A shaky video of chengguan, street-level urban management enforcers, ripping down decorative Spring Festival couplets in Jiangsu’s Pei County went viral this past week. The controversy metastasized after the freelance journalist who compiled—but did not personally shoot—the footage revealed that “unidentified” men with Jiangsu accents visited his Shandong home in the middle of the night in an apparent attempt to intimidate him into deleting the clip. The decorations were originally destroyed as part of a clean-up campaign aimed at polishing the county seat’s credentials as a “civilized city,” a coveted national designation, ahead of an inspection by higher authorities. Pei County issued a statement saying the destruction of the couplets was “disrespectful towards traditional folk customs” and announced that those involved had been punished, but did not acknowledge the cross-provincial intimidation attempt. Online discussion of the controversy focused on the dangers journalists continue to face and the seeming impunity enjoyed by chengguan, who enforce a vision of “civilization” that is sometimes at odds with popular tradition. The WeChat account @剑客写字的地方 published an essay on the significance of local authorities’ refusal to acknowledge the midnight visits to the reporter’s home:
I must ask: Why did [Pei County’s] statement not mention the cross-provincial visit that was a direct result of an action they acknowledged was wrong? Is a “wrong compounded by a wrong” not wrong?
We all know why. The cross-provincial visit is a far more severe mistake than ripping down Spring Festival couplets.
What is civilization? A street without a speck of dust is not therefore “civilized.” The same applies to muffling the voices of the people. As the saying goes, “Eliminating the person who points out a problem solves it.” This phrase is all too true when applied to Mr. Jia [the reporter threatened by the unidentified men].
When this is all over, perhaps Mr. Jia will no longer dare to be inquisitive. Perhaps all those who paid attention to this incident will, when similar situations arise in the future, choose to shut their mouths and play it safe. As to what this bodes for our future, the answer should be obvious to all. [Chinese]
Jia’s case is not unique: it calls to mind last October’s “cross-provincial tea drinking experience” of a freelance journalist who criticized Zhejiang police. In this case, Jia’s sister tipped him off that men were looking to arrest him, so he was able to escape his hometown before the “unidentified” men found him. In a widely shared article from Shandong outlet Xinhuanghe, an anonymous source with knowledge of the matter said: “The three ‘outsiders’ have already left [Shandong]. They were simply aiming to calm down the situation by helping him delete the post. They had no malicious intent.” The incident is a salient reminder that despite platforms’ advanced censorship algorithms and armies of censors, much censorship remains decidedly old school: late night visits from members of the security forces who demand authors delete offending posts.
Significant outrage was also directed at the behavior of the Jiangsu chengguan. Chengguan across China have made something of a habit of destroying Spring Festival decorations. Reporting by state-news outlet Global Times found that a number of cities across the country publicly announced mass campaigns to rip down couplets left hanging after the end of New Year festivities—this, despite repeated warnings against their destruction at the hands of chengguan from the central government. A 2021 opinion piece on the practice, published to the authoritative state-run Xinhua News website, reminded chengguan: “When all is said and done, protecting a city’s ‘look’ is an important part of urban management—but so is keeping in mind popular sentiment. If popular sentiment is not taken into account, and chengguan continue to do things like rip Spring Festival couplets down as they please, they will be tearing apart the public’s faith as well.” Attempts by chengguan to destroy Spring Festival couplets stem from a desire to enforce a vision of “civilization” that is often at odds with long-standing traditions. In July 2022, The Economist wrote about the “civilized city” label that Party officials sometimes pursue to the detriment of efforts to address pressing social issues:
The Communist Party has been trying to make cities more civilized since the 1980s, when officials began to worry that market reforms and economic growth might cause moral and social decay. For years undercover inspectors have thus graded cities on dozens of measures. For one to be deemed civilized, streets must be spotless and traffic orderly. Residents should exercise, donate blood and support “acts of justice”.
Perhaps the top requirement is that a city do nothing to embarrass the party. It is therefore not exceedingly hard to make the cut; around 280 cities, districts and towns are currently considered civilized. Still, the label is worth a great deal to local officials. Many think it helps attract investment and tourists. More important, at least for officials, is that those who run cities that win the designation stand a better chance of being promoted.
[…] The party does not like it when officials waste time and resources. But the civilized label is creating bad incentives. In one city red banners were strung across buildings telling citizens to improve their “quality”. Officials in another sent a “commando team” of workers to “promote civilisation by picking up cigarette butts”. Signs above public urinals often urge users to stand closer to avoid a mess: “One small step forward is a big step for civilization!” [Source]
The entire incident underscores the political sensitivity of China’s weeks-long Lunar New Year holiday and the ruling Communist Party’s sometimes uneasy relationship with traditional culture, despite Xi’s embrace of syncretism. A censorship directive posted by the Central Cyberspace Administration of China published on the eve of the holiday stressed the need to “cultivate a positive, spiritually healthy atmosphere for online public opinion during Spring Festival.” Despite censors’ best efforts, the Party’s attempts to co-opt the holiday into a pageant of state power has sometimes been met with disbelief, anger, and derision online. A “video call from Xi Jinping,” really a spliced clip of his New Year speech presented in the style of the WeChat user interface, was widely panned. One netizen commented: “Just watched the video. What stylish packaging. They didn’t even pretend to have someone on the line with him. The point being that our only role is to listen.” A city in Xinjiang that modified a traditional holiday trivia game into a propaganda exercise received similar online feedback. Most controversial of all is the government’s use of the annual Spring Festival Gala variety show to propagate a regressive image of the ideal Chinese family that some critics hold seeks to turn women into exploitable “huminerals.”