1984,” George Orwell ingeniously used the word “newspeak.” Old speech was forbidden and disappeared from public life. From there, words that weren’t approved of, and the ideas they represented, disappeared from people’s minds.
Reality proves that this is not a fairytale. Because there really are a lot of people who have been trained to the point of being incapable of talking sensibly—onstage they speak lies and empty words, and offstage it’s the unprecedented vulgarity of so-called “Internet slang.” In an age where the spoken and written language have been so manipulated that it’s impossible to read things to the end, what still has the power to persuade? What is enough to change the course of the masses, descending into the vast waters of newspeak and are unable to break free? I believe only the naked truth will do. This is the main reason why I have abandoned the commentary, that impotent force, and turned my focus to investigative journalism.
The story of the son of a high official who demanded that his father’s subordinates give him a parcel of oil fields, and then sold them to the owner of a private company at an exponentially higher price. The story of a Transportation Administration Bureau chief who gave a batch of Jing A license plates to a businessman, and then got him to buy a famous artist’s painting, and made the art dealer split the profit with him equally. The story of a government authority that taxed a city’s prime real estate as land for scientific research, then sold half to a real estate developer to build upmarket high rises, and the other half to officials to build villa. Each demonstrates the unchecked dealings between those with power and those with money. It doesn’t take earth-shaking parallelism. It just takes solid, professional factual research, along with patient and objective narrative, and it bursts out of the shadows. When the truth is exposed, it’s irrefutable.
While Gao appears optimistic about the possibilities of investigative journalism, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips reports that others in the industry are giving up on it.
All this means that the guise of popular approval has come off, and the gates of reasoning have been closed. I have a little regret about this, but in the end, I feel unburdened joy. [Chinese]
Translation by Heidi.