Working Around the CCP’s Insecurities


  • David L. Bandurski China Media Project, the University of Hong Kong



Censorship, CCP, Xi Jinping, Low-level red, High-level black, language, discourse, public opinion guidance, Xi Jinping Thought, 審查, 中共, 習近平, 低級紅, 高級黑, 語言, 話語, 輿論導向, 習近平思想


Language is a sensitive matter for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a fact made clear by the well-documented mechanisms of party-state censorship and propaganda, which aim to repel criticism and set the agenda in the CCP’s favor. Less widely acknowledged, however, is the extent to which even terms of praise and devotion must be subjected to careful scrutiny in China. Two recent catchphrases in particular that speak anew to deeper anxieties about the image of the CCP and its top leader, Xi Jinping. These are “low-level red” and “high-level black,” odd phrases in English that invite some elucidation. The terms, which first emerged on the internet, refer in both cases to covert or unintentional acts of criticism. “Low-level red,” or dijihong (低級紅), refers in official parlance to language or conduct that is intended to praise the Party or government, but which ultimately has the opposite effect because it is patently false, cheap, or ill-considered. “High-level black,” or gaojihei (高级黑), refers on the other hand to more deliberate and skilful acts of disguised sabotage, in which language is deployed in obscurely humorous ways, or cloaked in academic respectability, in order to criticise or ridicule.

對中國共產黨來說,語言是一個敏感的問題, 這在中國的審查和宣傳機制中得到了充分的證實。審查的目的是為了排斥批評,營造有利於中國共產黨的輿情。然而,鮮為人知的是,在中國,即使是讚美和奉承的詞彙也會受到審查。尤其是最近的兩個流行語 —— "低級紅"和"高級黑",再次體現了人們對中共及其最高領導人習近平形象的深層憂慮。這兩個詞最早出現在互聯網,均為隱蔽或無意的批評。 "低級紅"指的是那些旨在讚美黨或政府的語言或行為,但最終卻因明顯的虛假、低級或考慮不周而產生相反的效果。而"高級黑"則指更有心機、更有技巧的變相貶低。它以隱晦幽默的方式運用語言,或披上學術的外衣,以達到批評或嘲笑的目的。


Download data is not yet available.


An Xiao Mina. 2014. "Batman, Pandaman and the Blind Man: A Case Study in Social Change Memes and Internet Censorship in China." Journal of Visual Culture 13 (3): 359–75.

Bandurski, David. 2020. "When Propaganda Bites Back." China Media Project, March 8, 2020. Accessed January 14, 2021.

Bandurski, David. 2016. "An Ode to Big Brother." China Media Project (Medium), February 19, 2016. Accessed January 14, 2021.

Barmé, Geremie R. 2020. "China’s Coronavirus Crisis Is Just Beginning." The New York Times, March 3, 2020.

BBC. 2016. "Southern Metropolis Daily' Fires Editor Due to Serious 'Guidance Error'" 《南都》因严重“导向事故”开除编辑 ('Nandu' yin yanzhong 'daoxiang shigu' kaichu bianji), BBC (Chinese), March 1, 2016. Accessed January 14, 2021.

Brady, Anne-Marie. 2009. Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Buckley, Chris. 2016. "China’s Communist Party Declares Xi Jinping ‘Core’ Leader." The New York Times, October 27, 2016, Accessed January 14, 2021.

CCP. 2019. "CCP Central Committee Decision on Earnestly Studying, Disseminating and Implementing the Spirit of the 19th National Congress" 中共中央关于认真学习宣传贯彻党的十九大精神的决定 (Zhonggong zhongyang guanyu renzhen xuexi xuanchuang guanche dang de shijiuda jingshen de jueding), Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party,, November 1, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2020.

CCP. 2019. "CCP Central Committee Opinion on the Strengthening of Party Construction" (zhonggong zhongyang guanyu jiaqiang dang de zhengzhi jianshe de yijian). People's Daily, February 28, 2019. Accessed October 30, 2020.

Cheek,Timothy. 1981. "Deng Tuo: Culture, Leninism and Alternative Marxism in the Chinese Communist Party." The China Quarterly, no. 87 (September 1981): 470–91.

Düben, Björn Alexander. 2018. "Xi Jinping and the End of Chinese Exceptionalism." Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 67, issue 2 (November 2018): 111–128.

Financial Times. 2017a. "Xi Jinping’s Top Team: China’s New Politburo Standing Committee," Financial Times, October 24, 2017. Accessed October 14, 2021.

Financial Times. 2017b. "China Tilts Back Towards a Cult of Personality." Financial Times, October 25, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2020.

HK01. 2020. "'A Battle Against Epidemic' Removed From Shelves: Low-level Red Must Stop" 《大國戰「疫」》遭下架 「低級紅」該休矣 ("da guo zhan 'yi'" zao xiajia 'dijihong' gai xiuyi),, March 6, 2020. Accessed October 30, 2020.

