Zheng neng liang was once little more than a fashionable online catchphrase, but its meaning has taken on a political hue

The death of a student raises a question: is something deeply negative hidden behind all that relentless positivity?

the two Chinese children could not have been more different.

Zhong Yusheng, 13, and Miu Kexin, 10, were both reprimanded by educational authorities for not exuding “positive energy”, but while Zhong got away with a rap on the knuckles, Miu ended up losing her life.

This, in a country where the buzz surrounding the phrase has grown to the point where “positive energy” has come to be seen almost as a public duty.

When it first took off on Chinese

a few years ago, saying

was little more than a fashionable way of describing feel-good movies or healthy lifestyle fads. But over the years, Chinese government authorities have made it their own, adopting it as a shorthand for everything from describing

policies to urging the public not to dwell on official shortcomings.

Increasingly, the phrase has gained traction in education too, as Zhong and Miu found out.

In late April, Zhong shot to social media fame after posting videos of himself impersonating schoolteachers on Kuaishou, the Chinese video-sharing platform. In one video, Zhong’s alter ego Zhong Meimei – or “Beautiful Zhong” – takes students to task for misbehaviour, saying that even if they do not study “I will still end up getting my salary”. In another, “Beautiful Zhong” hits her imaginary students with a ruler while calling them “shameless”.

The portrayals won Zhong 1.5 million followers, many of whom praised Zhong’s acting talent and said the realistic portrayals had reminded them of their own teachers.

But the videos proved less popular with the education authorities in Heilongjiang province, where the teenager goes to school. Local media reported that the Hegang education bureau had spoken to Zhong and his family, urging his parents to “guide” him “to produce works that reek of positive energy”.

The videos were subsequently taken down, causing a public outcry and prompting claims that the boy and his family had been coerced into doing so. These claims came despite Zhong’s mother Wu Qiong telling China Central Television that she had asked her son to take them down as she was worried he would be affected by negative online remarks.

Still, Zhong, who hopes to one day be admitted to the Beijing Film Academy, got off with a mild rebuke.

Miu was less fortunate. The primary five pupil leapt from the fourth storey of her school in Changzhou, southern Jiangsu province, after her Chinese language teacher – identified in media reports only as “Teacher Yuan” – reprimanded her for writing an essay devoid of “positive energy”.

Many of the details and descriptions in Miu’s 300-plus-word essay, which contained her reflections on the book Three Attacks on the White Boned Demon, had been struck through by her teacher in bold red ink. But what drew Teacher Yuan’s strongest reaction was Miu’s conclusion about the White Boned Demon, the story’s evil protagonist.

Miu had written: “The moral of this story is: do not be deceived by the appearance and the hypocrisy in today’s society where some people may appear to be good and kind but are actually dark and sinister. They will use all types of despicable means and conspiracies in order to achieve their ulterior motives.”

Given that the White Boned Demon uses treachery to entrap the story’s other characters, another teacher might have praised the pupil for an insightful critique. Instead, Teacher Yuan struck out Miu’s conclusion, replacing it with five Chinese characters that meant: “Convey Positive Energy”.

Since Miu’s death, many people have criticised Teacher Yuan for being unnecessarily harsh. Some online media have also claimed there is more to the story, prompting the school to deny claims that Miu had also been slapped by Teacher Yuan.

Miu’s death has prompted some observers to suggest there is a darker side to China’s obsession with

After all, how is it that a catchphrase supposed to embody the positive could have such a devastatingly negative effect?

Xu Qinduo, a senior researcher at the Pangoal Institute, a public-policy think tank, said that while the concept was somewhat ill-defined, it was often used to emphasise progress and the positive side of any development, which was seen as better than dwelling on any problems or deficiencies.

“During important anniversaries, people tend to talk about the achievements rather than the potential challenges or the negative aspects, so as to create a bright and optimistic ambience,” Xu said.

“In Chinese public communications or media, there are always more positive stories than negative ones, because negative stories would make people depressed, disappointed or disgruntled. Focusing on problems would make people feel hopeless with or disgusted by [China’s] politics, government or society.”

However, while relentless positivity may play well in the state media, it can have devastating real-world effects.

Tsinghua University professor Sun Liping wrote on his

– a Chinese microblogging website – that even though Teacher Yuan was partly to blame for Miu’s death, “we should ask ourselves how the mistake came about”.

Sun said the problem was that the environment “created and filled with this so-called positive energy” was “getting more rigid [and] also more violent. Such an atmosphere not only squeezed but also crushed [Miu].”

“If we had a relaxed and flexible environment this tragedy might have been avoided.”

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