Once again, early-20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun (魯迅), whose scathing critiques of the pre-revolutionary Chinese social order won him a place in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pantheon, even though he was not a Marxist, has provided a popular phrase for much that is amiss in China today.
In recent weeks, “Zhao family” (趙家人), from Lu’s novella The True Story of Ah Q, has resurfaced as a disparaging term for China’s rich and politically well-connected.
The phrase attracted broad attention after an article titled Barbarians at the Gate, Zhao Family Inside began circulating online. The article, published anonymously, describes the recent attempts by China Vanke Co, a real-estate developer, to fend off a hostile takeover bid by Baoneng Group, a property and insurance conglomerate and Vanke’s largest shareholder.
Vanke suspended trading in its shares on Dec. 18 last year, saying it wanted to restructure its assets. The move was widely seen as an effort to reduce Baoneng’s shares and thwart a takeover.
Vanke chairman Wang Shi (王石) referred to Baoneng as “barbarians,” and Vanke welcomed moves by another shareholder, Anbang Insurance Group Co, to increase its shares.
While the “barbarians” in the article’s title refers to Baoneng, “Zhao family” refers to Anbang, as a signal that the company has backing from CCP elites.
Anbang chairman Wu Xiaohui (吳小暉) married the granddaughter of former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平). The company lists Chen Xiaolu (陳小魯), a son of the revolutionary military commander Chen Yi (陳毅), on its board.
The use of “Zhao family” to refer to powerful figures has since gone viral.
“It is a rebellious deconstruction of official language in the Internet age,” Qiao Mu (喬木), an associate professor of communications Beijing Foreign Studies University, said in an interview. “In the past, we called officials public servants, but in fact, it’s still a case of crony capitalism. In China, rich and powerful families are often the offspring of the Communist leaders, but it’s politically sensitive to say this out loud, so people are using ‘Zhao family’ instead, as a form of ridicule.”
Qiao published three articles on a WeChat account he managed discussing the “Zhao family” and its members’ dominance in what some mockingly call “their country,” or China.
The account has since been deleted, but the articles have been reposted elsewhere.
“‘Zhao family’ refers to rich and powerful families in China,” he wrote. “Their fathers seized political power, so their children are called ‘second-generation red,’ people who have used their connections to retain power or amass enormous wealth in business.”
“Zhao family” derives from Lu’s celebrated novella. Ah Q, who is from a poor rural family, bullies those weaker than himself while currying favor with the powerful, who despise him,” he wrote.
“When Ah Q cheers with the Zhaos, a rich landlord family whose son has just passed the imperial examination, the Zhao patriarch slaps him and asks: “Do you think you are worthy of the name Zhao?” Qiao wrote.
Even before this article appeared, “Zhao family” was occasionally used online to describe the CCP elite. Discussions on Zhihu, a Chinese Web site on which questions and answers are posted, suggest that one earlier application of the term might have been a Weibo post in May 2013 by a user calling himself Muhaogu.
In it, he wrote: “Over the weekend, while dining with a friend who works in the provincial propaganda department, I asked: ‘What do you guys, actual cadres working in ideology, think of those volunteer 50-centers?’
The “50-centers” are commenters that the government has hired to steer online discussion in favor of state policies. Those who praise the party even without being paid are sometimes called “volunteer 50-centers.”
Muhaogu quoted the propaganda official as responding: “It’s like what Master Zhao said to Ah Q: ‘Do you think you are worthy of the name Zhao?’”
The use of “Zhao family” represents “resistance to false patriotic propaganda, and dissatisfaction with the current situation,” the columnist Zhao Hui (趙暉) wrote in Oriental Daily, a publication in Hong Kong. (Neither Zhao nor the author of this post is a member of a rich and powerful clan.)
“‘The world is ours, the world is theirs, but ultimately it belongs to the ‘Zhao family,’” he wrote. “This saying might seem simple and crude, but in a nation where rights are suppressed, it is spot on.”
China’s state news media cannot publish exposes on the country’s leaders, and Web sites of the New York Times and Bloomberg were blocked after they ran investigative reports on the vast holdings of the families of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶).
“The spirit of Lu Xun’s writings is so, so, so strong,” a user wrote on Zhihu.
“His satire is so on target,” another wrote.
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