China: Authoritarian or Totalitarian?

There are varying definitions of authoritarianism and totalitarianism on Wikipedia alone. For something more lasting, here is what the Encyclopedia Britannica online says. Authoritarianism is …

[a or the] principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people. Authoritarian leaders often exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law, and they usually cannot be replaced by citizens choosing freely among various competitors in elections. The freedom to create opposition political parties or other alternative political groupings with which to compete for power with the ruling group is either limited or nonexistent in authoritarian regimes.
Authoritarianism thus stands in fundamental contrast to democracy.

The same entry contains a few words about totalitarianism:

It [i. e. authoritarianism - JR] also differs from totalitarianism, however, since authoritarian governments usually have no highly developed guiding ideology, tolerate some pluralism in social organization, lack the power to mobilize the entire population in pursuit of national goals, and exercise that power within relatively predictable limits. Examples of authoritarian regimes, according to some scholars, include the pro-Western military dictatorships that existed in Latin America and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th century.

During the past two or three weeks I had several discussions about the difference between the two, on this blog and elsewhere. There were different views, but no tries to back them up with definitions. I’m sure that people can come up with definitions differing from the ones quoted above, and who will have different opinions about the nature of Chinese government and society, be it while using Britannica’s definition as a standard, be it by using other definitions.

As any regular reader of this blog might be able to tell, my view of China is that it is totalitarian. On the other hand, a website which I’d expect to see it the same way – underminingdemocracy.org – refers to China’s political system as authoritarian, rather than totalitarian. Undermining Democracy contains the principal findings of workshops convened by Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia (RFA) in 2008 and 2009. The country reports there include China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Venezuela.

Is China ruled by totalitarianism or by authoritarianism? Or is it ruled by something else?

Comments – in accordance with these rules – are very welcome.

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47 Responses to “China: Authoritarian or Totalitarian?”

  1. EB entry for Totalitarianism:

    Totalitarianism form of government that theoretically permits no individual freedom and that seeks to subordinate all aspects of the individual’s life to the authority of the government. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini coined the term totalitario in the early 1920s to describe the new fascist state of Italy, which he further described as: “All within the state, none outside the state, none against the state.” By the beginning of World War II, “totalitarian” had become synonymous with absolute and oppressive single-party government.

    In the broadest sense, totalitarianism is characterized by strong central rule that attempts to control and direct all aspects of individual life through coercion and repression. Examples of such centralized totalitarian rule include the Maurya dynasty of India (c. 321–c. 185 BC), the Ch’in dynasty of China (221–206 BC), and the reign of Zulu chief Shaka (c. 1816–28). The totalitarian states of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler (1933–45) and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1924–53) were the first examples of decentralized or popular totalitarianism, in which the state achieved overwhelming popular support for its leadership. This support was not spontaneous; its genesis depended on a charismatic leader; and it was made possible only by modern developments in communication and transportation.

    Totalitarianism is often distinguished from dictatorship, despotism, or tyranny by its supplanting of all political institutions with new ones and its sweeping away of all legal, social, and political traditions. The totalitarian state pursues some special goal, such as industrialization or conquest, to the exclusion of all others. All resources are directed toward its attainment regardless of the cost. Whatever might further the goal is supported; whatever might foil the goal is rejected. This obsession spawns an ideology that explains everything in terms of the goal, rationalizing all obstacles that may arise and all forces that may contend with the state. The resulting popular support permits the state the widest latitude of action of any form of government. Any dissent is branded evil, and internal political differences are not permitted. Because pursuit of the goal is the only ideological foundation for the totalitarian state, achievement of the goal can never be acknowledged.

    Under totalitarian rule, traditional social institutions and organizations are discouraged and suppressed; thus the social fabric is weakened and people become more amenable to absorption into a single, unified movement. Participation in approved public organizations is at first encouraged and then required. Old religious and social ties are supplanted by artificial ties to the state and its ideology. As pluralism and individualism diminish, most of the people embrace the totalitarian state’s ideology. The infinite diversity among individuals blurs, replaced by a mass conformity (or at least acquiescence) to the beliefs and behaviour sanctioned by the state.

    Large-scale, organized violence becomes permissible and sometimes necessary under totalitarian rule, justified by the overriding commitment to the state ideology and pursuit of the state’s goal. In Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, whole classes of people, such as the Jews and the kulaks (wealthy peasant farmers) respectively, were singled out for persecution and extinction. In each case the persecuted were linked with some external enemy and blamed for the state’s troubles, and thereby public opinion was aroused against them and their fate at the hands of the military and the police was condoned.

    Police operations within a totalitarian state often appear similar to those within a police state, but one important difference distinguishes them. In a police state the police operate according to known, consistent procedures. In a totalitarian state the police operate without the constraints of laws and regulations. Their actions are unpredictable and directed by the whim of their rulers. Under Hitler and Stalin uncertainty was interwoven into the affairs of the state. The German constitution of the Weimar Republic was never abrogated under Hitler, but an enabling act passed by the Reichstag in 1933 permitted him to amend the constitution at will, in effect nullifying it. The role of lawmaker became vested in one man. Similarly, Stalin provided a constitution for the Soviet Union in 1936 but never permitted it to become the framework of Soviet law. Instead, he was the final arbiter in the interpretation of Marxism–Leninism–Stalinism and changed his interpretations at will. Neither Hitler nor Stalin permitted change to become predictable, thus increasing the sense of terror among the people and repressing any dissent.

  2. EB entry for authoritarianism

    Authoritarianism: principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people. Authoritarian leaders often exercise power arbitrarily and without regard to existing bodies of law, and they usually cannot be replaced by citizens choosing freely among various competitors in elections. The freedom to create opposition political parties or other alternative political groupings with which to compete for power with the ruling group is either limited or nonexistent in authoritarian regimes.

