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👮♂️Going Too Far
Discussing new rural law enforcers and the language of imperial China
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Now, onto this week’s words and phrases…
China's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs recently announced the formation of a new department: The Agricultural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Department (农业综合行政执法队伍 nóngyè zōnghé xíngzhèng zhífǎ duìwu).
According to the ministry, its officers will bring much-needed law enforcement to China’s countryside: Catching sellers of counterfeit or substandard seeds, pesticides and veterinary medicines, and inspecting animals and plants for disease.
But so far the public response has been mostly negative. The new officers have been nicknamed nóngguǎn 农管, translated as "agricultural-management officers". It's a play on the phrase "urban-management officers", or chéngguǎn 城管, who are among China’s most despised law enforcers.
China's propaganda machine has sought to correct the narrative caused by the unhelpful nickname. But whether or not that is believed will depend on the actions of the new law enforcement officers:
The rural comprehensive law enforcement team has only just been established. So it must not be misrepresented and misinterpreted at the grassroots level. We must also be wary of people who abuse their powers and regard agricultural management as an opportunity for grassroots power violations and abuses, as well as a banner under which farmers can be tormented.
The suspicion also arises from a uniquely vague Chinese character hidden at the end of the job spec of the agricultural management officers:
The subtlety of the Chinese language encapsulated in the single character, “deng”, is what is so frightening. This is a backdoor for the infinite expansion of power, and gives the inherent attribute of declaring the right of interpretation. It means they can be the athletes and the referee in a match.
As readers of this newsletter will know, the character děng 等, which roughly translates as “etc” or “and so on” in Chinese can only be translated in context: It can mean anything, everything, or nothing. Cynical rural residents tend to think the worst, and assume it translates as "and anything else they want to meddle in".
The Economist ran an article on this story too, in which one villager’s comments sum up the feeling in the countryside according to the reporter: “All crows under heaven are black”.
In Chinese: 天下乌鸦一般黑 tiān xià wū yā yì bān hēi
In other words, the rural and urban police officers are all as bad as each other.
There are also lots of metaphors about China’s imperial past in the discussions. It’s a reminder that central power extending into the countryside is nothing new.
It’s been around for millennia, and it has rarely been effective or welcome. Imperial envoys, pomp and fanfare often had limited reach in China’s remote countryside under dynastic rule.
Will the nongguan be different, go further, or perhaps even go too far?
That’s what we explore this week!
🎧 What you’re missing in the Member Podcast
Today’s member podcast episode is 30 minutes long with 24 minutes of excellent native Chinese audio (with full transcript).
It’s a deep dive into some really useful and interesting Chinese phrases about how the nongguan are being discussed in China right now.
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1. 农管 nóng guǎn
agricultural law enforcement administrators
全中国的人们正在目睹农管公开扩权的初始阶段 - People all over China are witnessing the initial stages of the public expansion of agricultural management. 
Note: Thanks to Geremie Barmé, Editor of the highly entertaining and informative China Heritage, for suggesting this story.
2. 钦差 qīn chāi
农村治理还是要更多依靠原有的组织体系，“农管”不能成为一批“钦差” - Rural governance still has to rely more on its own organizational system. Agricultural management officers cannot become a group of "imperial envoys". 
3. 拿着鸡毛当令箭 ná zhe jī máo dāng lìng jiàn
taking a chicken feather as an order; abuse powers
我们也要警惕有人“拿着鸡毛当令箭”，把“农管”当成基层越权、滥权、折腾农民的“虎皮大旗” - We must also be wary of people who "take a chicken feather as a warrant" and regard agricultural management as an opportunity for grassroots power violations and abuses, as well as a banner under which farmers can be tormented. 
Note: This was one of our favourites of 2023, and we also discuss it in The China Project’s Phrase of the Week.
