China: From heroic to ignorant masses, and then…


Tuesday, October 20th, 2009 @ 05:06 UTC

by Minax

Media, Politics

The Chinese communist ideology has been eroding rapidly in the past two decades due to economic development. Traces of its revolutionary belief can still be found in political propaganda pieces published in the state owned media. Words like “the masses” marks the past ideological imprint.

However, in recent years, the term “the masses” is more and more associated with large scale protests, or the so-called “mass incidents”. From the perspective of local government, such kind of “mass incidents” implies social instability and has to be repressed. And hence, “the mass” becomes more and more in association with negative adjectives. A typical example can be found in a report earlier this year on social unrest in Luliang County of Yunnan Province in which hundreds of farmers confronted the police. The local state owned media then quickly described “the mass” as those “who are ignorant of the truth and facts are stirred up by a small cohort of vicious power in the village…”

To rescue “the masses” from negative connotation that jeopardizes the communist party's revolutionary legacy, the Propaganda Department of Yunnan province issued a notice demanding local media to stop using terms like “刁民(sly and difficult people)” and “恶势力(vicious power)” and to stop labeling the masses as “不明真相 (ignorant of the truth and facts)”, “別有用心 (having secret and ill-intentioned motives)” or “一小撮人 (a handful of people)”.

The liberal-orientated South China Metropolitan (Nandu) Daily and the Beijing News promptly responded to the ban with editorials (Links: Nandu; Beijing News) in the subsequent two days. Nandu Daily traced the use of the term “ignorant of the truth and facts” back to a Xinhua News Agency's article on a social unrest in Jilin Province in July and pointed out that:

云 南省委宣传部门的通知,激起了对一张“不明真相”的政治和社会标签的检讨。清理和检讨这些难孚人心的陈词滥调,也就是承认和检讨公共生活中那些心照不宣的 权力之恶。这种恶既包括官员滥权的投机,也有媒体不能自主的跟从。因此,这对公权力是一种进取,于媒体是一种反思。但更重要的原则是,其实没有谁可以给公 众随意贴上或者撕下所谓不明真相的标签,因为历史的真相始终掌握在他们的手里。

The notice issued by the Propaganda department of Yunan Province has stirred up a critical reflection of the political labeling of the mass as “ignorant of the truth and facts”. The cleaning up of cliche is an acknowledgment of the existence of evil power and deeds in the public domain. Government officials abusive use of power supported by state owned media is part of such evil deeds. Therefore, the notice is a progressive move in monitoring the powerful. And the media should reflect on its role. More importantly, no one can label or tear off the label of the so-called “ignorant of the truth and facts”, as the truth of the history is at the hand of them (the mass).

The absent/omnipresent subject

Tianya forum writer, Chao Yong, noticed that in the discussion of the Yunnan propaganda department's move, the subject - “the masses”- of the negative label of “ignorant of the truth and facts” has been omitted and its absence paradoxically marks its omnipresence in the Chinese political history -

在 革命年代里,“群众”常常是作为一个褒义词出现的。究其原因,主要是因为“群众”乃革命的主体。…而毛泽东更是把“群众”推向了政治峰顶,他说:“群众是 真正的英雄,而我们自己则往往是幼稚可笑的。不了解这一点,就不能得到起码的知识。”这种表扬让“群众”扬眉吐气,也让他们陷入一种集体幻觉之中,以为群 众运动就是正确的,群众的眼睛就是雪亮的。实际上,无论从哪方面看,“群众”都不可能自己为自己释义与正名;只是因为革命,他们才被生产出了一种“政治正 确性”。

In the revolutionary era, “the masses” has a positive connotation as “the masses” is the subject of revolution… Mao Zedong once said “The masses are the true heroes, while we are often ignorant and laughable. If we don't understand this, we fail to acquire basic knowledge.” Such kind of praise had empowered “the masses” and resulted in a collective illusion that all mass movements are politically correct and the masses are always right. In reality, “the masses” could not define themselves, their “political correctness” was manufactured by the revolution.

另 一方面,当“告别革命”的时代来临之后,“群众”的地位则开始下降,其词性也由褒义而中性,由中性而贬义…然而,改革年代,阶级斗争被束之高阁,下岗工 人、无业游民、上访农民等等不再是革命的主力或帮手,而是变成了社会的不稳定因素。改革所依傍的对象也不再是无产阶级,而是有产阶级(中产阶级乃至新富阶 层)。“群众”本来就没有经济上的优势,接着又失去了政治上的庇护,结果,他们被逼向了底层——这是经济、政治、甚至道德意义上的最底层。与此同时,相关 部门与媒体也开始了对“群众”的舆论围剿。于是每当群体性事件发生,相关报道总会把“群众”指认为“不明真相”。这种固定搭配既唤醒了“群众”的本来涵义 ——乌合之众,也是对“群众”的“丑学”赋形。而通过“不明真相”的反复涂抹,“群众”也最终完成了其词性的蜕变与转换,被指涉的对象也被丑化和妖魔化 了。

As the era of “farewell to revolution” began, the status of “the masses” kept declining from a positive connotation to a neutral connotation, and then from a neutral connotation to a negative connotation… In the reform era, class struggle has been abandoned. Unemployed workers, visit petition farmers are no longer subjects or supporters of the revolution. They have turned into social instability factors. The economic reform does not depend on the proletarians but the property owners (middle class and new rich). “The masses” do not have economic power and lose their political protection, they are forced to become the subalterns in all aspects - economically, politically and morally. At the same time, government sectors and state owned media start to create negative public opinion of “the masses”. Whenever mass incident occurs, the media reports quickly depict “the masses” as “ignorance of the truth and facts”. Such kind of labeling has retrieved the original connotation of “the masses” as the aggregation of the lumpen and eventually imposed a negative image to “the masses”. The repetitive use of the adjective “ignorance of the truth and facts” has successfully transformed and demonized “the masses”.

From “the masses” to “the citizen”

由 此看来,无论是“群众是真正的英雄”还是“不明真相的群众”,说到底都是“意识到形态国家机器”的生产之物。经过这番忽而捧上天忽而摔到地的加工制作 后,“群众”本身究竟是什么,反而变得晦暗不明了。而鉴于“群众”一词已被意识形态严重污染,我就觉得相关部门在禁用“不明真相”一词的同时,也该把“群 众”一起禁用。或曰:把“群众”打入冷宫,谁来代替它出场呢?答案很简单:公众、公民或者民众。

Both labels, “the masses are the true heroes” and “the masses are ignorant of the truth and facts”, are manufactured by “the state apparatus”. After all these manipulations of the term, the meaning of “the masses” has been blurred. Since “the masses” has been severely contaminated by ideology, I suggest that the establishment should ban “the masses” altogether with “ignorant of the truth and facts”. If we abandoned the term “the masses” who or which subject would enter the scene? The answer is simple: the public, the citizen or the people.

In the comment section, many echoed Chao's view:


The term “the masses” already has negative connotation nowaday. Whenever the masses is mentioned, it is associated those who are ignorant of the truth and facts. Pathetic! Whose government does the present government belong to? and whose Party?


The masses are ordinary people. They can only exercise their rights as human beings when they are citizens.


What are the differences among these terms? the public\the citizens\the masses - all refer to ordinary people. The fact that (the media) has to choose between speaking for ordinary people or for the Party has tore apart the people and the Party.