    Authoritarianism thus stands in fundamental contrast to democracy. It also differs from totalitarianism, however, since authoritarian governments usually have no highly developed guiding ideology, tolerate some pluralism in social organization, lack the power to mobilize the entire population in pursuit of national goals, and exercise that power within relatively predictable limits.

  3. My idea is that China is neither totalitarian nor authoritarian. These two “textbook” definitions don’t fit China.

    Totalitarianism form of government that theoretically permits no individual freedom and that seeks to subordinate all aspects of the individual’s life to the authority of the government.

    If such “individual freedom” means the freedom to overthrow or replace the current government by voting or force, then I am otherwise “free” in doing whatever I want to do within a known set of laws and regulations and depending on the resources I have and how capable I am: where I live, work, study, stay, what I do, I say, I sing, I curse, write, who I marry, make friends with, associate with, even develop an affair with if I want and I can; how I go from one city to another, contact others, in China or overseas, via communications means…. This list will never end.

    Totalitarianism is often distinguished from dictatorship, despotism, or tyranny by its supplanting of all political institutions with new ones and its sweeping away of all legal, social, and political traditions. The totalitarian state pursues some special goal, such as industrialization or conquest, to the exclusion of all others. All resources are directed toward its attainment regardless of the cost. Whatever might further the goal is supported; whatever might foil the goal is rejected. This obsession spawns an ideology that explains everything in terms of the goal, rationalizing all obstacles that may arise and all forces that may contend with the state. The resulting popular support permits the state the widest latitude of action of any form of government. Any dissent is branded evil, and internal political differences are not permitted. Because pursuit of the goal is the only ideological foundation for the totalitarian state, achievement of the goal can never be acknowledged.

    The Chinese government pursues a long list of goals. But let me mention only a harmonious society based on economic prosperity, some kind of popular participation. I don’t think some specific Chinese groups are designed to be excluded from this goal as long as they don’t want to have the freedom of overthrowing or changing the current government if its ten-year course hasn’t been completed, or of separating a chunk of Chinese territory from the rest of the country.

    Under totalitarian rule, traditional social institutions and organizations are discouraged and suppressed; thus the social fabric is weakened and people become more amenable to absorption into a single, unified movement. Participation in approved public organizations is at first encouraged and then required. Old religious and social ties are supplanted by artificial ties to the state and its ideology. As pluralism and individualism diminish, most of the people embrace the totalitarian state’s ideology. The infinite diversity among individuals blurs, replaced by a mass conformity (or at least acquiescence) to the beliefs and behaviour sanctioned by the state.

    If there is a “single, unified movement” in China, it’s getting rich, richer, richer. I’m not required to participate in any approved public organization to survive here. I have no artificial ties with the state or its ideology. I don’t buy everything my government sells. But I do when it seeks to sell me patriotism, territorial integrity and national pride. People around me are as different from each other as they want to be.

    Large-scale, organized violence becomes permissible and sometimes necessary under totalitarian rule, justified by the overriding commitment to the state ideology and pursuit of the state’s goal. In Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, whole classes of people, such as the Jews and the kulaks (wealthy peasant farmers) respectively, were singled out for persecution and extinction. In each case the persecuted were linked with some external enemy and blamed for the state’s troubles, and thereby public opinion was aroused against them and their fate at the hands of the military and the police was condoned.

    No such thing is happening in my country except organized violence in the form of police actions against Tibetan mobs and Uygur terrorists or maybe people who don’t want to make room for property development or government projects.

    Police operations within a totalitarian state often appear similar to those within a police state, but one important difference distinguishes them. In a police state the police operate according to known, consistent procedures. In a totalitarian state the police operate without the constraints of laws and regulations. Their actions are unpredictable and directed by the whim of their rulers. Under Hitler and Stalin uncertainty was interwoven into the affairs of the state. The German constitution of the Weimar Republic was never abrogated under Hitler, but an enabling act passed by the Reichstag in 1933 permitted him to amend the constitution at will, in effect nullifying it. The role of lawmaker became vested in one man. Similarly, Stalin provided a constitution for the Soviet Union in 1936 but never permitted it to become the framework of Soviet law. Instead, he was the final arbiter in the interpretation of Marxism–Leninism–Stalinism and changed his interpretations at will. Neither Hitler nor Stalin permitted change to become predictable, thus increasing the sense of terror among the people and repressing any dissent.

    Corrupt police officers do behave this way in China. Others operate within a known set of laws as they are. I’ve have heard no one around me have any trouble with the police. Neither have I heard them saying they know someone around them have any trouble with the police.

  4. Corrupt police officers do behave this way in China. Others operate within a known set of laws as they are. As far as I know about people around me, no one have had any trouble with the police just because of their unwillingness to go into some kind of government “movement”. Neither have they told me any people around them have had such trouble.

  5. I think it’s hard or even impossible to put a certain label on a country, especially in the case of China. In fact China has some totalitarian characteristics, some authoritarian characteristics and even a few democratic characteristics. After reading the Encyclopedia Britannica online definition as quoted in your article, I think authoritarian is most appropriate.

    since authoritarian governments usually have no highly developed guiding ideology
    Apart from the harmonious society theme there is not much ideology in China. They call themselves communist, but i guess that’s only because no one has the guts to change it into capitalist. And communist sounds better anyway.

    lack the power to mobilize the entire population in pursuit of national goals
    If the government told the Shanghai people they have to move back to the countryside to reach a national goal in wheat production, these people would just laugh.

    and exercise that power within relatively predictable limits.
    It’s not like China will go to war tomorrow. I’d bet some serious money they won’t start a war at random.

