In recent days, scholars of culture in China have been locked in serious argument about a silly claim: namely, that young people are killing the Chinese language. Their wrangling has filled social-media sites followed by liberal intellectuals, a lively but embattled online world where blog posts may be censored after an hour, but still earn hundreds of thousands of views in that time.
A first rock was lobbed into this intellectual pond on May 20th, with a post entitled “Chinese is probably dead”. The author accuses younger netizens and writers of adopting the language of “giant babies” when discussing grave and grown-up topics. Using the pen-name Wang Zuozhongyou (or Wang Left-Centre-Right), he reserves special loathing for euphemisms that soften the rough edges of China’s “zero-covid” policy, in both social media and official news reports. He notes how pandemic workers in white full-body suits are often called “Big Whites”, a reference to a cute robot from a cartoon film. In a play on words, people who test positive for covid-19 are called “little sheep” or “two-legged sheep” (the characters for positive and sheep sound the same), and are congratulated for “graduating” when they emerge from quarantine hospitals. This is reducing the suffering of others to children’s jokes, the blogger grumbles. His post was censored within about 24 hours, but not before it was widely copied and shared.
Many intellectuals share Mr Wang’s worry that China’s public discourse is being infantilised. Several well-known bloggers criticised a recent fad for posting online videos of children, but also young adults, dancing and performing “Listen to Me Say Thank You”, a sickly-sweet and popular song, for pandemic workers. Others, notably former journalists from news outlets once famous for testing the boundaries of free speech, point to the sentimental yet censorious reactions of many netizens to fatal accidents and natural disasters. The crash of a China Eastern airliner in southern China in March, which left 132 dead, saw some bereaved relatives feeling obliged to apologise, after being scolded online for sharing their grief too publicly. At the same time, other social-media users treated the search for the plane’s flight data and voice recorders as a child’s game, posting and reposting such lines as: “Black boxes, lots of people are looking for you, don’t hide!”
Intellectuals are largely united in loathing such baby-talk. But as they respond to Mr Wang’s recent online blast, several charge him with focusing on the wrong crisis. It is not the Chinese language that is dying, they suggest, but freedom of thought. Many young Chinese “have internalised the standards imposed by censorship and accepted them, and now use them to rein in other people,” argues a journalist-turned-blogger. Rather than dig too deeply into why bad things happen, young Chinese have been trained to take refuge in shallow sentiment, “using feeling to replace thinking,” adds the ex-reporter. As for bloggers with larger followings, they see profit and safety in simple, emotive posts that drive clicks and avoid trouble from the authorities.
This is a proxy argument, in other words. The Chinese language is not literally dying. With almost a billion people now regularly connected to China’s strictly controlled internet, according to official figures, there has probably never been so much written Chinese in existence. Rather, older liberals, scholars and writers are showing that young people baffle and disappoint them.
Throughout the history of modern China, intellectuals have pinned high hopes on the country’s youth. In the early 20th century, young writers and readers helped break the grip of stagnant, classical forms of Chinese, in favour of new and liberating vernacular styles. But there is a difference between youthfulness and childishness. Young radicals and revolutionaries have shaken modern China several times, from the nationalist May 4th Movement in 1919 to the Cultural Revolution unleashed by Mao Zedong from 1966 to 1976, and the bloodily suppressed student protests of 1989. In each of those moments of revolt, the young sought to be the equals of adults. Maoist Red Guards, some of them school pupils, were often cruel and fanatical, but they were not infantile. In 1989 hunger-striking university students repudiated the bonds of filial loyalty as they swore that they would die to secure freedoms for China, telling their parents: “Please forgive us. Your children cannot be loyal citizens and worthy children at the same time.”
Baby-talk has its limits
As the Communist Party moved to reassert its authority after the traumas of 1989, it set out to redefine youth as a time for obedience, diligence and hard work for the Motherland, rather than rebellion. To that end, propaganda chiefs are not above using childish language themselves. In official media aimed at young people, the decades-long armed stand-off between China and the democratic island of Taiwan is sometimes presented as a family saga, with “A-Zhong Gege” (elder brother China) offering lessons to the little island “Wan Wan” (a diminutive for Taiwan). In President Xi Jinping’s first years in office, officially endorsed songs and media posts talked of “Xi Dada”, or Uncle Xi, though such informality is rarer today, replaced by deferential praise for the “people’s leader”. A mascot culture popular across East Asia has been co-opted by China’s rulers, with umpteen outfits, from the Communist Youth League to the police force, creating wide-eyed, childlike cartoon characters to deliver the party line.
Especially online, many young Chinese may sound more conformist, nationalist and even childish than liberal intellectuals would like. Cut-throat commercial competition has combined with oppressive censorship to make much of the Chinese internet an increasingly shallow and cynical place. Still, it is unfair and unwise to dismiss all young Chinese as giant babies. These are grim times to be young in China, with the economy faltering and graduate jobs in especially short supply. If those without hope find a voice, their anger will not be safely ignored. ■
Read more from Chaguan, our columnist on China:
Covid shows that in China, politics matters more than pragmatism (May 21st)
China builds a self-repressing society (May 14th)
China unveils its vision of a global security order (May 7th)