Victor Mair: Eye-roll of the century

[This guest post by Victor Mair expands on his Language Log coverage of the ‘Two Sessions’ eye-roll. As I commented there, this isn’t the first time a state-media affiliate abroad (in this case, AMTV (全美电视台)) causes a propaganda failure at a peak-sensitivity event. ‘Foreign shills’ (such as Question Sister (提问姐) or a less known Question Brother (提问哥)) are indeed a feature of these press conferences, and reporting on them has hardly generated much ‘positive energy’ (正能量).

A major purveyor of faux-foreign media entities is China Radio International (CRI), whose network of affiliates, affectionately known as ‘borrowed boats’, have made several appearances on this blog, reflecting my interest in propaganda for foreigners (‘exoprop’, 外宣). (The Australian part of CRI’s borrowed fleet was recently covered in reporting by McKenzie and Joske.)]

Eye-roll of the century (illustrated)

by Victor Mair

Materials assembled by informants from China, together with their comments, supplemented by my own findings and with additions by Jichang Lulu.

The protagonists

Ms. Red, Zhang Huijun, representing an alleged American television station

Ms. Blue, Liang Xiangyi, representing a Shanghai financial journal


From sources in China, I have collected a tremendous amount of materials about the “epic eye-roll” incident at the 13th NPC (Two Sessions).  Much of it is in Chinese, which I don’t have time to translate, and there is an abundance of visual materials, which  are difficult to post in circulars and on e-mail discussion lists.  Consequently I am writing this guest post on Jichang Lulu’s blog, which enables me to share these materials with a larger audience in a convenient format.

Needless to say, most of the sentiments expressed in what follows are strongly pro-Blue and anti-Red.  Indeed, many of the comments about Ms. Zhang are devastating, as will soon become obvious to those who continue reading this post.

Ms. Zhang has a strange way of speaking.  I base this not just on the 44 second video clip that records her remarks, but on other recordings of her speech as well.  Sometimes she halts and stops at odd places, and then she dashes along at lightning speed for a phrase or two (probably the bits she has memorized beforehand).  Also, the way Ms. Zhang moves her head and smiles is very sājiāo 撒娇ish / coquettish / flirtatious — unprofessional for a journalist.

The rolling of the eyes incident is not a simple matter.  I think that it will have long and lasting implications for the CCP and the PRC.  In my estimation, ultimately it will be one of the most celebrated events of the Xi reign.

N.B.:  While I hope that anyone with an interest in this monumental imbroglio will be able to extract meaning from these materials, full utilization assumes some familiarity with the Chinese political, social, economic, and cultural realms.  Furthermore, my usual practice on Language Log and elsewhere is to provide transcriptions and translations for all Chinese characters, but here I will forego the phonetic transcription in most cases, though I will generally provide translations.


For a video of the encounter, a transcription and translation of Ms. Zhang’s “question”, and basic explanatory information, see:

Epic eye-roll” (Language Log, 15 March 2018)

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leading Chinese scholar discusses Greenland’s independence

My latest on China and Greenland, written for China Brief, discusses the two major mining projects with (or awaiting) Chinese investment and the rather peculiarly “launched” plans to set up a satellite ground station near Nuuk, revealed last year on this blog. The Brief piece also mentions, I believe as the first English-language source to do so, a mid-2017 paper with Guo Peiqing 郭培清, a well-known scholar of polar politics at the Ocean University of China (中国海洋大学), as lead author, on the geopolitics of Greenland’s independence. Guo’s paper openly talks about the “inevitability” (必然性) of Greenland’s independence as seen by Denmark, analyses its significance for the interests of Denmark, the EU, South Korea and the US (stressing the latter’s military presence), describes various economical and social challenges faced by Greenland, and concludes with the necessity of help from the “international community”. The article carefully avoids discussing China’s own interests. As I mention in the piece, Guo’s past statements, and Greenland’s importance within China’s Arctic strategy, warrant a reading of the piece as advocating China’s involvement in such international cooperation with a nascent Greenlandic state.

This would be entirely unremarkable, were it not for the extreme caution Chinese officials and academics exert, at least in public, on the delicate issue of Greenland’s independence. Although an independent Greenland with China as a major economic partner would be geopolitically advantageous to the PRC, any sign of support would generate unwelcome debate in Greenland, potentially hurt relations with Denmark, and trigger the feared “China threat theory” (中国威胁论, a propaganda term used to refer to discussion of negative aspects of PRC influence abroad). In fact, Greenland’s authorities appear interested in ‘talking up’ the relationship with China, which doesn’t quite reciprocate. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs once publicly reminded Greenland it “should follow the foreign policy upheld by Denmark”, after a minister had been forced to cancel a planned visit to Taiwan on a trade mission. When a high-level delegation led by Greenland’s premier Kim Kielsen visited China right after the 19th Party Congress, it was not invited by a state organ, but by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (中国人民外交学会), a state-affiliated think tank; Kielsen was received by a foreign-affairs vice-minister, Wang Chao 王超, the same protocol accorded to a Danish parliamentary delegation a few days later. The Greenlandic government, however, called the visit “official“. Greenland’s main interlocutors are, in fact, the Ministry of Land and Resources and its subordinate the State Oceanic Administration (responsible for Arctic affairs).

