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The Chinese Communist Party’s Use of Homophonous Pen Names: An Open-Source Open Secret

David Gitter and Leah Fang

This is an advance release from Asia Policy (January 2018). The full issue will be available in January 2018.


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This article examines the evolving commentary system in the People’s Republic of China that utilizes homophonous pen names to transmit official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views and assesses the system’s utility as a credible information source for foreign analysts.

Main Argument

The CCP uses an evolving system of homophonous pen names to write authoritative commentary that accurately propagates its views. Since the mid-1990s, this system has been repurposed to circumvent growing resistance to CCP propaganda by both the Chinese public and the ranks of the CCP itself. Its commentary covers policy-relevant topics pertaining to China’s most important domestic and foreign affairs, and at times has been used to issue ominous warning statements to foreign countries over sensitive areas of dispute. The article concludes that the pen names investigated within verily represent the views of their superior regime organ. While the system’s effectiveness to achieve its intended purpose seems uncertain, these commentaries provide a readily exploitable resource for foreign analysts that can supplement the long-monitored and more authoritative premium commentary vehicles of the party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily.

Policy Implications

  • If foreign analysts systematically monitor and analyze the messages transmitted by the CCP’s homophonous pen name system, then the policymaking community can take advantage of more complete information to devise more effective China-oriented policies.
  • Analysts can accurately identify new homophonous pen names by understanding the history of established pen names and the commonalities found in their linguistic components.


David Gitter is Director of the Party Watch Initiative, a new program of the Project 2049 Institute that analyzes the writings and activities of the Chinese Communist Party.

Leah Fang is a Researcher at the Party Watch Initiative at the Project 2049 Institute and a China specialist at Kroll Associates.