First published in ChinaFile.
Democracies have found it difficult to deal with the great dictatorships. So now with China. The first difficulty is to recognise just what we are up against, and to avoid wishful thinking.
In his first five years, Xi Jinping 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 inherited a state intent on economic advancement, and has turned it into one intent on political control.
His reign has imposed a relentless concentration of power, in the country to Beijing, in Beijing to the Party and in the Party to the leader. When he speaks, his message is invariably Party discipline. There has been a step-by-step tightening of repression against human rights lawyers and political and religious activists. Ethnic minorities suffer under cultural persecution. Censorship is harder. Political education, mass campaigns and thought-work are back with a vengeance, as is ideology in Xi’s narrative of national greatness in his “China Dream.”
The regime is equally determined in propaganda. There is much of old-fashioned boasting, but the real work is done more subtly. 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. Contrary to expectations, the internet has not become a lever for opening up from below but another instrument of control from above. Two million “internet opinion analysts” are on the job not only of keeping undesirable material out but also shaping what goes in, which is done so that even much of the criticism that circulates on the web, appearing to be from private citizens, is of the right kind.
The concentration of power and the tightening of dictatorial controls are logical. The party-state needs legitimacy. 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 and growth slipping, the regime can rely less on its ability to purchase the people’s gratitude. The leaders know the danger. Always weary of their grip on power, they turn, pre-emptively, to tighter controls and nationalistic ideology. Revolution has no traction in a kleptocracy 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.
The modern Chinese state does not rely on being forbidding to its people in their daily lives. Indeed, ordinary Chinese now have many freedoms that no one interferes with. But it has its red lines and does forbid what cannot be accepted: interference in Party affairs and organizing outside of the Party apparatus. Even in social media, where individuals on their own can mostly operate undisturbed, organized networking elicits sanction.
The regime has reverted to the Maoist ambition of shaping people’s mindsets. It censors information and dispenses propaganda with deadly seriousness. Schools train unquestioning fact-absorbing minds. The anti-corruption campaign is used 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 freeing people 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 venture of “national rejuvenation.”
Is it succeeding in not only controlling people’s behavior but also their minds? Chinese people are not more gullible or less capable of cynicism than others but are more than others subjected to aggressive thought-work. Propaganda and ideology are powerful tools, often dismissed by observers as tittle-tattle but never ignored by the leaders themselves. The perfect dictatorship aims not only to hold people in line but to make them believe that repressive order is for their own good. The Party is not without opposition and has heroic activists working against it. Lawyers continue to hold the authorities and courts to their own laws. Ethnic minorities are in latent revolt. Religious revival is sweeping the country. The leaders do not for a moment trust the people and never relax necessary controls.
But while the dictatorship is tightening, it is also increasingly able to rely on people’s self-control and make itself so smooth that it in some ways does not even look dictatorial. Activists are more likely to be seen by non-activists as a nuisance than as role models. As strange as it may sound in a population of 1.3 billion people, the Party hears everything, sees everything and knows everything. In his trial in 2014, the activist Yang Maodong defied the court with an eloquent defense statement in which he compared today’s China “blow by blow” to the nightmare state of George Orwell’s 1984.
If the dictators may be making the people believers, after a fashion, could it be that they are persuading themselves likewise? Possibly. The top brass live elevated lives in their Zhongnonhai enclosed compound, far removed from ordinary people’s daily grind, with their own protected food supply and behind the safety of air filtering systems. Xi Jinping looks and behaves like a man who really believes in the reds aristocracy’s right and duty to rule. The state may be a kleptocracy, but it is not more farfetched that those who float to 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 orders of virtue. If the mission is now national greatness, is then not the Party again the instrument of a noble cause? If they are cleaning up the corruption, are they not reviving classical values of austerity and honesty? People who tell stories, and repeat them and have them repeated, are exposed to believing what they say and hear.
A prudent leader would rest on his laurels and use his powers for other purposes, such as to reform the economy. But Xi has brewed for himself a dangerous cocktail of personal power, ideology and propaganda. The imperative is to secure the perpetuation of Party rule. Xi sees himself as the man who can impose the necessary discipline within the Party and controls throughout society to avoid Soviet-style disintegration. He is a man with a mission, a believer in his mission, surrounded by other believers, and with a population, at least in his own eyes, of believers. When has any leader, dizzy with power and success, able to bend history, experiencing love and adulation, 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 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 for this regime to go other than to controls justified by mythology. The leader who has reaped success for his efforts, will continue. He is in control, but control is not yet infallible. 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 fully absorbed.
So it is for the great dictators. They work day and night but utopia is denied them and their job is never done.
