What Xi and Ma Really Said

The Chinese government employs hundreds of thousands of people at all administrative levels, central to local, to prescribe and monitor how news stories are presented to the public. These people tell editors of newspapers and web pages not only what stories to run, but also what words and phrases to use, how to write headlines, and what page a story should appear on. They further prescribe what words must not be used, which stories not be published, and which stories allowed but “downplayed.” The more politically important a story is, the closer the scrutiny is. The attention given to national-level slogans and top policy announcements is meticulous. Elite word workers study them from nearly every possible angle.

On Saturday, November 7, Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, the current chiefs of governments in Beijing and Taipei that have confronted each other with varying degrees of hostility ever since the 1940s, met briefly in Singapore. Under a world-wide spotlight, the two men read short statements. I have no doubt that Ma chose his words carefully and consulted with others before delivering them. As for Xi’s statement, it is quite impossible to imagine that something so conspicuous would not receive the closest attention from C.C.P. wordmeisters. This is not to say that Xi lacked control of the message; he had, I’m sure, final say over all matters. The role of word workers would have been to assist him with word selection, frequency of word use, and subtleties of connotation.



The China-Taiwan Summit

Richard Bernstein, Andrew J. Nathan & more
This Saturday, for the first time since 1949, the leaders of China and Taiwan will meet face to face. Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou will meet in Singapore, not as Presidents, but—to sidestep one of many lingering areas of conflict since the Chinese...

What was said at internal meetings in China where Xi’s wording was discussed? We have no direct sources on this question, but certain things can be inferred with considerable confidence by looking at the results.

Xi refers to the people in Taiwan as tongbao (同胞), a term often translated as “compatriot” but that actually implies a much closer relationship, something like “born of the same parents.” He uses the term eleven times; it accounts for fully 3 percent of the characters in the entire statement. Ma Ying-jeou doesn’t use it at all. Xi also refers to “the great revival of the Chinese nation,” a staple of the C.C.P.-sponsored “China dream,” while Ma does not.

Less obviously, the word gong (共), meaning “together,” but also shorthand for “Communist,” crescendos at the end of Xi’s statement, appearing four times in the last sentence alone, compared to five times in the entirety of Ma’s statement, which is about twice as long as Xi’s. (I omit from this tabulation the gong that appears, in both statements, in the technical term “1992 Consensus.”)

Some of the terms in both statements were clearly negotiated between the two sides in advance. The international press has widely reported that one such agreement was the use of “mister” (xiansheng, or 先生) for mutual address. This choice sidesteps the obvious political problems in using the titles that are customary for the two men: zhuxi (主席) “chairman” for Xi or zongtong (总统) “president” for Ma. Xiansheng seems neutral. I doubt that deliberation over the matter in Beijing ended there, however, because in Chinese Communist polemics, xiansheng often is not neutral at all. It is frequently used ironically, in order to distance an adversary. If you are disagreeing with someone in Chinese and say Zhang Mou renwei X, keshi wo juede (Y 张某认为X,可是我觉得Y), “Zhang So-and-so thinks X, but I feel that Y,” you can put a bit more distance between yourself and Zhang, and a bit more bite as well, by adding “xiansheng”: Zhang Mou xiansheng keyi you ta de kanfa, dan… (张某先生可以有他的看法,但…), “Mister Zhang So-and-so can have his opinion, but…” Xiansheng does not automatically imply this distance, but when it does, the point can be sharp and even sarcastic.



Xi Jinping’s Taiwan Trap

Isaac Stone Fish
Before Chinese President Xi Jinping had a dream, his predecessor Hu Jintao had a wish: the “peaceful reunification” of China and Taiwan. In fact, all of Xi’s predecessors since Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 have pined for...

This variability in the meaning of xiansheng is probably why, when Xi Jinping addresses Ma Ying-jeou at the beginning of his statement, he cannot just say Ma xiansheng, “Mister Ma.” To do so would open the door to ironic understanding. Xi must preface xiansheng with a word like “honorable” or “respected” in order to erase the possibility of irony. The word experts in Beijing must have discussed this question, and in the end zunjing de (尊敬的) “respected” was inserted before Ma xiansheng. (Another option would have been to drop Ma’s surname, and drop all modifiers as well, referring to the Taiwan leader as Ying-jeou xiansheng. But this would clearly have been too warm. Given-name-plus-xiansheng implies both familiarity and respect well beyond what Xi would want to give to Ma.)

In any case, once “respected” is in place, one might think the xiansheng matter to be closed. But it is not, and I do not believe that the Beijing word workers meant that it be. After the Singapore meeting, references to Ma in mainland press reports and web comments have continued to use xiansheng across the full range of the ambiguity that the term offers. Some are sarcastic: “Mister Ma Ying-jeou should go home and be governor of Taiwan province,” and the like. (In sentences like that one, to add that Ma is “the respected” Mr. Ma would only accentuate the sarcasm.)



With Historic Ma-Xi Summit, Chinese State Media Walks a Fine Line

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
For the first time in 66 years, the president of mainland China and the president of self-governing Taiwan will meet face to face. On November 3, Zhang Zhijun, minister in charge of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, stated that China’s Xi Jinping would...

Another term that doubtlessly was negotiated in advance is lingdaoren (领导人) for “leader.” Xi and Ma both use the term only once, each near the beginning of his statement. Moreover, it seems even-handed that they acknowledge there to be lingdaoren equally in both places—“of Taiwan and the mainland” (Ma) and “on the two shores” (Xi). This parallel use of the same term cannot have been accidental.

But is the usage really even-handed? In one important sense it is not. The Taiwan side lost something significant in this negotiation because the term lingdaoren (or lingdao, for short) is a C.C.P. term that has, in fact if not in theory, strong anti-democratic connotations. I would wager that C.C.P. negotiators insisted on using it. On the mainland, lingdao are the people who call the shots inside all the significant organizations in society. In the late Mao years, lingdao controlled whether you could buy a bicycle—let alone go on a trip, take a job, or get married. Today personal life is much more flexible, but the iron undergirding of society still rests wholly in the hands of lingdao, and power within the lingdao system still moves from the top down, not from the bottom up. So lingdao does not really mean “leader” in the sense in which a healthy democracy conceives the term. It means something closer to “ruler” or “boss.” Why, then, did Ma and his advisers agree to use the term? They could have stuck with something like lingxiu (领袖) “leader,” which is more familiar to people in Taiwan and lacks the Communist connotations of lingdao.

Shortly after the Xi-Ma meeting, Tsai Ing-wen, leader of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, issued a statement wondering why Ma Ying-jeou’s statement does not use the phrases Taiwan de minzhu (台湾的民主), “Taiwan’s democracy,” or Taiwan de ziyou (台湾的自由), “Taiwan’s freedom.” These are good questions. Ma’s statement not only lacks the phrases that Tsai points to; it does not include the words minzhu, “democracy” or ziyou, “freedom” at all. The omissions are disappointing, and far out of step with public opinion in Taiwan. How does one explain them? More negotiation with the P.R.C.? Or merely self-censorship?