Word(s) of the Week: Ulterior Motives (别有用心 bié yǒu yòng xīn)

Having “ulterior motives” (别有用心, bié yǒu yòng xīn), an accusation often lobbed at critics of the Party-state, is sometimes deployed in tandem with the term “foreign hostile forces” (境外势力, jìngwài shìli). Such accusations are used to discredit legitimate criticism of the government, and to imply that dissent is somehow inorganic or nefarious. The Party-state’s list of those who allegedly hold “ulterior motives” (or are “unwitting dupes” of those who do) is lengthy and ever-expanding, including: lawyers caught up in the 2015 “Black Friday” sweep, mourners commemorating the victims of a 2022 Urumqi fire, historians “reflecting on history,” news outlets covering the persecution of Uyghurs, subtitlers of American sitcoms, and students protesting campus lockdowns during the “zero-COVID” period, to name but a few. The phrase’s ubiquity in propaganda has led to its sarcastic adoption by netizens who use it to point out the absurdity of certain aspects of Chinese politics or policy. In the example below, a Weibo user facetiously asks why revanchism is celebrated when the target is Japan, but not Russia

Wengtao2015 (@翁涛2015): If you yell on the street, “Diaoyu Islands belong to China!” you are a patriot. If you instead yell, “Outer Mongolia and Vladivostok belong to China!” you may be arrested as a mad person or someone who has ulterior motives! Why is that? (February 14, 2015) [Source]

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) often accuses the United States and other countries of having “ulterior motives” in international disputes. In 2023 alone, Foreign Ministry spokespeople accused the United States of having “ulterior motives” for convicting two Chinese nationals for their roles in “Operation Fox Hunt,” and for the U.S. State Department asking China to abide by a 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that ruled in favor of the Philippines in a China-Philippines territorial dispute in the South China Sea. MoFA spokespeople accused Japan of having “ulterior motives” for purportedly not inviting Chinese media to a press conference (held in China) about the release of treated wastewater from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. They also accused reporters of having “ulterior motives” for asking whether the Chinese ambassador to France’s extreme rhetoric on Ukraine—after he made a statement in which he denied the sovereignty of ex-Soviet states—reflected the official Chinese government position on the matter.

The phrase has also been used to criticize and suppress expressions of mourning. After over 7000 shoddily-constructed classrooms collapsed in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, killing over 5000 students and injuring 15,000, the literary personage Yu Qiuyu wrote “A Tearful Request for the Earthquake Survivors,” in which he begged the parents of victims killed in school collapses to stop protesting lest they be manipulated by those with “ulterior motives.” The public was incensed, and many online commenters accused Yu of seeking to protect corrupt officials, with some even “tearfully urging Yu Qiuyu to jump in a river.” Nonetheless, spontaneous expressions of mourning that occur after tragedies or disasters continue to be labeled by CCP officials and nationalist commentators as the work of shadowy forces with “ulterior motives”—a bald-faced and cynical attempt to strip citizens of their agency. 


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