What the Hell Does “Crackdown” Mean?

If you’re reading this post right now, chances are this isn’t the first thing you’ve read about China in English. And if this isn’t the first thing you’ve read about China in English, you’ve probably read about a Chinese government “crackdown” before.

But what, exactly, does it mean when the Chinese government cracks down? The term was likely initially popularized through its frequent use to describe the government’s response to the protesters in Tiananmen in 1989. To many people, when they hear about a Chinese government “crackdown“, it conjures images of tanks rolling into the Square, toppling the goddess of democracy while soldiers execute peaceful protesters trying to escape the mayhem.

Yet, the term crackdown gets thrown around a lot. Recently, the Chinese government “cracked down” on pornographic websites. There’s apparently a “severe crackdown” on Uighurs in Xinjiang, and there’s a “crackdown” going on in Tibet too, in fact, multiple “crackdowns“. Christan leaders in China are concerned a “crackdown” might be imminent. There’s a “crackdown” on Falun Gong practitioners, and a “crackdown” in intellectual property rights violations.

The problem is that there’s no clear meaning for the term. As indicated above, it gets thrown around to describe a wide variety of government activities. Sometimes, its intended meaning is spelled out later in the article through specifics, but even when that’s the case, someone reading about a ‘severe crackdown’ in Tibet is probably going to think what that phrase indicates is violence, not the arrest of 40-odd people in a province with a population of over 2.7 million.

Often, though, there’s no further explanation anyway. The Amnesty International report linked above cites a “severe crackdown” on Uighurs but doesn’t elaborate at all on what, exactly, the “crackdown” entails. Does that mean they’re forcing Uighurs to speak Mandarin more, or executing them in the street? It’s not clear, but that seems like a pretty important distinction to make, and it’s not fair to expect that your readers are going to be willing to do the digging and figure out what crackdown means this time.

Let us here at ChinaGeeks be the first to declare a crackdown on “crackdown”. It’s a vague word that carries with it historical implications (for many readers) that distort its intended meaning, and it’s used far too often. A quick search of Google News turns up 2,696 responses for “China crackdown”. That’s nearly half the number of responses that come up when you search for “China politics” (5,762)! For every two stories about politics in China, apparently, there’s a story about a crackdown.

Please, let’s decide once and for all what “crackdown” actually means, or stop using it altogether. Its current “meaning” is too broad, too vague, and only feeds into the popular Western belief that everything the Chinese government does can and should be compared to Tiananmen, 1989.

0 thoughts on “What the Hell Does “Crackdown” Mean?”

  1. Still has that imprecision about it, though. Clearly we need a “slap on the wrist campaign”, “slap on the face campaign”, “strike hard campaign”, “strike harder campaign”, “ok, this time we’re really not kidding campaign” and “run them over with tanks campaign”.


  2. I agree. From my Western point of view, any time I see news about China’s government, particularly ‘crackdowns’, I immediately equate it to unnecessary force. I’ll try to do better!


  3. Arresting people is violent. If we stipulate that the people being arrested are being arrested for a good reason, such as for crimes like robbery or murder or mail fraud, then this is a different kind of violence than what “crackdown” would imply. On the other hand, if they are being arrested to send a political message and intimidate larger groups of people, then “crackdown” is, at worst, a minor exaggeration. If you prefer to more specific, I think that’s great.


  4. I would say that the former is a crackdown and the latter is, depending on the circumstances, possibly something more than a crackdown. However, I think I understand your point — the term is quite vague, and different people might have different ideas about what it means. Some people will hear “crackdown in Tibet” and pictures tanks rolling in the streets. So, the call for more specific descriptions is warranted. I don’t have a very high opinion of journalist’s average chances of actually doing that reliably — headline writers, even less so.


  5. Yeah, to be honest I don’t hold out much hope, either, especially depending on the media outlet. I know CNN.com, for example, intentionally writes outrageous/exaggerated headlines because they want people to click through. I remember reading headlines about the riots in Tibet on CNN, then reading the actual stories and wondering where the hell the headlines came from…

    But still, a man can hope…


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