The Passive Voice of Control8 min read

Linguistics of control in Hong Kong and Xinjiang – Liz Carter

In Hong Kong, millions have taken to the streets to protest the erosion of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy. In Xinjiang, over a million ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities have been separated from their families and confined in detention facilities that fit the criteria of concentration camps. But as much as these two situations are often the subject of international news coverage, something is missing.

Take the first two sentences of this article. What is missing? The active voice. Something is the agent behind the “erosion” of Hong Kong’s freedoms. Something is the force imprisoning people in Xinjiang camps. These things don’t happen by accident. But the phrasing is natural enough, grammatically correct, and not unlike what you might find in news reports or even a US government statement.

Linguistic invisibility serves many masters. Often, observers innocently leave out the active subject because it is offstage, out of sight. In some cases, journalists choose wording of this nature to avoid explicit statements of causality, letting readers draw their own conclusions (and dodging libel suits). Yet the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) use it deliberately, and often successfully, to craft a certain view of reality.

The most insidious part of linguistic engineering is what people can’t see: the blurred meanings and information control of language”

In the essay collection Legacies of Totalitarian Language in the Discourse Culture of the Post-Totalitarian Era, Fengyuan Ji called this part of Mao’s “massive, prolonged, and intensive program of linguistic engineering – a program that required people to integrate into their speech and writing words, phrases, and revolutionary scripts that encoded the sentiments of model revolutionaries.” This program has been carried forward by a succession of leaders, but while much scholarly literature is devoted to how each administration has subtly tweaked the accepted view of history in a bid to bolster the legitimacy of the CCP, less time is spent discussing the nuts and bolts of their linguistic engineering.

Parts of this political project are obvious, such as having Chinese call each other “comrade” or referring to Mao Zedong as “Chairman Mao”. These semantic instructions have changed over the years, but remain relevant in discussions of Xinjiang and Hong Kong today. The CCP refers to the Xinjiang concentration camps as “re-education centers,” and the CCP-influenced Hong Kong government calls the Hong Kong protests “riots.” But these euphemisms and exaggerations are just the tip of the iceberg. The most insidious part of linguistic engineering is what people can’t see: the blurred meanings and information control of language.

Let’s take the word “we.” It’s a pronoun that refers to a group which one belongs to, but the group in question is not always clear – it can be an ambiguous referent. In one academic article, ‘China’s political discourse towards the 21st century,’ Neil Renwick and Qing Cao show how former PRC leader Jiang Zemin, in a 1997 address to the CCP National Congress, repeatedly used “we” to project common cause and unity of identity between the speaker, the CCP, the people, and combinations of these groups. When Carrie Lam held her 4am press conference on July 2 (full transcript available in Chinese and English) after protesters broke into LegCo the day before, she started right out of the gate with that same repeated use of the pronoun “we,” which could conceivably refer to herself, the government, those speaking at the press conference, or the people of Hong Kong at large:

“On July 1, that is the 22nd anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, we have seen two entirely different public scenes. One is a regular march on July 1. Regardless of the number of participants in the march, the march was peaceful and generally orderly, and this fully reflects the inclusiveness of Hong Kong society and the core values we attach to peace and order. The second scene that we have seen, which really saddens a lot of people and shocks a lot of people, is the extreme use of violence and vandalism by protesters who stormed into the Legislative Council (LegCo) building over a period of time. This is something that we should seriously condemn because nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong. I hope community at large will agree with us that with these violent acts that we have seen, it is right for us to condemn it and hope society will return to normal as soon as possible.”

This use of “we” assumes a collective identity that should perceive and react to the protesters’ actions in the same way as she does. By repeating “we,” Lam implicitly cast herself and the general public as one. The Cantonese version of her speech makes further reference to protesters “attacking our police with some unidentified liquids,” emphasizing that the police, for whom sympathy is at an all time low among many Hong Kong citizens, belong to “us” collectively and not just to the Hong Kong government.

The choice of passive or active voice, and transitive or intransitive verbs, can also project blame without explicitly assigning it. This can allow the author’s subjective stance to fly under the radar and masquerade as objective observation. In 1994, Yew-Jin Fang conducted a data-based study of PRC state-run media coverage of riots, protests, mass events, and other related phenomenon in other countries, finding that:

“[C]onsistent usage of labels and syntactic structures in the People’s Daily can systematically present images or impressions that are congruent with the ideological position of the newspaper, and the Government. The reports validate the foreign policies adopted by those in control, and they actively divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ for the readers.”

False binaries are a key linguistic tool for constructing narratives. There’s the claim Deng Xiaoping is said to have made: that the Tiananmen Massacre was the right choice, because he would have traded the lives of even 200,000 people for 20 years of stability. Implicit in his words is the assumption that stability and the continued lives of protesters were mutually exclusive. By the same token, official PRC rhetoric on Xinjiang often invokes development and stability as prizes that would not be possible without the region’s current repressive policies. Democracy and development are constantly framed as being in conflict, because to posit otherwise would undermine an authoritarian CCP legitimacy based on providing economic development.

The point is not to convince everyone, but to convince enough people to win a public opinion war”

Information control is the final piece of the puzzle. This doesn’t just mean censorship, but also controlling what things look like to different audiences at different times. In a 2017 scholarly article on the abductions of Hong Kong booksellers and how it was presented in domestic Chinese media, Janny HC Leung argues that the same state discourse held different messages to different audiences: one message for the knowing, another for the information-starved. Monopolization of meaning-making and meaning-erasing helps to sustain and manipulate reality. The point is not to convince everyone, but to convince enough people to win a public opinion war and drown out voices of reason. This is an often-overlooked aspect of CCP strategy, because those who know enough to care about it are the least likely to be affected by it, and the most likely to underestimate its harmful impact.

At a time when messages are increasingly unmoored from their contexts, it’s important to consider what CCP statements mean to the most immediately affected, and the most uninformed, among their audiences in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In Hong Kong, Carrie Lam says “the bill is dead” – wording which might make foreign observers wonder what all the fuss is about. She refuses time and again, however, to officially withdraw it as protesters have demanded. The state-sanctioned tours of Xinjiang don’t fool anyone following the facts on the ground. But they do serve a propaganda purpose, trotted out in official statements as proof that everything’s OK. The very differentiation of this message for two audiences sends an additional message to the victims: I’m in control of the narrative, and no one will believe you.

It’s important to talk about these linguistic tools of control, because often they are accepted more readily than any explicit argument. Official discourse is the supposedly ‘normal’ language against which words of resistance are heard and judged. State oppression is the stillness against which restive action is perceived as motion. I’m not suggesting audiences are dumb – that they don’t know someone is doing the imprisoning of Uyghurs in Xinjiang or the eroding of freedoms in Hong Kong – simply that when that the active voice is missing, we think about these acts just a little bit less and absolve them just a little bit more. ∎

Header: Screenshot of a Q&A by the spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta “on counterterrorism, vocational education and training in Xinjiang.”

Liz Carter

Liz Carter is the author of Let 100 Voices Speak (I.B. Tauris, 2015) and co-author of The Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon (China Digital Times, 2013). Formerly managing editor of Tea Leaf Nation, she is currently based in Los Angeles pursuing a PhD in Chinese linguistics at UCLA.