TOTALITARIANISM CLOSING IN ON CHINA

The only drama in the recent “two sessions” jamboree in Beijing is that there was no drama at all. Each year the Chinese political élite, 5000 men and a few women strong, congregate in the capital for a week of meetings of the legislature, the National People’s Congress, and its advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. This year the choreography was faultless. Even reporters who were assigned to provide their editors at least some copy, could find next to nothing to write about. In Beijing, all is steady and all is under control.

The gathering was the dress rehearsal for the Communist Party’s National Congress in the autumn, the once every five year event where real power is at play. We can expect that meeting to be equally orchestrated with no irregularities to suggest confusion in the leadership. The “core” leader, Xi Jinping (as he is now officially designated), will be anointed for another five years, more of his cronies will take positions in the leadership reshuffle, and ways will be found for his ally, Wang Qishan, now in charge of Party discipline and anti-corruption, to stay on in a top post although he by age-rules should be obliged to retire. Again, there will be no drama.

So what is the nature of the regime that holds the grip on national politics that no ripples are allowed to disturb the harmony? We know enough to give a reasonably clear answer to that question, although there are also remaining unknowns on which we can only speculate.

When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the almost universal expectation was that he would be the dynamic moderniser to reform the economy off its dependency on state driven debt-infused over-investment. But that hope has been confounded. Xi’s priority has been political restitution. In his first five years he has reshaped the Chinese state so radically that he has taken the People’s Republic into the third phase in its historic march, after the ideological madness of Mao and the economic pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping and his followers.

He has acted with great determination but also shrewdness, working steadily step-by-step and drip-by-drip, never allowing the boat to rock out of balance. By the time the Party meets itself later this year, he will have changed the facts on the ground in two ways. First, there has been a relentless concentration of power, in the country to Beijing, in Beijing to the Party and in the Party to the boss himself. Second, there has been an equally relentless tightening of repression, followed by intensification of Party discipline, political education, mass campaigns, propaganda, thought-work, and crack-downs on political, ethnic and religious activists. Ideology is back with a vengeance, in Xi Jinping’s narrative of national greatness in his slogan of “the China Dream.”

Xi is the most powerful leader since Mao, not quite taking the system back to one-man rule but leaning it in that direction. On coming to power, he immediately occupied all decisive leadership posts, including the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, and soon created new “leading groups” with himself as chair, such as for national and internet security. Deviants, real or imagined, from outside of his own circle have been purged in the anti-corruption campaign. He has cloaked himself in an aura of person cult, being hailed for exceptional virtue and dedication throughout the state-controlled media. It is now enough for him to stand before the faithful, immaculate in dress and demeanour, a mild smile generously on the ready, not a straw of hair out of place in his jet-black coif, his little pot-belly just right, not big so as to suggest indulgence but enough to make him fatherly, to be rewarded with waves of adulation. This year’s report by the premier, Li Keqiang, to the National People’s Congress was extraordinary for its lavish praise on the Party and its leader, culminating in a pledge for all to “rally ever closer around the Party Central Committee with comrade Xi Jinping at its core.”

Controls and repressions have narrowed the space for human rights lawyers to protect the persecuted, think-tanks and NGO’s to operate independently, journalists to report honestly, feminists to advance their causes, academics and teachers to instruct and research objectively, the religious to worship freely. Authors and artists have been told, in an echo of Stalinism, that their work must “serve the people.” Censorship is ever tighter in literature and media. Contrary to expectations, the internet has not become a lever for opening up from below but rather another instrument of control from above.

The Chinese dictatorship is like nothing the world has ever known, so smooth that it in some respects does not even look dictatorial, relying extensively on people’s self-control. But also brute and raw where needs be. The western provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang, have been turned into garrison states. Most Chinese now have many freedoms in their daily lives which no one interferes with, as long as they do not take their freedoms into the domain of Party affairs or to organising outside of the Party apparatus. It is of a new kind, controlling everything but not dictating what does not need to be dictated. I call it a “controlocracy.”