    In some way I even think chaos or anarchy is taking over at the local level (sometimes). Things are solved outside the law. Those who have the money can set up their own law and the authorities have nothing to say against it.

    The media in China is highly censored. There won’t be official reports about unpleasant happenings, however news can spread in the Chinese internet swiftly like a storm and for every censored post in a forum ten new posts appear. This reminds me of democracy. Even some fat guys had to leave their chair because of this (although it should happen more often).

    Looking forward what others have to say.

  6. Five comments within six hours – you’ve made my day, Huolong, Junjie.
    I’ll print this out and have some closing-time cigarettes next door while reading.

    Looking forward what others have to say.
    Me too.

  7. In short, it is not possible to make any country fit a textbook definition of a regime type. Textbook definitions represent ideals.

    However, if I had to label China based on EB’s definitions, I would say that China has transformed from a totalitarian government into an authoritarian one. This transformation was spurred by the death of Mao, who promoted a blind devotion to himself and centered all policymaking around the struggle for superpower status in the name of a bastardized Marxism. Once the supremo was gone, the raison d’etre of the regime became a mix between survival and the maintenance of the privileges of the elite. Hence the idealization of “stability”.

  8. “have no highly developed guiding ideology”

    Are we talking about defacto or de jure guiding ideology. “Harmony” is “de jure” ideology, or even ideology on the surface, of the Chinese government. The defacto guiding ideology is “Keep CCP in power.”

  9. Some questions and remarks in between…

    Re: Huolong, Tuesday, March 9, 2010 at 3:48 pm
    I don’t think some specific Chinese groups are designed to be excluded from this goal as long as they don’t want to have the freedom of overthrowing or changing the current government if its ten-year course hasn’t been completed
    I’m not sure what the ten-year term refers to, Huolong. Is it that new people are appointed to the party and state chairmanship, and other top offices, every ten years?

    Re: Bill Rich, Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 2:21 am
    I’d prefer to keep my own opinions to myself for now, but when writing the post, I may have thought of ideology more as a de facto ideology – including harmony, Confucianism in several current interpretations or blueprints, CCP-coined concepts such as land-use rights or siyingqiye/getihu rather than land ownership or enterprise (socialism with Chinese characteristics), etc.
    There is a lot of planning and research done within China, concerning these concepts, and I believe they are in existence or aimed for to be de facto.
    But I have no plain and simple answer there either. The last time I saw communism mentioned as the ultimate goal in China in an official paper was in the first half of the 1990s. Socialism with Chinese characteristics came after that, but I’m thinking of that too as a rather transitional concept.
    The Three Represents (incorporating the entrepreneur class into the CCP) make sense in that only an industrialized country can become communist, by the old teachings. If communism is still the final goal, I believe we are talking about de facto ideology. If communism is only a fictional goal, the ideology would be rather de jure. That, I suppose, would help to keep the party in power indefinitely, as it’s probably a goal out of reach.
    I think we’d need to know which discussions within China are currently tolerated because they help to create an innovative (hence development-friendly) environment, and which discussions are wanted as contributions to a future design, to answer the de jure / de facto question.

  10. A dialog that just happened:
    Junjie: Is China a communist country?
    Chinese female, 30 years, studied Economics in Germany: Yes, definitely.
    Junjie: So tell me, what is communism all about. What are typical characteristics of communism? What’s the idea of communism?
    Chinese: I don’t know.
    Junjie: How do you know China is a communist country, if you don’t know what is communism?
    Chinese: Everyone knows China is a communist country. Just look at China how things work there. That’s communist.

    Maybe it’s a typical Western mistake. We have a definition and then look if reality matches the definition. Maybe vice versa is the way to go.

  11. “Maybe it’s a typical Western mistake. We have a definition and then look if reality matches the definition. Maybe vice versa is the way to go.”

    Your suggestion would require a redefinition of what it means to be communist on the part of the CCP itself. The CCP still adheres to the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Mao on paper. But most of China does not follow those teachings in practice. If the CCP could develop a real guiding ideology (justrecently, I don’t see any of the ideologies you highlighted as influential enough yet to pose as a national ideology. I see the party’s dabbling in Confucianism, Harmony, Entrepreneurialism, etc important but still representative of experimental projects of certain factions/elite grous. Within the regime as a whole, there is not yet a widespread agreement on an ideological direction.) and then proceed to present that ideology as a characteristic of a neocommunism, then it would indeed be worth criticizing those who insisted that communist regimes had to be defined by obsolete characteristics.

    Otherwise, you Chinese woman is no better than a person who insists the sky is green on the grounds that everyone she knows says the sky is green.

  12. The European Council’s Parliamentary Assembly referred to Warsaw Treaty governments as totalitarian communist regimes in a resolution of 2006.
    While the term may fit in varying degrees from one Eastern European state to another, I don’t think that Poland was a de-facto totalitarian state. They had the Catholic church there – possibly an organization with a totalitarian past itself (i.e. when it still exercised secular power along with its theological doctrines). That was a strong parallel public, or part of the Polish public. But I can imagine that the Polish People’s Republic was totalitarian state by design, by what it was meant to be by the ruling party.

    The same seems to be true for the Italian fascist state, as quoted by Huolong from the Encyclopedia Britannica further up. Mussolini never managed to create a perfect totalitarian state, as both the Catholic church and the monarchy were in his way to some extent. That, too, would rather look like totalitarianism by design than de facto.

    As for China, I believe that the definition would depend on the design, and the design isn’t really known. That may suggest that there is no other definitive goal in place except the one of keeping the CCP in power, as Bill suggests, or that no such definitive goal has been proclaimed in decades. But then, the real discussions within the CCP are politbureau discussions, rather public ones. Given that the CCP is tinkering on quite a set of ideologies, the outcome is much less predictable than if a simple military junta was in charge.

