TOTALITARIANISM: A LETTER TO FELLOW CHINA ANALYSTS

Dear friends,

The time has come that we set our work straight in language. The People’s Republic of China is a totalitarian state. Of its own kind, to be sure, hence neo-totalitarian, but totalitarian it is. No clarity of analysis is possible without clarity of language. The PRC is not “an authoritarian system,” it is “a totalitarian state.”

The final straw has been the imposition of outright tyranny in Xinjiang, with extremes of surveillance, heavily intrusive thought-work, and mass detentions in “re-education” facilities. But also the relentless tightening of dictatorship during Xi Jinping’s reign, culminating in the decimation of the community of human rights lawyers that has stood as a bastion of courage and civility.

The characteristics of totalitarianism are

  • that rule is upheld by terror
  • that rule reaches into the regulation of natural human bonds in private spheres
  • that rule is exercised through an extensive and impersonal bureaucracy
  • that the state operates under the authority of a commanding ideology.

The proof of terror is now in Xinjiang. Where the regime sees it to be necessary, its footprint is tyranny. The state is deep into the regulation of private lives, now intensified in the “social credit system” by which rewards and punishments are distributed in the population according to patterns of private behaviour. There has never been bureaucracy like the PRC bureaucracies. Xi has cast off pragmatism and clad his reign in the omnipresent China Dream ideology of nationalism and chauvinism.

The result of totalitarian patterns of state rule is that social life is atomised and community crushed. Many Chinese can now live their daily lives much as they want, and in comfort. But there is no freedom of assembly, association, information or deliberation.

I know that there is honest reluctance in our own community to adopting the language of totalitarianism. There has been hope and expectation of opening up. But in political life and civil society it is not happening. Far from it, the direction of travel is to shutting down. We should now recognise this in the language we use.

Yours respectfully,

Stein Ringen, Professor of Political Economy, King’s College London

 

DEMOCRACY – A GOOD WORD FOR THE GOOD OLD WAY

Amidst the scramble for new-fangled forms of democracy, spare a thought for the excellence of the good old way.

Citizens elect representatives to make laws and oversee governance on their behalf. The simple design of representation by election is in fact a very smart arrangement, much smarter than is often appreciated. Is solves three problems in one go: a problem of power, a problem of size and a problem of quality.

Power. Since representatives are elected by citizens and can be deselected by them at the next election, they govern under popular control. We have one of the requirements of democracy: safe government. The problem of power is solved. The people hold power over those who exercise power over them.

Size. When the American republic was created, a way needed to be found to govern a large territory with the consent of the people who lived dispersed over that territory. The previous republican experience was that of cities governing themselves, such as in the Italian city states of the Renaissance. The previous democratic experience was that of direct democracy. Some of this could be replicated in America on the local level (and there was experience of direct town democracy before the consolidation of the federation) but a new model was needed for national (and state) government. The Founding Fathers settled for localities sending representatives to the capital to manage public affairs in the place of citizens themselves. The method of representation by election is an invention of the American Constitution. Without this invention we could not have had national democracies.

Quality. Governance should be safe but also effective. The representative method puts decision-making in good hands, which the direct democracy does not, and delegates the responsibility of decision-making to an assembly, which the autocratic method does not. One purpose of elections is to give us the opportunity to appoint those among us who are the more qualified to do the job. The advantage of decision-making by assembly is that it enables the institutionalisation of rules and procedures of good decision-making and that it offers the chance for proper deliberation. In an assembly of representatives who are more numerous than a small committee of like-minded apparatchiks, who are from different parts of the country and with different backgrounds and who are elected on different political platforms, there is a good chance that decisions will be tested by robust debate.

Although we must make the qualification that democracies always work imperfectly, sometimes very imperfectly, these are real benefits in the method of representation by election. That is a method we should not easily give up on, and one we should probably value more than we do.

WHY BREXIT WILL NOT HAPPEN – YET AGAIN

The fog is lifting. The plot is thickening. Minds are being concentrated. Brexit has turned out to be a national nightmare.

The UK-EU negotiations are clarifying the choices. Per now, August 2018, the British people and their Parliament have in front of them a menu with three options.

  • Alternative 1: There will be a deal along the lines of the government’s Chequers agreement.
  • Alternative 2: Britain leaves the EU without a comprehensive future trade deal and on World Trade Organisation terms.
  • Alternative 3: Brexit is suspended and Britain remains a member of the EU.

