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(Edit: In the interest of full transparency, the quotes from Bill Bishop and Kaiser Kuo below were taken from separate questions on Quora. As such, Bill’s reply was *not* a direct reply to Kaiser’s post. I believe this was made clear in the original text, but I will mention it again here to reaffirm this point. Secondly, the original debate on Quora centred over whether “Communist China” should be used in the context of questions asked on the service, not whether it is a term acceptable to be used in a general sense. Please keep this in mind when reading the positions of both Bill and Kaiser. I, however, have taken the subject and expanded upon it to take a look at how the subtle meaning of language can evolve over time and reflect one’s own values, using Kaiser and Bill’s positions as a reference only.)

Is “Communist China” an inappropriate way to refer to the People’s Republic of China? It’s something I hadn’t really considered until I noticed the question on Quora, a social media site designed around questions and answers.

Here’s the original question, as posted:

Why do some people rarely refer to China without prefixing its name with the word “Communist?”

I might add, as a disclaimer, that I don’t have a strong preference either way on the use of this particular term. That being said, I do take interest in the meaning of words and how they are perceived.

In an earlier question, Kaiser Kuo, a long-time Beijing resident, chimed in with his suggestion on how China should be referred to on the service. Although this response isn’t from the same question, I think it’s a good lead in to the discussion:

I believe Quora should follow the practice of almost all mainstream news organizations and scholars and simply assume “China” refers only to the People’s Republic of China, and is not intended to include the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong or Macao, or the separately-governed island of Taiwan. All but a dwindling handful of governments in the world, including all OECD countries, recognize only the government in Beijing.

“Greater China” is a term that generally includes Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao. “The PRC” is another perfectly good way to refer to the People’s Republic of China. Phrases like “Red China” and “Communist China” are used chiefly polemically and while I think Quora should place no restrictions on use of such words in answering questions, the questions themselves should strive to a kind of Wikipedia-like position of neutrality and should refrain from use of contentious, value-laden, or outright pejorative phrasings like these.

Kaiser’s last sentence is the crux of the issue: do people refer to the PRC as “Communist China” only when they wish to disparage it? Is the term actually “contentious, value-laden, or outright pejorative”? There is no way to correctly answer that question, because we can’t get into the minds of everyone who uses the phrase “Communist China” and determine their intent. But it is an interesting discussion because it revolves around the implied meaning of a term, and that implied meaning can be one thing to the person saying it, and something entirely different to the person hearing it.

In a direct answer to the above question, Bill Bishop wrote the following:

I find it interesting that in all these answers no one seems to have taken into consideration the rhetoric of the PRC in its official statements. 党, or Party, usually comes first. The PRC is a single Party state; that party is the Communist Party. And they are very proud of it. I would be surprised if the PRC government sees the use of “Communist China” as a pejorative; that is what they believe themselves to be.

Hypocrite nutters like Glen Beck and Lou Dobbs may use it in a derogatory way, but is it inaccurate?

There are a number of answers which indicate that China’s society can no longer be described as “communist” and that the term is either outdated or used in a derogatory way. And I understand that point of view: “Communist China” might make one think of Mao, the Great Leap Forward or Chinese banished to the countryside, tilling the farm as part of their re-education.  But, if you perceive “Communist China” in that way, is that because of your own outdated misunderstanding? Or were you intentionally mislead by the speaker, who knew you would perceive it in such a way?

Because, alluding to what Bill said above, Mao Zedong overthrew the Kuomintang government in a Communist revolution in 1949. Mao led the Communist Party of China, which established its control over the entire country and forbid meaningful opposition. That party, the Communist Party of China, remains the party in complete control of a one-party state as of the time of this writing. So, factually-speaking, “Communist China” is not an inaccurate way of labelling the country.

Ah, but you say… we don’t say “Democratic America” or label other countries in the same way. It’s a double-standard, right? If one says “Communist China”, it’s meant to convey an unflattering image of the country that doesn’t live up to present-day reality.  Perhaps that’s true, although as I noted on Quora, other countries indeed have been labelled the same way, such as Nazi Germany or Communist Russia (although not exactly distinguished company).

As for living up to present-day realities, I wholeheartedly agree that there is a gap in perception.  The way we perceive communism can be very different to how some communist countries actually are, and that includes countries other than China, such as Vietnam. China now has the second largest economy in the world, and has done so by unleashing the ravenous entrepreneurial and capitalist spirit of its vast population. This certainly can’t be called communist, right? Well, the Chinese economic system might not fit the dictionary definition of communism, but the party apparatus is structured and functions according to the system designed by Lenin himself.  The party calls itself the Communist Party of China, controls the state, commands the People’s Liberation Army and tightly manages the media. So is China 2/3 communist then? Maybe just 1/3? These are all matters for debate.

I agree with Kaiser in that the term Communist China can be value-laden, not only by the one speaking it, but also by the one receiving it.  Perhaps someone intends to disparage the nation when he/she writes “Communist China”, or perhaps it’s a way to distinguish the PRC from Taiwan, or perhaps its just a habit.  To the person hearing or reading the words, they can interpret it any one of those ways too, or probably interpret it in a number of other ways I haven’t even considered.