The regime is equally sophisticated in propaganda. There is much of old-fashioned boasting by the regime, but the real work is done more softly. School children are taught to love the Party but the more effective influence is through careful editing of teaching material in history and other subjects to promote the national truth. Two million “internet opinion analysts” are on the job not only of keeping undesirable material outside of the “great firewall” but also shaping what goes in, which is done subtly so that even much of the criticism that circulates on the web, appearing to be from private citizens, is under control to be of the right kind.

The concentration of power and the tightening of dictatorial controls we know enough about to present as fact. It is also logical. The party-state needs legitimacy. The state has its legitimacy from the Party, but the Party needs to get it from somewhere else. Since Deng’s reform and opening up, it has relied extensively on economic growth and the spreading of rewards in the population. Now, with expectations inflated, mega-growth is over. The leaders know the danger. They can rely less on their ability to purchase the people’s gratitude. Always weary of their grip on power, they turn, pre-emptively, to tighter controls and nationalistic ideology.

Xi’s China Dream, now omnipresent wherever the Party and its affiliates speak, is more than the usual slogan of hot air. The Party that claims the right to control everything must be able to justify itself. Revolution has no traction in a keptocracy in which officials enrich themselves by looting the state and income inequality is more extreme than in most capitalist countries. The available narrative is that of national glory.

What we do not know is just who Xi Jinping is and where he will take the party-state in his next five years (at least) in the lead. Here, we enter the realm of speculation, but nevertheless with some evidence to build on.

One view, by some of his friendlier observers, is that Xi is in fact the hoped for moderniser, that he has used his first years to consolidate power, and that he in his next period will take that power to the job of reforming the economy. Perhaps so – but this is more likely hope over experience. Xi laid out an ambitious agenda of economic reform early on, in the “third plenum” in 2013. (A “plenum” is a meeting of the Party’s Central Committee, about 370 members, usually twice a year.) But not much has been followed up. That is not for want of power. Had reform been a priority, it would long since have been rolled out. It must be safer to speculate from what the leader has in fact done than out of theoretical hope.

The Chinese system is extraordinarily dependent on the leadership, and now on the leader himself. It therefore matters for our understanding of that system what kind of man Xi is, what he thinks, what he believes, what his values are.

We of course cannon know, but for my part I am coming around, hesitantly, to thinking of Xi Jinping as a true believer. He looks to me like a man who really believes in his mission, in the reds aristocracy’s right and duty to rule, and in the purity of the Communist Party.

The imperative is to secure the perpetuation of the Party regime. Xi sees himself as the man who can impose the necessary discipline within the Party and controls throughout society to avoid Soviet-style disintegration. For him and other “princelings” (the children and grandchildren of revolutionary and early PRC grandees), the people are children who need the intimate guidance of their betters. He and his fellow aristocrats allow them the prospect of having property and possibly getting rich, but demand their loyalty. To that end, they control media, information and history. They take propaganda and thought-work very seriously. They use the anti-corruption campaign to make people believe the party-state is being cleaned up. (A remarkable propagandistic skill of the regime is to have itself given credit for allowing people to extricate themselves from the miseries it has itself imposed on them.) As other exposed leaders, they turn to nationalism and co-opt good people into a nasty fairy tale of “national rejuvenation.”

Is this a regime that is able not only to control people’s behaviour but also their minds? Chinese people are not more gullible than others but are more than others subjected to aggressive thought-work from above. When I speak about China in Europe and the US, I can count on a young Chinese in the audience to tell me that his/her parents at home tell him/her that they are happy in their new-found affluence party-state order. Perhaps they are. But then the young Chinese abroad are not from the peasant population, whose young are the internal migrants who fuel the state’s investment machine with cheap labour, and whom visitors, if they put on sun glasses so as not to be blinded by shine from the skyscrapers, will see as the wretched of the earth slaving away in the city gutters, and whose children again are not in comfort abroad but in sub-standard schools at home, an estimated 60 million of them “left-behinds” in the countryside.

