You have to be careful about using the word ‘struggle’ in China

October 3, 2013
Red Guards adorn the cover of a 1971 Chinese schoolbook. (Wikimedia)
Red Guards adorn the cover of a 1971 Chinese schoolbook. (Wikimedia)

One thing about the Chinese Communist Party, which runs the government that runs the world's most populous country, is that it loves slogans. One of its most recent is "public opinion struggle," from an Aug. 19 speech by President Xi Jinping about the importance of the state using "positive propaganda" to steer Chinese public opinion in a direction that helps the state. This is far from a new idea in China, but "public opinion struggle" is a new slogan for it, one that Communist Party outlets have been using heavily since the speech.

It turns out, though, that using the word "struggle" in an official government campaign puts a lot of Chinese people on edge, according to the excellent China Media Project and a recent Global Times column by the writer Cao Lin. China Media Project says the word "creeps people out." Cao Lin writes that it "fills people with dread."

If you're familiar with mid-20th century Chinese history, you'll already know why the word "struggle" is such a sensitive one. During Mao Zedong's totalitarian and often ruthless rule over China, from the early 1950s through 1976, one of the Communist Party's most unpleasant tactics for maintaining control was something called a "struggle session." On the surface, the idea was that everyone had to suss out "class enemies" and try to better their own commitment to the Communist revolution by attending regular "struggle session" meetings where they'd admit their own revolutionary failures and try to do better as individuals and communities. In practice, though, it was a form of self-reinforcing terror, a means of purging political enemies real and imagined, a tactic for working people into ideological fervor, sometimes in mass "sessions" with thousands of people.

It's a touchy – but largely untouched – subject in China, where the party has worked hard to move beyond the uglier practices of the past, but also avoids discussing them for fear of public outrage against their rule.

You can see why people wouldn't want to be reminded of this practice or the pain it caused so many families. The idea of a new Communist Party-led "public opinion struggle" for national ideological control, even it hardly resembles the sessions of old, seems to be deeply unsettling to some people. Here's Cao Lin's Global Times op-ed decrying the new slogan:

This high-spirited “struggle” [the first character of the two-character combination for "struggle"] is full of violence and viciousness, making people think of the bloody “struggle sessions” (批斗), of bitter life-and-death “combat” (战斗), of the ridiculous struggle against the roots of ideas in oneself, and even of the idea of “class struggle” that fills everyone with bitter memories. Words like “struggle” were basically tossed out of our political dictionary after the start of economic reforms in China. People gradually forgot these revolutionary-era terms. So to use “public opinion struggle” to describe the contesting of ideas today is a blast from the past.

The struggle sessions largely ended after Mao died in 1976, which also ended the 10-year "Cultural Revolution," a sort of nationwide struggle session so violent it killed untold numbers and left the country's social fabric in tatters. China today is obviously a very different sort of place.

Since Mao died and the sessions ended, though, the Chinese government has worked hard to avoid addressing Mao's dark legacy, particularly the Cultural Revolution and its mass struggle sessions. They're not glorified, but nor is the pain they caused – including among lots of Chinese people who are still alive – at all acknowledged. It's almost as if they never happened.

The fact that the word "struggle" could still creep people out, three-plus decades later, is a reminder of both how painful those national wounds remain and how raw, with the Communist Party's refusal to acknowledge them, much less try to heal them. It's another sign of the ways that China's early revolutionary history is both remembered and forgotten, ignored and omnipresent.

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Max Fisher | October 3, 2013