These are the only available options. A deal may be struck along the lines now under discussion. The government has concluded that this is the only kind of deal that is available, and a deal of this kind might be acceptable to the EU. Britain leaving on WTO terms is undesirable, but could happen. The government is making contingency plans for this eventuality. Britain remaining in the EU could happen if there were a change of mind.

The problem, however, is that all three available outcomes are impossible, not one or two of them but all three.

  • Alternative 1 is impossible because it implies Britain making itself a rule-taker of rules it has had no say in making. That is impossible for one of Europe’s big powers. A small country like Norway can live as a rule-taker, but not a big power. A vote ostensibly to take back sovereignty cannot result in the country diminishing itself to obeying other people’s rules.
  • Alternative 2 is impossible because it would risk the disintegration of the United Kingdom and come with other costs. It would give the Scottish nationalists the arguments they need to enforce and win another independence referendum, and put Irish unification back on the agenda. The economic costs, and costs to other forms of European collaboration, would be unacceptable.
  • Alternative 3 is impossible because Parliament has put the question of EU membership to a referendum and the referendum has decided that Britain will end its membership.

There are no good options available. In the end, Parliament must decide. Somehow, Parliament must cut through and choose between outcomes that all have their own impossibilities.

The ongoing negotiations will reduce the menu from three to two choices. If there is a deal, the choice will be between Alternatives 1 and 3. If there is not deal, it will be between Alternatives 2 and 3. In the first case, will Parliament reduce Britain to the status of rule-taker? Impossible. In the second case, will Parliament put the Union itself at risk? Impossible.

These matters will come to a head in Parliament later this year, or early next year. Neither Alternative 1 nor Alternative 2 will command a majority. The government will fall. There will have to be either another government, possibly a broad coalition under fresh leadership, or a new election, or a second referendum, or some combination of these.

 

DICTATORSHIP AGAINST DEMOCRACY

The story of democracy, in the title of John Keane’s grand history, is one of life and death. It is not a glorious story. Death has been more prevalent than life.

The Greeks invented, says S.E. Finer, two of the most potent political features of our present age: they invented the very idea of citizen, as opposed to subject, and they invented democracy. But it did not last. Democracy emerged, haltingly, in the fifth century BC and collapsed with the end of Athenian independence less than 300 years later, having suffered several fits of near death in the process.

After that, the world forgot about democracy for 2000 years, until it was reinvented in the American Constitution of 1787. Whereas Athenian democracy had been direct – decision-making collectively by assembly to which all citizens had access – the Americans invented representative democracy. Now, citizens would elect representatives to the national and local congresses that would take charge of decision-making on their behalf.

Although the Athenians invented the idea of the citizen, the inclusive concept of citizenship and of universal suffrage took hold only in the twentieth century. In the latter part of that century, this form of government expanded from a minority to a majority of countries and territories. At the entry into our century, 140 of about 190 countries in the world had functioning multiparty elections. If, finally, there has been glory in the story of democracy, that has come only recently. And even so, the lesson to be drawn from history is that democracy is not a natural form of rule. It must be wanted, it must be created, recreated and nurtured, and it is inevitably exposed and in danger.

This mini-history introduces a review, in the Taiwan Journal of Democracy, of various recent works of the contemporary authoritarian challenge to democracy from Russia and China, and the democratic response, such as it is.

Read the review here.

DANGERS TO DEMOCRACY – ATHENIAN LESSONS

In the Agora Museum in Athens is a stone Stele of Democracy.  A relief shows the people of Athens under the protection of Democracy. A text is inscribed of a law forbidding the reintroduction of tyranny, both the act of rising up against the Demos and collaboration with would-be tyrants.

This law was passed in 337 B.C. as the short-lived democracy was coming to a final end after Athens had been defeated by Philip of Macedon. It stands as testimony to the Athenians’ understanding of both the value and difficulty of democracy. Without democracy there will be tyranny. The upholding of that protection is fraught with peril. Their forbidding of tyranny in law was a desperate attempt to salvage what could not be saved.

Democracy in Athens lasted only about 250 years. It was always imperfect and gave way several times in the process to autocracy in one form or another. It came about after a period of aristocratic excess, both in the exploitation of the populous and in feuding between aristocratic clans. What followed should perhaps be described as controlled aristocracy rather than democracy in a modern understanding. Nevertheless, for a while the Athenians (those who counted, obviously) mostly held tyranny at arm’s length.

