Monday, March 17, 2008

Inverted commas - the Chinese propaganda machine's deadliest weapon

I don't know how long this might have been going on. I don't recall noticing it in my early days here; but I find the quality of the local state-run English-language news media to be so depressing that I don't bother to look at it very often.

I first noticed the phenomenon in an article about Taiwan 3 or 4 years ago. Every word relating to the political institutions of the island - "president", "parliament", "ruling party", "supreme court", etc. - was enclosed in jeering inverted commas like that. Astoundingly petty! (And, of course, Taiwan does not have a government, not even a "government" imprisoned in inverted commas; no, it has "authorities" - that is the unvarying convention in domestic news coverage. I kid you not.) Since then, it seems to have become ubiquitous (or perhaps I just notice it more?): anything the Chinese government doesn't approve of or doesn't accept the legitimacy of, anything that doesn't 'harmonise' with the party line, is branded with the stigma of inverted commas. There hasn't really been much domestic reporting of the recent troubles yet, I don't think; but I expect when China Daily does get around to mentioning it, we will very probably see "protests" and "protesters" disparaged by inverted commas. (What legitimate cause of grievance can they possibly have to "protest" about? No, they're all just troublemakers, ne'er-do-wells, looters. Nothing more.)

One of my editing jobs at the moment is for a foreign policy think tank. An article of theirs I was working on a little while back dealt with the issue of 'soft power' and 'cultural diplomacy' (see - I fight back with single inverted commas when I find these academic or political buzzwords to be of dubious value!). Most of it was hellishly turgid, repetitive, or simply unintelligible, but there was one brief patch of relative lucidity in the middle, where it was admitted that the 'culture' China would really like to be propagating around the world is Marxist socialism (with Chinese characteristics), but since that is kind of discredited these days, they have to content themselves - for now! - with substituting the propagation of Confucianism (and dragon dances and tea ceremonies). Of course, they didn't say 'discredited'. No. What the authors of the article wrote was something more like this: 'Since the fall of the Soviet Union, interest in Marxist ideology around the world is perceived to have "withered".' Yep, those darned inverted commas again.

I suppose I was quite a naughty editor. I removed those inverted commas. Funnily enough, they haven't sacked me yet - but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.


Tulsa said...

this is inane.

what the h*ll of a message is supposed to be conveyed with that language? either interest has withered or it hasn't. what do inverted commas have to do with it???

Froog said...

Well, it's disowning the comment, isn't it? It implies that this is an opinion held in some quarters, but with which you happen to disagree. It can be quite a potent rhetorical trick if used sparingly.

The Chinese scattergun approach to inverted commas is just puerile.

Tulsa said...

yes, i c your point. but i rarely see inverted commas used in serious articles/paper/journals... which is your point about using it sparingly.

i think when I first read that sentence, not only was i offended by yet one more inverted comma (you do provide several examples) but also by the message those inverted commas claimed to be sending. Such a poor way of communicating the author's point.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the episode of Friends where Joey "learns" how to use air quotes.

"I'm sorry."