When authoritarians speak, pay close attention.
Words, beyond their basic function of communication, signal intent and outline ways of thinking. But in an age of “alternative facts,” we know too well that words can obscure as much as they clarify. Words can also be weapons. As the sociologist Celine-Marie Pascale puts it, “Authoritarian governments weaponize language to amplify resentments, target scapegoats, and to legitimize injustice.”
In Hong Kong, as large-scale protests erupted in 2019, followed by this year’s severe crackdown spearheaded by a national security law imposed by Beijing, the government increasingly adopted the authoritarian language of the Chinese Communist Party. Previously staid pronouncements peppered with anachronisms—products of its technocratic governance with roots in 150 years of British colonial rule—became much more brash in tone, loudly assertive in projecting power, and snide in their rebuttal of public criticism.
“Hong Kong government press releases and statements have increasingly echoed the vocabulary and phrasing of the central people’s government’s official statements,” said Sebastian Veg, a professor of Chinese intellectual history at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. A possible reason for this change is that Hong Kong was ordered to do so “to dispel the impression that there is a gap between decisions made in Beijing and their implementation in Hong Kong,” he added.
These shifts in rhetoric can be difficult to detect, dressed as they are with the credibility and heft of officialdom. But authoritarian language can be “sticky” and hard to get rid of, notes the scholar Yuliya Komska and co-author of the book Linguistic Disobedience. That “official” language used by the authoritarian state also goes by another name, she said: the language of co-optation.
One way to gird against this kind of linguistic co-optation is to study a government’s use of words closely. Subtle changes in official rhetoric often go hand in hand with attempts to reshape people’s thoughts, using sleights of language to manipulate the space of public discourse.
“True, language critique did not forestall Nazism or authoritarian Communism,” wrote Komska and her co-authors Michelle Moyd and David Gramling. But turning a skeptical eye to the form and content of words becomes a “meaningful resource for dissenters.”
To try to quantify the anecdotal impression that officials are speaking in a different voice in parallel with a deepening crackdown, collected and analyzed the past decade’s press statements from the Hong Kong government. The statements analyzed—165,000 in all—were drawn from the government’s central portal, which includes press releases across departments, as well as transcripts of press conferences. We ensured that there were no duplicate transcripts analyzed. In order to make each year comparable, we looked at press statements from January to October of each year from 2010 to 2020, since 2020’s November and December statements were not available at the time of data collection.
We analyzed the prevalence of single words, pairs of words, and three-word phrases in each year.
Overall, the number of press releases by the Hong Kong government grew by about 40% from 2010 to 2020, and the total number of words 50%. But in most cases, increased instances of the words and phrases we focus on in this pieces cannot be explained by the increase in releases, and in fact from 2019 to 2020, the number of releases and words slightly declined. Yet, use of almost all of the words we highlight below jumped sharply from 2019 to 2020.
Broadly, the newly strident rhetoric appears to be aimed at several goals: reinforcing China’s absolute national sovereignty; refuting criticisms and justifying the government’s own actions; exerting control over civil society; and redefining concepts like human rights to align them with CCP ideology.
Projecting state power
One of the most notable changes to the Hong Kong government’s rhetoric is just how loud it has gotten in flaunting China’s sovereign power.
Where the phrase “One China”—Beijing’s assertion that there is but a single Chinese government and that Taiwan is part of China—almost never appeared in government statements over the past decade, its use jumped ninefold this year.
The words “national sovereignty” and “state power” have spiked dramatically, as have propaganda catchphrases like Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” and its being an “inalienable part” of China. Symbols of the Chinese state, like the “national flag” and “national anthem,” now get far more airtime than before.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government eagerly displays its total allegiance to the party: local bureaucrats scramble to show their “full support” for the city’s administration, which in turn echoes that it “fully supports” central government policies, forming an obsequious feedback loop of performative loyalty. The Hong Kong government used the term “fully support” more than twice as many times in 2020 than it did in 2019 or 2018.
The newfound urgency to project state power stems from Beijing’s response to Hong Kong’s mass demonstrations last year. Protesters’ calls to preserve or build “Hong Kong as a nation” and their success in winning global support for their cause, including US sanctions on Chinese officials, struck at a sensitive spot for Beijing: its national security, which China defines broadly to mean not just the nation’s political and economic interests, but also the CCP’s singular grip on power. That’s why Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong has been underpinned by a national security law so sweepingly vague that anything that could conceivably undermine the party’s monopoly on power—even a tweet—can be deemed a threat.
Beijing’s other response to the upheavals of the protests was to beat the drums of “social stability,” though without explaining what stability entails. To promote the national security law, for example, the Hong Kong government plastered the city with banners exhorting the need to “restore stability”—a term that was not used at all in press releases in 2019, but 15 times in 2020. But left unsaid is who gets to define what stability means.
Indeed, the use of the word “stability” has a long history in totalitarianism, writes the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen in her book The Future is History. A vague idea of stability is peddled to the populace, all the while as waves of purges and crackdowns create an unending instability because “constant flux was necessary for the system’s survival.” It’s a concept well known in China, where under Mao Zedong, endless waves of revolution and “struggle” were used to silence critics and reformers, a legacy that persists today.
Gessen cites the political philosopher Hannah Arendt: “The point is that both Hitler and Stalin held out promises of stability in order to hide their intention of creating a state of permanent instability.”
