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Words kill: Calling for the destruction of "class enemies" in China (1949--1953)

Purdue University
Publication Date
  • History
  • Asia
  • Australia And Oceania|Political Science
  • General|Sociology
  • Social Structure And Development
  • Communication
  • Linguistics
  • Political Science


When Communist revolutionaries seized control of Mainland China in 1949, they faced enormous challenges of state and nation building. China occupied a vast territory, had a huge and poorly integrated population and suffered from a woefully backward economy. Building a Socialist Chinese state required, among other things, effectively managing significant opposition to the imposition of the Communist regime. Building the Chinese Communist nation required, among other things, developing some shared sense of collective political identity among members of the highly diverge population. This study examines the way the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) employed language as an essential part of its strategy to achieve these goals. In particular, it focuses on the Party's attempt to legitimize the extreme path it took for dealing with its opposition: the elimination of 80,000–3,000,000 “class enemies” between 1949 and 1953. ^ A regime can advance both its opposition management and national identification building objectives by socially constructing “friends” and “foes,” and by developing a discourse for taking about such symbolic categories that the mass population can use routinely to make sense of their world, past and present. ^ Content analysis of the Party's official medium of mass communication, the People's Daily (Ren Min Rih Bao, RMRB), published during the 1949–1953 period, reveals that CCP discourse offered the unifying vision of “People's Democracy.” The Party also constructed enemies of this “utopia” such as “imperialism and its accomplices,” “the bandit gentry,” the “bureaucrat bourgeoisie,” “counter-revolutionaries” and others, in such a way as to legitimate their destruction. As the Party urged action toward eliminating its opposition, the constructed enemies were treated as real, with real effects. Indeed, words kill, and do so by the millions. The research findings lend support to the argument that language can be an important tool for a regime to legitimate its actions, even including genocidal practices. ^

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