We must change the way we speak today

???, 09? 7th, 2009

Note: The following is a translation of an editorial which first appeared in Southern Weekly on Sept. 3.  The original can be found here.

We must change the way we speak today
By Xiao Shu (??)
A movement started 60 years ago in Yan’an.  It advocated a toppling of the old “party jargon” and started a new communication style that was more lively and clear.  However, the obdurate nature of our political language today may be just as bad as the jargon used 60 years ago.  Therefore, just as we needed to change the way we learned back then, we must change the way we speak today.  

The propaganda department [???] of the Yunnan Provincial Party Committee recently put out a bold new media policy along these lines. As they released urgent notices regarding the turbulent events in Luliang County over the past few weeks, they also frankly criticized several media outlets for blindly catering to the local government, saying their characterization of the local people involved was formulaic and monstrous.  They also stated that reports and editorials on sudden events in the future should not rashly label people as troublemakers or thugs and that they must omit or at least be more cautious about using phrases such as “people who don’t know the truth,” “ulterior motives,” and “a handful [of thugs].”  The new policy was hailed as soon as it came out.  The bitter dictatorship of words had gone on long enough.  It was clear that people were longing for civil and legal discourse like a parched land longs for a rain shower.

China has always been a country of etiquette and as such there has always been strict rules of conduct regarding how to treat others.  However, the traditional dictatorship of words was not so.  It only knew to fight ruthlessly to get things done, to insult and smear people.  Not only can this be seen in the list compiled by the Yunnan Province Party Committee with discriminatory phrases such as jobless persons [????], it also appears from time to time in all media, public documents and legal documents.  This kind of language lacks proper manners and is a mark of poor upbringing.  One can say that it is not only inappropriate for modern civilization, it would also be unfitting for the last 3000 years of Chinese civilization.  

Just as we parted with the old political jargon 60 years ago, we must part with the dictatorship of words of today.  We must restore order to the way we use our words.  This linguistic transformation is an important part of the ongoing transformation of the government.  And this is exactly where the value of the media policy in Yunnan can be seen.

There have actually been signs of this transformation already.  Last year a young girl was killed in Wengan County, Guizhou but the public was extremely dissatisfied with the official explanation.  Guizhou Party Secretary Shi Zongyuan [???] perceptively detected the problem of state controlled media condemning the public.  He harshly criticized the media, which most people found quite refreshing.  Also, when a manager was beaten to death by workers at Tonggang Steel factory recently, Xinhua openly criticized the local authorities for rashly pointing their fingers at the workers.  They called for less usage of phrases like “they don’t know the truth” [????] in regards to mass incidents, showing that this kind of linguistic dictatorship is unfeasible in the public sphere.  What is truly new about Yunnan’s media policy, however, is that it reaches the level of media supervision, requiring every level of government to rethink and clean up their communication.  The solid implementation of this kind of institutional mechanism has already produced results, which are proving to be quite valuable. 

If you say that in the former times of dire need, social conflict was primarily a matter of increasing material demands in relation to limited resources, then today as the problem of adequate food and clothing has been solved, social conflict not only comes from a sensitivity to material demands, but even more so it is a sensitivity to nonmaterial demands, namely for rights and dignity.  This sensitivity to rights and dignity has become a significant trend promoting change within the government and a brand new method of governance, which is polite and cultivated and respects the dignity and character of citizens.  All of this begins with a change in language, choosing to minimize the use of traditionally hateful, ugly or dirty language and maximize the use of modern civil and legal discourse.  The foundation of our political culture will change as we change the way we communicate which will alter our entire way of thought.  It will make us more humane and civilized from our words down to our governance.  Could social harmony be difficult to achieve after this?

In this era of competitive interests, it is merely wishful thinking that social conflict will be completely avoided.  The crucial test is not whether or not conflict exists but the attitude with which you choose to deal with it.  Yunnan’s attempt to manage social conflict with modern political wisdom is a healthier and more beneficial way to go about it.  It is undoubtedly very good for diffusing public grievances and promoting a more benign cooperation between officials and the public.  It can only help improve the image of the province.  And as Yunnan takes the lead, one might ask why other areas and government departments do not try to catch up, and once they do reach the greatest heights only to strive on for more.

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