When China and Norway normalized relations earlier this year, they issued a joint declaration in which the big power took the opportunity to humiliate the little one. (Official China-Norway relations had been frozen for six years after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the late human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010.) The Norwegian government declares its respect for various standard PRC interests and achievements, including (from one of the world’s most advanced welfare states) its social system. No similar respect for Norwegian values or achievements is expressed from the Chinese side.
Why was the Chinese government so haughty? The answer is that it did what it must do, considering the kind of state it is.
The People’s Republic is a superpower with Chinese characteristics. Its vision is “rejuvenation” for national greatness. China is to re-establish itself as the “middle kingdom,” elevated in dignity above lesser powers. Hence the emissaries of a small nation, as in imperial times, must pay tribute when they come to Beijing seeking favor.
The best interpretation of Chinese foreign policy is to see it through the prism of a great power seeking domination in the world. It may not be exporting its model, it may not be a warring state, but it aims to dominate. Deng Xiaoping, who brought China back to economic sanity after Mao, advised the country then to “hide your strength and bide your time.” The time has now come.
The project of domination is most visible in China’s dealing with its neighbors in East Asia. In the South China Sea, China has undertaken one of the biggest territorial grabs ever in history, effectively confiscating vast territories that by international law are either international waters or belong to other countries, notably the Philippines and Vietnam. These territories are being colonized by the building of artificial islands, some with military bases. The area China claims makes up 3 million of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million square kilometers. This grab is not something China might do, it is what it has done.
The reason China has taken control in the South China Sea, is that it has the power to do so. It has also felt its way into the East China Sea, bolstering its clam to the Senkaku (in Japanese) or Diaoyu (in Chinese) Islands. But here it is up against Japan, whose navy is more than a match for its own and has shown itself willing to respond, and is therefore maneuvering with more restraint. It has established an “air defense zone” in which it claims the right to control air traffic, but that is so far what its power has allowed it to do.
Beijing claims Taiwan to be part of its territory and is succeeding in getting that version of history accepted by bullying anyone who wants to be on good terms into signing up to their version of the “One-China Policy,” although Taiwan has never been ruled as a part of China, except for the short period from 1945 to 1949. On North Korea, it is pretending to be a force of restraint while in fact upholding the mutual Treaty of Friendship and assisting the North Korean regime economically, including by, at best, selective implementation of international sanctions. Beijing’s interest here is to maintain a divided Korea and to avoid any North Korean “instability” that might disturb its own rise.
Beyond its near neighborhood, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Xi Jinping’s brainchild, is an audacious program of infrastructural investments to create a system of trade and communication links through Asia and into the broader world, including, for example, a modern railway network now being built in East Africa with Chinese credit and technology.
These investments will bring economic activity and growth to recipient countries and regions, and in the bargain return multiple benefits to China. The links reach out from Beijing like spikes in a wheel, with China literally the middle kingdom in a structure spanning much of the globe. The capital is provided as credit, turning recipient nations into Chinese debtors on a grand scale.
Here, the People’s Republic is procuring that most precious of power resources which has so far eluded it: international friendships. The OBOR investments are real, as are the economic rewards that flow from them. Countries and national élites on the receiving end throw their lot in with China because China has given them good reasons to do so. 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.
In the democratic world, China is up against powers greater than itself and cannot dominate as it does dependents. But it can make its importance felt. This it does in part with threats. Any government that receives the Dalai Lama, or speaks up for human or minority rights, or with any indication of support for Taiwanese independence or in remembrance of Tiananmen 1989, is in danger of retaliation – and almost none do. Here too, China works through investment power: into property, into Hollywood’s influence industry, into universities with Confucius Institutes. Its propaganda machine is international, some of it operating openly and some through news agencies that work for Beijing’s design under a camouflage of independence. Where weakened democracies, now America, leave a vacuum, China steps in. It is winning over apologists and fellow travelers in politics, business and academia, and is gaining quiet influence day by day.
- The mechanisms of domination
A state that is totalitarian at home and imperialistic abroad should be a pariah in the world. There are various reasons why China is not.
- Size, power and the clever exercise of power. It is just not possible for others, at least on their own, to deal with this big and determined superpower differently from how it wants to be seen. The Philippines have had their sea territory stolen but have, after an unsuccessful attempt to resist through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, opted for friendship with the perpetrator.
- China is good for business. Best to be on good terms. In Henry Paulson’s eulogy for China business, Dealing With China, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 gets only the lightest of mention.
- Those who cross the regime are in danger of revenge, such as exclusion from operations in China. Environmental NGOs like Greenpeace, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Conservation International are silent on China’s environmental destructions in the South China Sea.
- Self-censorship. Even in the critical academic literature, the Chinese dictatorship is almost never more than “authoritarian.”
- China-fascination, of the uncritical kind. In Henry Kissinger’s On China, China is a “civilization state,” now no less than previously.