If it is possible that the dictators are making the people believers, could it be that they are persuading themselves likewise? Why not? The top brass live elevated lives in their Zhongnonhai enclosed compound, with their own protected food supply and behind the safety of air filtering systems. The state may be a kleptocracy, but it is not more farfetched that those who float on the top there see themselves as righteous than that, for example, European nineteenth century aristocrats, who sat on societies rotten with corruption and vice, saw themselves as the custodians of ordained orders of virtue. If the mission is now national greatness, the Party is again the instrument of a noble cause. If they are cleaning up the corruption, are they not reviving classical values, austerity and honesty? People who tell stories, and repeat them and have them repeated back, are exposed to believing what they say and hear.

What then for the regime in Xi’s next period? In five years he has reshaped both its practice and its narrative. On the continuum from mild autocracy to all-out totalitarianism, he has shifted in the totalitarian direction. Is that now enough or will the shift continue?

A prudent Xi would rest on his laurels, be content with the control he has obtained and consolidate by continuing his various moral crusades. But he has brewed for himself a dangerous cocktail of one-man rule (near to), ideology, propaganda and though-work. When has any leader, dizzy with power and success, able to bend history, experiencing love and admiration, been able to say to himself: enough?

The economic miracle is over and China is getting stuck in the middle-income trap. The socialist market economy’s many problems and contradictions can no longer be smoothed over by having money from mega-growth thrown at them. Such contentment as there may be in the population is not to be trusted. There is nowhere else for the regime to go than to controls justified by mythology. The leader who has reaped success and gratitude for his efforts, will continue. He is in control, but control is not yet total. He has said to his people that “each person’s future and destiny is linked with the future and destiny of the country and nation” (in his launch of the China Dream), but his teachings are not yet clear enough and not yet absorbed.

Critical observers tend to think that a regime with as many built-in contradictions as the People’s Republic cannot endure and that some kind of collapse is in the making. The likely scenario in my reading is different. The red aristocracy will hold on by perfecting the controlocracy, step-by-step and drip-by-drip, towards tighter controls and all-out totalitarianism. Can it thereby endure? Elsewhere (except possibly in North Korea) totalitarianism has failed. The Chinese leaders have studied those failures and are carving out their own way, not soft but smart totalitarianism. The People’s Republic has for decades survived the persistent predictions of its own demise.

THE INEVITABLE UGLINESS OF DICTATORSHIP

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.

 

CHINA AND THE EMBARRASSMENT OF WESTERN DEMOCRACY

It is an uncomfortable truth, as we leave 2016, the year of reaction, that democracy is in trouble. But the trouble for democracy does not come from Beijing, or from globalisation, or from abroad, or, in Britain, from Europe. It resides at home. The trouble for democracy, at this time in history, comes from our own poor ability to reform.

The Chinese regime has had a good 2016 because it was a bad year for democracy. Official Chinese media and various commentators have made fun of the Brexit referendum in Britain and the Trump victory in the United States as being what you get if you are careless enough to let the people decide. The Chinese system is being held up as a model of stability. The leader, Xi Jinping, has exploited uncertainty and vacuum in the West, first at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Peru in November 2016 and then at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, to brazenly offer China up to the world as the guarantor of economic openness and free trade.

The awkward thing for the democracy side is that the Chinese dictators have been given a godsend of democratic weakness, so much so that Western democracy is widely seen to be in “crisis.” Both the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory were perverse. In Britain, there is a majority in the population and in Parliament in favour of continued membership in the European Union, but because of low voter participation among the young, that majority did not prevail in the referendum. In America, the losing candidate won the majority of the popular vote. In both countries, ugly campaigns embraced and encouraged sundry voices of xenophobia, fear of the other, racism and divisiveness which we until the fateful year of 2016 had thought had been marginalised to the dark and dusty corners of the house of modernity.

The turmoils of democracy in the West represent a shift in the balance of soft power in the world. Europe and America, in confusion and uncertainty, today look unimpressive. It is easy for Beijing to present the Chinese model as safe, stable and predictable. It is this shift in the power of esteem that Xi Jinping has been able to play on, successfully, in his travels to the West.

