China’s regulatory crackdown on tech—and on the private sector more broadly—has its own lingo.
These days state-run media is peppered with these phrases, many of them coined or made freshly prominent by the top ranks of the Communist Party.
Here are some of the most widely used terms that explain the political ideas and economic concerns that are driving Beijing to unleash measures that have upended the lives of millions, both in China and beyond its borders.
Common prosperity (共同富裕 gong tong fu yu)
When it surfaced: The phrase has been around for several years, previously gaining notice in Xi Jinping’s remarks at the 2017 Communist Party national congress, which marked the beginning of his second term. But with public discontent over China’s inequality growing, last week, Xi re-emphasized the need for China to reach this goal partly by requiring the adjustment of “excessive income.” In 2019 Cai Fang, former vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences think tank, summarized (link in Chinese) the concept as having three parts: making the cake bigger and sharing it well; expanding social mobility; and building “a welfare state with Chinese characteristics.” It is connected to another term—the “tertiary distribution mechanism“—or philanthropic efforts.
How to understand it: Simply put, it’s a bleak message to China’s wealthy elite: it’s time to redistribute their fortunes. The meeting urged high-income groups and entrepreneurs to “give more back to society,” indicating the potential for higher taxes or the expectation of more charity contributions from the rich and from corporations. Even before the latest speech, some wealthy tech firms have been heeding the call. Tencent in April pledged 50 billion yuan ($7.7 billion)—an amount greater than its last quarterly net profit—toward social causes. After Xi’s speech, it pledged the same amount to a “common prosperity” fund.
Close and clean party-business relations (“亲” “清”的新型政商关系 Qin, qing de xin xing zheng shang guan xi)
When it surfaced: Xi first raised this vision for the ideal relationship between officials and business in 2016. The term has since been frequently used in local government summaries of their meetings with entrepreneurs. On Monday (Aug. 23), the graft watchdog in the city of Hangzhou, home to Alibaba, said it had started to regulate business-related conflicts of interest involving Party officials or their relatives, after Beijing opened an investigation into the city’s party chief over the weekend.
How to understand it: The phrase requires officials to both be close to entrepreneurs, understanding their needs and helping them to solve problems. At the same time they must stay “clean,” and not receive benefits, financial or otherwise, from their proximity to companies. It is one of the Party’s essential requirements for the co-existence between the Party and private companies, on top of its demand that entrepreneurs be patriotic.
Disorderly expansion of capital
资本无序扩张, zi ben wu xu kuo zhang)
When it surfaced: On Dec. 11, 2020, the Communist Party Politburo held a meeting to lay out the economic priorities for 2021. Along with seven other tasks, it said the country must control the disorderly expansion of capital.
How to understand it: The phrase is a reference to the monopoly power of China’s largest firms, which increasingly tend to be tech platforms, and indicates the Party’s determination to rein in the power of these firms to achieve its own economic and social goals, even if that means stopping firms from raising capital to grow their business via IPOs, or scaring away foreign investors. The concept is connected to China’s ambition to become a more technologically advanced economy—though its tech giants might seem proof it already is one, the government is concerned that the monopoly power of large firms could stifle innovation by small ones. Ever since the mention of the phrase at the December meeting, China’s overhaul of the tech and education sector has accelerated, and as a result, shaken up the ranks of the billionaires wielding this capital.
Double reduction (双减, shuang jian
When it surfaced: The phrase began to be widely used after Beijing party secretary Cai Qi (who is also deputy director of the upcoming winter Olympics) held a May 7 event under that name with principals in the city’s most sought after school districts and to talk about the excessive burdens on children. His remarks were seen as signs of a deepening crackdown on private educational services already signaled by a speech Xi had made earlier in the year. The term’s most prominent appearance so far has been in the stunning regulatory announcement in July that essentially destroyed the industry in its current form: it bars private educational institutions from teaching the school curriculum, making profits, or taking foreign investment.
How to understand it: The “double” refers to the effort to reduce both work and pressure on children coming from public schools, but also the time children spend on after-school studies at private institutions. Some see it as part of a broad effort to “take back” students from private institutions into the public school system, where the government also has more control over what young people learn. In theory, all this is meant to reduce inequality. But Chinese families and education professionals say that it will reduce opportunities for children, especially those in rural areas where public schools aren’t as good. Many in China also see it as an effort to reduce the costs of raising children so as to encourage people to have more children, but it could backfire by reducing an important source of employment for people in their 20s.
Savage growth (野蛮生长, ye man sheng zhang)
When it surfaced: In 2015, China’s top internet regulator republished an article from a state newspaper in which the authors argued that the “savage growth” of mobile internet created cybersecurity loopholes. The next year, many news outlets started to use the term to describe financial chaos in sectors including peer-to-peer lending, and more recently, the once-booming e-cigarettes industry. Overall, the description of an industry or company as growing too “savagely” could be seen as a sign of Beijing’s growing wariness and upcoming regulation of it.
How to understand it: This term is the Party’s clear warning to its tech giants: The freewheeling period under which the firms flourished thanks to relatively light regulation from the government is over. The last two decades of China’s internet economy can be seen as analogous to the “move fast and break things” ethos that tech startups in the US adopted, where firms were often trying things or developing products that regulators had to catch up with. Fang Xingdong, a prominent Chinese expert on internet governance, said in an article last month that Beijing’s recent cybersecurity probes into companies, including ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing, marked the official end of tech companies’ savage growth era, which means they need to treat compliance as a far more important component of their business strategy going forward.
Spiritual opium (精神鸦片, jing shen ya pian)
When it surfaced: The term derives from German philosopher Karl Marx’s metaphor that described religion as “the opium of the people.” The word “opium” has particularly intense undertones in China, which harnesses the memory of its 19th century Opium Wars with Britain and other western nations to shape its diplomatic strategy today. Chinese state-run papers have used the term to describe things ranging from mobile phones to short video apps. The term gained fresh relevance after a state media article this month called the video gaming industry a “spiritual opium,” leading to a frantic sell-off of shares in major players in the sector including Tencent.
How to understand it: As harsh as the metaphor may sound, it is likely not an indicator that Beijing intends to shut down gaming industry, but more of a routine warning to remind companies who is the boss. The Economic Information Daily, whose article led to the panic about video gaming, quietly deleted the piece from its website after the chaos, and later reinstated it with the “opium” comparison removed. The tone of the original article might have been “more extreme” than the regulator’s stance, according to the Financial Times.