    That said, there are ideologies that are clearly not wanted in China by the CCP. As foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in 2005, “China’s principle on religion is that religious groups must be independent and support themselves and administer themselves in China”.
    Independent from anyone and anything but the State Administration for Religious Affairs, of course.
    To me, a state that wants to construct a Socialist Civic Identity and that runs Spiritual Civilization Offices looks totalitarian – by design.

    Current personal liberties are only means to modernize the economy and science. What makes it different from other totalitarian organizations in my view is that the CCP has taken a break from totalitarian rule. But totalitarian rule can be re-instated when useful. I see the current period as rather transitional.

    I agree with Jun Jie that they can’t simply tell the Shanghai people to go to the countryside for another record harvest. But they can create the environment that it takes before they lead people to steps that would – right now – appear to be useless or ridiculous. And mind you, it won’t matter if such steps – in the future – would look ridiculous to you and me. What matters is that they will need to appear logical within China.

  13. “I’m not sure what the ten-year term refers to, Huolong. Is it that new people are appointed to the party and state chairmanship, and other top offices, every ten years? ”

    Yes. But I don’t think they are all appointed. “Board directors” and “board chairman” are elected by a small or large constituency. Those below them are appointed. In post-Deng Xiaoping days in China, no top leaders are now appointed because no one can.

    “Junjie: Is China a communist country?”

    No. China is a capiatalist state where the biggest capitalist is the government. And as in any capitalist countries, capitalists or their agents govern.

    “China’s ideologies”

    I don’t think Three Represents, Harmony, Scientific Development Concept are ideaologies. As I said earlier in a post, my view is each of them “is just another slogan word that represents a natural addition to China’s national strategic aims it set more than three decades ago – to make China into a country of Wealth, Strength, Democracy, and Ethics.”

    Sometimes, I think that Some Chinese people worry too much about China losing its traditional values or being invaded by foreign trends and fabs. The most visible part of China is urban and the messages from it can be misleading. The real China goes unreported and the majority is silent. For example, people whom you’ve never met and never known, who don’t bother to read or write China blogs, who are more or less happily busy with their life. What you (and I) know about China is distorted and limited to your (and my) life experience.

    This might be somewhat related to statistics. Statistics are cheating. Two examples.

    “Animals are generally healthier than people.”
    — In the case of LIVE animals, yes. They don’t have doctors and hospitals.

    “Natural disasters increase in number.”

    — Yes, more disasters are recorded. In the past, they are not recorded because technologies were not good enough or no people live in the areas where the disasters happen.

  14. I happened to come across this post, and I was amazed by the heat debate here. Since Justrecently knows Chinese, the word 「專政」may best illustrate the political system of the communist China at present. With regard to the definitions of authoritarian and totalitarianism, I’m confused. Yet personally, I prefer to use the latter (totalitarianism) to describe it.

  15. J. Au,
    actually, I’m glad that the debate is fairly intense, but civil at the same time. Would 独裁 amount to the same meaning as 專政? Google would translate it, among others, as “autocracy”. On the other hand, literally, both zhuanzheng and ducai imply “lone decisions”.
    Dictatorship may be authoritarian, or totalitarian – both systems can be dictatorships, but dictatorships with different qualities and different degrees of control – authoritarian or totalitarian.

    Huolong,
    the situation in China reminds me of Chen Yun’s “bird cage” theory. Chen had only the (market) economy in mind, not political liberties, but I’d say it applies to both the economy, and to politics (especially social science).
    I don’t think that capitalists rule China. Capitalists, no matter if Chinese or foreign, depend on the benevolence of the party – on the benevolence of central or local officials, or both – when they make projects. Also, a foreign or domestic company’s access to markets in China sometimes depends on decisions made by officials. Partners in a joint-venture may have been free to choose their partners on paper, but in reality, a permission not only depends on written rules, but also on what authorities deem desirable in a given situation. That’s when the scope of a company is defined ad-hoc.

    As for ideologies, there are several ideologies (I believe that the party leaders themselves who wrote the ones we are discussing here saw and see them as ideologies) competing with or complementing each other, and there are not-so-ideological concepts competing with each other as well, which are designed by non-official or semi-official academics.
    But my forecast is that the CCP reserves the right to itself to make the final choices – it’s only for now that they tolerate – and discuss – different public concepts. After all, without state-of-the-art social sciences, they can’t “design” a modern society. My guess is that the current degree of competition or freedom is no end in itself, but a temporary instrument in modernization.

  16. Weird – this post has been among the five most-read most of the time since I wrote it, almost three months ago. Many seem seen answers to this topic, and nobody offers ideas.

    Anyway, here is one from a book review Dmitry Shlapentokh wrote for the Asia Times in January this year, about Susan Shirk‘s China: Fragile Superpower.

    quote - [...] The second problem, and this is the most serious, is that Shirk fails to demonstrate that China has made such a great economic leap not only because it engaged in market reform – the former Soviet Union and East European countries did the same and with disastrous results for their economies – but because China has preserved the totalitarian skeleton of its past.

    This is what has allowed China to produce real goods instead of resorting to the service bubbles of the US and those East European and post-Soviet countries which followed the advice of American experts. It is the totalitarian aspects of China that make it possible for the leaders to pursue policies that benefit the country in the long run; they do not think about quick profits that enrich the few – which is what has pushed the US into an economic abyss.

    Thus, the author fails to understand that the totalitarian framework of China – as was the case with the Soviet Union – was both a dangerous poison and an elixir of life at the same time.

