As the year 2015 was drawing to its end, a new expression was born on China’s social media: “the Zhaos” (“赵家人”). New phrases pop up regularly online in China, but “the Zhaos” has been hailed as revolutionary.
Never has an expression captured the essence of China’s politics and economy with such pithiness and precision—that a class of people thinks China belongs to them, acts like its owner, and is indeed the owner. Compared to the phrase “your country,” (an inversion of the official reference to China as “our country”) which has been in vogue for a while, “the Zhaos” brings into focus a critical divide that has never been encapsulated. It is, many believe, destined to permanently enter the Chinese lexicon. This article presents a compilation of explanations and uses of the expression, and its social and political interpretations.
Who are “the Zhaos”?
The now-popular term came from Lu Xun’s “The True Story of Ah Q.” Young Master Zhao passed the local civil service examination, and when Ah Q, who thought himself a Zhao, sung his joy and happiness along with the others, Old Master Zhao slapped him hard in the face and said: “Do you think you’re worthy of the name Zhao?”
From here came the “the Zhao family,” or simply “the Zhaos,” which specifically refers to China’s powerful and rich families.
In its original usage, “Do you think you’re worthy of the name Zhao?” expresses disdain at the lowly Ah Q attempting to associate himself with the rich and powerful. It was initially used on the Internet to ridicule “volunteer 50-centers” [a group of netizens who defend the Party online—and not even for payment]. As time went on, new terms and expressions evolved. For example, a new word for volunteer 50-center is “spiritual Zhaos” (“精赵”) meaning that they are Zhaos in spirit; whereas “real Zhao” (“真赵”) refers to a real Zhao family member; “the country of Zhao” (“赵国”) refers to China. As to who can be considered a real Zhao, generally speaking, the real Zhaos are the direct descendants of the generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders who established the communist system.
In addition to being used as a general term for rich and powerful families, the expression “the Zhaos” also has variations for subclasses of this group. First there is the term “Old Master Zhao,” which refers to the old generation of proletarian revolutionaries such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping who, despite having passed away, still command influence.
Next are the terms “Master Zhao” and “Young Master Zhao,” which include political big shots from the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao era, and their children, but mostly the princelings (红二代) and the emerging third generation (红三代). These people are in high positions in the military, Party, or government, or command key sectors of the economy by either monopolizing pillar industries such as energy, finance and telecom, or controlling capital and foreign trade. Directly or indirectly, many of China’s rich work for the Zhaos.
Zhao’s ‘family members’
In addition to the Zhaos, there is the term Zhao “family members,” referring to the Zhao’s helpers, servants, and slaves. The Chinese military, although said to be the people’s military, is under the absolute leadership of the Party. So in addition to providing national defense and disaster relief, it will also shoot at the people in certain cases, such as the June 4 democracy movement, just to protect the power of the Zhaos (not former Party leader Zhao Ziyang, but “Old Master Zhao”).
The public security apparatus, the procuratorial organs and the court system, on the other hand, are again officially recognized as the “knife handle,” a Cultural Revolution-era term that has been put to use over the last three years. Whenever disputes arise between officialdom and the citizenry, or between business interests and citizens relating to forced demolitions and relocations, or victims petitioning to higher levels of government, these agencies always side with the Zhaos and big business, and suppress the people.
The Zhao “family members” also include the media. Even though the media sector itself has been under suppression and operating without freedom of press, it takes orders from the official mouthpieces and thinks itself a Zhao family member, forever manufacturing dreams of harmony and “positive energy.” The Zhao family members also include many writers who are hangers-on to the Zhao family, always promoting and defending the Zhaos. These helpers and hangers-ons, whatever job they’re doing, all take their orders from the Zhaos and make their living from them.
Additionally, there are also the hired farm laborers and farmers who work their own land. How can there be hired farm hands in an industrial society? Take a look at the ways power is created and passed on in the Zhao family: the personality cult, the monopoly of land, the division between rich and poor, as well as the indifference to the rights and welfare of citizens, and you’ll see that China is still stuck in the agrarian stage of the Zhao State of the Warring States—or at best, a pre-industrial society.