The danger to that protection comes both from without and from within. By 337, the Athenians were no longer masters in their own house and in control of how they would be ruled. But their desperate law also show their awareness that internal forces may rise against popular rule if they can, and if so are likely to find followers in the population.

They had ample experience of internal danger. At least twice, defeats in foreign wars led to oligarchic revolutions. Another danger was the seduction of mobs by demagogues, i.e. a danger to democracy from within democracy itself. The philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death when some of those he had annoyed were able to persuade a jury of 500 citizens that he deserved to die for being a nuisance. That influenced his pupil Plato to make himself the founding philosopher of autocracy. In Euripides’ tragedy Orestes – about how a mob was whipped up to condemn a deluded man who had been seduced by the gods to kill his mother to death by stoning – Orestes says: “The people are to be feared when led by unscrupulous men.”

The Athenian Stele of Democracy identifies the danger to the people to be tyranny as the likely state of affairs in the failure of democracy. Dangers to democracy come from both internal and external sources. The internal dangers are usurpation of power by anti-democratic élites, collusion by opportunistic follower, and seduction of the populous by unscrupulous leaders.

So what else is new?

TOURISM IN TOTALITARIANISM

What do visitors from democratic countries see and learn when they visit countries that are governed dictatorially? All through the 1930s, up until the outbreak of the Second World War, visitors from elsewhere in Europe, America and beyond traveled to a Germany under Nazi totalitarianism. In a gripping book, Travellers in the Third Reich, Julia Boyd takes us to Hitler’s Germany through the eyes of some of the foreign visitors.

Many were tourists and were by and large impressed and pleased with what they saw. They took in the sights: the beauty of the countryside and the quaint old towns. They met friendliness and generosity. Many of these visitors were not political but were favourably disposed to Germany and were struck by the country’s progress. They saw the Autobahns, the gleaming new airports and rail stations, the modern architecture. People were at work and seemed happy with their conditions.

The visitors were not ignorant of the repression, the propaganda, the censorship, the person cult, the persecution of the Jews. But what is striking in what they told from their visits is that mostly the knowledge of repression in the end did not matter much for the way they saw the regime. It delivered and what it delivered was impressive.

Other visitors were political: officials, parliamentarians, journalists, academics, some pro-Nazi and some anti-Nazi. What is striking in this group is that almost no one changed their opinion about Hitler and his regime as a result of what they experienced. Those who were pro-Nazi, saw what they expected to see and stayed pro-Nazi. Those who were anti-Nazi, likewise saw what they expected and had their opinion confirmed.

Today, tourism in totalitarianism is in China. Visitors come back home starry-eyed of the regime’s achievements and the country’s development. They have met friendliness and generosity. They have seen the high-speed rail, the airports, the city skyscrapers. They have met people whose living standards are improving and who speak well of their political leaders.

These visitors know that they are in a China of repression, but there is generally a BUT, and what follows the BUT – the impressive display of delivery and development – often causes the knowledge of repression to fall by the wayside when they sum up what they have learned.

In the 1930s, the Hitler regime did deliver for many Germans, but at the cost of depriving all Germans of their liberty. In China today, the Xi Jinping regime does deliver for many Chinese, but again at the cost of liberty deprived. The fact of delivery for some, does not erase the fact of repression for all.

The lesson of Julia Boyd’s fine book is that tourists in totalitarianism should remain skeptical. Many who went to Germany were unable to and came to regret their naiveté. Occasional visitors to China, and regulars too, should caution themselves that in a totalitarian regime that is in control, what they see is not necessarily what there is. It is best to stay agnostic and to assume that from what you see and hear you have probably learned next to nothing about how things really are and what Chinese people really think.

COLD WAR ON TWO FRONTS

(Published in German as Kalter Krieg an Zwei Fronten in WELT_SICHTEN, Juli-August 2018)

In the early years of the 21st Century, the world looked stable. There was economic progress. Democracy was advancing. The global order was collaborative under American leadership and the custodianship of the Washington institutions.

Fast forward to 2018 and this outlook has changed dramatically. China has not become “like us.” Russia has reverted to totalitarianism. Instead of collaborative order, we have confrontational turmoil. Autocracy has made itself assertive and confident, and is increasingly rewarded with respect. Western Europe is in the grips of the politics of anger. Democracy has been pushed on to the defensive, and democratic countries are riven by self-doubt and internal divisions. America elects Trump. Britain goes for Brexit.