    On one hand, totalitarianism makes the country and regime fragile; on the other hand the very same qualities could well propel the country to global dominance. The Soviet Union could have done the same if it had not been beset by what Russians called “katastroika” (a play on the word in which “perestroika” is blended with the word “catastrophe”) launched by Mikhail Gorbachev.

    That the author did not elaborate on the positive implications of totalitarian rule in China (and elsewhere) is understandable. A person expressing this view would be unlikely to be employed by the US government, and major academic publishers would hardly accept such a manuscript.

    For this reason, Shirk should be excused and her book should definitely be read. It provides not just a new and basically sound view of China but also gives a glimpse into the minds of the American elite’s view of China at a time when the “Yes, we can” rallying call of America’s elite and public is increasingly being replaced by “No we cannot”. - unquote

    The totalitarian skeleton – Shlapentokh’s expression could be a more telling identifier for China’s political system and its standby totalitarianism than cage.

  17. Only an idea – maybe you can’t do business with China on one hand, and label it “totalitarian” on the other? It would be difficult to sell that to the public. When it is deemed “authoritarian”, it is an easier story.

  18. That’s probably one important factor – to look the other way when something suggests that there could be a fundamental problem. Another is that there is the belief that global problems can’t be solved without China, and that it might be better not to rub it in and “upset” their leadership or public.

    There is an approach to explain everything in total, not only by the CCP. More than ten years ago, Wei Jingsheng wrote a somewhat self-important (or that’s how I’m reading it) article about his special relationship with Deng Xiaoping. But the really interesting thing is how he tries to re-define Deng into a potential democrat who might have liberalized China if he had stood a chance against the party orthodoxy (or again, that’s how I’m reading it).

    That’s how a dissident tries to own Deng, just as the CCP tries to own everything. After all – that’s what Wei wrote -, he, too, was educated to be a revolutionary:
    My earliest knowledge of Deng came over the kitchen table via some of my father’s close friends, longtime Communist Party members, a few of whom had worked directly under Deng’s command in the 1930s. After the plates had been cleared, they would linger over the dregs of a pot of tea, telling “tales of the revolution” to “later generation revolutionaries” like me. Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Mao Zedong, Lin Biao and Peng Dehuai figured prominently in their stories.

    It definitely did leave some traces on Wei’s hard disk, even if in an unexpected way.
    Btw, Deng and Wei certainly both were/are unusually strong-willed people.

  19. Even totalitarian regimes hardly ever exercise the degree of control they’d like to have. And also, I’m sure there is no “plan” which labels China authoritarian rather than totalitarian. (I don’t think you suggested there is, Taide – but in this conspiracy-loving world, your comment might be read that way by some readers.) But the awareness for totalitarianism – when encountered – has, in my view, abated during the past two decades or so. This is how Lynn T. White quotes and applies standards by Juan J. Linz as follows:
    Linz calls a regime “totalitarian” if it has three characteristics: … (Google has the rest of the quote) »
    Lynn T. White, Local Causes of China’s Intellectual, Legal, and Governmental Reforms, New York, 1999

    I don’t know what Linz himself makes of his own judgment criteria when applying them to China. While the internet doesn’t answer my question in that regard, one of his books contains remarks which may at least explain why questions about the nature of China’s political system don’t seem to be of great interest:
    Now, at the turn of the century, the indisputable success of the capitalist market economy – under whatever regime – has opened the door to a neoliberal economic view of politics that ignores the importance of institutions and political legitimacy. (Again, Google has the rest…) »
    Juan J. Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, July 2000, p. 22/23.

    Linz also has some interesting remarks on “political religion”, and state control of “existing organized religion”. (Think of the “sacred torch”, in 2008.)

    If I had two free days on hand, you’d probably find me in the Bremen University library, behind a fairly big pile of books.
    Input from readers who do spend much of their time in such places anyway would be very welcome here.
    (This isn’t meant to discourage less bookish comments.)

  20. This was a potentially interesting thread marred by links and cut/pastes.

    My 5 cents worth. Authoritarian/totalitarian are simply too all-encompassing explanatory frameworks to adequately explain the nature of China today, 2010. They attempt to explain everything and really end up describing little of value.

    Look forward to when this topic comes around in another guise. For every EB definition, I could find another differing academic dozen.

  21. Well, before it comes around in a new guise, I’ll have to sit down in Bremen University library for at least a day, and to carry home with books and copies.
    The internet is a great medium, but only to get started.
    One reason for my curiosity is that referrals to China as “authoritarian” come with no explanations, and the main difference to the old USSR seems to be that you can do business in China.
    If one of my post or any of the comments will find a completely new – and all-encompassing – explanatory framework to adequately explain the nature of China today, this blog will have become innovative.
    Thanks for commenting, and have a good weekend, King Tubby.

  22. Okay, JR I agree with your authoritarian characterisation and have read the links provided and also agree with their line of argument.

    “Pivotal authoritarian regimes have adapted and modernized their repressive methods…” domestically.

    The above with the word domestic added recalls a speculative piece I posted on ChinaDivide some time ago and it didn’t raise a flicker of interest.

    Written in a polemical style, but it does contain the bare-bones of my theoretical position on future developments in the practical machinery of PRC domestic repression. Virtual ID cards.

    http://chinadivide.com/2010/the-gate-debate-communities-villages-crime.html#comments

    As an aside, I am convinced that most active bridgeblogs are now doomed. Recitations of facts and counterfacts, since etiquette precludes a lot of fun name calling. (Went feral myself on PD last night and really couldnt care less about the consequences.)

    This also caught my eye the other day.

    http://the-diplomat.com/2011/01/21/chinas-rise-remilitarizing-japan/

  23. Thanks for re-directing my attention to the PD thread about Egypt, China, and democracy again, KT! I’ll read your links later today. Yes, it seems that everything that requires more than some recitals of old credos doesn’t raise much interest. Maybe these topics, when put online, are stuck in the middle. Most netizens don’t care much, and those who care are in the libraries, or in field research.

