A Style Manual

When I think of a style manual, I think about punctuation. To use or not to use the Oxford comma. To write a number in letters or in Roman numerals. The purpose of a style manual is to create consistency in the writing, formatting, and design of a publication. So, every now and again, I reach for the old Strunk and White.

In China, journalists reach for a different kind of style manual. One version first circulated in 2017. The style manual originates from the Xinhua News Agency, the voice of the Chinese Communist Party. Xinhua journalists churn out content that is then fed to media platforms across China. Sounds like Reuters though with a few twists.

Chinese newspapers and websites cannot only use Xinhua content for free; sometimes instructions from the authorities compel them to run Xinhua copy. So when Xinhua updates its style guide, it affects the way the news is written in numerous newspapers and websites across China.

Jeremy Goldkorn et al., “Here are all the words Chinese state media has banned” in SupChina, 1 Aug 2017

The 3Ts

The first time I went to China in 1984, we were guided by local officials. They warned us not to talk about Tibet or Taiwan. Five years later, Tiananmen Square was added to the list of taboo topics. When we went to visit my Auntie May in Shanghai in 2011, my father told my journalist husband to keep his mouth shut. Dad was worried that any topic might embarrass Auntie May’s son, a Party cadre.

Why so touchy?

Dalai Lama in exile. Photo credit: Manuel Bauer
Photo credit: Manuel Bauer. Image source: Dalai Lama

Tibet is a problem because of the Dalai Lama. In exile since 1959, the Dalai Lama advocates freedom for Tibet. The Chinese government and the Tibetan people understand this to be a gambit for independence. While the Dalai Lama preaches non-violence, his adherents grow impatient.

In 2009, a Tibetan Buddhist monk set himself on fire. His aim was to recall the Dalai Lama from his exile in India. While the protest was unsuccessful, this flaming monk showed the world how very unhappy the Tibetans are under Chinese rule.

Since then, 156 Tibetans have self-immolated. […] Their technique has become more sophisticated over time: to make sure there is no chance of rescue, some have wrapped themselves in quilts and wire, while others drank gasoline so they burned from the inside.

Geoff Dyer, “Tibetan Realities” in The Financial Times, 29-30 Aug 2020

To discuss Tibetan monks who set themselves on fire, the Xinhua style guide offers this useful guideline: do not use the term 屁民 pì mín — “shitizen”; in other words, ordinary people who are powerless.

Taiwan Straits

The Xinhua style guide devotes its longest section to the gnarly questions of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. It all boils down to this: Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan belong to China.

Affairs regarding cross-Strait relations are domestic affairs of China. Never use terms from the International Law, such as passport [护照 hùzhào], document authentication [文书认证 wénshūrènzhèng], extradite [引渡 yǐndù] or smuggle [偷渡 tōudù].

Xinhua Style Guide, translated by SupChina

Do not publish texts, maps or diagrams that identify Taiwan as a country. When a Party leader comes to Macau, do not call this a foreign visit but rather an inspection. Do not praise Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Call it an illegal occupy central.

Alongside the journalists bound by the Xinhua style guide works an army of censors. Some scour the internet looking for dangerous chatter. Others lurk among the stacks of academic libraries to cull offensive works. Is it effective?

“Crude is the word,” said Jonathan Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham in Britain. “The blunt way in which articles were chosen for censoring … suggest to me that there was not a lot of thought put into it.”

John Ruwitch, “Blunt instrument? What a list of banned articles says about China’s censors”, Reuters, 23 Aug 2017

Simply including a place name like Xinjiang in a title is sufficient grounds to censor the entire work. Even when the Xinjiang in question is a village in the south and not the northwestern autonomous region and home to the beleaguered Uighurs.


Do not use the terms separatist forces or pro-independence activists in Xinjiang, commands the Xinhua style guide. It’s ok to force feed pork meat to Uighurs held captive in concentration camps but journalists should never bring up any content related to pigs when discussing Islam.

Before Xinjiang, there was Tibet. Repressive policies tested there between 2012 and 2016 were then applied to the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in northwestern China: entire cities covered in surveillance cameras, ubiquitous neighborhood police stations, residents made to report on one another.

Adrian Zenz, “China has a new plan to tame Tibet” in The International New York Times, 26-27 Sept 2020

Lessons learned in Xinjiang now apply to Tibet. The authorities round up nomads and farmers to teach them gratitude to the Chinese Communist Party. They jail activist in Hong Kong and deny them due process. It seems like only a matter of time before China’s gun sights point at Taiwan.

Xi style

Xi Jinping style
Winnie the Pooh and friend. Image source: BBC

Is Xi Jinping to blame? After all, China’s leader is famous for his thin skin. He banned images of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, too. Didn’t care for the comparison, apparently.

Meanwhile, the folks behind the Xinhua style guide struggle to keep up. The number of banned terms, images and emojis is exploding. Banned terms include “Moulin Rouge”, “braised rabbit”, “helicopter” and “zen”, all images of a candle, the numbers 4 and 6, and rice bunnies. What is the logic behind all this censorship?

Beijing’s current belligerent mood is usually attributed to Xi Jinping, president since 2013, but Xi has been riding forces that were unleashed in 2008. That was the year that the Olympics boosted Chinese self-esteem and the financial crash shattered illusions about American omnipotence. But before that the Tibetan unrest provoked a powerfully anti-western sentiment among Chinese leaders and a paranoia about enemies within.

Dyer, “Tibetan Realities”

The Xinhua style guide is silent on the topic of enemies within.