February 06, 2014 00:00 By Bethany Allen Foreign Policy
Netizens suffocating in smog have a new way to protest the negative effects of GDP growth.
Chinese media have debated why January saw pollution so extreme it closed schools and airports, chased away foreign tourists and even prompted a ban on Lunar New Year’s fireworks.
It’s likely that a substantial portion of this smog is caused by reliance on coal, one symptom of the country’s rapid economic growth. But Chinese microbloggers have concluded that another likely culprit is chicken’s passing gas.
That’s a rhetorical turn, of course, not a scientific conclusion. GDP, short for gross domestic product, is often used directly in Chinese without translation, a practice that has led to the sarcasm-laden online use of the homophonic term ji de pi – roughly meaning “a chicken’s fart”. Homophones abound on the Chinese Internet, and economic jargon boasts no immunity from the jabs of disgruntled web users: A recent search on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, found almost 920,000 references to the term.
Chinese Internet users regularly invoke the chicken gas trope in place of GDP as a subtle form of protest. It appears when much-hailed economic growth doesn’t manifest in tangible improvement in living standards for the average citizen; when government officials prioritise increasing GDP over reducing unemployment or improving medical care; and when citizens express doubt at the accuracy of the economic data itself.
As countless news reports in both China and the United States have highlighted the devastating health consequences of China’s catastrophic air pollution, including decreased life expectancy and cancer in children, many microbloggers blame the country’s breakneck economic development – and by implication, the government officials who seem to pursue growth with single-minded focus.
“Which is more important,” asked one Weibo user, “ji de pi or survival?”
For the last three decades, China’s GDP has been growing at the unprecedented average annual rate of roughly 10 per cent. Since economic growth is a cornerstone of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy, government leaders often tout breakneck GDP growth as ongoing proof that China’s future is safe in the party’s capable hands. And it’s not just national leaders who need GDP growth to secure their position; local officials’ promotions can depend on proof of economic growth in their areas, leading to what even nationalistic state outlet Global Times called a “GDP obsession”.
But it is local residents who suffer the real-world consequences.
In response to a post by the smog-choked city of Qingdao’s official Weibo account heralding 10 per cent growth in 2013, one resident wrote, “We want blue skies, not ji de pi.” One user posted a picture of a polluted skyline, with the caption reading, in part, “chicken fart decade”.
The Chinese government is not blind to these complaints. In July 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that GDP growth would “no longer” be the sole criterion for measuring leadership’s performance.
And government officials have suggested GDP alternatives, like “green GDP” which factors in the environmental impact of growth, and the “happiness index”.
But implementation of a “green GDP” has already failed once, abandoned in 2007 after being reportedly blocked by provincial leaders who feared that the new indicator would reveal the full environmental damage wrought by their destructive quick-growth measures.
While the government has thus far failed to turn away from GDP, many microbloggers already have. As one Shanghai-based Weibo user wrote in a post that censors quickly deleted, “When the common people cannot enjoy the achievements of the world’s second-best GDP, that is when GDP is no better than a chicken’s fart.”