  24. Highly recommend reading about six (including some non US) book reviews on The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov. Just discovered it this morning, and it makes the point that authoritarian regimes are now managing their intranets in a pretty sophisticated manner.

    One can also pick up on some of the technical features incorporated in the latest *regulated* net, many courtesy of the US.

    An update on this old James Fallows piece of a couple of years ago.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/03/-ldquo-the-connection-has-been-reset-rdquo/6650/

    Couple of really telling points here also. Cheers
    ____________

    [Edit / Update]: “The Net Delusion” book review by Lee Siegel, the NY Times, Feb 4, 2011 – probably one of the reviews KT refers to in this comment – [JR]

  25. The difference between totalitarian and authoritarian states cannot be clearly defined. Certainly some of the states most often described as classic examples of totalitarian (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy) were in some respects more liberal than modern-day China, but obviously China has become more liberal than it was under Mao.

    Furthermore, there is nothing in the etymology of the words totalitarian and authoritarian that makes them mutually exclusive, nor have relatively modern attempts at re-defining them been successful.

    The usual logic used to show why China is no longer “totalitarian” seems to go like this:

    1) Maoist China was totalitarian.

    2) China is no longer Maoist.

    3) Therefore it is wrong to call modern-day China totalitarian as it is more liberal than it was under Mao.

    From this nice piece of sophistry the argument then usually degenerates into accusations of red-baiting, cold-warriorism, and ultimately racism.

    The fact remains, however, that there are ultimately no real grounds under which describing modern-day China as “totalitarian” is necessarily incorrect. To say otherwise is to redefine the word “totalitarian” so as to exclude regimes traditionally considered to be classic examples of totalitarianism.

  26. The difference between totalitarian and authoritarian states cannot be clearly defined.
    Thanks for your comment, FOARP. I think I agree with that line of yours. The main reason why I actually wrote the post which led to this thread is that I was puzzled that even underminingdemocracy.org refers to China as “authoritarian”, rather than “totalitarian”. I found it puzzling because I remember how easily even the Soviet Union of the 1980s was referred to as “totalitarian” in our media (or the American president at the time) – and in some books, too – the Soviet Union was one of two important reasons to base much of the German military forces on conscription (I was one of those lucky conscripts).
    And a hunch seems to start creeping over me that labelling the USSR totalitarian was so handy because “Soviet Russia” didn’t seem to offer so many excellent business opportunities (with the exception of some big barter deals). You can do business with authoritarian regimes from Argentina (1976 to 1981) to Uzbekistan (today) – no problem -, but business with totalitarian countries would be harder to sell to the public.

    It’s a bit of a consolation to me that you think that there is no clear definition for what is authoritarian, and what is totalitarian. My search so far certainly hasn’t helped to find watertight answers. What I’ve seen so far are some pretty conscientious efforts to find such definitions, but different authors’ definitions would frequently differ from each other.

    That said, I’d say that if the USSR of the 1980s was totalitarian, this would be true for China today no less.

    Anyway, I’d still say it’s a worthwhile question, and I’ll continue to collect and think about opinions that are coming in.

  27. @JR – I’d say the same about Jaruzelski and Gierek’s PRL – they had rock music, an independent trade union, the catholic church, and large foreign loans drawn on western banks. With the exception of the martial law period, which was not as harsh as 89-93 in China, none of these were seriously restricted.

    None of this means that the PRL itself was not designed to be a totalitarian state, and that it did not largely succeed in being so. In fact, this government was not nearly so bad as “authoritarian” Argentine junta which carried out the extra-judicial execution of thousands by torturing them and then pushing them out of aircraft thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Thankful the PRL was felled by its own people, and Galtieri’s tin-pot dictatorship fell after it picked an unjust fight which it could never have won.

    I can only hope that if the CCP goes, its end will be more like that of Jaruzelski’s government (Jaruzelski is, of course, still enjoying life as a free man) and less like that of the Argentine junta, which first exploded outwards to attacks its neighbours before imploding under popular protest.

    And yes, I thoroughly agree with your point about people being far more at-ease with doing business with an “autocracy” than with a “totalitarian dictatorship”. Certain individuals should be reminded that there really is no reason to believe that one is, in moral terms, necessarily worse than the other. A year spent editing, for example, the Global Times is not much better than a year spent with Pravda.

    For my own part, I worked in Chinese universities, and I worked for a Taiwan-origin company in Shenzhen with an infamous reputation largely gained after I left. However, I am willing to stand by everything I did during my time in China, as I never worked directly for the government or for a government organ.

    I guess it is worth asking though: is there a explicit difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism when translated into Chinese?

    I am not aware of one, nor does it seem to be reflected in the dictionaries I have looked at, where one just seems to be a more extreme version of the other (one is “及权主义” and the other is “权力主义”). However, I have seen too many people make total fools out of themselves through relying on dictionaries.

    Just as relevant – are there any Chinese scholarly works on this subject?

    At the very least we can say that the CCP refers to itself in terms of totalitarianism. Whilst they may have abandoned the economic side of Marx-Leninism, they have never abandoned the political side of it.

  28. I got a comment earlier, and it doesn’t seem to me that there would be one word for each of the two, authoritarianism and totalitarianism respectively. The commenter, himself Chinese, suggested 專政 to describe the PRC’s political system, but didn’t think he could tell the difference between a & t either.

    Poland has been a topic before, too.

    及权主义, literally translated, would be “extreme authority” or “extreme power(s)”. All the same, Chinese dictionaries seem to agree that its equivalent in English would be “authoritarianism”. Authoritarianism to the extreme, so to speak.

