China: From heroic to ignorant masses, and then…

The Chinese communist ideology has been eroding rapidly in the past two decades due to economic development. Traces of its revolutionary belief can still be found in political propaganda pieces published in the state owned media. Words like “the masses” marks the past ideological imprint.

However, in recent years, the term “the masses” is more and more associated with large scale protests, or the so-called “mass incidents”. From the perspective of local government, such kind of “mass incidents” implies social instability and has to be repressed. And hence, “the mass” becomes more and more in association with negative adjectives. A typical example can be found in a report earlier this year on social unrest in Luliang County of Yunnan Province in which hundreds of farmers confronted the police. The local state owned media then quickly described “the mass” as those “who are ignorant of the truth and facts are stirred up by a small cohort of vicious power in the village…”

To rescue “the masses” from negative connotation that jeopardizes the communist party's revolutionary legacy, the Propaganda Department of Yunnan province issued a notice demanding local media to stop using terms like “刁民(sly and difficult people)” and “恶势力(vicious power)” and to stop labeling the masses as “不明真相 (ignorant of the truth and facts)”, “別有用心 (having secret and ill-intentioned motives)” or “一小撮人 (a handful of people)”.

The liberal-orientated South China Metropolitan (Nandu) Daily and the Beijing News promptly responded to the ban with editorials (Links: Nandu; Beijing News) in the subsequent two days. Nandu Daily traced the use of the term “ignorant of the truth and facts” back to a Xinhua News Agency's article on a social unrest in Jilin Province in July and pointed out that:


The notice issued by the Propaganda department of Yunan Province has stirred up a critical reflection of the political labeling of the mass as “ignorant of the truth and facts”. The cleaning up of cliche is an acknowledgment of the existence of evil power and deeds in the public domain. Government officials abusive use of power supported by state owned media is part of such evil deeds. Therefore, the notice is a progressive move in monitoring the powerful. And the media should reflect on its role. More importantly, no one can label or tear off the label of the so-called “ignorant of the truth and facts”, as the truth of the history is at the hand of them (the mass).

The absent/omnipresent subject

Tianya forum writer, Chao Yong, noticed that in the discussion of the Yunnan propaganda department's move, the subject – “the masses”- of the negative label of “ignorant of the truth and facts” has been omitted and its absence paradoxically marks its omnipresence in the Chinese political history –


In the revolutionary era, “the masses” has a positive connotation as “the masses” is the subject of revolution… Mao Zedong once said “The masses are the true heroes, while we are often ignorant and laughable. If we don't understand this, we fail to acquire basic knowledge.” Such kind of praise had empowered “the masses” and resulted in a collective illusion that all mass movements are politically correct and the masses are always right. In reality, “the masses” could not define themselves, their “political correctness” was manufactured by the revolution.


As the era of “farewell to revolution” began, the status of “the masses” kept declining from a positive connotation to a neutral connotation, and then from a neutral connotation to a negative connotation… In the reform era, class struggle has been abandoned. Unemployed workers, visit petition farmers are no longer subjects or supporters of the revolution. They have turned into social instability factors. The economic reform does not depend on the proletarians but the property owners (middle class and new rich). “The masses” do not have economic power and lose their political protection, they are forced to become the subalterns in all aspects – economically, politically and morally. At the same time, government sectors and state owned media start to create negative public opinion of “the masses”. Whenever mass incident occurs, the media reports quickly depict “the masses” as “ignorance of the truth and facts”. Such kind of labeling has retrieved the original connotation of “the masses” as the aggregation of the lumpen and eventually imposed a negative image to “the masses”. The repetitive use of the adjective “ignorance of the truth and facts” has successfully transformed and demonized “the masses”.

From “the masses” to “the citizen”


Both labels, “the masses are the true heroes” and “the masses are ignorant of the truth and facts”, are manufactured by “the state apparatus”. After all these manipulations of the term, the meaning of “the masses” has been blurred. Since “the masses” has been severely contaminated by ideology, I suggest that the establishment should ban “the masses” altogether with “ignorant of the truth and facts”. If we abandoned the term “the masses” who or which subject would enter the scene? The answer is simple: the public, the citizen or the people.

In the comment section, many echoed Chao's view:


The term “the masses” already has negative connotation nowaday. Whenever the masses is mentioned, it is associated those who are ignorant of the truth and facts. Pathetic! Whose government does the present government belong to? and whose Party?


The masses are ordinary people. They can only exercise their rights as human beings when they are citizens.


What are the differences among these terms? the public\the citizens\the masses – all refer to ordinary people. The fact that (the media) has to choose between speaking for ordinary people or for the Party has tore apart the people and the Party.

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