CCP apologia is making us all dumber
Reflections on the endless debate about Xi Jinping smashing foreigners’ skulls
“Did you listen to Xi Jinping’s speech on the 100th anniversary of the Party?”
I shifted slightly in my seat and glanced out the window at the snow gathered on the tree branches outside, knowing all too well what was coming next.
I had spent the preceding few days in a ski lodge, consciously removing myself from the constant flux of news. It was, to be honest, wonderful.
Before I left home that weekend, I had of course caught a few reports about the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary. It all seemed quite predictable: the fascistic marching, the silly and generally sleep-inducing speech, the simultaneous display of over-confidence and dramatic lack of confidence. Such are Beijing’s mega-events: nothing new, and certainly nothing to celebrate.
During my stay at the ski lodge, I had gradually come to know my neighbors, mainly through a daily trade in sunflower seed packs. My interlocutor that morning grew up in China but had lived in Melbourne for more than a decade. Our conversations over the preceding days had mostly been about food: swapping recommendations for various Chinese restaurants around the city.
That day, however, as we both prepared to leave, each enjoying a final snack before the long drive back to Melbourne, he wanted to talk about Xi’s speech.
I responded that I hadn’t watched the speech. What did he think of it, I asked.
It was a very interesting speech, he responded. Very interesting…. After watching it, he added, he could tell that China and the United States were going to war soon.
That certainly escalated quickly. I followed up with a simple question: why?
No superpower can remain dominant forever, he replied. The United States can sense that China is rising and challenging its hegemony. It is trying to do anything that it can to hinder China’s rise. But he could tell from the speech that Xi wouldn’t accept this. China today is not the China of a century ago.
Then he added, “Xi said any foreign powers who try to pick on China will end up with their heads bashed in. Do you know chengyu [typically four-character Chinese-language idioms]? This chengyu is very easy to understand: skulls broken and blood everywhere. That’s what anyone who bullies China will face.”
I paused and glanced out the window again, trying not to make my discontented sigh too obvious.
Did I think that my new acquaintance was a very nice guy? No, I didn’t.
Did I think that his words were an outlier in CCP-cultivated public opinion? No, I didn’t.
Did I think that the confidence through which he viewed the world was primarily a product of never actually thinking for himself, constantly fleeing from reality to seek illusory comfort in empty state media narratives? Yes, I did.
Did I want to continue the conversation with him? No, I really didn’t.
One thing working in his favor, however, was that he was honest. I have to give him that.
Like Hu Xijin, whose tweet on Xi’s speech is screenshot above, he was willing to tell me the truth about what he thought.
And even if what he thought was pretty fascist, I at least respected his willingness to be honest about that. I could see a certain truth about PRC politics today in his comments.
As I returned to Melbourne and unfortunately began engaging yet again with social media, I was surprised to find that there was a considerable contingent of people who were being completely dishonest about Xi’s comments on this topic… and who continue to be, to this day.
Some claimed that the “official translation” of the four-character term that my interlocutor had said was so easy to understand was in fact “on a collision course.” Let’s set aside the violent imagery, they beseech us. The term is meant to express (wait for it)… determination and resolve.
You might be wondering, what was the basis for this claim? Ok, try not to laugh… the basis is… that is how official media translated it!
I suppose that means we now live in an alternate universe in which China’s autonomous regions are actually autonomous because that is what the CCP calls them. The Propaganda Department also no longer does propaganda because it changed its English-language name to the Publicity Department!
If your basis for affirming a translation is that it is Xinhua’s preferred translation, I literally don’t know what to tell you other than that you may not have a very firm grasp of Xinhua’s relationship to the truth.
Let’s, however, pause and think about this for a second. If what Xi genuinely wanted to express was determination or resolve, why did he use the term he used? As Xi would undoubtedly never hesitate to remind us, China has five millennia of civilization, and there are so many other options in the Chinese language to express this idea that you really don’t have to go for the most blood-soaked idiom in a globally broadcast speech.
But wait! If these troublesome foreigners still have their doubts, why not toss a little Orientalism into the mix?
One essay on the topic, literally entitled “Bridging the gap, one word at a time” (irony is really dead), tells us that Chinese idioms are “a linguistic mode of expression that are succinct and memorable, yet more rich and more than literary in meaning than phrases of comparable length. This fact, in and of itself, calls for a more nuanced view when interpreting and translating these idioms into another language.”
Is my inability to perceive the peaceful and friendly nature of cracked skulls simply a manifestation of my feeble Western mind, incapable of grasping the full complexity of five millennia of linguistic civilization? Is my sense that talk of bashed heads and blood flowing everywhere might be a bit aggressive really just a reflection of my own inescapable Eurocentrism?
Perhaps even my haughty resistance to the official translation is nothing but a manifestation of this Eurocentrism?
This was undoubtedly the strangest argument of the bunch: the allegation that honest translation of the violence of the term was somehow an attempt to force “leaders from a non-English speaking country to cater their speech to suit English speakers.”
In reality, precisely the opposite is true. The attempt to enforce the Xinhua whitewashed translation of this term is an attempt to force English language translations to adhere to the self-representational desires of the PRC Party-state: a state with a notably poor track record of being honest about anything.
This week, the discussion of smashed skulls re-emerged on Twitter in relation to a 60 Minutes broadcast. Now all of the sudden the claim was that the New York Times translation of Xi’s comments was “disinformation.” Again, no clarification was provided as to how this qualified as “disinformation,” other than its labelling as such. Rather, the implicit demand was simply posed as a question that assumed its own preferred answer: “did you want to walk back this claim?”
One could say that this baseless allegation of “disinformation” is in reality a manifestation of genuine disinformation. This doubling of disinformation in turn reflects the doubling of violence exercised via Xi’s speech and the debate around it.
The first layer is obviously the violence of Xi’s comments, threatening to bash in the heads of the foreigners who are picking on poor innocent China. The second layer of violence, however, is the attempt to cover up this violence by pointing an accusatory finger back at anyone who dares to diverge from the fundamentally distorting yet “official” English translation promoted by the CCP.
The most important lesson to take away from this entire debate is the unique determination and resolve of those peddling such CCP apologia: even nearly three months after Xi’s speech, anyone who deviates from the Xinhua translation will face relentless pressures to conform, wasting people’s time by getting dragged into the same nonsense argument repeatedly, dumbing down the discussion by circling repeatedly around meaningless points that turn baseless arguments into articles of faith, while at the same time warning others to abide by these articles of faith.
This entire discourse, under the pretext of better understanding China, actually achieves precisely the opposite. As the disturbing truth of the CCP political system becomes ever more obvious, its defenders only grow ever more anxious to hide this truth: we can see this again today in certain mind-boggling commentaries on the Meng Wanzhou case.
Finally, is 頭破血流 the best way to translate the determination and resolve displayed therein?
Well, of course not!