So what’s the solution? I think we need to remove our own values and biases from the argument.  We can’t expect others to use the English language in a way that only complies with our own personal perceptions. In fact, those who suggest “Communist China” not be used because it is pejorative or inaccurate are asserting their own biases and values just as forcefully as those who use the term to purposely disparage the nation.

When words can carry so much meaning, and when perceptions can vary dramatically, we have to ground ourselves and re-examine the facts.  Again, I give the floor back to Bill Bishop:

What other major world power (ie UN Security Council ex PRC, Brazil, India, Japan, Germany) is not a democracy, or at least the facade of one (Russia)? China is different, its ideology is different, and its political system is different. What is wrong with making sure people understand that? And how is it a double standard if it is just highlighting how China is different?

The world is on the cusp of a major power shift, and I don’t think we should elide the political reality of the system that underpins the PRC state, especially when at its core it is hostile to the US/West and its system of governance. We need to stop pretending that the China fantasy of political liberalization through economic engagement is going to happen anytime soon, if ever (credit to James Mann).

As discussed above, maybe calling it “Socialist China” works better. Maybe “Communist China” is too facile or loaded a term to use in intelligent discourse. I don’t really care about names, but I care that people understand that there is a real and, unfortunately, widening chasm in political systems and values.

What is a better descriptor than “Communist China” to get across this message?

As for the “China is Communist in name only” argument that make, I think that is a misconception about the state of affairs in today’s China. You can call it Leninist, Socialist with Chinese Characteristics, crony Socialist, authoritarian etc, but the fact is the Chinese Communist Party runs the country and makes no secret that everything, including economic growth, is in the service of maintaining Communist Party control and is subservient to the Communist Party.

Is it necessarily wedded to “pure” Communist ideology of decades ago? No. Has the Communist Party worked, with some success, to re-legitimize itself through Nationalism and the Great Renaissance of the Chinese people? Yes. But neither point in any way negates the fact that the PRC State is a Communist-controlled state, and proudly so.

The People’s Republic of China can be called the PRC, Mainland China, the Chinese Mainland, and even Communist China, because that is factually what it is. That is not a debatable point.  The message meant to be conveyed through the use of the term, however, is subjective and personal, and the meaning of that message and its accuracy can be debated. Whether or not one prefers the use of “Communist China” is totally a matter of personal preference, but encouraging others not to use a descriptor that is factually correct is indeed, and ironically, a subtle way of injecting one’s own values and beliefs into the term.

Links and Sources:

Disclaimer: While I’ve never met Kaiser or Bill in person, I’ve conversed with them both periodically on Twitter. In fact, without Kaiser so kindly sending me an invitation, I wouldn’t have been able to join Quora in the first place. Many thanks, Kaiser.

 
 

18 Comments

  1. George says:

    Great article. I think what’s missing is a consideration of
    what the Chinese themselves would want (both Officially and from
    Normal People) I think probably both the Official and Normal-Person
    line would be that everyone should just say “China”. Certainly I’ve
    had blog posts /comments attacked by the commenters-for-hire
    stating that both “Mainland China” and “Greater China” are slights
    to the dignity and unity of China. However, the fact that both
    Official and Normal-Person would naturally consider the one word
    “China” to include all the bits of “Greater China” is the confusion
    here. The simple term has its own ideological connotations! In
    practice people need to be able to refer to Mainland China without
    including Macau, HK, Taiwan because they are all different places
    in so many factual respects, on the level of being different
    countries, without even having to go into politics on the latter.
    (Factual: currency, language, border, law, nationality etc) In HK
    English people tend to say “PRC” and I think that is a reasonable
    compromise which Chinese people could not really object to when
    trying to make a clear distinction between Mainland China and the
    other parts of Greater China.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by KWK. KWK said:
    RT @zhongnanhai: Can we call it “Communist
    China”? A new post: http://bit.ly/h5W3FY @kaiserkuo @niubi
    [...]

  3. Mosey says:

    If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a
    duck, it’s a duck. Even if it’s surrounded by frogs. China is
    governed by the Communist party and that makes it Communist China.
    Doesn’t matter if it’s loosening up so people can now make a yuan
    for themselves or own a vehicle or home, they are still controlled
    and everything can, should the party decide, be taken away. That’s
    communism. That’s a duck. A good descriptor to distinguish it from
    more lenient areas of China such as HongKong. That is where
    descriptor words need to proceed China.

  4. Kaiser Kuo says:

    …encouraging others not to use a descriptor
    that is factually correct is indeed, and ironically, a subtle way
    of injecting one’s own values and beliefs into the
    term.
    Since I’m being held up as one side of this
    debate, not quite fairly I think, and it’s implied that I’m
    encouraging others not to use this descriptor, I feel compelled to
    say a few words here. In the passage you quote I make explicit that
    I’m asking for omission of that word only in the
    context of questions on Quora
    , which is supposed to
    be free of value-laden, pejorative, or leading questions. I made
    edits to a user who asked a long string of questions all using the
    syntagm “Communist China” in questions, and that’s what sparked
    this whole thing. As I say in the above quoted passage, I really
    don’t care what people use in answering questions. This whole thing
    was about keeping Quora questions free of prejudicers, and would
    have edited too if someone insisted on using “Glorious China” or
    spelling America “Amerikkka” for the same reasons.