    However, I am willing to stand by everything I did during my time in China
    Same here. You can’t live in China without working in China, and it’s surely insightful. I know a number of people who worked for the Chinese propaganda machine in one way or another (I worked for foreign-invested companies), but in the long run, it would seem to amount to pretty much the same results. It was (and is) a pretty unequal game.

    Just as relevant – are there any Chinese scholarly works on this subject?
    As far as I have seen now, there isn’t. There are some laments on the bad sides of Maoism, but little more. But it’s a great question, and I’d like to pass it on to everyone who’s reading here:
    are there any Chinese scholarly works on authoritarianism / totalitarianism?

  29. JR @ FOARP. Look I agree with you PRC totalitarian assessment, but I initially wavered over the authoritarian handle simply because I didn’t carefully read the two defintions at the top of the page. My bad.

    Leaving that aside, I’m really interested in the Mao to today period and the opening up of some sort of civil society (without necessarily equating it with civil society as we know it in the West.)

    - freedom of marriage,employment and education market
    - development of a private leasehold housing market
    - constrained internet @ development of celeb and trash culture
    - serious consumer materialism
    - a high degree of social anomie and general anziety

    All of which have become increasingly pronounced since 1980.

    How would go about providing a general definition of this new social space non-existent during the Mao period.

    What type of civil society is this?

  30. I think that freedom of marriage is something that came with the Mao era. In some or all areas of society, I can imagine that there was even more freedom of marriage during the first decades of the PRC, than there is now, but mainly because parents have become more involved again in their childrens’ marriage, not because the state is.
    That said, “introducing” candidates to each other was often a danwei task in the Mao days, so it’s hard to tell how much freedom of marriage was a theory then, and how far it was really practise. Marriage between Chinese and foreigners (by Chinese law, in China) was something that started or re-started in the 1970s, I think.

    I tend to believe that the personal liberties and choices that exist today are basically means to modernizing China – a more pragmatic approach by a totalitarian state. None of these liberties are seen as values in themselves. Market Leninism requires policies different from Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.

    All those liberties may be easier to be revoked by the state again, than most foreigners (and maybe Chinese, too) would believe.
    This is what Gustav Amann, a sometime advisor to Sun Yat-sen, wrote about foreign views on China, after the Xinhai Revolution:
    The ways of popular politics are obscure; their course was lighted up for the foreigners by no star of insight. Even after February 12, 1912, the date of the public abdication of the Manchu Regent, the foreigners in China believed that the proclamation of a republic was the result of chance. To prove that, the English historian J. O. P. Bland filled many pages of his book on the revolution. The foreigners saw nothing but what they could attribute to their own influence on the Manchu government.. [edit – link: http://justrecently.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/book-review-how-chiang-kai-shek-blew-it/]
    The last line of this quote, I believe, is as true today, as it was a century ago. Foreign views of China are frequently based on wishful thinking.

  31. J.O.P. Bland. Wasn’t he an associate of Sir Edmund Backhouse the renowned sino-linguist, eccentric, really black sheep of the family and exemplary porno scribbler about Imperial paraphilia’s. (Wish I had the Seagrave references at hand, so I could throw in a couple of lurid paragraphs.)

  32. According to Wikipedia, Bland was more of the scientist, while Backhouse was the narrator who turned two of Bland’s scripts into stories. To call Backhouse a storyteller may not be unfair either – comes across as quite a fraud in that Wikipedia entry. Anyway, never heard of either Bland nor Backhouse before reading the Legacy.

  33. Wikipedia does not do Backhouse’s activities justice. I missed the art forgery component in his cv. Lost my entire library ages ago, but I think my points were made in Sterling Seavgrave’s number on the Soong sisters. Anyway, will check that out. Cheers

  34. Feel free to write a guest post! If Backhouse, Bland et al are being done justice or not, I do believe their stories are underrepresented on the internet. There’s more to learn from great pundits’ errors, than from their stars of insight.

  35. Whether or not China is ‘totalitarian’ is beside the point.

    The thing that springs to mind is this.

    What on earth does it have to do with a white man living in the heart of Europe?

  36. What makes you so sure that I’m a white man, Wayne? Why should a man of whatever “color” take no interest in a country’s political system when it is a major trading partner, with growing economic and political influence?

    And why should the question if China is totalitarian be beside the point?

    I seem to remember you from some recent Peking Duck threads. Make sure that your comments won’t be beside the point, and that they won’t descend to this kind of level.

  37. JR – I find the question “why an American has spent the last five or more years repeatedly emailing messages which reflect a disturbed mind to random strangers who write about China” somewhat more apposite, don’t you?

  38. I agree that this would be another apposite question, Foarp, but I think we’ve seen more than one example which suggest that people don’t need to be a Chinese citizens to be Chinese nationalists. Btw, I’m not at all sure that the commenter in question (Mongol Warrior in the past, and currently Wayne) would be either American, or Chinese.

    Either way, his comments don’t usually add value to discussions, except that they show a mindset which, in my view, does belong in this thread. He takes offense from certain topics, and would apparently like to see them disappear.

  39. I’m still partial to Hannah Arendt’s theories of totalitarianism, and today’s China wouldn’t fit that model, certainly, though China during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution would.

    There is a reason that the word “totalitarian” includes the root “total”. The word “total” goes well beyond the party’s level of control today. The word “total” implies more than strict laws and a strong measure of censorship. If China were a “totalitarian” country, then I couldn’t assign mainland Chinese undergraduates an essay on Frank Dikotter’s book *Mao’s Great Famine*, for example. If it were a “totalitarian” country, then I couldn’t have recently purchased a book by Robert Bickers in a Shanghai bookstore. If it were a totalitarian country, then I couldn’t have watched CNN and the BBC on my most recent trip to Shanghai. These are just some examples, but I’ve done all of these things, and many other things not possible in a “totalitarian” country.

