In the midst of a troubled economy and stock market rout, a People’s Daily Online article trumpeting a supposed nationwide “air of optimism” drew so many derisive comments last week that its related hashtag was censored on Weibo. Soon afterward, a 1960 People’s Daily Lunar New Year’s message was deleted from WeChat, possibly due to similar wording in the headlines, after it was shared by a WeChat user. It was the second deletion of historical People’s Daily content in a short span of time: a 2016 article predicting that China would enter the club of “high-income” nations by 2024 was deleted from People’s Daily Online after it was “maliciously shared” by a Weibo user, who prefaced it with the withering comment, “I found something to brighten up my Lunar New Year’s celebration ….”
The February 2, 2024 People’s Daily Online headline “The Whole Country Is Filled With an Air of Optimism” (整个国家洋溢着乐观向上的氛围, Zhěnggè guójiā yángyìzhe lèguān xiàngshàng de fēnwéi) seems to be drawn from a quote used in the article. International Secretary of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party (DKP) Renate Koppe, discussing her trip to China with People’s Daily journalist Liu Zhonghua, commented, “The whole country is filled with an air of optimism, which impressed me deeply” (整个国家都洋溢着乐观向上的氛围，给我留下深刻印象, Zhěnggè guójiā dōu yángyìzhe lèguān xiàngshàng de fēnwéi, gěi wǒ liú xià shēnkè yìnxiàng.)
Guess who is the most famous German in China today?
Renate Koppe, International Secretary of the Central Committee of German Communist Party, who rose to fame for her quote in People’s Daily “The whole country is filled with optimism” amidst the worst economic crisis in China. pic.twitter.com/tW6c3wwCgE
— Henry Gao (@henrysgao) February 3, 2024
The January 27, 1960 People’s Daily Lunar New Year’s message that was deleted from WeChat used similar wording in its headline: “In 1960, People’s Communes Suffused the Whole Country With an Air of Rapid Development” (1960年, 人民公社让整个国家都洋溢着高速发展的氛围, 1960 nián, rénmín gōngshè ràng zhěnggè guójiā dōu yángyìzhe gāosù fāzhǎn de fēnwéi.) Both headlines use the structure “整个国家都洋溢着 ___ 的氛围” (zhěnggè guójiā dōu yángyìzhe ___ de fēnwéi), or “the whole country is suffused with an air of _____.”
In 1960, as the People’s Daily published its Lunar New Year’s message, Mao’s policies had already pushed China into the Great Famine that would, over the course of the next few years, claim between 23-30 million lives, possibly more. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the “Four Pests” Campaign, and the establishment of the vaunted People’s Communes all contributed to the man-made disaster that culminated in mass starvation and death.
The extremely belated censorship of the 1960 People’s Daily article—and the ongoing censorship of other business- and economics-related online content—occurs as many Chinese citizens ponder the disconnect between the unconvincing optimism peddled by state media and the real economic pain afflicting people via the employment, housing, and stock markets. Little surprise then, if during this Lunar New Year 2024, many worry that the nation is “driving in reverse.”