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.
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The Dilemma of Corporate Jargon
By Yi Fangxing
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.
It’s not easy to force yourself into the system of internet company jargon. For Liu, it meant replacing your native tongue.
The most immediate problem is that if you don’t understand such jargon, even normal communication becomes difficult. When she first joined the company, Liu received a message from her department head saying the team wanted to “align the water level.” She thought her boss was micromanaging them: Why did the team have to maintain the same water level in their cups? Her colleagues laughed at her. “Aligning the water level,” it turned out, just meant sharing and synchronizing data.
Liu never used to care much about how she spoke, believing that the key was to convey her meaning simply enough for others to understand. But then she gave a pitch at work, and her boss shook his head, frowned, and chose another titled:
“Grasping the User’s Experience to Enable New-Dimension Marketing Scenarios.”
Although the name was eye-catching, Liu could see that its content wasn’t particularly coherent. After thinking about what had happened, she decided there was nothing else for it but to dive in herself.
Liu couldn’t escape China’s gibberish-ridden internet industry. But the jargon itself also marks the boundaries of the country’s online sector, where seeding jargon in public discourse has become a way for firms to export their own values.
Employees of major firms, known as hotbeds of arcane terminology, have more power to shape that discourse than workers at smaller companies. Su Ming, who has worked for Alibaba for six years, described the use of jargon as like “picking up basic skills.”
At Alibaba, such jargon is both spoken and written. In the past, staff used to load their weekly work reports with all manner of incomprehensible terms. “Our team leaders asked us to reflect on what we had done that week,” said Su.
It was essential to make the reports sound as grand as possible. “You had to make sure you properly used the term ‘grip,’” said Su, referring to the Chinese word zhuashou (抓手), which gives an image of a grasping hand and is used to refer to the focal point of a particular task. “For example, if I’ve done a project whose focus is ‘A’, then I have to say it ‘takes A as the grip.’ There was also the word ‘psychology’ (xinzhi, 心智), as in how we transmit our psychology, or how we create user psychology — we always had to write this into our reflections.”
The most ridiculous part of the process was that multiple forms of jargon could be used to describe the same things:
Selling something online could become “grasping the momentum of online traffic” or “deploying online new retail.” Putting up advertising everywhere could become “deep, full-chainpath marketing” or a “matrixed attack.” Having sales experience could become “possessing comparatively comprehensive methodological and practical experience of fissile growth.”
Su used to slave over her weekly reports for as long as three hours. Some of her colleagues also wrote at great length, ostensibly to display their diligence. Su remembers glimpsing one report that ran to tens of thousands of characters, filled to the brim with jargon. “If you write at length, you’ll receive praise and appear serious,” she said.
Alibaba has long seemed to embrace internal jargon. Wang Jianhe, the internet giant’s corporate culture evangelist, once wrote:
The core meaning of managers’ ideological team building is to give the team a common language, symbols and ideas,” adding that daily, weekly and monthly company reports were the best tools for doing so.
Wang’s position resonates with management theorist Brian J. Robertson, who has written that the use of certain terms within an organization can change the experience of working with colleagues and improve efficiency.
In China, internet companies also use jargon to bring their workers together. Using the same terms may allow teams to function well even if their members don’t know each other’s real names. Jargon may also eliminate human differences by, say, privileging certain personality styles over others, emphasizing capability, efficiency, and a willingness to suppress emotion.
Day after day, month after month, in never-ending reports and meetings, Su stayed immersed in Alibaba jargon. Eventually, he became extremely adept at using it.
After learning a bunch of terms, Liu, a somewhat rebellious character, felt numb. She said:
Internet company jargon is like a fig leaf. It’s gold and jade on the outside, but something foul and rotten on the inside.
Sun Liang felt the same way. After graduating from college, he joined a technology startup. The founder had cut his teeth at a major firm, and his management style reflected that. Daily, weekly, and monthly reports had to be filed without fail. At meetings, everyone had to present their reports, in an exercise euphemistically called “training your capacity to integrate into the team.”
After one of the company’s projects failed in August last year, the staff sat in a meeting room at 1 a.m., surrounded by black curtains, giving reflections and self-criticisms. “A colleague in front of me said in vernacular language that he’d not met the customers’ requirements,” recalled Sun. “He got a ticking-off from his boss, who said he’d not reflected deeply enough.”
According to Sun, the boss pointed at the employee’s head and said a bunch of jargon about “enhancing user perception.” Sun couldn’t stand to listen to any more of it. “Doesn’t that just mean he didn’t meet the customer’s requirements?” he recalled thinking.
In teams like Sun’s, personal will was seen as something to be controlled, not nurtured. Top bosses typically used the English word “ego” when telling staff to rein in their individualism.
Sun felt there was no point in staying at that kind of company. After two weeks, he moved to another firm. Before joining the team, he looked into the background of his new department head. It wasn’t much better. During meetings on his first day, he once again heard managers talking about “enabling,” “perceptions” and “chainpaths.”
Sun began to puzzle over who created and spread these words in the first place.
Among the many term-coiners in the Chinese internet world, Jia Yueting, founder of Le Holdings, may be one of the best-known.
In the spring of 2015, Jia took the stage at a convention center in Beijing to launch LeEco, a now debt-ridden group with interests in internet services, software and several other sectors. In his speech, he kept returning to the same pet phrase: “shengtai huafan,” a term that might be translated as “ecological chemical reaction.”
