This article uses comments, questions, and conversations about the PRC's draft constitution of 1954 to assess state legitimacy and how people felt more generally about the Communist regime. Taking advantage of untapped archival sources in Hong Kong and the mainland—including classified intraparty reports and transcripts from meetings in factories, police stations, universities, and villages—this article challenges the conventional view that the constitution bolstered support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Instead, the document generated a great deal of anxiety among ordinary citizens, as well as among CCP officials and the regime's favored classes. This “text-based” cause of emotional turmoil was a supplement to the classic forms of political terror that dominate the literature on Communist dictatorships. Despite widespread confusion, people's identification of problematic sections of the constitution turned out to be remarkably prescient in light of political disasters in the 1950s and 1960s and ongoing constitutional controversies in the era after Mao Zedong.

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