Johnson, Christopher K. 2016. "Now China’s “Core” Leader, Xi Jinping Looks to Dominate Leadership Shuffle," Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), October 28, 2016. Accessed October 14, 2020.

Ladányi, László. [Without year]. "The Ten Commandments of a China Watcher." from Pierre Ryckmans, archived at

Lee, Siu-yau. 2016. "Surviving Online Censorship in China: Three Satirical Tactics and their Impact." The China Quarterly vol. 228 (December 2016): 1061–80.

Mao Zedong, "Doing News Work Requires Politicians Running the Newspapers." In Collection of Thoughts of Modern Chinese Press Advocates" 《中國現代報刊活動家思想評傳》 (Zhongguo xiandai baokan huodongjia sixiang pingzhuan), edited by Hu Zhengqiang (Beijing: Xinhua Publishing House, 2003): 28-30.

MacFarquhar, Roderick. 1997. "The Curious Case of the ‘Three-Family Village’." in The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: Volume 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm 1961-1966, ed. by Roderick MacFarquhar (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780192149978.003.0012

Márquez, Xavier. 2018. "Two Models of Political Leader Cults: Propaganda and Ritual." Politics, Religion & Ideology 19:3 (August 2018): 265–84.

O'Neill, Patrick Howell. 2019). "How WeChat Censors Private Conversations, automatically in Real Time." MIT Technology Review, July 15, 2019. Accessed October 30, 2020.

Qian Gang. 2009. "An Anniversary Observation on Hu Jintao Press Policy" (Hu Jintao xinwen zhengce zhi zhounian guancha), Media Digest (RTHK), July 15, 2009. Accessed October 14, 2021.

Qian Gang. 2018. "Chinese Discourse Report 2018." China Media Project, December 30, 2018. Accessed October 14, 2020.

Qian Gang. 2020. "The Delicate Dance of Loyalty." China Media Project, April 7, 2020. Accessed October 14, 2020.

Ramzy, Austin. 2014. "Musical Ode to Xi Jinping and His Wife Goes Viral." The New York Times, November 25, 2014. Accessed October 14, 2020.

Repnikova, Maria and Fang Kecheng. 2015. "Behind the Fall of China’s Greatest Newspaper." FP, January 29, 2015. Accessed October 14, 2020.

Reuters. (2017). "No Cult of Personality Around Xi, Says Top China Party Academic.", November 6, 2017.

Rudolph, Josh. 2020. "Translation: Essay by Missing Property Tycoon Ren Zhiqiang." China Digital Times, March 13, 2020.

Shirk, Susan L. 2018. "China in Xi’s “New Era”: The Return to Personalistic Rule." Journal of Democracy vol. 29 (2) (April 2018): 22–36.

Tatlow, Didi Kirsten. 2016. "Hidden Message Suspected on Chinese Front Page, and Speculation Swirls." The New York Times, March 2, 2016, Accessed October 14, 2020.

Wu Jin 吴金. 2019. "Remaining Alert to 'Low-level Red' and 'High-level Black' Caused by Improper Reporting" 谨防报道失当产生“低级红”“高级黑” (jinfang baodao shidang chansheng 'dijihong' 'gaojihei). Qiushi Journal, June 24, 2019, Accessed October 14, 2021.

Xinhua New Agency. 2020. "'A Battle Against Epidemic' is Published" 《大国战“疫”》近期出版 ("da guo zhan 'yi'" jinqi chuban), Xinhua News Agency, February 26, 2020. Accessed October 14, 2021.

Yang Guobin. 2009.The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

Yang Haosheng. 2016. "The Political Transformation of Romantic Lyricism: Guo Moruo’s Classical-Style Poems in Response to Mao Zedong." in A Modernity Set to a Pre-Modern Tune, ed. Yang Haosheng. New York: Brill: 147–182.

Yang Qingzhi. 2017. "Guizhou Party Conference Hangs Portrait of Xi, and Twice in Five Days its Paper Shouts 'Great Leader Xi Jinping" 《貴州黨員大會高宣習頭像,報紙五天兩度喊出‘偉大領袖習近平’》(guizhou dangyuan dahui gaoxuan Xi touxiang, baozhi wutianliangdu hanchu 'weida lingxiu Xi Jinping),, November 15, 2017. Accessed January 13, 2021.

Zhang Xinyang. 2015. "Does the Glory of the Multitudes Mean Less Than the Destruction of a Single Individual?" 《萬人之譽不及一人之毀》 (wanren zhi yu buji yiren zhi hui), Essays Monthly, vol. 9 (September 2015): 6.

Zhao Qiang 赵强. 2010. "Public Opinion Out of Control: A Catalyst for the Collapse of the Soviet Union" (yulun shikong: sulian jieti de cuihuaji), Qiushi Journal, November 01, 2010. Accessed January 13, 2021.

Zuo, Mandy. 2018. "Chinese Marathon Runner Loses Race After Marshal Tries to Hand Her National Flag Near Finish Line." South China Morning Post, November 19, 2018.