“Advanced blackening” might sound like a marketing slogan gone awry—the reverse of a toothpaste commercial—but a Communist Party mouthpiece seems intent on having Chinese citizenry better acquainted with other connotations of the term. Namely, political treachery.
On May 26, People’s Forum magazine, a subsidiary of People’s Daily, provided a link at the top of its home page to a survey titled: “‘Gaojihei’: Just How Do You Discern It?”
Users who might have thought they were being questioned on their knowledge of internet culture seemed to actually be getting an education in Machiavellian political tactics. The definition of “gaojihei” (pronounced “gao-chee-hey”), as a form of cunning, back-handed vilification, is made explicit in a brief introductory paragraph, and then readers are asked to answer a dozen multiple choice questions. The answers, which are provided, ram home again and again what “gaojihei” is.
The timing and appearance of the “gaojihei” survey is even more intriguing given the context: an internal struggle in the Party’s propaganda apparatus over a “red” Cultural Revolution-themed concert held in Beijing, dovetailing with longer-term portrayals in official media of Xi Jinping as the next Mao Zedong, the founding revolutionary infamous for his cult of personality.
The survey can be interpreted as an indication that there has been a struggle to control the propaganda system. Elements in the regime opposed to Xi Jinping have attempted to undermine the reputation of his leadership through sophisticated propaganda that claims to praise but in fact damns. Xi’s leadership group is attempting to reassert control by dragging the skirmish into the open.
Machiavelli in China
The “gaojihei” as explained by the Party’s media would ring familiar to veteran China hands.
According to the People’s Forum survey, “gaojihei” is an attempt at slander with “high-level, civilized, humorous” language. Would-be slanderers “sound like they are praising you, but in actuality are setting up to harm you; they look absolutely loyal, but are lifting you high up only to cast you down; they sound like they’re objectively pointing out your flaws, but are in fact maliciously slandering you…” That was the first paragraph of the survey.
This tactic is known as “praise assassination,” or “peng sha,” according to Chen Pokong, a Chinese current affairs analyst and author of books on Chinese political culture. In a news program on New York-based Chinese language broadcaster New Tang Dynasty Television in March, Chen noted that the Party’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping leveraged the cult of personality that Hua Guofeng, Mao’s designated successor, built around himself, to take him down.
Chen thinks that Liu Yunshan the propaganda chief and his cronies are practicing “gaojihei” against Xi Jinping in to tarnish his image and eventually undermine him—a similar hypothesis alluded to recently by the daughter of a founding revolutionary.
What likely triggered the survey was a concert organized in the Great Hall of the People on May 2. The event seemed to be the culmination of a constant injection of Maoist era imagery in the public sphere, often associated with leader Xi Jinping. Other propaganda items have included a front page of the People’s Daily with Xi Jinping in every single headline, or paintings of Xi that mimic Maoist social realist portraits.
Ma Xiaoli, a princeling and former Party cadre in the United Front Work Department, which engages in political warfare, was so furious with the concert that she wrote a letter of complaint to Communist Party General Office director Li Zhanshu, and later gave an interview explaining her outrage to a pro-Beijing, Hong Kong news outlet.
The concert was “a premeditated, organized, and planned breach of Party discipline,” and was a “complete revival of the Cultural Revolution,” wrote Ma, the daughter of Ma Wenrui, the regime’s former labor minister and party boss of Shaanxi Province.
Days after publishing her letter, Ma explained that she wasn’t angry at the Party leadership, but rather the “organizers” and “manipulators” who had “created this situation to slander the top leader.” At one point in the interview she called them “forces of resistance,” though did not name names.
“They created this situation, conjuring a personality cult, setting such a big trap,” Ma said. “It’s very sophisticated smearing, smearing of General Secretary Xi and Party Central.”
Ma added that the creation of a personality cult around Xi is intended to rouse public indignation—”it’s extremely off-putting; the Cultural Revolution taught us that”—and that “whoever is involved definitely has ambitions for power, and we must be vigilant.”
Incidentally, Xi Jinping had also warned of “ambitious figures and conspirators” forming “cabals and cliques” to fulfill their “personal political ambitions” in a January speech.
‘Wreckers and Splitters’
In speeches published this year, Xi has consistently identified five purged Party officials as ambitious men who had “carried out political conspiracies to wreck and split the Party”—Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing boss who encouraged the singing of Cultural Revolution songs in the province; Zhou Yongkang the former security czar; Su Rong the ex-vice president of a political consultative body; the late general Xu Caihou, and former General Office boss Ling Jihua.
These elite Party cadres owe their allegiance to Jiang Zemin, the former Party boss who continued to exert influence over Party politics from a backroom role for more than a decade after his retirement. Jiang pushed his political clients into key positions of power for helping him perpetuate his pet project—the brutal persecution of the spiritual discipline Falun Gong.
The dominance of the Jiang clique abruptly unraveled in 2012 when former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun tried to defect to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Wang was reported to have revealed to the Americans that Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang were planning to displace incoming Party leader Xi Jinping in a coup, according to the sources of Bill Gertz, a well-known national security reporter. Bo became the first of Jiang’s top lieutenants to be purged, and Zhou, once considered untouchable, was handed a life prison sentence in 2015.
Although Xi has been dismantling the Jiang clique and consolidating his own power base through a sweeping anti-corruption drive, reforming the military, and even publicly touring the headquarters of state media, it appears that his control over all Party organs is not yet complete.
In part this is because Jiang’s forces were in late 2012 still able to exert influence over the composition of the current Politburo Standing Committee—the most powerful decision making body in the regime—and secured a seat for long-time propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, as well as other Jiang clients.
In turn, Liu has overseen the inflation of a personality cult around Xi—songs eulogizing Xi surface on the internet, the moniker “Xi Dada,” or Uncle Xi, was put to uncomfortably extensive usage, and a lunar new year Gala song and dance program was staged that implicitly cast Xi as a Mao-like figure.
Official Put on Notice
Xin Ziling, a retired Party cadre who formerly headed the editorial desk as China’s National Defense University and has close ties with the Party higher ups, is of the view that Liu Yunshan is behind the “gaojihei” attempts to discredit Xi Jinping. But Xin thinks that what Liu is doing is merely small game, and wouldn’t derail Xi’s attempt to rectify the Party of Jiang’s elements.
Xi appears to have attempted a quiet pushback. In April, an internal Party circular to the propaganda department, and official and semi-official mainland Chinese media, banned the use of “Xi Dada” to refer to Xi, according to a report by Hong Kong daily Ming Pao. A People’s Daily editorial reaffirming the Party’s critical stance towards the Cultural Revolution was published at midnight on the day after the 50th anniversary of the start of Mao’s tumultuous campaign; the nationalistic Global Times followed up with its own critical editorial hours later.
But given that the Cultural Revolution-themed recital on May 2 was able to take place, it seems that more public measures are now being taken to push back.