Word(s) of the Week: “Driving in Reverse” (开倒车, kāidàochē)

This week, a 2016 People’s Daily article predicting that China would enter the club of “high-income” nations by 2024 was reposted and widely shared online, attracting many sardonic comments before it was eventually deleted from People’s Daily Online. One such comment was posted by Weibo user @Wngjil908981589, who wrote: “Eight years ago, the People’s Daily couldn’t have known that the ‘driving-in-reverse Emperor’ would throw the car into reverse and put the pedal to the metal.”

The terms “driving in reverse” and “driving-in-reverse Emperor” are used derisively to criticize Xi Jinping’s governance of China, particularly when referring to policies that are considered by the public to be old-fashioned, regressive, and repressive. During the years 2020-2022, such terms were often used online to criticize the more draconian aspects of China’s “zero-COVID” policy, including extended border closures, overly broad city-wide lockdowns, shortages of food and medicines, and online censorship of public discussion about the pandemic. Since the end of the “zero-COVID” policy, “driving in reverse” has also been used to criticize the party-state’s approach to the economy, particularly in light of recent stock-, property-, and employment-market woes. 

The newly published China Digital Times Lexicon, 20th Anniversary Edition, contains a more detailed explanation of the term “driving in reverse.” The full lexicon entry is reproduced below:

driving in reverse (开倒车, kāidàochē)

Derisive metaphor used to satirize Xi Jinping’s governance of China, which users of the phrase view as being regressive, or going in the wrong direction, particularly in terms of its escalating emphasis on the singular, extended rule of “core leader” Xi himself.

Several viral online incidents helped propel the phrase “driving in reverse” to popularity. In June 2016, People’s Daily posted a video to Weibo of a Volkswagen Tiguan reversing down a ramp and falling off a ledge, along with this warning: “Driving in reverse is a task that requires real technical skill!” Weibo users flocked to the comment section to draw parallels with Xi Jinping’s governance, highlighting the danger of going backwards, lest it result in a “hard landing” and the need to “step down.” One user offered this assessment: “Correct answer: Backwards drivers need to step down!” 

In November 2018, video site Bilibili was revealed to be prohibiting comments on all videos in search results for “driving in reverse.” This applied to comments on videos that had nothing to do with politics or that simply had the phrase “driving in reverse” in their title or description, as well as comments from usernames containing the phrase. When one netizen asked a customer service representative to explain the reasons for this ban, he was told that the phrase “touches on sensitive topics.”

In 2020, People’s Daily posted a video to Twitter of a man reversing a car over a bridge made only of two thin logs, with the caption: “The master of backing up a car! Can you do it?” Netizens speculated that the video was deliberately reversed because people in the background appeared to be moving backwards, but it was unclear whether this was intentional on People’s Daily’s part or not. Regardless, netizens joked in the comment section: “The driver is Chairman Xi,” and dubbed him the “Accelerator-in-Chief” (see entry) and the “Driving-in-Reverse Emperor.”

The phrase “driving in reverse” or “going backwards” is also used in reference to Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening” policies. Under the “new era” of Xi Jinping, analysts have argued that Xi is leading China in a direction that deviates from Deng’s, given Xi’s different development goals and China’s decoupling from Western countries. The slowing economy, compared to the record growth rates in the decades preceding Xi’s rule, has motivated many critics to view Xi as steering the country on a regressive course.

In the spring of 2022, amid China’s zero-COVID policy (see entry) and the months-long lockdown of Shanghai, a leaked audio recording of a telephone call between a local cadre and a Shanghai man complaining about the lockdown was widely shared (and later censored) on Chinese social media. The man was frank in expressing his concerns that the lockdown was threatening to reverse decades of economic progress:

Since reform and opening started in ’79, we’ve been working for 40 years to earn a bit of wealth, but look how this month of suffering has left us. And now you want to do it for another month? Building a city isn’t easy—building up its organization, customs, kindness, culture, economy, all that organization—it was no mean feat. It took generations. If you’re looking to destroy it, I’m telling you, it’ll be destroyed before the year is out. In the rest of the world, everyone is sprinting ahead, getting manufacturing up and running, getting back to normal life, getting back to business. But here, we haven’t come to a halt, we’re going backwards. We’ve put the car in reverse and we’re giving it gas. 

See also “The Yangtze and Yellow River won’t flow backwards” (see entry).

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