Totalitarian China: Outwardly Strong, Inwardly Weak

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

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.

Roger Garside
Former diplomat, development banker, and capital market development advisor

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.

The version of totalitarianism practiced by Xi’s China is far more subtle and sophisticated than those of either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union. It does not rely on mass terror. It has no need to do so because it can now harness technologies of power and reach that not even George Orwell, let alone Hitler or Stalin, could  dream of.

After the death of Mao, the Party adopted a strategy of economic reform without political reform. It has allowed a great increase in de facto economic and social freedom so that the industrious and enterprising Chinese people can generate economic growth, but it has not abandoned its authority in any sphere of life. Article 1 of the Constitution adopted in 1982 puts it plainly: “The People’s Republic of China is a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship,” and the preamble makes clear the intention that this should continue: “Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China . . ., the Chinese people of all nationalities will continue to adhere to the people’s democratic dictatorship and follow the socialist road.” Thus, the National People’s Congress is subordinate to the Party, as is every other organ of state power, including the government, the armed forces, the judiciary, the police, and so on. This is not a formality—the Party remains determined to act as the final arbiter of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, and of what may or may not be known and remembered, as it has since it came to power in 1949. It is above the law: indeed the law is whatever the Party says it is, prospectively and retrospectively. For instance, there is no legal definition in China of a “state secret,” but if a journalist publishes a fact that the Party considers to be seriously damaging to its interests, it will deem that fact to be a state secret, give instructions to the court appointed to “try” the accused, and have the journalist sent to jail; it will even dictate the length of sentence. So, the PRC is ruled, as its constitution declares, by a dictatorship, one best described as absolutist.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) has the essential characteristics of a Marxist-Leninist party on the model established by Lenin in the Soviet Union and maintained by all his successors until Mikhail Gorbachev. Its organizational structure and its formal methods of control over its own members are essentially unchanged from when it seized control of the mainland in 1949. Nowadays, it prefers to adopt a posture described by Professor Perry Link as that of “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite ‘naturally.’”

The Party prefers to exercise its power backstage, behind any number of different curtains marked “Government,” “Military,” “State-owned Bank,” or “Judiciary,” but these are instruments of the will of the Party, which still calls the shots when it chooses. The state has no legitimate, distinct existence of its own: it exists, in its various manifestations, to do the bidding of the Party. And, just as the KGB was the Siamese twin of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, so the Public Security Bureau is the Siamese twin of the CPC, enforcing its will where persuasion is judged insufficient, using violence as a matter of routine. The role of the police pioneered by Lenin and Stalin remains essentially unchanged, although its methods have been adapted to the mixed economy and the digital age.

Despite spending more on internal security than on defense against its external enemies, and despite great economic growth, the regime does not feel secure, and with good reason.

The reasons are not hard to identify. As subsequent chapters will show, the absence of political reform means that economic growth has come at great moral, environmental, social, intellectual, and cultural cost. This strategy has resulted in great social ine quality and social injustice. Now the economy itself faces mounting problems, at home and abroad, so that an economic drama is being played out in an environment that is toxic.

The deep-seated, long-term problems faced by China are the product of the totalitarian regime imposed by the Party, and the very nature of the regime makes it impossible to deal with any of the problems at the radical level required to remedy them. To change one part of the system would require changes in the other parts, and this would destroy the Party’s monopoly on political power.

For three decades from 1978, the Party pursued, with fits and starts, a strategy of transition toward a market economy. In 2008 it halted that transition because it recognized that further reform would undermine its totalitarian grip on political power. Since then it has not resumed it.

Because the Party maintains a regime that is totalitarian in character, it denies any space or legitimacy to efforts by others to fill with positive values the moral vacuum created by its loss of faith in its own communist creed (chapter 4). In practice, materialism, greed, and hedonism have largely replaced it.

A regime that was authoritarian might well tolerate a diversity of religious faiths, as happens in Singapore for example, but the CPC, being totalitarian in character and atheist by doctrine, cannot do so. In one region of China, Xinjiang, the Party believes that it is feasible to impose atheism on the people and, as we shall see in chapter 5, is using the most highly developed form of police state in its attempt to do so. This is the most naked manifestation of its totalitarian character. Elsewhere, its attempts to control religions through regulation have largely failed, and yet it cannot officially confer legitimacy on the unregulated worship and teaching that most of the hundreds of millions of religiously active people prefer (chapter 5). The result is the most far-reaching demonstration to date that this totalitarian regime is failing to impose its orthodoxy (atheism), but cannot and will not openly come to terms with real ity (widespread religious faith and practice).

In a country as large and populous as China, effective protection of the environment cries out for national-scale organizations that mobilize the public to support the implementation of policies and expose abuse or failure on the part of local officials. But the totalitarian regime is paranoid about the development of national-scale organizations that could morph into a political opposition (chapter 6).

As will be discussed in chapter 8, Xi has cast aside the caution displayed by his predecessors in the conduct of foreign affairs and adopted a much more assertive strategy. Insensitive, heavy-handed behavior has become more frequent. The most glaring and dangerous example of this has been in dealing with the United States. For far too long for its own good, the regime failed to recognize that its actions were alienating the world’s most powerful nation. This blindness has to be attributed in part to a totalitarian system which, to put it mildly, does not engender respect for those whose values and outlook are markedly, or—in this case— fundamentally different. As America has awoken to the totalitarian nature of the Chinese communists, a nature the latter had been careful to mask for a long time, its strategy of benign engagement has turned to nascent hostility. No people on earth is less forgiving than the Americans when they believe that their trust and friendship have been betrayed. Their trust will not be restored without systemic change in China.

Roger Garside is a former diplomat, development banker, and capital market development advisor. He twice served in the British Embassy in Beijing and is the author of the highly acclaimed Coming Alive: China After Mao. This contribution is an excerpt from his new book, China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom, reprinted with permission by University of California Press.