  5. baji says:

    It is “Afro-American” style of question. Afro-Americans
    have black skins, but is it pejorative to address them as Blacks or
    Niggers (even if they from country called Niger). More over, how we
    call people that lives in Africa? Afro-Africans? The term is mostly
    used by western media in negative connotations, with aim to stress
    lack of human rights or free speech. Actually, in strict
    theoretically terms, communism is characterized by human rights and
    free speech and no ruling party. In communist society, political
    power should be de facto in hands of workers. Means of production,
    as well. So, China is not a communist country. Anyway, this is good
    and thoughtful article.

  6. admin says:

    @george You’re right that even the word “China” can have all kinds of ideological connotations depending on the context. As for Hong Kong, it’s odd that most people here refer to Mainland China as simply “China”. As in, “I’m going to China this weekend” or “That person is from China”. And technically speaking, Hong Kong *is* part of the People’s Republic of China, at least according to my home address, which states “… Hong Kong SAR, People’s Republic of China”.

    @kaiser I certainly didn’t mean to hold you up as the spokesperson for all who oppose use of the term “Communist China”, it’s just that you were the most articulate! I should also have noted that you prefer this in the context of questions asked on Quora. I actually agree with your premise that we should try and avoid value-laden or pejorative language, whether on Quora or in the media. It’s just that what constitutes such language is up for debate. What is value-laden language to you might be factual to me, and vice versa.

  7. Jimmy says:

    Interesting article, and interesting debate. But when it comes to the use of the term ‘Communist China,’ I think we’re sort of overlooking one of the key things: alliteration. You don’t hear people making reference to communist Vietnam or communist Laos. Just doesn’t sound good. But Communist China just kind of rolls off the tongue. Is it right or wrong? Probably a bit of both. But hey, writers have always grappled with ‘style vs. substance!’ (see more alliteration)

  8. JamesP says:

    Because of the Cold War, McCarthyism, the general
    ideological and media environment, “Communist” is certainly most
    often used pejoratively in mainstream US discourse. To my knowledge
    this is not the case in any other English speaking country. It just
    sounds old-fashioned to my ears. Anyway, for the purposes of
    building a database of clear and focused questions I can totally
    understand the need to remove the “Communist”. “Could anyone
    recommend some good pubs in Socialist Britain?”

  9. Fabulous post. Since I was involved in this ‘kerfuffle’ on
    Quora, thought I should chime in. Your take on this whole issue is
    spot on and well balanced. Here is some of the background on the
    debate about the the term you may be interested in:
    http://chinacensorshipwatch.org/tag/quora Please keep up the
    excellent writing.

  10. [...] Zhongnanhai picks up the Q & A at Quora on
    whether or not “Communist China” is an
    inappropriate way to refer to the People’s Repu…. [...]

  11. Samuel Wade says:

    “I don’t really care about names …”

    But if names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish

  12. [...] Blog (via Global Voices) picks up a discussion on Quora.com regarding the term “Communist China”; specifically, whether [...]

  13. Allan Baberk says:

    There is no Mainland China, except for residents of Hainan Island and other offshore islands. But for Taiwan, the PRC is not the mainland and there is no Mainland China for Taiwan. China is China, Taiwan is Taiwan. I always use Communist China when reporting about the PRC since it is not a Peoples’ Republic by any stretch of the image, it like the old USSR of yore. Red China is a good term too for this thugocracy. Dicatorship comes to mind. When will the West and Japan wake up to the fact the the USSR-CCP is a thugoacry of communist proportions and should be called as such? PRC my eye! Communist China is the correct word to use, so as not to fool the world. We are dealing with dictators, here, folks, take off your blinders.

  14. Bo says:

    I don’t want to be rude, but this all seems rather silly. China is not Communist, merely because it is ruled by a party that calls itself communist. By that logic Burma would be a democracy by being ruled by a country calling itself Burma Democratic Party. In fact, all almost all the communist parties in Eastern Europe referred to themselves as “Peoples Democracies” – but they werent democracies. China is certainly a dictatorship, but by most economic measures it’s one of the least _communist_ countries in the world. Would you say that the US switches between being a democratic and a republican country roughly every eight years?

  15. admin says:

    @Bo,

    You might have missed this paragraph:

    …the Chinese economic system might not fit the dictionary definition of communism, but the party apparatus is structured and functions according to the system designed by Lenin himself. The party calls itself the Communist Party of China, controls the state, commands the People’s Liberation Army and tightly manages the media.

    I also recommend this link which explains in great detail how the structure of the Chinese government and party adheres very closely to communist principles.

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