China

“Western leaders and analysts have often projected on to China an image of their preferred imaginings, seeing it through the rose-colored glasses of the West.” So writes (in the New York Times) Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, now the President of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Much misunderstanding of the People’s Republic has grown out of a misunderstanding of Deng Xiaoping and his post-Maoist reforms. He was a pragmatist, but for the purpose of salvaging the regime. The state was bankrupt financially and bereft of authority. It has been thought that Deng recast the regime from being a political project, as it had been under Mao, into an economic project with the management of growth its purpose.

But he never did. His “reform and opening up” was to be exclusively economic. Politically his mission was restitution. The absolute determination then, as it is now, was and is the perpetuation of the Party regime. The PRC has been, is, and will be a political project.

In 2012, Xi Jinping came to power. Since most observers now though of the People’s Republic as an economic project, it was widely expected that Xi’s priority would be economic reform. Those expectations were, however, dashed as it turned out that Xi’s priorities were political.

During his first term, Xi has overseen a streamlining of bureaucratic command through a relentless concentration of power. He has put himself at the helm of civilian, security and military bureaucracies, eliminated the legacy of collective leadership, and elevated his own position in a person cult similar to that of Mao. Censorship, internet control, propaganda – all that is intensified, as is Party discipline, political education in schools and universities, “guidance” in literature and the arts, and more. The internal security budget is now larger and growing faster than the military budget. These “reforms” amount to a radical transformation of the regime, taking the PRC into its third stage, after those of Mao and Deng and his followers, and breaking free from Deng’s legacy of pragmatism and collective leadership.

Finally, Xi has brought ideology back in. Shortly after having become General Secretary of the Party, he took the new Politburo Standing Committee to the National Rejuvenation exhibition in Beijing’s National Museum and launched his “China Dream,” now omnipresent to give meaning to all aspects of state action, at home and abroad. In the reformed People’s Republic, Marxism has no traction. In its place, Xi has introduced a chauvinistic melody of nationalism. The “Dream” is of national greatness and prowess, down to the assertion that “each person’s future and destiny is closely linked to the future and destiny of the nation.” His closing address to the People’s Congress in Beijing on the 19th of March this year was his most undisguised celebration of national glory to date.

Russia

Russia’s behavior in the world is baffling. Neighboring countries invaded: Georgia and the Ukraine. Crimea annexed. A covert war waged in eastern Ukraine. In Syria, support for a deadly regime, its use of illegal weapons of mass destruction, including chemical poison and indiscriminate barrel bombing, condoned. Throughout Europe, financial and/or propagandistic support of right-radical parties and organizations. In Britain, propagandistic engagement on the side of Scottish independence and Brexit in that country’s two eventful referendums. In America and Europe, systematic disruption by social media and other manipulations of democratic elections.

How to account for a super-power wrecking havoc on established international laws and norms, nevermind common morality?

Putin’s Kremlin is now a very assertive regime. Gone is the confusion of his first presidential period (2000 – 2008) when, for a while, there was hope that he might be cleaning up the corruption he had inherited and dragging Russia towards a semblance of rule of law at home and collaborative engagement abroad.

What instead happened was, firstly, a kleptocratic consolidation. Some unfriendly oligarchs had their takings confiscated, some were imprisoned, many migrated abroad. Corruption was not eliminated but narrowed into a single oligarchical clan under Putin’s control.

Secondly, any hope of democratization was quashed. Russia is now an autocratic system that operates behind a thin disguise of democratic form. In the recent presidential election, there were seven candidates in addition to Putin, none of them independent, all anointed by Putin. The Kremlin is exposed to no outside controls, no effective legislature, not effective judiciary, no effective press.

Thirdly, the regime has given itself a certificate of ideological justification. Since the Kremlin’s policies are unpalatable, it is tempting to think we are dealing with a primitive regime that has no imagination beyond brute force. But that is to underestimate Putin and his circle. They are in fact pursuing a sophisticated agenda of ideas.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, what happened, as seen through Western eyes, was that Communist dictatorship collapsed. But not through Russian eyes. The Soviet Union had been monumentally successful in completing a Russian expansion that had been unfolding for centuries into an empire stretching from Central Asia to Central Europe. Overnight, that was all lost. What Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” was not the loss of Communism but of empire.

In response, he has started the process of rebuilding the lost empire. That will obviously not be achieved in his lifetime, but he is restoring purpose to Russia and securing his position in history as the great leader who set the job in motion.

