Chinese-language media in New Zealand refer to Winston Peters as “old naughty”, or “old fart”. Laura Walters reports on the questions being raised about the translation.

China experts are questioning the widespread translation of Winston Peters’ name by New Zealand-based Chinese-language media outlets.

The deputy prime minister has been referred to as 老皮, or Lǎo pí, dozens of times in Chinese-language media in New Zealand.

The term roughly translates to “old skin”, “old leather”, “old naughty” or “old rascal”. In some dialects, it translates to “old fart” or “old bum”.

It is a term adopted by Chinese-language media, from the Chinese diaspora community.

Some China experts have questioned the lack of objectivity in using this translation, with some less-mainstream news websites running sexist and derogatory articles about Jacinda Ardern.

While saying it was difficult to assess the reporting through a western media lens, some pointed out if English-language media used a biased nickname for political leaders in news reports, it could lead to censure by industry watchdogs.

The term is not the official, or correct translation of Peters’ name in the media, as used by Xinhua – the state-run news service.

However, some editors of Chinese-language publications have pushed back, saying it is a widely used nickname, rather than a pejorative term.

Meanwhile, there are also differences of opinion among media experts, with some cautioning against over-stating the negative implications of the term, while others say it is unethical for any media to use this type of nickname for political leaders.

China scholar and University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady raised the issue of the translation with the Justice Select Committee during a hearing on its foreign interference inquiry earlier this month.

Brady handed over a letter, and a subsequent translation, as supplementary evidence as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in New Zealand.

The letter Brady shared, which is expected to be made public by the committee on Thursday, addressed the issue of the CCP’s control over Chinese-language media outlets in foreign countries, along with the companies’ self-censorship.

“I have been advised the Lao Pi translation is not derogatory, but there is a wise old Chinese saying that a man sits at open window with his mouth open for a very long time before a roast duck flies in.”

In 2017 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) formalised its efforts to implement censorship controls over the Chinese diaspora media.

Regardless of who owned a foreign Chinese-language media outlet or China-focused media outlet, it must now conform to CCP censorship guidelines or it would be forced to close by means of intimidation such as removal of advertising or vexatious court cases, Brady said.

“Thus, given that New Zealand’s Chinese language media are under pressure to closely follow the ‘Xinhua line’ in their reporting of China-related issues, it is unusual and significant that they are using the 老皮 phrase to denote Mr Peters.”

Brady consulted with colleagues and native speakers, of different age groups and linguistic backgrounds, in preparing her translation and interpretation of the language used by media.

A Google search of the term used for Peters, showed it had appeared 98 times in the news media. Among the news media who most commonly uses this term is the NZME publication the Chinese Herald.

‘No value judgment’

Chinese Herald editor in chief Kenny Lu said the two characters translated to ‘old’ and ‘naughty’. The publication inherited the name from the Chinese community in New Zealand.

“I’ve seen local Chinese community use this term to call Mr Winston Peters for more than two decades and yet not in one circumstance does the name itself rise concerns of disrespect,” Lu said.

Similarly, the Prime Minister was sometimes called 阿顿姐(A Dùn Jiě) – Old Sister Ardern.

“There is no value judgment in abbreviated names unless you want to conduct a literacy witch hunt,” he said, adding that all Chinese Herald articles about Peters were fact-based and open to verification.

Lu said Pí shared the same pronunciation with the opening sound of Peters, it was shorter than the official translation (which was six characters and took 60 strokes to write), and encapsulated Peters’ political character.

“If we don’t care about the media freedom of our New Zealand Chinese community then it is a kind of racism.”

Peters gave a one-line response to Newsroom’s questions about the translation, based on Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade advice, with the addition of a Chinese proverb.

“I have been advised the Lao Pi translation is not derogatory, but there is a wise old Chinese saying that a man sits at open window with his mouth open for a very long time before a roast duck flies in,” he said.

There is a clear divide between those who see this as a derogatory term and those who don’t.

Newsroom spoke to seven people fluent in Chinese, who were either media or language and culture experts – some were members of the Chinese community – and the group was split. Four of those spoken to saw the translation as biased or derogatory, and two – including Lu and MFAT officials – said it was a common nickname that captured Peters’ political character, but was not pejorative.

Either way, this raised the question of double-standard between what is expected in terms of objective reporting by English-language mainstream media and Chinese-language media.

Attacks on leadership

University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy (UNSW Canberra) industry fellow Tom Sear, who has researched how the CCP targets political figures through WeChat and commercial media, said this example was commensurate with online attack strategies adopted by the CCP.

The CCP ran official WeChat accounts, where any attacks remained “fairly polite”, he told the Justice Select Committee. But commercial media outlets were free to take the attacks further, and would not be censored or reprimanded by the CCP.

Sear said the derogatory remarks made about Ardern and Peters fitted with the tactics used by the Chinese state around the Indo-Pacific, and in Australia. He pointed to attack campaigns against politicians during the federal election campaign and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

‘Community failed by Chinese-language media’

During her appearance at the Justice Select Committee earlier this month, Brady said members of the Chinese community were the victims when their media stifled free speech, and failed to report without fear or favour.

“If we don’t care about the media freedom of our New Zealand Chinese community then it is a kind of racism,” she said.

She urged the committee to restore the plurality of our New Zealand Chinese community groups and media organisations, in order to ensure genuine democratic participations in those communities.

University of Canterbury China expert Anne-Marie Brady says the translation is an example of how the CCP attempts to influence diaspora communities. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Victoria University Chinese culture and language expert Duncan Campbell said the reporting on Ardern and Peters was “absolutely unacceptable”.

Peters’ nickname was derogatory, and he described the coverage of Ardern as “scurrilous, misogynist and sexist”.

“Balanced reporting on issues of relevance is important, and they’ve failed in that respect.”

Campbell said the mainstream had been negligent in monitoring what was going on within Chinese-language media.

Meanwhile, people in the community were reluctant to speak up, for fear of another round of anti-Asian feeling.

Media ethics questioned

University of Canterbury media law expert Ursula Cheer said it was unethical for any media – including non-English language media – to use derogatory nicknames for MPs or other public figures in news articles.

“I certainly think this sort of in-joke use of a derogatory term in another language affects audience perspective and views – they will share the joke and effectively be part of it,” she said.

Broadcast media were covered by the Broadcasting Standards Authority by statute, but the NZ Media Council (formerly the Press Council) was a member-based watchdog. However, the council had made decisions against non-members in the past, based on complaints it received.

Victoria University media senior lecturer Peter Thompson cautioned about jumping to conclusions about the translation, its meaning, or applying a western media lens to Chinese-language media.

However, he said the issue did raise questions about the way Chinese-language media operated, and whether there was any external factors or foreign powers influencing coverage.

Chinese-New Zealanders would gather their information from a range of sources, including local leaders, so the impact of any biased reporting would be contained, he said.

The full anonymous letter, which has been provided to the Justice Select committee as a supplementary submission on its foreign interference inquiry can be found here. Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s translation of the material, along with supporting footnotes, can be found here.

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