A thief crying “stop thief!” — phrase of the week

Foreign Affairs

China’s Foreign Ministry has a long history of using colorful language to tell off it foreign critics. Today’s wolf warrior diplomats and spokespeople are continuing the tradition.

Illustration by Derek Zheng.

Our phrase of the week is: a thief crying “stop the thief” (贼喊捉贼 zéi hǎn zhuō zéi).


During a recent visit to Angola, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman warned the Southern African nation, and other African governments, against using equipment made by Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.

Sherman made the remarks during a press briefing following a visit to the Angola offices of the U.S.-government-backed mobile phone company Africell, where she reaffirmed long-standing concerns about purported spying and privacy risks associated with Huawei.

In response during the regular Foreign Ministry press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 ran through a litany of counterpoints about U.S. digital espionage abuses, declaring it was the U.S., not China, that compromises the sovereignty of African governments.

He finished off his pointed remarks by suggesting the U.S Government could:

Do their part in respecting the sovereignty of, and do something concrete for, African countries, instead of wasting time spreading rumors and lies or playing the trick of a thief crying “stop thief!”


yǔqí huā shíjiān dàochù sànbō huǎngyán yáoyán, wánnòng zéihǎn zhuōzéi de bǎxì, bùrú cóng bǎi zhèng xīntài zuò qǐ, cóng zìjǐ zuò qǐ, qièshí zūnzhòng fēizhōu guójiā de zhǔquán


A thief crying “stop thief!” is a Chinese idiom which can be understood by knowing the meaning each of the four characters: Thief (zéi 贼), cry or shout (hǎn 喊), catch (zhuō 捉), and thief (zéi 贼). It’s similar in meaning to the English idiom, it takes one to know one.

The Chinese idiom is traced back to the book, A New Account of the Tales of the World (世说新语 shì shuō xīn yǔ), which was compiled and edited by poet and writer, Liú Yìqìng 刘义庆 during the Northern and Southern dynasties (420–589).

The book is a compilation of works by Chinese scholars, musicians, and artists from the 2nd to 4th centuries. In his work, Liu combines literary prose with colloquial Chinese language, not following historical writing conventions at the time. Chinese bibliographers called it a xiǎo shuō 小说, a ‘little talk’, which later became the word for ‘novel’ in modern Chinese.

The 20th-century Chinese novelist Lǔ Xùn 鲁迅 rated the book highly as an early work of Chinese literature.

A thief crying “stop thief!” is a way to accuse someone of being a hypocrite, and is a criticism regularly leveled at the U.S. during MFA press briefings.

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Andrew Methven