On China’s Enemies Within

On January 16th the friends of Cao Zhixin, a 27 year old book editor residing in Beijing, posted a video of Cao onto Youtube.1 The video spread quickly spread across Chinese language Twitter, and from there into newspaper reports in Great Britain, the United States, and Taiwan.2 In the video Cao speaks calmly and firmly, telling viewers about a chain of events that had begun two months before the video’s Youtube debut. In late November Cao and a group of friends—presumably not the same group that uploaded this video to Youtube—had organized a vigil in Beijing. The vigil was for the victims of a high-rise fire whose deaths were widely blamed on restrictive Zero-COVID policies; a series of videos of these fires then racing across WeChat showed local firefighters struggling to get past quarantine barriers in order to put out the growing blaze. These were scenes with revolutionary potential. Here was evidence, heart-breaking and rage inducing, that Zero-COVID took lives even as it claimed to save them. Chinese people were already taking to the streets to vent their frustration with Zero-COVID. The high-rise fire turned this trickle into a torrent. Cao’s vigil was one little ripple in that larger tide.


The best of these, which my account draws from, is Shen Lu and Liyuan Qi, “In China, Young Women Become Accidental Symbols of Defiance,” Wall Street Journal, 25 January 2022.

 The tide won. For the first time since the 1976 pro-Deng protests on Tiananmen Square (not to be confused with the more famous convulsion a decade later), a wave of popular street protest forced a reversal of national policy. 3Had Cao’s video ended on that note of triumph little attention would have been paid to it. But Cao’s message was different. She was about to disappear. One by one her fellow vigil-organizers had gone dark. Where they were taken, and on what charges, she did not know. She knew only this: she was next.  


There are many examples of this happening at the provincial, city, and county level; street protest leading to tangible change is not a model Chinese must import from outside their system, but one which occurs fairly regularly inside it. For example, the China labor bulletin records 57 labor protests just this month.

The last anyone has seen or heard from Cao Zhixin was on December 24th.

Why has this happened? What in Cao’s behavior warrants disappearance?

My answer to this question is shaped by a translation we published at the Center for Strategic Translation the very same week Cao’s video began to circulate on Youtube and Twitter.4 The translation is a chapter from a study manual written by the Office of the Central National Security Commission, and thereafter distributed to party committees across the country to teach cadres how to understand and operationalize the state security framework Xi Jinping calls the “Total National Security Paradigm.” The translated chapter articulates clearly the kind of threats Xi and the Party center fear most:


Office of the Central National Security Commission and Central Propaganda Department, “Chapter Six: Persevere in Placing Political Security in the Predominant Position.” Translated by Kitsch Liao. San Francisco: Center for Strategic Translation, 2023. 

‍Originally published in  Zongti Guojia Anquan Guan Xuexi Gangyao: 总体国家安全学习纲要 [The Total National Security Paradigm: A Study Guide],  (Beijing: Xuexi Chuban She, Beijing: April 2022), 58-74.

Hostile forces persistently seek to ferment a “color revolution” within our state, vainly attempting to subvert the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist institutions of our state. This is a real and present danger to the security of our sovereign power. As they plot “color revolutions,” Western countries often target their attacks on political institutions, especially its party institutions. They distort public opinion and amplify narratives that condemn the institutions and ruling parties of countries that are simply different from theirs, inciting the masses to take politics onto the streets. As a result, many countries fall into political turmoil and social upheaval, with their people uprooted and displaced.

Hostile forces at home and abroad have never abandoned their subversive intent to Westernize and divide our state. They do not rest, not even for a moment. In response, we must be clear-headed. We must be steadfast. When confronted with major issues of right and wrong, we must not be afraid to brandish our swords.  In the face of contradictions, we must bravely rise to the challenge.



This ”brandish our swords” rhetoric is less violent than it sounds—similar to the English “its time to bring out the big guns,” idioms like these are usually intended to signal steadiness of purpose, not willingness to use violence. More unsettling is the phrase “hostile forces.”

The term “hostile forces” (敌对势力) is an old one. In composing the CST’s glossary entry for this term we discovered that its use stretches back to the Soviet Union of Lenin and Trotsky. As the glossary puts it, from its inception the term “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.5


Hostile Forces 敌对势力,” Center for Strategic Translation, accessed 27 January 2022.

Thus opposition at home should be treated with the same vigor—and when necessary, violence—as threats from abroad. The study manual makes clear why this must be:

History and real world conditions have repeatedly proven that [those who] sow chaos in a society and subvert sovereign power often begin by piercing a hole in the realm of ideology and sowing chaos in the thoughts of the people. Once the defensive line in thought has been breached it is difficult for other defensive lines to hold. In the realm of ideological conflict, we have no way to compromise and no place to retreat to. We must obtain total victory.6

But in which domains must victory be seized? The manual identifies several “battlefields” and “frontlines” of “ideological struggle.”  This is a war fought in minds of China’s young (especially the young on campus), in the hearts of China’s ethnic and religious minorities, in the behavior of the Party’s own cadres, and most pertinently to Cao’s detention, on the internet. Here is how the Party understands viral protests of the sort that brought the Zero-COVID regime to its close:


Office of the Central National Security Commission and Central Propaganda Department, “Chapter Six: Persevere in Placing Political Security in the Predominant Position.” Translated by Kitsch Liao. San Francisco: Center for Strategic Translation, 2023. 

