Words of the Week: “Handing Someone a Knife,” and the Flattening of Sixth Tone

Last month, an otherwise innocuous report at Sixth Tone on cloning of Tibetan cattle referred to the region only by its Chinese name, Xizang, falling in line with a recent push by Chinese authorities. For some, this symbolized a final squeeze in the long constriction of a unique state-media organ that, in the words of its former head of news Qian Jinghua, had once managed “to write about China as a place where real people live and care about their future, as opposed to an abstraction, or a rival nation, or a site to do business, or a series of social and economic problems.” Qian was speaking to The Wire China’s Rachel Cheung, who chronicles the steady erosion of Sixth Tone’s relative independence in a new cover story, from the introduction of limits on LGBT coverage as early as 2017 to the sharp acceleration of controls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because Sixth Tone is published in English, it often covered topics that were deemed off-limits for most Chinese state outlets. And for six years, it succeeded in carving out a precarious, but unique space in China’s media ecosystem. But The Wire’s conversations with 15 former and current employees reveal how the publication has been neutered over the past year. Under new management, censorship ramped up, and top editors trawled through the archive, removing articles and tweaking lines that might trigger anger in Beijing and its loyalists. Pitches about social issues, such as the demographic crisis, are now rebuffed, and the newsroom was ordered to churn out at least one positive story a week about Shanghai starting in February.

“Every quote of a story is examined to determine if it aligns with core socialist values,” a current employee laments.

[…] “Sixth Tone went from being one of the most open and progressive Chinese state media to the most restricted in the last few months, even beyond the likes of Global Times or Shanghai Daily,” says a second current employee. [Source]

Former Sixth Tone staff and readers responded:

Describing the broader chilling of the media environment in China, Cheung noted that “fewer sources, be they scholars, businessmen or ordinary people, are willing to even speak to foreign press on the record for fear of being accused of aiding foreign forces — or di daozi (遞刀子), ‘passing the knife’, as it’s known among the public.” As Cheung notes, Sixth Tone itself has faced similar accusations. The link used in the article leads to the term’s page on CDT’s Chinese-language wiki, but an English description is included as one of 104 entries in our recently launched ebook, China Digital Times Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition. The full entry is reproduced below.


hand someone a knife (递刀子 dì dāozi)

“Handing someone a knife” refers to providing China’s “enemies” with ammunition by airing information that might fuel criticism of China. In April 2020, for example, news that Fang Fang’s COVID-19 outbreak memoir “Wuhan Diary” would be published in English and German was met with nationalist accusations that her writing amounted to “handing a knife” to the United States and other Western countries. The truth or otherwise of information, or the true motives for sharing it, are irrelevant: what matters is the possibility that it could be used against the perceived national interest.

These accusations have been widely criticized and ridiculed in more liberal circles. A 2020 Zhihu post argued that “so-called ‘handing of knives’ is completely imaginary”:

In terms of criticizing the U.S., Chinese media is basically in sync with American media, because that’s where the Chinese media gets its information from. From that point of view, American media is definitely “handing the knife” to us. But can this harm the U.S.? Not at all!

An American publisher releases “Fang Fang’s Diary” … so what? Is this another “knife”? The “knives” American media hand to us can’t hurt the U.S., but a copy of “Fang Fang’s Diary” is going to wound China? Is China that fragile? Don’t overthink things.

A 2020 WeChat post sarcastically detailed its author’s reassessment of the renowned Tang poet Du Fu after the BBC described him as a great poet. This triggered the realization that Du Fu’s supposedly exemplary work is actually riddled with ingratitude toward the imperial court, slander of grassroots officials, and “handing knives” to An Lushan and his rebels. In particular, the post argued, Du Fu’s use of “lake” to describe blood spilled in battle was a malicious exaggeration: based on Tang dynasty household registration records and the average adult’s four to five liters of blood, the total exsanguination of the entire Tang population would produce only a minuscule percentage of the volume of Hunan’s Dongting Lake.

“Handing a knife” should not be confused with 刀把子 (dāobàzi), or “knife handle”—a term for law enforcement and the judiciary, fallen from favor in the post-Mao era but revived under Xi’s rule, that emphasizes the Party’s control.


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