Chengyu For Xi Jinping’s New Era (Part 1)

Xi Jinping’s New Era has inspired the creation of a host of “new chengyu: idiomatic, often four-character, literary expressions that are the kernel of a larger tale. The following New Era chengyu are all references to infamous incidents that have taken place within the last calendar year. Consistent with much of CDT’s 2024 coverage, the chengyu introduced below center on economic pain: impoverished farmers, distressed creditors, penny-pinching landlords—even cash-strapped police departments. Many also focus on official malfeasance: petty despotism, official greed, and wanton enforcement of the law. Without further ado, here are the five entries that make up Part 1 of CDT’s “New Era chengyu” compilation: 

Yunhao Blocks the Plow (云浩止耕, Yúnhào zhǐ gēng)

Ji Doesn’t Know the Law (纪不懂法, Jì bù dǒng fǎ)

Repaying Debt With Prison Time (以刑化债, yǐ xíng huà zhài)

Calculating Damages by Lantern-Light (提灯定损, tídēng dìng sǔn)

Fishing the High Seas (远洋捕捞, yuǎnyáng bǔlāo) [Chinese]

  1. Yunhao Blocks the Plow (云浩止耕, Yúnhào zhǐ gēng)

In April of this year, an undercover reporting team captured a shocking incident in Inner Mongolia’s Kailu County: village cadres blocking villagers from plowing fields on the eve of the make-or-break planting season. The reporters were with the state-run outlet Reports on China’s Three Rural Issues (中国三农发布, Zhōngguó sānnóng fābù) and they had traveled to Kailu after receiving a mass of complaints from villagers that officials were prohibiting them from planting—unless the villagers agreed to pay extortionate fees. The provenance of the dispute dates back two decades, when a nearly 1,000 acre (5600 mu) parcel of land was contracted out to villagers on a thirty-year lease. Since then, through diligent irrigation and stewardship, the land has been transformed from a palace where “even rabbits wouldn’t shit” to a viable corn field. But this year, local cadres were demanding that villagers pay an extra 200 yuan per mu tax before being allowed to plant—a fee that villagers insisted was illegal. The undercover state-media reporters captured footage of cadres blocking plows, accusing villagers of illegally occupying public land, and chiding them that calling the police was useless. One official, the village deputy Party secretary Ji Yunhao, was particularly egregious in his conduct, threatening villagers, “So what if 110 [China’s 911 emergency hot-line number] officers arrive? The higher-ups ordered me to collect money, so that’s what I’m going to do.” Ji was relieved of his position after the video attracted public criticism. However, there has been no official statement on Ji’s seemingly falsified resume, which came to light after his bullying behavior went viral. 

“Yunhao Blocks the Plow” is a reference to the brash thuggery of local cadres—an all-too-common problem in rural China. Last year, an effort to professionalize the policing of agriculture through the introduction of a new corps of law enforcement officials (derisively termed “nongguan,” a play on the unpopular urban enforcers known as chengguan”) was met with widespread backlash, both online and in the countryside. The Economist quoted a Henan farmer’s reaction to the news about the nongguan: “’All crows under heaven are equally black,’ and all cadres equally dishonest.” Attempting to shed light on these rural issues, however, remains taboo. Despite the fact that state media conducted the initial reporting, online essays and articles that drew a connection between Ji’s actions and hollow propaganda about the “closeness” of the state and the people were censored. Other reports that criticized the tepid follow-up reporting on the incident were also taken down by censors. Despite such censorship, “Yunhao Blocks the Plow” endures as a mocking reminder of the resistance of Chinese farmers to the pretty tyranny of local authorities. 

  1. Ji Doesn’t Know the Law (纪不懂法, Jì bù dǒng fǎ)

This chengyu derives from the same incident described above. Village deputy Party secretary Ji Yunhao, when asked by journalists about the contract signed by villagers, responded: “Don’t ask me, I don’t know the law!” The haughty pronouncement drew immediate comparisons to another New Era chengyu: “Law? Funny” (你法我笑, nǐ fǎ wǒ xiào). In that 2017 case, a legal affairs cadre in Jiangxi province told a villager whose house had been demolished, “I think it’s kind of funny that you talk about ‘rule of law,’” after another cadre had explained, with surprising frankness, “Some things are driven by the government, not dealt with according to laws and regulations. In short, power supersedes the law.” The quotes appeared in a state-media documentary investigation into improper behavior by village cadres. “Law? Funny” is now shorthand for China’s “lack of rule of law,” even though rule of law is enshrined as one of the CCP’s “12 Core Socialist Values.” [For more on this incident, see CDT’s new 20th anniversary e-book.] Similar incidents abound. A recent case in Qinghai province—in which a lawyer discovered that a judge from a higher court was using a WeChat group chat to secretly direct the lower-court judge’s adjudication of a hearing for 12 defendants accused of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”—has spurred the creation of yet another New Era chengyu: “The Judge Behind the Curtain” (垂帘听审, chuílián tīngshěn). “Ji Doesn’t Know the Law” is one of the latest chengyu to speak to public frustration over injustice in cases where politics appears to take command of the law. 

