China is the most sophisticated dictatorship ever known, so smooth in its operations that it often does not even look dictatorial. The leaders present themselves to the world as statesmen, immaculate in comportment, custodians of inscrutable wisdom.

But under the façade, their regime – however reformed, however much an admired model – is one that still rules, ultimately, by fear, intimidation, violence and death.

In researching my book, The Perfect Dictatorship, I followed many cases of repression. An ugly regularity emerged. On the meeting ground between the regime’s agents and those who stand up to it, the little guys get beaten up by thugs – physically, systematically, at home, in the streets, in detention. Often badly, often to suffer grave injury. The statesmen, how suave they may appear on stage, behind the curtains are still the masters of mafia-style raw brutality.

Scott Savitt is an American who came to China in 1983 as an exchange students and stayed on as a journalist until 2000, when he was deported. He was then publishing an English language newspaper, Beijing Scene, with official Chinese backers, which however fell out of favour. His beautiful memoir of his colourful years in China has just been published as Crashing the Party.

He spent his last month in China in the Paoju Prison in central Beijing, next to the Lama Temple, known to innumerable tourists, who have streamed by it, as I have done, unaware that the shabby brick building was Beijing’s most notorious jail and torture chamber.

Here some bits of his experience:

“The cell is six-by-eight feet, windowless. The humidity is suffocating.”

Matong (shit bucket), the officer barks. I hear the officer empty it. Then he kicks it back inside, splashing drops of urine on me.”

“Time for the day’s only meal. Cold rice and dirty wilted cabbage. Flies swarm over the food. Several drown in the rancid oil.”

“Still not eating, eh? Starve yourself to death. See if we give a shit.”

“I steal glances into the crowded cells lining the hallway, packed with prisoners squatting with their hands clasped behind their heads, the painful position they’re required to maintain all day.”

“Blood oozes from the gash left by his steel-toed boot. He’s kicked and punched me regularly since my arrival. Sergeant Wang asks, Did you have an accident? Then he makes eye contact with the guard and cackles.”

“We have all the time in the world, Sergeant Wang says. Nobody knows where you are, and we can keep you here as long as we want.”

That was in 2000. Is that a long time ago? Since then, the screws of dictatorship have been ever tightened.

Democracy’s standing in the world is now so poor that it is standard in polite company to dismiss it as a mess of inefficiency, and to hold up orderly and effective autocracy as a better way. China is often the example.

The trouble with autocracy, however (in addition to usually being less effective in practice than in theory), is that if you allow it you are not likely to get benevolence. Order depends on state power, but uncontrolled power is dangerous to human dignity and freedom.


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