4. 拉大旗 ，作虎皮 lā dà qí, zuò hǔ pí
hoist a banner such as the tiger's skin to intimidate others; abuse one’s powers
把“农管”当成基层越权、滥权、折腾农民的“虎皮大旗” - Treating "agricultural management" as a "tiger skin banner" for the grassroots to overreach, abuse power, and torment farmers. 
Note: A well-known line from Lu Xun's Jie Ting's Essays (且介亭杂文末编). It means to use the banner of reform to abuse political powers. Zoe discusses this more in the podcast.
5. 前事不忘，后事之师 qián shì bú wàng, hòu shì zhī shī
past experience is a teacher for the future
前事不忘后事之师，农管从兄弟部门城管那不仅借鉴经验，恐怕也要接受后者直到现在尚未“转正”的社会评价 - The past is the teacher of the future. Agricultural management officers may not only learn from the experience of the chengguan, their reputation is also closely linked - chengguan has never been regarded as "official" and is always looked down on. 
Consuming the Conversation
6. 坑农 kēng nóng
这支队伍早已有之，在打击假种子、假化肥等“坑农”“害农”事 - This team has been around for a long time, and it is tackling issues like fake seeds, fake fertilizers that hurt farmers.
Related: 害农 hài nóng - hurt farmers
7. 后门 hòu mén
以汉字的精妙而言，最怕的就是一个“等”字，这是为扩权留下的无限大的后门 - With Chinese characters, the word "deng" is the most feared, which offers an infinite number of back doors for power expansion. 
8. 铁腕 tiě wàn
一种整顿农村秩序的权力思维正以激进的铁腕试水 - A power mindset to improve rural order is testing the waters with a radical iron fist. 
9. 冷眼 lěng yǎn
“农管”在农村开展工作时就可能被排斥，遭遇冷眼 - "Agricultural management" may be rejected and met with cold eyes when they carry out work in rural areas. 
10. 瞎管 xiā guǎn
blind management; bad management
农管要做到准确执法，而非为了创造业绩，刷存在感，找各种事情瞎管 - Agricultural management must implement effective law enforcement. They should not actively look for things to “manage” in order to meet their performance target or to demonstrate their presence. 
Related: 乱管 luàn guǎn - bad management
11. 垫脚石 diàn jiǎo shí
想到的却是这八个方面的每一个都可以成为扩权的垫脚石 - What comes to mind is that each of these eight aspects can become a stepping stone to power expansion. 
12. 土政策 tǔ zhèng cè
这种一刀切的土政策哪怕与“农管”无关，但切实影响到农民的日常生活和生计 - Even if this one-size-fits-all bad policy has nothing to do with "agricultural management", it actually affects the daily life and livelihood of farmers. 
Related: 一刀切 yì dāo qiē - one size fits all policy
13. 惊惶不安 jīng huáng bù ān
农业农村部法规司试图安抚惊惶不安的民意 - The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Regulations is trying to reassure the panicked public. 
Related: 忧心忡忡 yōu xīn chōng chōng - worried (惊惶不安 - means worried to the point of being paranoid)
14. 杞人忧天 qǐ rén yōu tiān
like the man of Qi who feared that the sky might fall; alarmist
所有这些不信任与忧虑为何不是杞人忧天 - Why is this mistrust and concern not misplaced? 
Note: The idiom story is about a man in the State of Qi who was haunted by the fear that the sky might fall one day. It tells us there is no need to have imaginary or groundless fears. Qi (杞 Qǐ) was a minor feudal state in ancient China that existed from the beginning of the Shang Dynasty (16th century BCE) until the beginning of the Warring States period, c. 445 BCE.
15. 朝令夕改 zhāo lìng xī gǎi
(an order or a policy) change from day to day
对当下农村工作当中一些形式主义、教条主义、官僚主义、朝令夕改等问题的集体吐槽 - There are many complaints about some formalism, dogmatism, bureaucracy, and frequent policy changes in the management of rural areas. 