A Chinese-language video of Ji Yunhao’s conduct is available below: 

  1. Repaying Debt With Prison Time (以刑化债, yǐ xíng huà zhài)

China’s debt-laden local governments are on the edge of a financial crisis. Some of these governments have taken a novel approach to relieving their fiscal burden: arresting creditors who sue to have debts repaid, a phenomenon that has given rise to the chengyu “Repaying Debt With Prison Time.” A recent case in Guizhou is particularly illustrative. A Guizhou entrepreneur and her legal team were detained for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after suing the Shuicheng district government for hundreds of millions of yuan that she was owed for a failed development project. The brazen mass arrest, which came after the entrepreneur rejected a 16 million yuan settlement for the 220 million yuan she was allegedly owed, provoked widespread public outrage and criticism of the continued use of “picking quarrels,” a notorious pocket crime. The nebulously-defined crime has been used to target a wide variety of people the state finds troublesome: the “Feminist Five,” activists against sexual harassment; Sun Dawu, a billionaire businessman; a woman wearing a kimono in Suzhou; and many of the young protestors who participated in the White Paper Movement in November 2022. “Repaying Debt with Prison Time” is the latest expression of pessimism over the state of China’s economy and the future of its entrepreneurs, despite incessant official proclamations that “there is an atmosphere of optimism throughout the country.” 

  1. Calculating Damages by Lantern-Light (提灯定损, tídēng dìng sǔn)

A rural Jiangxi landlord who used an industrial-grade floodlight during a pregnant renter’s move-out inspection and then charged her 10,000 yuan in damages (on an apartment that rented for just over 1,000 yuan monthly) inspired this new chengyu. Its target is the nickel-and-dime attitude of landlords who charge renters exorbitant fees for minor damages. As China’s property market slows, renting has become a more attractive option for Chinese couples. Accordingly, the issue of renters’ rights has moved into the spotlight. Even top state-media outlet Xinhua weighed in on the controversy: “The only way to solve ‘calculating damages by lantern-light’ is by ‘lighting the way for you’—building a more transparent, regulated renters’ marketplace by lighting the lantern of rule of law and regulation, encouraging more harmonious landlord-tenant relations, and thus lighting the lantern in our hearts.” 

Ironically, after the female tenant’s complaints about the excessive damage charges, local officials found that the house she had been renting was illegally constructed and ordered it condemned.

  1. Fishing the High Seas (远洋捕捞, yuǎnyáng bǔlāo)

This is a new term in legal circles for public security officials’ cross-provincial “pursuit-of-profit policing.” In cases of “fishing the high seas,” police from one province or city cross into another to pursue “major cases” (with potentially lucrative outcomes) with no clear jurisdictional authority or public safety imperative. A recent example reported by China Business Journal documented an instance in which officers with the public security bureau (PSB) of Shunde District in Foshan, Guangdong province, traveled to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, to detain a number of executives and finance department employees of a popular streaming platform on dubious charges of running an illegal gambling operation—without any evidence of a negative impact on the citizens of Shunde. The Shunde PSB confiscated all of the company’s “illegal” gains, transferring over three hundred million yuan directly into its own bank accounts, and bankrupting the Wuhan company. The targeted company steadfastly denied all wrongdoing and accused the Shunde police department of outright robbery. A Guangdong court later found the Shunde public security bureau’s behavior to be illegal.  

Cross-provincial policing has long been used as a tool to suppress dissent. In 2022, a writer who questioned the integrity of a Zhejiang police department in a Weibo post made at 1:45 a.m. was surprised to be “invited to tea” by police who had traveled from Zhejiang to question him. Earlier this year, police from Yanjiao, a commuter city on the outskirts of Beijing, threatened a Xi’an resident after the latter shared a video of Yanjiao police harassing a CCTV reporter broadcasting live from the site of a gas-leak explosion that killed seven and injured 27. The use of cross-provincial policing to replenish municipal coffers, though, appears to be novel—at least in the form described above. “Fishing the High Seas” is, then, yet another derisive term for local governments’ increasingly desperate and high-handed methods of extracting wealth from the citizenry. 


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