Is China Totalitarian or Authoritarian?

Is China totalitarian? This is a question I think about sometimes.  China certain doesn’t feel totalitarian, especially when you compare to the old Cultural Revolution days. What does totalitarian vs. authoritarian mean? Perhaps it is just a semi-empty exercise in making a point in one word or less? Maybe calling China authoritarian in policy debates to make it easier to interact with China and to trade with China? Might it be harder to do so while calling them the terrible name totalitarian name that brings to mind Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao?

Wikipedia has a definition of totalitarianism we can consider.

“Totalitarian regimes or movements maintain themselves in political power by means of an official all-embracing ideology and propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that controls the state, personality cults, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror tactics.”

So how well does China fit the definition of totalitarian. Is it totalitarian or authoritarian with some totalitarian characteristics?

Totalitarian regimes or movements maintain themselves in political power by means of an:
1. Official all-embracing ideology (China: yes — but now a lot of Chinese laugh at it and most pretend to believe it as in Hans Christian Andersen’s Emperor’s New Clothes) and

2. Propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media (China:  yes, media control effective at central, provincial, local levels see He Qinglian’s 2008 book The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China –full text PDF download)

3. A single party that controls the state (China: yes, of course the people’s democratic dictatorship lives)

4. Personality cults (no, certainly much less than in Mao’s time, though they may be an evolving one of the Party Secretary and Xi Jinping’s speeches do have whiffs of Maoist nostalgia in them for the time when China certainly did have a leader cult.)

5. Control over the economy (considerable intervention  — China’s internal debt rose sharply after 2008 as the PRC central government poured even more money into the economy relative to GDP that the US Federal reserve did — statist capitalism as Huang Yasheng and others have pointed out),

6. Regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism (China: Yes) ,

7. The use of mass surveillance (Yes:  telephone and internet monitoring must be a major employer in China. Not to mention undercover surveillance and the proliferation of street cameras.)

8. Widespread use of terror tactics (No, except in Tibetan areas and Xinjiang)

So China still does have significant totalitarian characteristics. The totalitarian/authoritarian distinction is interesting on several levels at least as a start of discussion, although the application to everyday life is necessarily fuzzy.

Some regimes are clearly much worse than others for the average person. For intellectuals (and in the Great Leap Forward for tens of millions of starving peasants as well), Mao was far worse than Jiang Zemin.   Indeed I recall that a Chinese historian argued some years ago that the “opening and reform” led by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death was nothing less than a second founding of the PRC.  The Communist Party does not like to recognize the radical difference between the first three decades and the subsequent found decades of the history of the PRC. China runs much more on laws, regulations and institutions now than it did during Mao’s time which were filled with idealistic ideas of continuous revolution of the ostensibly materialist Mao.

Opening and reform has meant building a bureaucratic system anew after Mao had during the Cultural Revolution replaced governments at many levels by revolutionary committees — his version of the famous “withering away of the state” with continuous revolution characteristics.  Rule of law but not “by law”.  Law is a tool of the ostensibly benevolent state as it has always been in the Legalist tradition going back almost to the time of Confucius.  China has ‘telephone justice’ as did the old Soviet Union by which judges are told what to do by the Political and Legal Affairs Committee 政法委员会 that exists at all levels of Communist Party organization.

As a Chinese man told me in a long conversation on a train some years ago, democracy is seen around the world as the emblem of an advanced country and so China needs to be democratic. He added, however that the Party will game the system, as many non democratic (or even democratic people’s republics) around the world do, with its own interpretation called “the people’s democratic dictatorship.  In China, gaming elections involves in practice restrictions on speech and information, intimidation of potential candidates for the local people’s congresses (which through level after level of elections choose the National People’s Congress that means in Beijing every spring).  I saw this is in 2012 in Chengdu and spoke with one of the beaten-up candidates.  See the Radio Free Asia report  “Chinese Elections in Microcosm –Chengdu Elections 2012: The Many Ways Election Fraud Was Committed in the Chengdu Region People’s Congress Elections”  

China over the past several decades has seen a sharp rise in real incomes and many hundreds of millions of people rising from desperate poverty.  Chinese now have a far better chance of getting a university education than they did twenty years ago.

On the emotional level (and really this to me is a more useful and practical one than the academic one), totalitarian vs. authoritarian means to me that many people very scared by the state much of the time (totalitarian regime) or merely just intimidated in certain contexts and at certain times (authoritarian regime)?  Chengdu writer Ran Yunfei, who spend yearly a year in detention intended and then house arrest (intended apparently to make him watch his step) for his writings although he never considered himself an activist, wrote about the repression.  2008: Ran Yunfei: “Where Will the Fear End? A Talk that Could Not Be Delivered”

Repression varies widely from place to place reflecting different conditions and the considerable autonomy of local Communist Party organizations (in fact policy statements from the center are often phrased as “opinions” to be implemented differently according to differing local conditions.  Tibetans for example have told me in 2008 that they that they feel freer in Chengdu than in Lhasa but freer in Beijing than they do in Chengdu).

Chinese totalitarianism is characterized by a gently escalating menu of pressure, avoidance of strong measures except when they appear to be absolutely necessary to maintain the regime. Pressure against individuals can be direct or indirect including threats against friends, relatives and co-workers in order to bring more pressure on the targeted individual.

The authoritarian/totalitarian distinction has also been useful for politicians and businesspeople in western countries who like to  argue that that cooperation is OK with one group of the unsavory (the authoritarian, who presumably may be able to evolve towards democracy) but perhaps not with the more unsavory (the totalitarians).

Now an authoritarian regime could evolve towards a variety of totalitarianism rather than democracy, but then there are many varieties of totalitarianism and democracy, like totalitarianism, have varying definitions. Even Mao Zedong often wrote glowingly about democracy.  His species of democracy was the people’s democratic dictatorship 人民民主的专政 which remains the Chinese operating system despite everything else that has changed after all these years.

And one of the big Party slogans in 2009 was  “Liberate your thinking!” (解放思想Jiefang sixiang).  Who could argue with that?

We can hope that the Chinese constitution will help China evolve towards democracy. Many Chinese who had hopes about this ten years ago are now discouraged.  Sometimes it seems that the most important part of the PRC Constitution is Article One. Seems to over ride everything else since it prohibits any move towards change.

Article 1 The People’s Republic of China is a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants.
The socialist system is the basic system of the People’s Republic of China. Disruption of the socialist system by any organization or individual is prohibited.

Professor Stein Ringen’s book The Perfect Dictatorship gives a nice analysis of China’s smart totalitarian system.

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Retired now, translated Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and studying some things. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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1 Response to Is China Totalitarian or Authoritarian?

  1. Jeff Wang says:

    pretty interesting arguments


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