Protocol aside, Greenland’s apparent interest in ‘upgrading’ its relationship with China stems from its need for foreign investment, specifically in mining projects. Although (largely state-driven) Chinese interest in Greenland’s minerals is real, as documented on this blog, and is often related to national resource-acquisition strategies, a Chinese mining boom capable of powering Greenland’s economic independence has failed to materialise. As I say in the Brief piece, talks with Chinese SOEs on infrastructure development, including controversial airport projects, have so far not resulted in any announcements of Chinese interest, something probably related to the financial uncertainty that surrounds these plans. China is still of minor importance for a crucial industry, tourism, although there is clear growth potential. China is, on the other hand, a major destination for Greenland’s only major export, seafood (most of it reexported through Denmark; based on a recent estimate of yearly seafood exports to China and official export statistics for 2016, China’s share of seafood exports could be around 40%).

Besides the actual level of trade and investment, the perception of increasing Chinese interest can help Greenland’s position in negotiations with Denmark, in such aspects as having a greater say in, e.g., defining the Kingdom’s Arctic policies. The obvious answer to any Danish concerns about ‘sensitive’ Chinese investments and other activities in Greenland is that China is simply filling a vacuum left by other actors. Chinese activities in Greenland are mostly state-driven; it’s hard to imagine how other actors could compete for economic or other influence without clear state policies. The Brief piece mentions, in particular, the extent of MLR-led efforts to identify and study mining projects of interest and promote them to Chinese companies.

The modest scale of the economic relationship and the potential pitfalls of any overt support for independence will likely continue to define China’s cautious approach, but the publication of Guo’s paper could be a sign of more open discussion of the issue in academic and policy circles.

The paper is also a window into how knowledge is made: just like much ‘Arctic studies’ literature continues to rely on second and third-hand sources and blissfully ignore Chinese-language materials, Guo’s article contains a telling mistake. The paper gives “April 2017” as the date for the Danish rejection of General Nice’s plans to buy the abandoned Grønnedal base. In fact, the events took place before the summer of 2016, and were widely reported in Danish and English in December that year (I discussed them in January 2017). Guo’s source is a Chinese-language reporting based on a Reuters story that arrived much later.

I will discuss these and other aspects of the China-Greenland relationship in a forthcoming report.

The Nones of March

The CCP Central Committee has ‘proposed’ to remove presidential term limits from the constitution of the PRC, providing the temporal unboundedness other Xiist endeavours demand. The following are to be constitutionally enshrined: Xiism as a doctrine (“Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想)); “reform”, as part of a long process in the past, after “revolution” and “construction”; the “Rejuvenation/Revitalisation/Renewal of the Chinese Nation” (minzu); perhaps most relevantly to this blog, United Front work. (The changes can be most conveniently read, in Chinese and English translation, on NPC Observer.)

Imperial analogies are obvious, and are keeping censors busy. As usual in such cases, censorship is being tracked by the China Digital Times (CDT, 中国数字时代), who maintain a Sensitive Word Database (敏感词库). Any number of terms alluding to the Imperial ascent have been blocked; many refer to the last person to assume the title of Emperor, Yuan Shikai 袁世凯. Less obviously, the Latin letter n was also briefly blocked for some users on February 25, as Sandra Severdia, senior Chinese editor at CDT, first reported on a microblogging site. As I speculated there, this could refer to n as an integer variable, with n ≥ 2. Victor Mair devoted an entire post to the event (“The letter * has bee* ba**ed in Chi*a“). Referencing Mark Hansell (“The Sino-Alphabet: The Assimilation of Roman Letters into the Chinese Writing System“), Mair notes that “the Roman alphabet is part of the Chinese writing system”, so that letters have the same right to being censored as Chinese characters. Here’s how he explains the inequality:


This is probably out of fear on the part of the government that “N” = “n terms in office”, where possibly n > 2; as in “liánrèn n jiè 连任n届” (“n successive terms in office”), which would be forbidden anyway because of the liánrèn 连任 (“continue in office”) part.


Mair’s comments on n reached all manner of media (The Garudian, the Gray Lady, Newsweek, peculiar Millennial haunt 9GAG, CNN (who, regrettably, called the inequality an “equation”), the Riga-based Meduza…). The ban was short-lived, and it only affected some users; other than Severdia and CDT, it was independently reported by Douban users later that day.