The Putin ideology starts from a vision that goes by the name of “Eurasia.” In that vision, “Russia” is a spiritual empire of historical-religious origin, an empire of virtue. The physical empire may have collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives irrespective of the momentary coincidence of national borders. This, for example, is why the Ukraine cannot be independent and European, because that is not what it is, because it is inescapably a part of spiritual Russia. This empire is “Eurasian,” meaning of Eastern rather than Atlantic mooring.

The second component of the ideology is enmity: Russia has enemies who will her ill: Atlantic Europe, the European Union, America, liberalism, democracy. That world-view was confirmed, as seen from Moskva, by western policies in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev accepted imperial disintegration in Eastern Europe and German reunification in return for a promise from America and Germany that NATO would not expand eastwards. This promise was broken when the ex-Warsaw Pact nations and the Baltic republics were brought into NATO, or so it was seen in Moskva. The European embrace of the Ukraine was a continuation of that betrayal. Putin’s Russia is convinced that the Americans and Europeans will never afford her respect and never recognize her as an equal partner in collaboration.

From these ideas come the convictions that Russia has something to fight for, that the empire of virtue has the right to fight and to choose the means, and that since it has enemies it has no choice but to fight.

Why has Russia chosen to fight its war with consistently dirty means? The Russian state has behind it an unsophisticated economy and a population with a poor standard of education and health. Putin’s dilemma: big in ambition but small in power. As a result, writes the historian Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom, “the essence of Russia’s foreign policy is strategic relativism: Russia cannot be stronger, so it must make others weaker.”

The politics of influence

Russia and China have in common that they are ideologically committed and determined authoritarian regimes. Both entertain strategies of foreign policy that go beyond the normal pursuit of national interest to reach deep into the influencing of the cultures and policies of adversaries. While Moscow in this respect is a spoiler, Beijing’s aim is to build and protect respect for its model of governance.

The full ambition of Beijing’s strategy of influence has been elucidated by the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin in a report entitled Authoritarian Advance: Responding to China’s Growing Political Influence in Europe. This is the first in-depth study available on the detailed nature of Beijing’s influence policy, in this case in faraway Europe.

“China’s rapidly increasing political influencing efforts in Europe and the self-confident promotion of its authoritarian ideals pose a significant challenge to liberal democracy as well as Europe’s values and interests. While Beijing’s efforts have received much less scrutiny than the efforts of Putin’s Russia, Europe neglects China’s increasing influence at its own peril. Drawing on its economic strength and a Chinese Communist Party apparatus that is geared towards strategically building stocks of influence across the globe, Beijing’s political influencing efforts in Europe are bound to be much more consequential in the medium- to long-term future than those of the Kremlin. China commands a comprehensive and flexible influencing toolset, ranging from the overt to the covert, primarily deployed across three arenas: political and economic elites, media and public opinion, and civil society and academia. European states increasingly tend to adjust their policies in fits of ‘preemptive obedience’ to curry favor with the Chinese side. Political elites within the European Union and in the European neighborhood have started to embrace Chinese rhetoric and interests, including where they contradict national and/or European interests. EU unity has suffered from Chinese divide and rule tactics, especially where the protection and projection of liberal values and human rights are concerned. Beijing also benefits from the ‘services’ of willing enablers among European political and professional classes who are happy to promote Chinese values and interests.”

The democratic response

The stability of the early years of the 21st century has been displaced by a new Cold War, now on two fronts. Russia is setting itself on a course of neo-imperialism. China is intent on regaining its position of “Middle Kingdom” dominance in the world. Both are pursuing their aims with the confident determination that is enabled by the backing of nationalistic ideologies.

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty of expression and information, the protection of rule of law, and mutual trust. This world needs to stand up to the authoritarian advance. The democracies need to come together and find their voice up against assertive autocracy. But that coming together is not happening. America is withdrawing from international solidarity and leadership. The European Union is unable, unity being undermined by economic sluggishness, populism and Brexit. The confidence and determination that is conspicuous on the authoritarian side is equally conspicuous in its absence on the democratic side.

It is easy to say that we in the free world should stand firm in defence of our values and to suggest ways in which this should be done. But if the European Union and America are unwilling or unable, where is inspiration and leadership to come from? Who in the world will now defend liberty? It would seem that before we can rise to the challenge from the authoritarian super-powers, we on our side need, first, to recognize the fact of that challenge and then, second, to look to ourselves and get our own democratic house in order.