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Smug, Snide, and Shallow – 'The Three Superiors' of the BBC

By David Ferguson (People's Daily Online)    08:03, March 02, 2015

On 25th February People's Daily unveiled President Xi Jinping's "Four Comprehensives": A moderately prosperous society, Reform, Rule of law, and Party discipline. They are the blueprint for his government's future strategy, and they represent a significant statement about what the future holds for China in the coming years.

In an article on its website the same day, the BBC decided to helpfully inform its readership about this important development, which it introduced with the following sub-heading: "Chinese leader Xi Jinping unveils the "four comprehensives" as his latest political philosophy, following in a long line of Communist sloganeering."1 To describe it as "smug, snide and shallow" would probably be an unwarranted compliment.

Let us be clear on one thing at the outset. "Sloganeering" is not a neutral word. It carries deep pejorative implications. The word is deliberately designed to invoke the contempt of the reader. And "Communist sloganeering" multiplies the impact.

I can understand why a Western audience would be cynical about political sloganeering. Political slogans in the West are a reflection of the leaders who utter them – empty and meaningless phrases issued by vapid and superficial people who have emerged the winners from the equivalent of a TV reality show for rich people.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron's "Big Society" is a perfect example. It was never intended to actually mean anything – just a headline-grabbing 'soundbite for a day' devised by some earnest political dogsbody at the bottom layer of the Tory party's army of spin doctors, and signed off by each of their bosses in turn.

Dave's inner circle would have had to play along: "Grrreat, Dave!", "Soopah, Dave!", "You've nailed it, Prime Minister..." But outside of that chamber, nobody would have paid a blind bit of notice. The further you got from the centre of power, the more Dave's Big Society would have been ignored, or subjected to ridicule. I doubt if there is a single person in the whole of the United Kingdom who ever once performed any action while telling themselves that this was their contribution to "David Cameron's Big Society". Nobody has talked about the Big Society for years. It has long since been crumpled up in the fast food wrappings that it came with and thrown away, and it now lies soggy and flapping in the gutter where it always belonged.

Political aphorisms in China are completely different. For a start, they have a history that dates back centuries. Emperors, officials, and learned men would demonstrate their satisfaction or show favour by writing political aphorisms and awarding them to fortunate beneficiaries. In more modern times, leaders who were capable calligraphers would take great pride in devising aphorisms and inscribing them in their own hand. Sun Yat-sen is a good example. Two of his favourites were "The world is for all" and "Fraternity".

Like Chinese poetry, Chinese aphorisms don't translate particularly well into English. They come across as very banal and wooden. But the languages are so different that you would hardly expect otherwise. And then what do I know. Maybe "The Big Society" sounds really neat in Chinese.

Since the founding of the PRC, leadership aphorisms have, if anything, taken on even greater significance. A concept is defined at the highest level. An enormous amount of time and effort is then devoted to giving it clear and specific meaning. In complete contrast to the Western model, the further down the hierarchy you go, the more explicit it becomes, and the more concrete the measures involved in its implementation. All over China, in dingy offices hundreds or thousands of miles from Beijing, low-ranking civil servants will be expected to work out exactly what they are going to do to make it happen, and then do it.

You don't have to take my word for all of this. A couple of years ago I wrote a book about Guangdong Province.2 One of the main themes of the book was a provincial aphorism: "Accelerating transformation and upgrading – building a happy Guangdong". In preparing the book I spoke about Chinese political aphorisms to Dr Robert Lawrence Kuhn, one of the West's foremost and best-connected authorities on China. He is the author of "How China's Leaders Think: The Inside Story of China's Past, Current and Future Leaders",3 a book based on exclusive access to and interviews with one hundred of the new generation of China's top political leaders. The following is an excerpt of what he said to me:

"Appreciating Chinese political slogans changed my attitude from being simply interested in China to wanting to dig down really deep. Early on I was offered an opportunity to talk to a vice-minister who was one of China's experts on political theory, and in my first meeting with him I suddenly saw a world that I never even knew existed. Clearly the aphorisms that were being used in China reflect the context of the times, often highlighting the most serious problems or intense topics of controversy and debate…

A good example is "The Three Represents", Jiang Zemin’s legacy work. To a Western ear it could hardly be more banal – Productive forces, Good culture, and Working to benefit most of the people. But when you understand the system you see that the detail behind each of those principles actually served to undermine a rigorous leftist ideology that dominated the political thinking of the time. It's very powerful, and that's why it was so controversial. Each of the Represents challenges the whole political perspective of what the Party is – a radical change that turns the Party from an ideological structure to a ruling party. It became the vehicle to change the Party's theoretical basis to be more consistent with the reality of its practice, and it was absolutely fascinating to watch that development…"

I agree with Dr Kuhn on the importance of China's political aphorisms. Likewise, Hu Jintao's theory of the Scientific Outlook on Development marked a huge shift in China's approach to economic growth – a clearly-stated view from the highest level that the current model was unsustainable, and that economic growth could no longer be pursued blindly at the expense of the environment and its wider social impact. It has led to a fundamental change in China's economic and industrial strategy.

So why does none of this information come out of the BBC article? A good question. What does the article actually tell us, once the sneer at "communist sloganeering" is out of the way?

Well, it has a dig at Mr Xi Jinping for denouncing political jargon as "empty words" during a speech five years ago, and then launching his leadership in 2013 with the idea of the "Chinese dream". In fact, the political jargon that Mr Xi was criticising had nothing to do with leadership aphorisms – he was referring to the mangled and wearisome language in which almost all Chinese political documents are written, and he was absolutely right.

It then has a dig at the "Chinese Dream" itself, which the article tells us, is "still ill-defined", at least according to the authoritative views of an unspecified "many".

It then has a dig at the Communist elite's obsession with jargon, which alienates them from plain-speaking Chinese citizens, at least according to the authoritative views of unspecified "critics". There is a certain amount of truth in this, but as indicated above, the fact of the matter is that plain-speaking Chinese citizens are not the main target audience for these aphorisms. While the public are expected to know and approve of the government's shifts in strategy, the aphorisms are really directed at the Party's membership and the country's ten million officials who are responsible for turning strategy into policies and implementing them.

It then has a dig at previous political slogans, including those of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao referred to above.

It then has a dig at the fourth of the Comprehensives, which specifically refers to the government's current campaign against corruption, on the basis that it is not clear whether the campaign is more concerned with corruption or simply with the elimination of Mr Xi's political rivals, at least according to the authoritative views of unspecified "analysts".

And that's about it. In brief, the article tells us nothing of any value about an important development in Chinese politics. It contains nothing but a series of snide, smug and shallow jibes.

Who wrote it? The obvious candidates are Damian Grammaticas, the BBC News China Correspondent, Carrie Gracie, the BBC China News Editor, and Linda Yueh, the Chief Business Correspondent. None of these people could possibly be unaware of what I have told you above on the subject of Chinese aphorisms. Grammaticas has been in China for years, Gracie has a degree in Chinese and speaks fluent Mandarin, and Yueh is a Taiwan-born Chinese American. Leading to the conclusion that the article was never intended to inform its readership, or do anything other than cause offence.

Which is presumably why it is unsigned. In keeping with one of the British media's most carefully-respected principles – "only insult people openly if they’re too weak to hit back" - the author did not have the guts to put their moniker where their mouth is.

Why would you get this from one of the world's most highly-respected (in its own eyes) broadcasters? Well, it's all part of a general plague of dumbing-down that has now infected most of the Western media. Journalism in the West is less and less about painstakingly collecting information, building a story, and then presenting the information to your audience to help them form an opinion, and more and more about embarking on moral crusades. As a journalist your job is to identify a target, congratulate yourself on being morally superior to your target, and then exploit your position, indulge yourself, and impress your audience by abusing, condemning, or ridiculing your target.

The one condition that applies to this is that your target has to fit with the agenda of your employer. And guess what. This is the BBC. So in this case, it does. 

1. In a fascinating development, this sub-heading, which I copied along with the article when I originally read it yesterday, has now disappeared. Those involved with the article appear to have suffered a minor failure in "the courage of their convictions".

2. As I am not a UK journalist I do not use my articles to peddle my wares. The name of the book and the publishing details are therefore irrelevant.

3. How China's Leaders Think; Dr Robert Lawrence Kuhn; Wiley; New Jersey, 2011; ISBN 047082445X.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Editor:Kong Defang,Bianji)

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