‍Originally published in  Zongti Guojia Anquan Guan Xuexi Gangyao: 总体国家安全学习纲要 [The Total National Security Paradigm: A Study Guide],  (Beijing: Xuexi Chuban She, Beijing: April 2022), 58-74.

It is necessary to deeply study and assess hot topics on the internet. It is an evident reality that major incidents on the internet, as well as the major societal incidents induced by [these internet incidents], have never been the work of individuals acting on sudden impulses, but are the fruit of numerous actors rising up to act in concert. [These incidents] are intentionally chosen, follow a plan, and are organized and contrived ahead of time. In face of situations like these, it is necessary to possess a high degree of political vigilance and political discernment, and to maintain a high degree of connectivity – both online and off of it. We cannot allow these people to wisp in and out of the fog.7



There we are. Neither mass protest nor internet virality are, in the eyes of China’s state security complex, a spontaneous reaction to state policy. They are “intentionally chosen” and “contrived ahead of time” to destabilize the Party’s ideological political and threaten its “political security.” From one angle a candlelight vigil appears to be a simple thing; from the Total Security angle it looks like something differently entirely—the sort of “non-political risk” that might snowball “into a political risk” and thereby breach the “defensive line in thought” securing the Party from oblivion.8 Wittingly or not, Cao’s actions thus align her with the “hostile forces” who seek to destroy China’s socialist system and derail China’s return to national greatness. Those are the stakes. For those who have eyes to read, the Party’s articulation of these stakes cannot be clearer.



When I commissioned this translation I did not know it would prove so immediately relevant. It is a fairly long document—more than 15 pages in English translation—and it took some time to travel through our process of translation, editing, and review (I have not tried to summarize all of its contents here; if you follow developments in Chinese security policy, debates over CPC ideology, or Beijing’s approach to religion, ethnic minorities, education, or intra-party discipline, you will find it worth reading). My expectation is that other translations we publish will prove equally useful, if not necessarily so timely.  Future translations will be publicized both on the CST Substack and Twitter feed. One can only hope that the future events they shed light on will be less dark than the disappearance of Cao Zhixin.


For readers looking for more of my writing on the Chinese security state, the posts  “Yes, We Are in an Ideological Competition With China,” “Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability,” “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage,” ” “Two Case Studies in Communist Insecurity” will be of of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage Substack mailing listfollow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.


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I struggle to understand why public CPC policy and ideology documents are not more widely reported on in the west. Their views of European and North American societies are plainly stated, as is the goal to liberate us from our backwards liberal democratic ways. All I can come up with is that the average westerner thinks that the authors of such documents do not believe what they’re writing, and so it is just worthless propaganda. I’m not sure what can shake us out of that complacency, but easier access to the source materials in an understandable way is definitely a start.

To be able to quote prominent politicians and academics from China about how the CPC wishes to displace America-EU and rule as a global hegemon is priceless. From experience, it is very effective in (good faith) discussions with those who dismiss such claims as overblown paranoia.

To be honest, I am very surprised at how little play this translation got in the sphere of people who report on such things!

Suppose a scenario like this..(fabricated on my part, but could very well be true)

During zero-covid,
My unvaccinated grandparents (who’s leery about any shots) were alive and well..

After the government was forced to abandon zero-covid from the protests,
My grandparents got covid and died.. I’m furious as heck, and somebodies head has to roll.

Is she blameless?

I’m sorry. This will sound harsh, but i am in the same place with my uncle. We should blame them. They chose not to get vaccinated, and carry more blame for their deaths than anyone else does.

I have struggled with this in general, since containment was lost in late 2020 here in Canada. Surely there must be someone to blame. I want a damn scapegoat. But… who? Well, the majority of my fellow citizens, apparently.

That’s a lot of heads! As the theme in Tanner’s post suggests, not all mass social behaviour has an intent or plot behind it. It can be hard to accept that societies fail as systems in ways where no single individual, or small group of individuals, is really to entirely blame. But I think that is often the case.

It doesn’t have to have intent or plot behind it to harm, but harm nevertheless. Hundreds of thousands may die because pull back on zero-covid which was the last line of defense protecting the mass including those who are ignorant, unwilling, or maybe unable to get vaccinated.

After all, in China’s case, there is a straight line causation & correlation between ‘ zero covid/no death -> protest -> mass covid/death ‘. And its heavy hand government can hold someone(s) accountable to placate even greater mass anger from untimely covid deaths.