Firs published in The Washington Post.
At the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, now unfolding in Beijing, the world is being served up a dazzling spectacle of power and procedure. The Great Hall of the People is swathed in red banners, golden insignia and a sea of flowers. There will be reports, decisions and elections. 2 300 delegates in imposing assembly, some in traditional dress, some in military uniform, the majority in black suits. Almost all men, almost all with the obligatory jet black hair with not a strand out of place. There will be order.
That spectacle will be a combination of truth and fiction. The projection of power is true. Here is the leadership of the world’s second superpower before its power base. The People’s Republic is a Leninist State. In every government office is a Party Secretary, as in every military unit, state or private business, organisation, university and school, provincial and local government, down to every neighbourhood in every town and village. The Party Secretaries rule under commands that come down the line. They observe, report irregularities up the line and have the final say in decisions large and small.
China’s power is military, notably in the East Asia region. That has allowed it to turn 3 million of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million square kilometers into de facto Chinese territorial waters, in contravention of international law and in one of the biggest territorial grabs in history.
Globally, its power is economic. So imposing is this one country now that most others are in its grip for trade and investments. Businesses around the world and their governments avoid anything that can cause Chines displeasure. They sign up to Beijing’s version of the “one China policy,” shun the Dalai Lama, and stay silent on human rights abuses.
In the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the leader Xi Jinping’s brainchild, China has launched an audacious global program of investment power. Chinese credit is enabling trade and communication investments through Asia and into the broader world and in the process procuring that most precious of power resources which has so far eluded the regime: international friendships. American imperialism has rested in part on soft power alliances. Now Beijing is outdoing the master and building alliances of its own with investment power.
The fictitious part will be the pretense of procedure. The Congress will rubber-stamp decisions already made and elections dictated to it. The appearance of collective decision-making is for show only. Xi is the most powerful leader since Mao and has moved the system back towards one-man rule and person cult.
On the ground, far removed from the façade of order and unity, where stability maintenance meets opposition, the reality is hard and ugly. Activists are locked up, with or without judicial procedure. Some are disappeared. Troublemakers get beaten up, physically, at home or in detention, often badly, sometimes to death. There is an unknown number of political prisoners, many of whom suffer mistreatment and torture, including necessary medical treatment denied and, as recently exposed, unnecessary medication enforced. The regime that presents itself to the world in perfectly choreographed civility is one that depends, in its dark corners, on gangster-style thuggery.
Since Deng Xiaoping rescued the Party State from collapse following the Maoist madness, there have been two major lines of development. One, steady and strong, of economic progress, and one, in ups and downs, of political regression. Presently, economic growth is slowing and there are fears of stagnation in the middle-income trap. In response, under Xi’s firm hand, dictatorial controls and censorship have been tightened step by relentless step. Rights activists are detained and paraded on television with orchestrated confessions. Human rights lawyers are cracked down upon for no other sin than to hold the authorities to the state’s laws and constitution. Feminists are detained for demonstrating against sexual harassment on public transport, not because their cause is subversive but for organizing outside of the Party system.
The combination of these two developments, forwards economically and backwards politically, is alien to the Western liberal mind. Some who look to China – most economic actors, many in politics, some in academia – cling to the illusion that the People’s Republic is a benevolent autocracy of effective governance, albeit with blemishes. But there are many autocratic regimes in the world, such as Russia and Turkey. China is something else, a neo-totalitarian Party State.
There is next to no disagreement among observers that Xi Jinping’s first period has come with a tightening of dictatorship. But there is disagreement about whether this is temporary or lasting. Some think the regime is riven by contradictions – the economy wobbles under the weight of debt, civil society is striking back in a religious revival that is sweeping the country – and that it must reform or decline. Others, myself included, think that the reason dictatorship is tightened is that stronger controls are necessary up against weaker economic performance and that the regime is ensuring that it can ride out any challenge from below.
There have been two previous big Party States in modern times. Nazi Germany lasted only twelve years but it took a world war to crush it. The Soviet Union lasted upwards of seventy years but it took decades of cold war confrontation for it to disintegrate. History does not suggest that Chines totalitarianism might give in easily.
As the Congress dissolves after a week, Xi Jinping will have been celebrated, anointed for another period and have more of his cronies in the leadership. What will have been on display, even more than power and procedure, is the Party’s absolute determination to preserve its rule.
The Chinese leaders have learned from the demise of the Soviet Union. When the Party Secretaries leave the Great Hall of the People and return to their posts throughout the land, they will have been told, and will tell others, that their regime is one of discipline without dissent. The Party will have reaffirmed its monopoly on the writing of its own and the country’s history, the unity of Party and military, and the strength of the security services. It will have celebrated the virtue of censorship, internet control, propaganda, and thought- work. Its agenda will be control and control again.
Meanwhile, we others, we who live by the values of liberty and democracy, must decide where we stand. When we look to China, should we see, using Henry Kissinger’s term, a civilization state that merits our respect? Or should we see, as in previous totalitarian systems, a repressive and domineering power state that should be resisted?