The first warnings about the dangers posed by “hostile forces” were issued in the Soviet Union of Lenin and Trotsky. The basic meaning of the term has shifted little over the subsequent century: then, as now, “hostile forces” refer to the constellation of individuals, organizations, and nations that communist party leaders believe are ideologically committed to overthrowing or subverting communist rule. The phrase does not distinguish enemies foreign and domestic; it is often used when party leaders or theorists wish to blur that distinction altogether. To label an unwelcome episode the product of ‘hostile forces’ is to insinuate that dissent and disorder within China is ultimately dependent on malicious actors outside of it.
The revolutionary leadership of the Soviet Union saw in the setbacks, reversals, and disasters that haunted their cause the malign hand of “hostile forces,” “hostile elements,” and “hostile classes.” A passage from Stalin's Short Course, an official primer on Soviet history avidly studied by Mao and his contemporaries as a textbook on socialist construction, provides an illustration of both the term itself and the mindset behind its employment:
Survivals of bourgeois ideas still remained in men’s minds and would continue to do so even though capitalism had been abolished in economic life. It should be borne in mind that the surrounding capitalist world, against which we had to keep our powder dry, was working to revive and foster these survivals….. [For example] the Party organizations had relaxed the struggle against local nationalism, and had allowed it to grow to such an extent that it had allied itself with hostile forces, the forces of intervention, and had become a danger to the state…. Comrade Stalin [thereupon] called upon the Party to be more active in ideological-political work, to systematically expose the ideology and the remnants of the ideology of the hostile classes and of the trends hostile to Leninism (Stalin 1939, emphasis added).
This bit of Stalinist rhetoric blends fear of foreign intervention, dissident ideology, and state weakness into one fearsome whole. In the late Mao era Chinese communists imported the term into their own lexicon, and have consistently used it to describe this same threatening trinity. An editorial in the People’s Daily published shortly after the Tiananmen Square Massacre provides a characteristic example. It blames that incident on both “the [larger] international climate and the domestic climate” which allowed “hostile forces at home and abroad” to “manufacture this storm [for the purpose of] overthrowing the leadership of the CPC, subverting the socialist system, and turning China into a vassal of the capitalist developed countries” (People’s Daily 1990).
Classifying social groups and foreign powers by their hostility to the communist cause is a rhetorically clever solution to an otherwise difficult set of problems. Most warnings about the threat posed by hostile forces do not explicitly identify the hostile actors in question. This fuzziness allows party propagandists to imply that internal opposition relies on external support without ever having to engage themselves in the messy business of proving which organizations, individuals, or social groups are linked to foreign powers, which foreign powers they are linked to, or how these links are maintained. Diplomatic crises are avoided in a similar fashion, with the Party exploiting the threat of hostile combinations to instill urgency in its cadres without needing to accuse any specific group of foreigners of wrongdoing.
This ambiguity has proved less sustainable in the age of Xi Jinping. As Sino-American relations have worsened, the phrase “hostile forces” is often reduced to a thinly veiled label for the United States and its allies. Yet foreign pressure has only exacerbated Xi's anxieties about China's internal cohesion. Over his tenure Xi Jinping has re-engineered the state security complex to make it more sensitive to and capable of resolving internal political shocks. This overhaul has been both costly and comprehensive. Guiding this transformation is Xi’s signature TOTAL NATIONAL SECURITY PARADIGM, a set of ideas which places the threat posed by ideological and political threats to one-party rule on the same plane as national defense. One doctrinal summary of Xi's paradigm returns to the problem of hostile forces to justify such great effort:
Hostile forces inside and outside our borders have never abandoned their subversive intent to Westernize and divide our state. They do not rest, not even for a moment... This is a real and present danger to the security of our sovereign power. (Office of the Central National Security Commission 2022).
Stalin, Joseph. 1939. History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks). New York: International Publishers; Office of the Central National Security Commission and Central Propaganda Department. 2022. The Total National Security Paradigm:A Study Outline. Beijing: Xuexi Chuban She;Johnson, Matthew. 2020. “Safeguarding Socialism: The Origins, Evolution and Expansion of China’s Total Security Paradigm,” Sinopsis. AcaMedia z.ú; Gruffydd-Jones, Jamie J. 2022. Hostile Forces: How theChinese Communist Party Resists International Pressure on Human Rights. Oxford:Oxford University Press; Chen, Stella. 2022. “Hostile Forces,” China Media Project; Chen, Stella. 2021. “Hostile Forces in the Digital Age,”China Media Project;4 June 1990. People’s Daily.