EVERY DECEMBER millions of Chinese netizens vote for a word and phrase that best capture the spirit of the preceding year in China. The Communist Party’s hand is highly visible. The competition is jointly organised by the website of the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece; Commercial Press, a state-backed publisher; Tencent, an internet giant; and a think-tank under the education ministry. Internet users are invited to propose candidates. But the shortlists presented to voters comprise terms that the party itself endlessly repeats or that it deems sufficiently anodyne.
In 2017 the winning Chinese character was xiang, which means either to enjoy or to share (the fruits of China’s prosperity, naturally). In 2016 it was gui, meaning rules (the party uses them to strengthen its control). Repeat winners include zhang, meaning grow, which romped to victory in both 2007 and 2010. The separate category for the most popular phrase has resulted in similar triumphs for party-speak. Last year’s victor was “original intention”, referring to the party’s founding goals.
This year’s finalists are true to form. As The Economist went to press the leading candidate for character of the year was fen, meaning to strive, one of President Xi Jinping’s favourite words (the results will be announced on December 20th). By contrast, Japanese voters recently picked sai, meaning disaster, as the kanji, or Chinese character as used in Japanese, that best represented the year 2018. Winning kanji from previous years have also tended to be more downbeat than their equivalents in China.
This is hardly surprising. China’s shortlists are prepared by a panel of “experts” who would hardly dare pick words that clash with the party’s relentlessly upbeat line. But it is possible to find clues as to which characters or phrases would be truer reflections of public sentiment. Baidu, China’s leading search engine, recently revealed its site’s most searched-for terms in 2018 relating to domestic events. Among the hottest was “vaccine incident”. It refers to a scandal involving the injection of defective doses into possibly hundreds of thousands of children. It is conspicuously absent from this year’s official shortlist of phrases-of-the-year. Among those that did make the cut are such yawn-inducing terms as “private enterprise”, for which Mr Xi pledged his “unwavering” support in October, and “import expo”, referring to a big trade show that he attended in Shanghai in the following month.
The biggest official snub, however, goes to qiou, a made-up character that is an amalgamation of three others: tu, qiong and chou. It is used to mean dirt-poor and ugly. Qiou is hard to write using Chinese-language software, which tends to struggle with characters not found in dictionaries—the face in our illustration incorporates the qiou character. (Even its romanisation is an invention, reflecting the word’s portmanteau origins: qiu is the conventional form for a character pronounced this way.) In early December the hashtag for qiou on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, surged to 16th place on the top-50 trending list. One Chinese news site declared qiou the unofficial Chinese character of 2018. Even the website of the People’s Daily, in a recent Weibo post, acknowledged the cultish following of qiou.
The word is used self-deprecatingly, not as a form of abuse. But that does not make it any more acceptable to the party, which likes to think of young Chinese as brimming with confidence in their ability to lead a prosperous life. Qiou is used to describe the angst of many young Chinese who feel excluded from a society that obsesses over physical appearance and wealth. The mainstream view is that desirable men are gao–fu–shuai—tall, rich and handsome. And the ideal woman is bai–fu–mei—pale-skinned, rich and beautiful. As one bitter commentator quipped, “Once qiou, always qiou.”