Source: China Narrative 52 (7/5/21)
Trained, Tamed, Coined: Decoding China Tech Corporate Gibberish
Greetings from Chinarrative!
Our previous newsletters featured the stories of employees trapped in the grueling “996” work culture of China’s booming tech industry. In this issue, we learn about a common gripe of newcomers to the sector — its overwhelming tide of meaningless corporate jargon, known in Chinese as heihua (“黑话”).
While the topic is lighthearted, it illuminates important ways that the Asian nation’s tech giants operate. In recent years, these firms have increasingly used their dominant market positions to project their corporate values, invoking their supposedly unique ways of thinking to justify their supremacy.
Like their counterparts in Silicon Valley, the ideological posturing of Chinese internet firms serves several purposes. It buttresses their claims of working for the greater social good and dilutes their reputation for ruthless profit-seeking. It helps them to attract employees seeking meaningful work, not just a salary. And it strengthens ties within the organizations by popularizing language that outsiders can’t understand.
But the strategy has a darker side as well. It can be used to justify long hours and inefficient work practices. It reflects the rising cognitive barriers to entry in China’s tech industry. And it popularizes empty, vague or counterintuitive terminology.
The story below, which originally appeared on the Chinese nonfiction platform Renwu, shows how Chinese tech firms have become hotbeds of gibberish. Some of the terms they use are made up and lack clear definitions; others imbue existing words with new meanings. Don’t worry if the corporate dialect leaves you scratching your head; in most cases, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Thanks for your continued support of Chinarrative. To become a paid subscriber just click through the “Subscribe now” button below—it’s $5 per month or $50 per year. Founding member slots are also still available! Past issues are archived here. Subscribe now
The Dilemma of Corporate Jargon
By Yi Fangxing
Translator: Matthew Walsh
Contributing Chinarrative Editor: Isabel Wang
It was 2 a.m., and Liu Feifei was still working overtime. She was very sleepy, but kept her eyes on her cellphone, resisting the urge to complain about the client on the other end.
The phone kept lighting up with notifications through DingTalk, the Alibaba-owned business communications app that Liu’s company used. Hoping to cut through the noise, she brought up a four-person conversation with a client to whom she had just handed a planning proposal. In clear, simple Chinese, she wrote:
What, when and what time are we going to post on [a Chinese social media platform], and are we going to use [a particular] Weibo account?
The client, who represented a Chinese internet firm, interrupted her: “I don’t think you’ve thought clearly about the plan. How about you work it out, and then we can talk about it.”
The nerve of these guys! Surely the client doesn’t want her to rewrite it?
Liu was taken aback, but soon recognized the problem. In her sleepy state, she’d foolishly spoken in layman’s terms.
In China’s internet industry, that would never do. Hurriedly, she added:
Let’s preheat the article first to pull up the expectation value. Then we’ll take advantage as it ferments, drawing in onlookers for marketing enablement.
“Right,” the client replied. “See, that’s much clearer.”
Liu’s not the only worker in China swimming in a growing tide of corporate jargon. Soon after Chen Qiang joined his current company, an advertising firm, a client from the country’s thriving internet industry ordered him to create a “full-scene experience.” When Chen asked what that meant, the client said he wanted him to Photoshop the company logo onto a selection of different images.
A little confused, Chen mocked up a version and sent it over. The client said:
It doesn’t augment reality enough.
“What do you mean, ‘it doesn’t augment reality enough?’” asked Chen.
“You need to make the 2D cartoon look 3D,” the client said.
After finishing the project, Chen concluded that internet companies bu shuo renhua — they don’t speak human language.
To help her understand the corporate jargon of Chinese internet firms, Liu wrote the most commonly used words into a document and began studying it like language learners study vocabulary lists.
- 赋能 — “enablement.” Empowering something or someone with energy or ability. “AI enablement,” “brand enablement” — basically, anything on the internet can be enabled.
- 链路 — “chainpath.” A combination of 链条, “chain,” and 路径, “pathway.” It just means “chain,” but that 链条 sounds too lowbrow, so you have to say “chainpath.”
- 对齐 — “alignment.” Refers to making sure both parties are using the same information. A synonym is 拉通, “streamlining.” Commonly used in the phrase 我们对齐一下, “Let’s get aligned.”
- 微粒度, “granularity.” As in, “the granularity of this plan isn’t fine enough.” Just means “This plan needs more detail.”
Some of these terms, like “enablement” and “chainpath,” are made up. Others imbue established words with new meanings — that’s the case with “alignment” and “granularity.” Chinese internet firms also use lots of terms imported from English, like “OKR” — short for “objectives and key results” — and “KPI,” short for “key performance indicators.”
Most puzzlingly for Liu was the fact that a lot of China’s internet industry jargon had only just appeared and lacked clear meaning, making it both popular and hard for outsiders to understand. For instance, the differences between “pain points,” “itchy points” and “feel-good points” left her scratching her head for a long time.
During one meeting, her team leader said:
With this project, we mustn’t just look at the pain points, but also be clear on the user’s itchy points and then seek breakthroughs on the feel-good points.
The other team members gazed at their boss with rapt expressions. Afterward, Liu quietly asked a male colleague what it meant. He said:
Itchy points make users feel a little bit good, pain points keep them feeling good, and feel-good points make them feel totally awesome.
Liu couldn’t help thinking she was in for a rough ride. [CLICK HERE TO READ THE WHOLE TEXT]