The letter ban is of anecdotal significance, but it shows the demands put on the censorship system by the discontent and mockery the ‘proposal’ generated. As for the more substantive aspects of Xi’s term-unboundedness and the Amendment, little needs to be said, as a great many have commented. From The Onion (洋葱报)’s “American Voices” Panel of Experts


It’s so great that Xi Jinping has found something he wants to do for the rest of his life.


to a Voice from the Land of Heart’s Desire (NZ, kāmadhātu, 欲界):


Should President Xi continue onto a third term, the constitutional change will lessen the usual personal, institutional and policy uncertainty that accompanies a leadership succession every 10 years in China. This may be desirable given that China has been undergoing massive long-term economic and military restructuring and embarked on the Belt and Road initiative. Stability at the top, to some extent, may enable better chances of successful policy outcomes.

(Dr Xiang Gao of the Eastern Institute of Technology, Auckland, channelled by an outlet of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.)

As of press time, it’s unclear if such views on the desirability of perpetual dictatorship are also common among New Zealand’s policymakers; an earlier post of mine might help inform an informed guess.


More cogently, Geremie Barmé points to the use of refloated imperial imagery by both Mao and Xi (“The Real Man of the Dog Year“). Introducing a piece by Hong Kong commentator Lee Yee 李怡, Barmé has this to say on the personality cult:


Despite the fitful de-Maoification of the late 1970s and early 1980s China as a one-party state has never really bid farewell to the cult of personality. The grand architect of the country’s successful economic, and failed political, reforms, Deng Xiaoping, was deified both during and after his rule. The media adulation showered on him certainly never reached the absurd heights of the Mao cult, but for analysts and commentators to have claimed at the time — or thereafter — that by instituting a form of collective leadership he and his fellow gerontocrats rid the country of the cult of the leader is ridiculous. Ever since the rejection of substantive political reform in China, the reappearance of the authoritarian personality at the apex of the party-state hierarchy has been a dark possibility. Given the decade of charismatic deficit under Hu Jintao, both Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai promised lineage, competence and personal domination. The forty-year arc of return is long but its workings would now appear to be irresistible.


Meanwhile, China Radio International (CRI), this blog’s favourite exoprop organ, ran an interview with Hubei NPC delegate Zhou Hongyu 周洪宇, who called for “severe punishment” for those who mock or “defile” (亵渎) Red Songs, such as The East is Red (东方红), the Yellow River Cantata (黄河大合唱) and the Internationale. He was surely referring to recent stories about a TV talent show from a couple of years ago (perfectly apolitical, and unfunny) and a number of online videos which were probably funnier but seem to have been deleted. In a way, Xi’s impending enthronement is itself a defilement of the Internationale, or at least makes it harder to sing 不靠神仙皇帝 (ni Dieu, ni César, ni Tribun) with a straight face.

Even a Finnegans Wake bot had something timely to say:



Fengyang 凤阳 was the birthplace of Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋, the founder of Ming dynasty.


All this late-winter Imperial Resurgence brings to mind another title the Ministry of Truth might not like: the one Julius Caesar was accorded approximately 2061 years ago, in January or February.

The exact wording occurs in different variants. Dict[ator] perpetuo (‘dictator in perpetuity’) is probably the original form, as it was used on coins at the time (Grueber, I, p. 545ff.)





Livy (Per. 116) has dictator in perpetuum. Dictator perpetuus (‘perpetual dictator’) occurs later, in Florus (Epit. 2.13.90); and there’s also perpetua dictatura (‘perpetual dictatorship’) in Suetonius (Iul., 76). Cicero (Phil. 2.87) should have precedence as a contemporary, but he has the noun phrase in the dative (dictatori perpetuo), which is compatible with both dictator perpetuo and dictator perpetuus.

Caesar wasn’t able to enjoy his perpetual title for more than a few weeks, as he didn’t make it past the 15th (the Ides) of March. Quite a bit of the “uncertainty” ensued that the NZ expert above thinks “desirable” perpetual dictatorship can prevent; as it tends to happen when personalised rule meets Personal death, but some people never learn.



Seiner regierung im V. jar und in LVI. seines alters ward er mit [s]chendtlichen mordt unuersehenlich [CORRECTION: I first mistranscribed unuerschenlich; see comment by David Marjanović] umbracht. (‘In the 5th year of his rule, the 56th of his age, he was unexpectedly killed in a shameful murder.’ The final –n in the strong dative schendtlichen could be due to Dutch or Low German influence.) Engraving published by Ahasuerus van Londerseel ca. 1587-1635, British Museum.


The National People’s Congress opens a.d. III Non. Mar. (two days before the Nones of March, i.e. ten before the Ides).