    Note: none of this is a defense of anything China does or has done. It is, rather, a defense of the idea of making words continue to mean something. If we call today’s China “totalitarian”, then we’re going to have to find a different word for the late 1930s USSR.

  40. I should say in advance that I’ve only read one of Arendt’s books, “Between Past and Future”. It seemed to address the “real issues” in my life, during my school years, before I even thought about going to China. I do think however that it matter to many Chinese readers today, too – especially as there seem to be more “traditionalists” in China, than in Europe – possibly among those in power, but certainly among those whose views are published in China.

    To put any of the, umm, traditional hats on the head of the Chinese state is difficult for several reasons.

    (1) Many things that happened successively in Europe, are happening in China at the same time – Growth, innovation, and work on concepts of power, for example.

    (2) Another reason seems to be that the CCP rules over different classes, and willingly so. They even included that reality into their ideology. Hardcore communists may add that the CCP has been corrupted, in that the upper ranks, and certainly the top leaders, are actively participating in business.

    (3) A third point is that the terror that characterizes totalitarianism has abated through the past 36 years.

    I consider China’s political system totalitarian, nonetheless. In my view, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding, a belief that the liberties the people have been granted (I’m using that verb consciously) because those in power would see these liberties as a value in itself. The party’s working papers make it very clear that this is not so. What they emphasize is socialism with Chinese characteristics, “harmony”, and creating an opinion mainstream that is conducive to their goals. The individual rights that have been granted are meant to help the Chinese economy perform – to empower (or rejuvenate) the nation, as they put it. More specifically, the state, I would add. Once these individual rights would endanger, rather than stabilize, state power (i. e. the party’s power), they would be cancelled.

    I’m familiar with the objection that the people wouldn’t tolerate that – and that people up top, who are making a good life out of the status quo, wouldn’t tolerate that either. But propaganda, education and fear are, in my view, quite capable of creating situations in peoples’ minds that would justify such rollbacks – and most people in China, while apparently aware of how “spoilt” cadres in their daily neighborhoods are, seem to consider Zhongnanhai a pantheon of saints. People up top might well keep their foreign connections anyway. Just as the hardliners were compromised in the past, the “liberals” may be compromised in the future, at the top and further down.

    The recent four years provide us with a case study. “Enemies of the Chinese people” made use of the Olympic Games to show the CCP up. The CCP itself used the games and the enemies to create a siege mentality among the public. I’ve seen that shift not only in the media, but also among Chinese friends. Propaganda can do that – not in all, but in many (and most, I believe) cases. It can’t approach its tasks as coarsely as it did decades ago, at least not right away, but then, it doesn’t really need to. Propganda and repression are learning organizations.

    In short: reform and opening up are modernization technicalities, not values in themselves. And it is one of the CCP’s inveterate features that it doesn’t only demand obedience to rules it defines as crucial, but that it also demands belief. In my view, this is the defining parting line between authoritarianism (which may include totalitarianism, but isn’t specifically about totalitarianism), and totalitarianism itself. It is about the difference of wanting to control peoples’ behavior, or wanting to control peoples’ minds.

    I haven’t looked up what I and others wrote previously in this thread – this is my spontaneous reaction to your comment. Having looked Wikipedia‘s summary of The Origins of Totalitarianism up now, I’d like to add that according to the book’s 1958 edition, individual isolation and loneliness are preconditions for totalitarian domination (or that’s how Wikipedia cites it). Once in a while, Chinese media – and government agencies – actually deplore such isolation. But to me, this human touch is mostly part of the liberties that have been granted. Besides, even my biggest Chinese-German dictionary, full of revolutionary sample phraseology, contains some lines that emphasize decency, reciprocity, or piety – reflecting those traditional values Mao could care less about. You don’t need anything like a classless society to isolate the individual.

    My last lines might come across as if I believe that I could understand Arendt’s points from just one collaborative article. I don’t think so, actually. But I’m wondering if being partial to her theories would rule a definition of China as totalitarian out.

  41. Reblogged this on Living London and commented:
    Really useful and interesting article!!

  42. China is definitely authoritarian, not totalitarian. The government just doesn’t exercise the sort of total control you would expect from a totalitarian regime.

  43. China is definitely authoritarian, not totalitarian. The government just doesn’t exercise the sort of total control you would expect from a totalitarian regime.

    Definitely is a big word – too big in this context, Jixiang. I think Foarp put it quite succinctly, more than three years ago, with a fairly logical approach.

    The Chinese way – not only that of politicians or social engineers with totalitarian ambitions – is to do things in an unspectacular way. Frequently, this works. You don’t need to tell people everyday that you control them – that’s in fact counterproductive. You don’t need to instill fear in them day by day – if you want modernization, that’s actually no promising approach. And modernization is a priority – the biggest priority behind that of keeping the CCP in power, which is the end modernization has served well so far.

    I think I can see your point, if you mean it in a way Mike apparently did, in August 2012. But I disagree with both of you: one criterion to judge this is what a government actually does, but another is about what a government or rulers are in a position to do – provided that they reached such a position intentionally. This work of consolidation still continues – but most people who are otherwise interested in China seem to find the CCP paperwork too boring to care.

    Obviously, you won’t start a bloodbath without seeing a need for it.

    To sell a policy or a decision that would be unpopular in itself, for example, will come with a narrative. Chinese propaganda has done a good job at that since 2008 – a year when many of my friends began to believe that the rest of the world disliked, if not hated, China. Totalitarian rulers won’t tell people that they either need to obey – and to pay lip services – if they can nudge and persuade people instead.

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