Deny, refute, and condemn
Hong Kong officials are also mirroring the Communist Party’s belligerent style of deflecting criticisms with a mix of bulldozing and gaslighting—in one instance rewriting a widely witnessed seminal moment of the protests.
Long a staple in China’s propaganda and government statements, the Hong Kong government has similarly taken to countering any claims that it dislikes by labelling them as false, with phrases like “misled,” and “distorted” seeing marked increases—while the term “fake news” made its debut in 2019 and became even more common in 2020.
To muddy the waters, Hong Kong bureaucrats are starting to undermine information they find objectionable by calling them “rumors,” and accusing people of “spreading rumors” and being “rumor mongers”—phrases that in the past barely surfaced in the official lexicon but have now become commonplace. Dismissing something as a mere “rumor” is especially pernicious because it is neither a full rejection nor endorsement, allowing the state to suggest something is false while being entirely vague on what’s true. A recent example from the mainland: Li Wenliang, the late Chinese doctor who tried to warn other doctors of the coronavirus outbreak, was initially accused of spreading rumors and ordered to keep silent.
The phrase “so-called,” which Hong Kong officials now regularly reach for, has a similar effect. It is a mainstay of the CCP wordbook, as when it chided the US for identifying the “so-called ‘China Threat’,” or when it mocked numerous governments’ “so-called diplomatic ties with Taiwan.” In the words of Peter Pomerantsev, a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, these word choices create conditions where nothing is true and everything is possible. Except, of course, when the state “clarifies rumors”—as the Hong Kong government is now in the habit of doing —thereby casting itself as the sole arbiter of truth.
Also lifted straight from the CCP dictionary are accusations of “external elements” engaging in “gross interference” in the “internal affairs” of Hong Kong and China, and local activists working in “collusion” with “external forces” to “subvert state power.” And if foreign opprobrium persists, simply divert attention to their wrongdoings with accusations of “hypocrisy” and “double standards.” All these are phrases that have long featured in CCP lexicon, but that Hong Kong’s technocrats rarely ever used until this year.
This kind of strident and strongly judgmental language precedes China’s “wolf warrior” era, said Veg, using a term from a jingoistic Chinese film to refer to Beijing’s belligerent brand of international relations. “To an extent this is probably a legacy of the times when it was crucial to paint the world in black and white, and party discourse should leave no doubt in people’s minds as to how to judge certain events or people,” like “US imperialists and Soviet revisionists.”
When words mean nothing
Ironically, in a year when China rapidly dismantled Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms, the city’s government actually spent more time talking about freedoms and rights than in past years.
That is perhaps by design. As Gessen and many other scholars authoritarians have noted, words mean nothing to autocrats. Words are rendered incoherent and meaningless, Gessen writes, like when Russian president Vladimir Putin declared a “dictatorship of the law” or when the Soviets called mandatory elections with pre-filled ballots the “free expression of citizen will.”
Czech writer and former president Václav Havel made a similar observation in his book The Power of the Powerless, noting that because post-totalitarian regimes are “captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything” such that “government by bureaucracy is called popular government…depriving people of information is called making it available…the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code…farcical elections become the highest form of freedom.”
Tellingly, the Hong Kong government has taken a sharp turn towards a relativist approach to human rights. When asked to give assurances that civil liberties will be protected, officials couch their responses to say that it will uphold “legitimate rights” and “lawful rights”—terms that hold no water and that barely existed in official parlance until 2020. Yet even as citizens continue to enjoy these “legitimate” and “lawful” rights, the scope of “unlawful acts” is ever-expanding.
Meanwhile, the government increasingly makes a point of declaring that some human rights “are not absolute,” while trying to assure people that the national security law will only target an “extremely small minority”—though this claim fell apart when Beijing said that half a million Hong Kongers potentially violated the law when they voted in opposition primaries.
Bit by bit, this pervasive yet subtle wordplay begins to strip words of their meanings. At the same time, words are used to ensnare an ever greater number of people under the state’s control while purging those deemed undesirable by the government. This is already happening in schools, where the government is stepping up surveillance and revamping curriculums to rein in what authorities see as wayward youth who’ve been led astray by “inappropriate teaching materials” and the “misconduct of teachers”—new phrases in official-speak that augur a coming wave of state-led “values education” and tightened “moral standards.”
The language of resistance
Still, the Hong Kong government’s newly authoritarian language isn’t being met only with acquiescence.
Throughout last year’s protests and this year’s crackdown, Hong Kongers have been remarkably versatile in their use of language, coining protest slang and inventing code to evade censors. Around the city, people are finding ways to hide anti-government language in plain sight—small acts of linguistic defiance that allow civil society to hold on to a form of reality beyond the reach of the state’s distortions. To mock the outlawing of certain phrases as unlawful—such as the popular slogan “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”—Lennon protest walls of blank Post-it notes began appearing.
They may also find inspiration from Charter 77, a petition signed by Czechoslovak dissidents in 1977 to denounce the state for its violation of human rights and repression of freedoms. The document, as one of its signatories Václav Černý later noted, was “composed in its entirety of quotations from the State Constitution”—an ingenious way of turning the state’s language back on itself, and in doing so, exposing its failings and hypocrisies.
With assistance from David Yanofsky.