16. 木已成舟 mù yǐ chéng zhōu
the wood is already made into a boat; what’s done is done
既然木已成舟，现在更重要的还是在制度层面如何监管好这支队伍 - Now that the deal is done, what is more important now is how to supervise this team at the institutional level. 
17. 步入后尘 bù rù hòu chén
follow in the footsteps
不少人担心“农管”会不会也步后尘，成为盘踞在农民头上的官僚主义乌云 - Many people worry whether the agricultural management officers will follow in its footsteps and become a dark cloud of bureaucracy hanging over rural residents. 
Note: A well known idiom from a Dù Fǔ 杜甫 poem, Six Play Quatrains 戏为六绝句 (xì wéi liù jué jù).
18. 九龙治水 jiǔ lóng zhì shuǐ
nine dragons managing the water; too many cooks spoil the broth
也是为了纠正多年来地方尤其是县级农业部门内部多头分散执法，“九龙治水”的问题 - It is to correct the problem of there being too many departments involved for many years in local and especially county-level agricultural departments. 
19. 鸣锣开道 míng luó kāi dào
sound the gong and clear the way
要坚决防止这支队伍为农村地区的形式主义鸣锣开道 - We must resolutely prevent this team from clearing the way for formalism in rural areas. 
Note: A reference to China's imperial past; When a Minister would walk down a street in ancient China, gongs and bells would be sounded as a sign of authority, and to encourage people to move out of the way.
20. 皇权不下县 huáng quán bú xià xiàn
imperial power does not reach the countryside
“皇权不下县”是自由主义的羸弱论调，早已过时 - "Imperial power does not go down to the county" is a weak argument of liberalism, which is now long outdated. 
21. 歪嘴和尚念歪经 wāi zuǐ hé shang niàn wāi jīng
crooked mouth monk makes scriptures sound crooked; misinterpreting policies
要防止其在基层被念歪了经、盖歪了楼 - It is necessary to prevent them from misinterpreting policies at the grassroots level. 
22. 迅雷不及掩耳之势 xùn léi bù jí yǎn ěr zhī shì
农管的扩权进程犹如迅雷不及掩耳之势，说明部门做了充分的准备 - The power expansion of agricultural management has been rapid. This shows that the department has made sufficient preparations. 
23. 闲不住的手 xián bú zhù de shǒu
the meddling hand of government
光说那些不得人心的事不归“农管”管还不够，还得彻底管住闲不住的手 - It is not enough to say that those unpopular things are not under the control of the "agricultural management". It’s crucial to totally stop them meddling in the affairs of farmers. 
Note: Originally the title of a book published in 2008 about China’s stock markets. This phrase is now used to describe meddling officials.
1. What’s noteworthy on Chinese social media this week?
Remember last week’s lesson about Zibo BBQ 淄博烧烤?
That story has been hot on Weibo all week during the holidays. So we asked What’s on Weibo’s Manya Koetse for her take.
Here it is:
This week, Chinese social media has been abuzz with Labor Day holiday travel content, including a new fast and frugal travel trend and the ongoing popularity of Zibo, a city in central Shandong Province known for its BBQ. While Zibo has become a widely celebrated social media sensation, a recent essay by journalist and academic Liu Yadong (刘亚东) criticizes the trend as a symptom of a society disconnected from important issues. The essay, titled "The Hype Surrounding Zibo BBQ is a Sign of Social Wasteland" ("淄博烧烤走红是社会荒芜的表现") paints a gloomy picture of a youth culture obsessed with clickbait and superficial trends, and authorities who stifle deeper discussions of serious social problems. The now-deleted article has sparked debate online. Is Liu right? Some people disagree, and say that it is only normal for people to want to go out and have fun, especially in these post-pandemic times. Nevertheless, the critical essay does provide food for thought in a time when social media hypes travel faster than the speed of light. Read more here (including a full translation of the article).
You should sign up to Manya’s free What’s on Weibo newsletter. It’s my go to resource for staying up to date with who’s saying what on Chinese social media, what it means, and why it’s important.
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