Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Infodemic Insight: Reading Between the Lines in China

asiamediacentre |  As a former daily newspaper editor in China, I have learnt how to identify useful hidden information from the lengthy official statements. Unfortunately, this is not a skill that everyone gets the opportunity to develop.

I still remember when, at the beginning of 1997, a series of official statements on Deng Xiaoping’s health situation was delivered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC.

As a high school student at that time, I noticed there was something unusual behind the wording of the last statement, ‘As an older man in his nineties, his (Deng Xiaoping’s) health situation is still okay’.

On 19 February 1997, Deng's death was announced.

Ordinary people should not be expected to have text analysis skills to read between the lines of news reports in any given scenario. But in this case, my background and abilities helped my family escape from uncertainty and threats we might have encountered had we not left China early.

In the official language system, what has been emphasised is what has been missing and needs to be solved. Below is another example.

On 3 February 2020, President Xi Jinping held a PRC Politburo Standing Committee meeting. News coverage from the official Xinhua News Agency, shows four key points were emphasised:
 – Stop the spread of the virus
 –  Local governments must strictly follow orders and instructions from the central government.
 –  Focus on the key areas, which include Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province.
 –  Do everything possible to save the infected patients, reduce the infection rate and mortality rate.

There was no sign of optimism in the report.

Ten days after that meeting, Jiang Chaoliang, the Communist Party Secretary of Hubei Province was sacked; as was Ma Guoqiang, the Communist Party Secretary of Wuhan City.

It’s almost impossible to know when this indirect style of official statements was established in China. But if anyone wants to figure out what’s really going on, they should try analyse changes in the official text rather than pouring over social media.