As LeEco’s public relations team took pains to explain, the term referred to making breakthroughs in hardware, user interface, and software applications; achieving innovations across the entire production chain; making breakthroughs in internal organization; allowing the “ecology” to create a strong chemical fusion reaction, forming an “open-closed loop,” and creating the ultimate user experience, while also giving unprecedented open ownership to all third-party developers.
Jia’s term notably exasperated Zhou Hongyi, the CEO of internet security company Qihoo 360 Technology. He said:
Even though I’ve already said this 10,000 times, I will stress it again: Entrepreneurs should speak in language that people actually understand, not bang on about ecology, platforms, and chemical reactions.
But Zhou’s rant changed little. Chinese internet companies had fallen in love with telling stories, and were creating a new vocabulary to tell consumers and investors how mysterious and fascinating they were.
Looking back, 2015 was a watershed year for web jargon in China. The rise of mobile internet triggered the emergence of new business models, producing new companies and new conflicts between them. Firms competed for the right to speak about the web. By the end of the year, the country’s then three largest internet firms — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent Holdings, commonly known collectively as “BAT” — had consolidated their market positions.
Zhang Wei, a mid-level manager at an online travel company, said:
Whoever holds the capital has the most right to speak and the most power to create these new terms.
In 2015, Zhang participated in a “talent summit forum” at which the heads of the BAT firms’ human resources departments gave speeches. “It all sounds very deep,” Zhang remembers thinking.
“At that time, Alibaba was constantly mentioning ‘enablement,’” Zhang said. “The recruitment director of Ant Financial said hiring must be ‘enabled out’ to create ‘ecologized operations.’ I remember feeling confused and wondering what it all meant.”
The following speeches left Zhang feeling equally perplexed, he said. Baidu’s HR director gave a speech titled “Talent Growth Mechanisms and the Closed Loops of Value Creation.” Tencent introduced its “three pillars” of human resources management, which had the memorable monikers “COE,” “HRBP” and “SDC.”
“I was partly listening to the speeches and partly searching on my cellphone to find out what these terms meant,” Zhang said. The idioms constituted the companies’ values and ways of thinking, Zhang thought.
Once middle managers like me learned them, we’d teach them to those below us. It was difficult for small internet companies like us to generate the same kinds of values. We could only copy those of the BAT firms.
Internet company jargon, therefore, moved down the pyramid from the giants at the top to the smaller firms at the bottom.
Just like a computer operating system, internet company slang is constantly being upgraded to keep up with the changing times and business landscape.
Sun Xuan, who is not related to Sun Liang, started working at Tmall, Alibaba’s e-commerce platform for higher-end brands, last year. Before her job interview, she prepared answers for all sorts of questions that might arise. But the interviewer still managed to stump her:
What do you think your grip is?
Sun didn’t realize the word “grip” could also be used like that. But that was far from the most confusing thing about Tmall. After she joined the company, she had to get used to her colleagues’ incomprehensible design briefs. Typical sentences read:
Membership design is equivalent to designing value perceptions of rights and interests.
One of the four gradients of rights and interests perception is the atomic expression of rights and interests.
It took Sun two weeks to figure out what those meant.
If terms like “enablement” are the first iteration of Chinese internet company jargon, then phrases like “realizing the atomic expression of rights and interests” is version 2.0. “Even if you understand the individual words, you can’t understand the sentences,” said Sun.
With the rise of short videos and the birth of new unicorn companies such as ByteDance and Kuaishou, the right to speak jargon began to shift.
Both Douyin — ByteDance’s Chinese TikTok twin — and Kuaishou arrange their objectives and key results (OKR) systems in cycles of two months, a model that also affects the way employees speak, according to Kuaishou staffer Zhou Yang:
Four months isn’t ‘four months,’ but ‘two bimonths’. Hurrying someone isn’t ‘hurrying,’ but ‘pushing.’
Once, while taking the company elevator, Zhou glimpsed an announcement on a screen. “We’re moving into the second biweek of December,” it began. Zhou’s heart sank:
At least there’s a certain sense of ritual about saying ‘bimonth,’ as our OKRs are reviewed every two months, but what the hell is a ‘biweek’? Presumably the third week of December is now a different thing, then?
These days, internet jargon is seeping into even more aspects of life.
Liu, the staff member at the top of our story, said the jargon is spreading into unrelated industries. Recently, while buying makeup during China’s “618” shopping festival, she noticed that one cosmetics company was marketing a set of products called the “Enabling Fresh Faces Series.” Another time, she was chatting with a friend in the architecture sector who said: “We want to enable the building with lighting.” When Liu asked her what that meant, the friend said her company wanted to install a few voice-activated bulbs.
Even firms like drone-maker DJI, which says it is committed to “continuously promoting human progress,” has given rise to terms like “original spirit” and “semantic separation.” If something is not done well, workers will say it “lacks original spirit,” said DJI staffer Li Ke. The word gaodashang (高大上), a term often used casually in China to denote excellence or impressiveness, is used to describe colleagues with good resumes but poor performance.
Jargon signifies both the expanding boundaries of China’s internet and its rising cognitive barriers to entry. People outside the walls of terminology don’t understand what those inside are saying, while the people on the inside don’t yet know what they’re turning into.
Liu is still learning how to use company jargon. Before this year’s Lunar New Year holiday, she got into an argument with a project manager at an internet firm. Frustrated that she still didn’t understand what the client was saying, she racked her brain for terms that would confuse him. “You can’t just let them get away with this kind of thing,” she said.
They spoke in gibberish for half an hour, and made no progress on the project at all.
Translator: Matthew Walsh
Contributing Chinarrative Editor: Isabel Wang