Hostile Forces

Hostile Forces

| Stella Chen

A propaganda poster of Mao Zedong. Image by Wesley Fryer available at under CC license.

Broadly speaking, the term “hostile forces” or didui shili (敌对势力), is used by the Chinese Communist Party to describe perceived external threats to political stability and the integrity of the regime. But it can also point to perceived internal threats – and serve to broad-brush these threats, including dissent, as being somehow extrinsic to the system. While the term has a history of being used in political discourse to signal alertness to threats in foreign and domestic affairs, it often involves the exploitation of allegations of foreign threat to justify the political persecution of opponents at home.

The term “hostile forces” has its origins in the political discourse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the earliest appearance of the term in the People’s Daily dates back to December 6, 1948, when the paper translated an article from a Russian writer about the 10th anniversary of Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The article says at one point: “In the period between the victory of the October Revolution and the liquidation of the oppressive classes within the Soviet Union, the relations of socialism were defined in the struggle against hostile class forces.” The term in Chinese here was jieji didui shili (阶级敌对势力).

Through to the middle of the 1950s, all references to “hostile forces” in the People’s Daily and other sources in China were plucked directly from the Soviet context. But this changed in February 1957 with Mao Zedong’s famous speech “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” delivered just as the Anti-Rightist Movement was brewing (to be fully unleashed by June that year). In this speech, Mao spoke repeatedly about the “hostile class,” or diren jieji (敌对阶级), arguing that it was necessary to “clearly distinguish between ourselves and the enemy, and between right and wrong.” Under Mao’s system of “democratic centralism,” the “hostile forces” referred to those who, owing to their alleged political faults and crimes, fell outside the masses referred to as “the people” (人民). In the midst of the Anti-Rightist Movement, these enemies were tens of thousands of writers, journalists, artists and intellectuals – as well as Party and government officials – who were persecuted for criticizing Mao’s policies.

All criticism of Mao’s direction for the country was branded as “hostile.” An article in the People’s Daily on August 29, 1959, vocally defended the people’s communes, saying that “as soon as our people’s communes appeared, they immediately aroused extreme hatred and vicious attacks from those hostile forces opposed to socialism.” The article was headlined: “Long Live the People’s Communes!”

Collective meal time on a people’s commune in the 1950s. Public domain image available at Wikimedia Commons.

Through the 1960s and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the “hostile forces” were both the CCP’s internal enemies, those resistant to Mao’s constant revolution, and external forces that resisted the progress of socialism across the world. Le Duan (黎筍), the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, was quoted fulminating against “hostile forces.” And Cuban leader Fidel Castro shouted through the pages of the People’s Daily: “The revolution takes place and develops in the course of the struggle against the hostile forces.”

Hostile Forces Under Reform and Opening

As China embarked on a new path of reform and opening in the late 1970s, throwing off the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, CCP hardliners voiced their concerns about the potentially destabilizing impact of new ideas on the socialist project. Writing in the People’s Daily on October 6, 1978, Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木), a hardliner who opposed reform and opening, cautioned: “The socialist society, as a nascent system, has not yet been consolidated, and we must devote considerable power in dealing with hostile forces at home and abroad.”

The forces seeking to destabilize the CCP were all around, like a plague just outside the city calls – and perhaps even within. “The hostile forces opposing the Party and opposing socialism could possibly appear behind the mask of the right, or behind the mask of the left.”

One peak in the use of “hostile forces” in the official CCP media in the 1980s and 1990s came during the period following the Tiananmen Massacre in June 1989, when China faced strong criticism from the international community. On June 4, 1990, marking the one-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, the People’s Daily posted a commentary on its front page that clearly assigned blame for the movement to “hostile forces.”

“That incident was caused by the [larger] international climate and the domestic climate, by the sharp confrontation between bourgeois liberalization and the Four Cardinal Principles, by the fierce struggle between infiltration and counter-infiltration, subversion and counter-subversion, peaceful evolution and counter-peaceful evolution,” the newspaper said. “The purpose of the hostile forces at home and abroad in manufacturing this storm was to overthrow the leadership of the CCP, to subvert the socialist system, and turn China into a vassal of the capitalist developed countries.”  

Another height came during roughly 10 years later, as Jiang Zemin cracked down on the Falun Gong in 1999. A strongly-worded articles in the People’s Daily on July 26, 1999, said of the spiritual movement: “The emergence and spread of Falun Gong is a political struggle for the masses and for [political] position between hostile forces at home and abroad and our Party.”

Hostile Forces in the “New Era”

Over the past decade, with the growth of online media and social media, “hostile forces” has been used more frequently by state media and Chinese authorities to raise allegations of foreign interference. The term has also become a tool for nationalist accounts and social media and online flag-wavers to level accusations against liberal domestic media outlets, social organizations and individuals.

In late 2021, one popular social media account “Sai Lei Three Minutes” (赛雷三分钟) accused China House, an independent Shanghai-based educational social enterprise founded in 2014, of recruiting student volunteers in order to produce “finger-pointing” negative content that “Western media can use to smear China.”

However, more traditional uses of “hostile forces” to broad-brush dissent and legitimate protest as external aggression, have continued apace. Since 2019, the term has most often been used to dismiss protest movements in Hong Kong as stemming from foreign infiltration.

Stella Chen

CMP Senior Researcher

The CMP Dictionary