But there is more to Beijing’s interpretation of the misfortunes of democracy. The Chinese leaders have perfected a model which has proved itself functional for the perpetuation of their own regime. It is for that purpose above all that they are determined to retain dictatorial control and not risk democratic reforms. However, there is also a view, both among regime insiders and some commentators, such as the political scientist Daniel A. Bell in his The China Model, that the Chinese political system is genuinely superior to any democratic system, both in delivering effective governance and also morally.

We cannot know if the Chinese leaders really believe that their model is superior, or if their claim to superiority is only window dressing for the maintenance of the dictatorship they depend on. But if there is a temptation on their part to believe their own propaganda, that temptation will now have been stimulated. In my own analysis of the Chinese system, in my book The Perfect Dictatorship, I see the Chinese regime as a dangerous one in the world, or at least potentially dangerous. Its propensity to aggression is most visible in the South China Sea. The Chinese state is powerful. What may make it dangerous is a conviction in the minds of the leaders in Beijing that they are the custodians of a unique virtue. That conviction they are themselves cultivating with the revival of ideology in the form of the nationalistic and chauvinistic rhetoric of “the China Dream.” It has now been given the additional stimulus that their model has suddenly come to look better compared to the alternative. When democracy performs poorly, it is logical that those who have advocated autocracy feel that history is proving them right. It is logical that the leaders of a powerful state, who believe to be seeing that history is on their side, will make their state a more assertive one vis-à-vis neighbours and others.

There is a competition in the world between Western democracy and Chinese-style autocracy. For the West to stand tall in that competition, democratic governments must see to it that their democratic systems perform, deliver and command respect. The way to do that is through constant reform. Democracies are imperfect. They are strong not by being perfect – only dictatorships can be perfect – but by imperfections being recognised and worked on.

The systems the Chinese leaders and others are now able to make fun of, have neglected the imperative of constant reform. In America, the main problem is that the power of money has been allowed to prevail so that ordinary citizens rightly feel that the system is rigged in favour of the rich and that they themselves have no say. In Britain, the main problem is an excessively centralised system of political power with a wide gulf of distance between the rulers in London and the people throughout the land. In both countries, income and wealth has been redistributed to the rich and ultra-rich, leaving the middle class, not to mention the poor, behind in neglect and humiliation. The foundations of the democratic architecture has been allowed to crumble.

(First published in openDemocracy)

DICTATORSHIPS – IMPRESSIONS AND REALITY

I recently came across this: Visitors “coming home from Berlin, where they had been carefully showed around and flattered, praised the orderly regime of the country and its new master, and were coming to think that his claims to a greater Germany might be justified.”

That is from Stefan Zweig’s memoirs, The World of Yesterday. He is writing around 1940 and is remembering how “visitors” preferred to see the Hitler regime during the 1930s.

Well, substitute “from Beijing” for “from Berlin” and “greater China” for “greater Germany” and you have the preferred Western understanding of today’s Chinese regime, in particular that of business interests. Even people with extensive experience in China prefer to see the regime as a pretty benevolent autocracy, the main achievement of which is to deliver effective governance.

It seems to be a regularity in history that many in the democratic world bend over backwards, as long as possible, to give powerful dictatorships the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps out of convenience: it’s good for business. Perhaps because we do not have enough confidence in our own systems.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, I said that I think “the world has failed to grasp the scale of the repression now playing out in China, still viewing the country as a benevolent autocracy when in fact it has mutated into a very, very hard dictatorship which manages to look better than it is.”

In my book, The Perfect Dictatorship, I put it thus: “I have been struck by how often visitors on some more or less official errand come home, having been flattered and entertained, without really having seen the obvious combination of misery and progress. In hindsight, I have not learned all that much from my own visits, except to have my critical instinct stimulated.”

Visitors to a dictatorship that is in control should know that their “impression” of things is not necessarily the way things are, in fact that their “impressions” are likely to be distorted. I know this very well from my own experience. I have had very good collaboration with academic colleagues in China at their universities and institutes, and if I were to go by my “impressions” from my visits, I would side with the benevolent view. But through my analyses I have found a different reality, a hard dictatorship, and one, as for my own “impressions,” that also holds universities and academic institutes in its firm grip.

Read another comment on the Western misunderstanding of China here.