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Words of the Week: “Weak Spot” (软肋, ruǎn lèi)
Words of the Week: “Weak Spot” (软肋, ruǎn lèi)

Words of the Week: “Weak Spot” (软肋, ruǎn lèi)

On Chinese social media, the phrase “weak spot” (软肋, ruǎn lèi) is often used metaphorically to refer to family members—particularly children—used as leverage by public security, state security, or government authorities to prevent individuals from speaking out, engaging in activism, or pursuing other activities that the authorities do not approve of. In the past, the tactic was mainly used by state security forces against higher-profile activists and dissidents in China, but in recent years, it seems to have filtered down to local public security bureaus, and is being used against people suspected of all manner of minor “transgressions,” including posting comments critical of local authorities on Chinese or overseas social media. It is also sometimes used as a tool of transnational repression, such as in the recent case of popular X (formerly Twitter) blogger Teacher Li is not your teacher, who lives in Italy but whose family has been threatened.

The term “weak spot” recently surfaced in relation to a consumer backlash against sudden spikes in natural gas usage after new “smart” gas meters were installed in a number of cities. Consumers hit with exorbitant gas bills began posting their bills online, leading to an official investigation, the sacking of the head of Chongqing Gas Group, and the promise of refunds to affected consumers. A woman in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, who posted her gas bill online later received a threatening visit from the local police, demanding to know where her children attended school, where her husband worked, and other personal information about the family. The police later contacted her husband’s supervisor at work, in a further show of force. A WeChat article by current-affairs blogger Fan Dang discussed three tactics used by law enforcement to intimidate the woman into silence: (1) engaging in “threats and intimidation” (恐吓, kǒnghè), (2) leveraging her family as “weak spots” (软肋, ruǎnlèi), and (3) repressing freedom of speech under the guise of “fraud-prevention” (反诈, fǎn zhà).

“Weak spot” is also included as one of the 104 entries in our recent ebook, China Digital Times Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition. The full entry is reproduced below.

weak spot (软肋, ruǎn lèi)

Used metaphorically—much like “soft underbelly” or “Achilles’ heel”—to refer to someone or something that can be used as leverage against people, particularly those considered “troublesome” by the police or government authorities. 

The term gained popularity in November 2022, after a viral video revealed neighborhood committee members from Tiantongyuan, a vast suburb near Beijing, discussing how to intimidate local residents to enforce compliance during the COVID lockdown. Smiling as they discuss a certain local “troublemaker,” the committee members talk about “locking him up in a dark place for three days” and gleefully brainstorm ways to cow the man by threatening retaliation against his son. One says pointedly, “His son is his weak spot.” 

Online reaction was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Horrified viewers commented that the short video was “scarier than the scariest horror film,” and it soon became known as the “weak-spot video” and “the meeting of ghouls.” (Specifically, the committee members were being compared to a type of ghoul known as a chāngguǐ 伥鬼: the ghost of someone eaten by a tiger, who then helps the tiger to devour others.) The video was later deleted from multiple platforms including Weibo, where it garnered many critical comments evoking the pessimistic “last generation” sentiment (see entry) that arose during Shanghai’s repressive COVID lockdown: “It turns out the reason [the government] wants people to have kids is to use them as leverage against their parents.” “Fuck, and they expect us to keep giving birth to little hostages?” “Oh, my son has no future? No thank you, then, I won’t be giving birth to a child for you to persecute.” In December 2022, after the release of the film “Avatar: The Way of Water,” there was some online discussion about the “weak point” discussed by neighborhood committee members, as it related to this line about family, spoken by protagonist Jack Sully: “Sullys stick together. It was our greatest weakness and our great strength.

In July 2023, after a school gymnasium collapse killed ten members of a girls’ volleyball team and their coach in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang province, local officials pressured the grieving parents into signing away their rights before they could even view the bodies of their daughters. It was a particularly egregious example of authorities exploiting parental “weak spots” to ensure that they did not kick up a fuss or make too many demands. “Even though the kids have died, [officials] are still using them to put the squeeze on the parents,” complained one Weibo commenter. A May 2023 article by WeChat blogger Xiang Dongliang explored the various ways that teachers were roped into becoming grassroots policy enforcers, including leveraging children as “weak spots” to enforce parental compliance with COVID controls during the pandemic.

The flip side to this term can be found in a 2020 essay by retired Peking University sociology professor Zheng Yefu, who argues that the CCP’s emphasis on “maintaining social stability” is undermining China’s social cohesion. As evidence, he points to the telling trend of the children of political elites increasingly choosing to settle abroad. “Only striking them where they are vulnerable will wake them up,” he writes. “Their weak spot is their offspring. They can suppress the subjects of the kingdom, but cannot control the rational choice of their own legitimate descendents to integrate with the world and have a civilized life.”