BEIJING – Western values are a "ticket to hell," a newspaper published by China's Communist Party said in a recent editorial that held up Ukraine and some Arab countries as examples of outside ideas causing turmoil.
It was the latest colorful example of a rising level of invective targeting critics of the authoritarian government. In the two-plus years since President Xi Jinping took the helm of the ruling Communist Party, state media have become more strident in defending the one-party system and stoking nationalism.
Events of recent months have accelerated the trend. Last fall's pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong opened floodgates of disdain against "anti-China" forces. Last week, the party tabloid Global Times laid into well-known blogger Ren Zhiqiang for questioning official warnings against Western values infiltrating Chinese college classrooms.
The newspaper pointed to turmoil in Ukraine and the Arab world to show how any adoption of Western models by non-Western countries "basically amounts to the copying of failure."
"No matter how beautiful they appear on the surface, they are in fact a ticket to hell, and can only bring disaster to the Chinese nation," the newspaper said.
While Cold War brickbats such as "running dogs of the American imperialists" have yet to return, there's been an overall revival of tough language laying down the party's bottom line and seeking to undermine opposing arguments.
Some critics fear a reversion to the extreme intolerance of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and will scrutinize the speeches at China's annual ceremonial legislature opening Thursday for more signs of the trend.
"Over the last two years or so, the propaganda has become less refined. There's a big market for this kind of crude nationalism," said Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong's Chinese University.
The exchange involving the blogger followed a stern warning in January by Education Minister Yuan Guiren against threats to communist ideological purity in higher education. His comments, in turn, reflected an internal party document, leaked in 2013, that warned against Western values such as constitutionalism, respect for civil society and press freedom.
A further echo was heard last week, when the president of the Supreme People's Court, Zhou Qiang, demanded that judges stand strong against Western concepts of judicial independence and division of powers.
"Resolutely resist the influence of erroneous Western thought," Zhou said.
Such pronouncements are clearly being dictated from the highest party echelons, said Li Datong, a political commentator who has been removed from a state media senior editing job for broaching sensitive subjects.
"These people talking so harshly now were only recently espousing greater openness, not less. Clearly things have changed," Li said.
Foreign countries and leaders are also frequent targets.
The state media pilloried Britain after Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader reviled by Beijing. Britain, the Global Times said in a December 2013 commentary, is no longer seen as a "big power" among Chinese, but as "just an old European country apt for travel and study."
Especially strident outrage from Beijing was sparked by last year's "Occupy Central" protest movement in China's semiautonomous region of Hong Kong. Beijing rejected the protesters' demands for open nominations for elections for Hong Kong's top executive.
Protest leaders were accused of being pawns of shady outside forces and foreign governments. An October, the party's flagship newspaper People's Daily accused organizers of seeking to "arouse social conflict and incite illegal activities under the name of election issues." They were leading democracy "into peril," it said in an editorial.
Government allies and retired officials condemning the demonstrators included former ambassador to the United Nations Zhou Nan, who warned that "anti-China forces inside and outside Hong Kong" were conspiring against the city and could threaten China's socialist regime.
Observers see the more combative language as an outgrowth of Xi's calls for stronger party control and a more vigorous role for China on the world stage.
"I do think this is very much an initiative that Xi Jinping approved, if not started," said Steve Tsang, senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.
Shortly after taking over as party leader in 2012, Xi took a hard line on issues of national sovereignty and state survival. He said that while China seeks a peaceful international environment, "No country should presume that we will engage in trading our core interests or that we will swallow the 'bitter fruit' of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests."
Tsang said that approach underscores Xi's confidence in the political model he's adopted, but also betrays his nervousness about the party's ability to retain power. The Hong Kong protests were especially nerve-rattling because they showed the influence of Western thinking over public attitudes in the former British colony, which enjoys its own legal system and other freedoms.
"Hence the current warning against Western values," Tsang said.
Beijing political commentator Zhang Lifan warned of a "vicious cycle" of insecurity leading to ever-sharpening criticism. Political debate already has fallen behind that of the relatively open 1980s, and threatens to revert to the violent intolerance of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang said.
Despite that, Lam said internal party polling shows the stridency has resonance with patriotic young Chinese, seen for example in the rising number of university graduates volunteering for the armed forces.
"Xi's major objective is to stoke the flames of nationalism, especially among the young people. They're proud of what Xi is doing for China's position in the world," Lam said.
Yet, while surveys show high levels of patriotism, Chinese society also displays a strangely contradictory attitude toward the West.
Despite their willingness to defend their nation and join in condemnations of its enemies — particularly arch-foe Japan — many Chinese are voting with their feet when it comes to their futures, with the West receiving the strongest endorsements.
An estimated 274,000 Chinese are studying in the United States alone, with tens of thousands more in Australia, Britain and elsewhere.
And while estimates vary, millions more are believed to have obtained foreign residency or purchased property abroad, particularly among the elite. So large are the numbers that financial experts have begun to warn of the dangers of capital flight, though China's economy remains on a firm footing.