The term “hired farmhands” refers to government functionaries, as well as the workers, staff, and small-time intellectuals working in state-run enterprises controlled by the Zhao family. They serve the Zhaos with their own labor, but are always lectured to and reminded that their rice bowls are bestowed upon them by the Zhao family, so they shouldn’t “break the pot that cooks their rice.”
“Farmers working on their own land” refer to employees of foreign or Chinese private companies, small entrepreneurs, and freelancers. They earn their living through their skills and abilities and don’t have to flatter the Zhaos—but they also don’t dare offend them. Not only are they excluded politically, they’re also subject to unfair economic competition. Neither are they free people: their taxes, household registrations, passports, and personal information are all in the hands of the Zhaos, used to punish them should they fail to obey.
Thus, the four types of people that make up the contemporary Zhao state are: The Zhaos, the Zhao helpers, the Zhao farmhands, and the small farmers who don’t dare offend the Zhao or its family.
The deeper root of the expression ‘the Zhaos’
Even though the viral popularity of the term “the Zhaos” started with the Baoneng-Wanke fight (宝能万科之争), its deeper root lies elsewhere. Its wide appeal comes mainly from the following:
During the last 20 years, the system has intensified its nationalist and ideological propaganda and education in order to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of communist ideology. These efforts have indeed succeeded in producing one group after another of hardcore, angry youth. The discourse about patriotism has been conducted through emotional images like “the motherland,” “the descendants of Emperors Yan and Huang,” “blood is thicker than water,” and “the descendants of the dragon,” etc., in order to promote an “imaginary community.”
However, the current system of dictatorship is, first and foremost, built upon the deprivation of rights, particularly the deprivation of citizens’ political and civil rights. While the actual operations of market-based neo-totalitarianism have been established upon the rampant plundering of profit, and as this system of interest solidifies itself, division and opposition between those in the system and outside of the system grow increasingly deep.
Under such circumstances, the notion of a “community” becomes increasingly hypocritical and suspicious. That netizens freely utter the ironic joke “Do you think you’re worthy of the name Zhao?” demonstrates their resistance to this hypocritical patriotic propaganda, as well as their dissatisfaction with the status quo.
‘Them’ and ‘us’ – the confrontation emerges
Some things, for instance what’s been called the new “State Security Law,” seem a little confusing when you first hear of them. You think: “What the heck is this?” But when you rename it: “The Zhaos’ Security Law” — then it clears it up right away. There are many cases like that, for example: “The Zhaos’ sovereignty,” “the Zhaos’ Constitution,” “inciting subversion of the Zhaos,” and “imperialism hasn’t given up the wild ambition to overthrow the Zhaos.…”
From a certain perspective, this term is a great victory against the government’s ideology campaign.
The theory of social collapse is the most important theoretical contribution of professor Sun Liping (孙立平), and the most original part of it is to establish the dichotomy of “them” and “us” (“他们”与“我们”). Many of us have probably heard or read Sun Liping’s lectures, but we didn’t quite get it at the time. Now that “the Zhaos” phrase has come out, suddenly everything makes sense.
The phrase “the Zhaos” makes the separation as clear as a cliff. It is itself an ideology and a challenge. As a term that suddenly emerges and enlightens, “the Zhaos” does more than what liberal intellectuals have been striving for for decades in China, by bringing into focus of the most imperceptible, the most perplexing, and the most carefully hidden subjects in Chinese political life.
For example, the state apparatus says “rule of law” all the time, but whose rule of law? “The Zhaos” has the answer. Also, whose “socialism?” Whose “socialist core values?” So on and so forth. “The Zhaos” answers them all.
Moreover, “The Zhaos” gives an effective answer to the question of whether or not there is a consensus in this country.
The one obvious fact is that the reality in China is a black-and-white binary reality. But some people are just so determined to find some so-called consensus. For instance, in terms of the drive for reform, they believe there can be a “consensus” that bridges “us” and “them.” In terms of ideology, they believe there can be a “consensus” that transcends the left and the right. With this so-called middle way, all manner of false hopes were born.
But this term, “the Zhaos,” doesn’t see it that way. It is not interested in “consensus,” true or false; instead, it demarcates the boundary and shows that it is a chasm of bottomless depth.