On the triumphant 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping had some strong words for the country’s adversaries: Foreigners who bully China will bleed and get their heads bashed.
That’s what Xi said, literally. But what he really meant with the seemingly violent language has set off a fierce debate among scholars of Chinese politics.
The centenary of the ruling party on July 1 was the most important event on China’s political calendar this year, celebrated with massive propaganda campaigns across the country. At the center of it all was the Chinese leader’s hour-long speech on Thursday morning, a message closely studied for clues to the country’s direction under the strongman leader.
The president used a common Chinese phrase, comprising four characters that literally mean “head breaks, blood flows,” as he pledged to defend China against malicious foreign forces. But the colloquial use of the idiom does not always conjure up the image of smashed skulls and a river of blood.
The idiom is used in everyday conversations and writings in China to describe someone’s battered condition following a fight or accident. One could say, for example, “I fell and got my head broken and blood flowing.” Some analysts and journalists have argued that Xi took the term simply to convey a sense of determination, but others have said its appearance in a carefully scripted event could indicate something closer to a threat of war.
Many English-language media outlets have adopted its literal, bloody meaning.
“The Chinese people will never allow foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us,” reads a quote translated by The New York Times. “Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
A Sky News headline reads: “China’s Xi Jinping issues ‘bloodshed’ warning to foreign powers at Communist Party centenary event.”
But the bloody reference was toned down in an official English translation of the key speech.
“We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us,” says the quote in an English transcript released by the government. “Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
Sebastian Veg, a professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, said some of the militarized language had roots in Mao Zedong’s era.
“It is definitely an idiom and should not be taken too literally. On the other hand, it is without doubt a stylistic flourish,” he said, adding that the audience’s cheering showed they understood the significance of the remark. “In an era of increasing political polarization, we have seen political language becoming more violent in many countries around the world, both democratic and undemocratic.”
Former U.S. President Donald Trump once compared America’s trade deficit with China to rape. Australia’s Home Affairs Department Secretary Mike Pezzullo warned of “beating drums” of war in April, amid rising tensions between the Chinese and Australian governments, but was later urged by other politicians to tone it down.
It’s not the first time Xi has used aggressive language on Beijing’s enemies. During a visit to Nepal in 2019, the president warned that anyone attempting to split China will end in “crushed bodies and shattered bones”—another popular idiom that could be used to describe anything from a badly damaged car or one’s determination at eliminating another person.
Wu Qiang, an independent political scholar in Beijing, said throughout the Communist Party’s history, the phrase “heads broken and blood flowing” was often used to describe Beijing’s defeat of American-led United Nations forces in the 1950-53 Korean War. China was fighting on the side of North Korea.
“It’s like blowing a whistle and putting people back into the imagination of the Korean War,” Wu said, arguing that the harsh warning was intended mainly for the domestic audience. “It stresses on confrontation, and is used to incite anti-American, anti-Western sentiment.”
Chairman Mao used the same phrase in 1959 to refer to how one would fail if they did not follow “objective rules” that could not be changed by humans. Wu said under Maoist ideology, the term carries a sense that since the party holds the objective truths, those who go against it are doomed to fail.
In October, Xi said in a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the Korean War that the battle proved that any country or army, no matter how powerful they were, would get “heads broken and blood flowing” if they tried to defy how the world was developing.
Under Xi’s leadership, the Chinese government has adopted more aggressive rhetoric in defending its interests in foreign policy. It has also blamed rights movements within China on “foreign forces” to justify an intensifying crackdown on dissent. Many Chinese people have celebrated the tough leadership style as a symbol of national strength.
In his speech, Xi again presented the Communist Party as the guardian of Chinese people that ended the nation’s humiliating history and brought it onto a path of rejuvenation. At home, it seemed to have worked.
The remark that enemies would get their “heads broken and blood flowing” triggered a wave of nationalistic response on Chinese social media, with more than 2 million users liking a clip shared by state media on the microblogging site Weibo.
“How lucky I am to be born in China,” reads a popular comment.
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