Totalitarian China: Outwardly Strong, Inwardly Weak

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 9, No. 5, May 2021

By Roger Garside

A photo montage of Roger Garside, and his new book, China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, May 2021). This contribution is an excerpt from the book, reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Robert Conquest, the great Anglo-American historian of the Soviet Union, defined a totalitarian state as one that recognizes no limits to its authority in any sphere of public or private life and that extends that authority to whatever length feasible. The regime imposed by the Communist Party of China fits that description. In the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong attempted to extend the authority of the Party to the furthest limits conceivable, and in doing so created the greatest man-made disaster in the history of the world. His successors recognized that it was not feasible to extend the Party’s authority as far as Mao had attempted. Otherwise it would lose its grip on power. But as the constitution of the People’s Republic makes clear in principle, it reserves the right to impose its authority in any sphere of public or private life, and the Party frequently reminds society of this in practice.

It is the absence of any restrictions on the Party that constitutes the principal difference between a totalitarian and an authoritarian regime. Only if we recognize this reality can we understand China today and stand a chance of accurately predicting its future. Continue reading