The Centralising Power of China’s Techno-Totalitarianism

Modern China has always been a police state, first under Kuomintang (KMT) rule and later under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). If the KMT was unable to enforce its will in a republican China beleaguered by civil and international war, it showed its true colours in the White Terror it unleashed after retreating to Taiwan. The island spent thirty-eight years under martial law before slowly evolving into the vibrant liberal democracy it is today. Taiwan’s transition to democracy now seems natural and irreversible, but under the oppressive rule of “generalissimo” Chiang Kai-shek it was not always obvious that “free” China would ever hold a fair election.

In the early 1980s, it was even possible to believe that the CCP-ruled mainland would get there first. Mao Zedong was dead, and Maoism along with him. There was a widespread realisation that thirty years of central planning had been a disaster, and experiments in liberalisation were breaking out all over the country. As the fortieth anniversary of the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) approached, students erected a ten-metre-tall Goddess of Democracy in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It was China’s butterfly moment.

But on June 4, 1989, the police state reasserted itself. After a brief moment of seeming indecision, the CCP elite came down firmly on the side of repression and control. The Tiananmen Square Massacre didn’t just change Beijing. It changed the whole country. It marked the transition of China from a revolutionary communist police state into, if not exactly a fascist country, then something resembling a kind of authoritarian falangism with Chinese characteristics.

Just as Francisco Franco’s Spanish falange practised a form of Christianity shorn of any Christ-like compassion, the post-Tiananmen CCP practised a form of communism that lacked any of Karl Marx’s humane sympathy for the plight of the poor. But in the last decade, communism itself has been superseded by a new state religion in China, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Its fourteen-point catechism opens with “ensuring Party leadership over all work” and closes with “exercising full and rigorous governance over the Party”. These two principles bookend an unprecedented program of techno-totalitarianism that makes Maoism look mild by comparison.

Mao Zedong aspired to a level of totalitarian rule that was beyond the bureaucratic capacity of the party he led. Xi Jinping doesn’t have to aspire. His party and state bureaucracies, acting in conjunction with state enterprises and quasi-private corporations, actively monitor all communications in China. They actually censor personal messages in real time. As a result, the private sphere has contracted to the point of singularity, and the party-state is not content to leave it there. It is developing artificial intelligence tools to penetrate even the minds of its citizens—or, at least, its netizens.

All of that is frightening, but not entirely new. What really distinguishes contemporary China’s techno-totalitarianism from all previous totalitarianisms is its overwhelming centralising tendency. Twentieth-century totalitarianisms required the mobilisation of millions of minions, and that was only made possible by vast networks of political control. China’s twenty-first-century techno-totalitarianism cuts out the middle men. It lets the central authorities set the parameters for all of society, invisibly, and with little need for informants or enforcers. The long-standing geographical and institutional structures of the CCP party-state are receding into irrelevance as Beijing works with and through big technology firms to monitor and control individuals directly from the centre. It’s a genuine innovation in the mechanics of evil, and it may give a new lease of life to the ageing CCP regime.

Labels like “fascist” and “authoritarian” are now used as generic political insults, but they once had specific meanings that arose out of particular historical contexts. Authoritarianism came first. It was originally used by spiritualists in the second half of the nineteenth century to differentiate their own mode of spiritual self-discovery from the “authoritarianism” of organised religions based on the authority of priests and the Book. Its first political use was to criticise local governments that restricted alcohol, gambling and prostitution—what we now call the “nanny state”. It evolved to mean government by appeals to authority: of the church, of the security services, even of the expert class.

Falangism and fascism arose in Spain and Italy (respectively) as authoritarian political movements, with falangism taking its name from the Spanish word for “phalanx” and fascism from the ancient Roman fasces, the bundle of rods that symbolised strength through unity. Spanish falangism looked to the Catholic Church as a symbol of authority, while Italian fascism looked more to the security services. Although both regimes were anathema to liberal Anglo-American traditions, it is worth remembering that both were widely admired in their day. Falangism spread from Spain to much of Latin America. Fascism had a strong influence in Europe, until it was overtaken by Nazism and crushed in the Second World War.

Nazism can only be a proper noun because it was the house ideology of a particular political party that espoused a specifically German national and racial superiority. And unlike fascism and falangism, it is not properly speaking a form of authoritarianism. Authoritarian movements like fascism, falangism, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and (before its late-twentieth-century reforms) the KMT seek to tie society together. They are explicitly anti-liberal, but not necessarily evil. People who were suckled on Anglo-American individualism may find authoritarianism unappealing, but it is more than a little arrogant to vilify a substantial portion (perhaps the majority) of humanity for disagreeing with our political views.

As Hannah Arendt recognised in her 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia were not on the ordinary spectrum of “traditional” political forms, among which she included the “liberal or conservative, national or socialist, republican or monarchist, authoritarian or democratic”. Totalitarian regimes, Arendt wrote, are based on and result in an “absolute evil”. In contrast to fascist regimes, totalitarian ones seek strength not in unity, but in atomisation. Arendt famously decried the “organised loneliness” of life under totalitarianism. In her interpretation, fascism only isolated people politically, by destroying all organised political life, but totalitarianism isolated people entirely:

Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.

Strangely, