The People’s Daily Said What?

In the course of its dramatic growth, China often churns out unprecedented numbers. But few of them have been more controversial than the recently released National Revival Index, a formula devised to measure China’s economic and social development by the Academy of Macroeconomic Research (AMR), an affiliate of the government’s National Development and Reform Commission. On August 3, Yang Yiyong, director of the AMR’s Department of Social Development, said that, according to his research, China’s National Revival Index had reached 0.6274, which meant the country had completed about 62% of its mission of national revival.

The concept of national revival relies on a view of Chinese history in which the country was a major world power before slipping into a prolonged period of decline during the 19th century. The goal of national revival is to restore China to its former glory. The term “national revival” (民族复兴 minzu fuxing) was embedded in China’s political lexicon in 2001, when former president Jiang Zemin spoke at the conference commemorating the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Jiang declared “the purpose of all the struggles of the Chinese people between the mid-20th and mid-21st centuries is our motherland’s prosperity, our people’s material well-being and our nation’s great revival.”

Though the Chinese public is, generally, indifferent to such clichés, Internet commentators expressed contempt upon learning that a concept as grandiose and elusive as national revival was being officially quantified. Zhang Quanling, a news anchor for China Central Television, wrote sarcastically on her weibo account, “My stomach hurt all night yesterday. I followed the doctor’s advice, took some medicine and had some warm porridge. Now I’m feeling 62% better.” @不落之剑 said, “This is ridiculous. I didn’t know you could calculate the rate of progress of something like a nation’s revival. Has the index taken into account ordinary people’s feelings? How can you revive a nation when there’s not even safe food to eat?” @chinareform was even more scornful, “This kind of ‘research’ has no academic value or scientific significance. It’s only used to swindle the government out of its research funds.”

Of all the criticisms of the index, one weibo post, which has been retweeted over 134,000 times since August 5, is particularly noteworthy:

An expert has recently announced that, based on a three-tier evaluation system, the Chinese nation’s revival is 62% completed. However, this number will pale into insignificance when compared with the story in Yongzhou City, Hunan province—a mother has been sentenced to a labor camp only because she demanded harsher punishment of those who raped her underage daughter. GDP and Olympic gold medals are not the only things that make a strong nation. More important criteria such as people’s rights and dignity as well as social fairness and justice should also be incorporated into that complicated mathematical model. Let’s work together to make it happen. Good night.

People have been talking about this post enthusiastically all over weibo. Their excitement, however, has been less about the message itself than its source: the People’s Daily’s new microblog on Sina Weibo, which was launched on July 22.

As one of the centerpieces of the Chinese government’s propaganda machine, the People’s Daily has traditionally been devoted to eulogizing the Party’s virtues and achievements in language that many people find pompous and hollow. Since August 1, for example, it has published a special issue every weekday to celebrate the upcoming 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (NCCPC). According to the People’s Daily, the special issues were aimed “at fully displaying the successful practices of the Scientific Outlook on Development [the Party’s current guiding ideology] in various provinces, regions, cities, sectors and professions, thoroughly demonstrating the sweeping changes in production and people’s lives, using the glorious accomplishments in scientific development to inspire cadres and the masses to follow the road of socialism confidently and unswervingly, and creating a favorable public opinion for the success of the 18th NCCPC.”

Thus, it’s not difficult to understand why it should surprise readers that the People’s Daily, would join Sina Weibo, a forum more associated with raucous, less-filtered public opinion and then post comments that seem out of sync with the paper’s position as the Party’s mouthpiece. Liu Zhizhi, a well-known graphic designer, exclaimed, “The account of the People’s Daily hasn’t been hacked, has it?!” Apparently, it has not because this was neither the first nor the last time that the People’s Daily hinted at social or political reforms on weibo. On the same day that it brought out its first special issue on the NCCPC, the People’s Daily used its weibo account to admonish the Ministry of Railways for having paid 18.5 million yuan (US$2.9 million) for a five-minute promotional film: “The government’s current budgetary process is still flawed because of a lack of supervision. Some people tend to use their power to override legal procedures.” On August 6, it followed up on the story of the mother sent to a labor camp by posting a message that read, “The widespread and sustained attention to her case suggests that a positive energy is growing vigorously in today’s China. That is people’s willingness to stand up for the rule of law, the truth and justice. These are exactly the things that will make our society better. Let’s continue to follow this story and work hard together! Good night.”

These posts have received an almost unanimously positive reaction. @philip6789 said, “Now the People’s Daily lives up to its name.” @秦洛说历史 wrote, “You can’t revive a nation without media that have the courage to expose its festering sores.” Kai-Fu Lee, the former founding president of Google China, joked that the Weibo account of the People’s Daily should go public by undertaking a reverse takeover of the unpopular People’s Daily newspaper. Some even compared these posts to what the People’s Daily did in 1978 to help start the nationwide debate on criteria for truth, which, in a break with the personality cult of Mao Zedong, heralded China’s reform and opening up.

So will the People’s Daily, as it did thirty-four years ago, usher in a new era by breaking political barriers? Luo Xin, a professor of history at Peking University, commented on the People’s Daily’s weibo page, “Both the People’s Daily and its weibo account are used for maintaining social stability. One speaks officialese. The other uses soft language to fool ordinary people. It’s just a ‘good cop-bad cop’ strategy.” Zhu Congyu, a journalist with Shanghai Dragon Television, claimed that she knew the man who had written these posts for the People’s Daily and described him as “an idealist with a critical attitude toward social reality.” She said, “It’s a shame that his opinions, after all, can’t represent those of the People’s Daily. The newspaper and its weibo account are still very different things.”

But the apparent schizophrenia of the People’s Daily may mean that things will not go on as usual in China’s media landscape. As Zhou Zhixing, who runs Leaders magazine and the website, said, China’s central government-level media usually speak with one voice so the other state media will probably follow suit of the People’s Daily. “In time,” he wrote, “we’ll see the effect.”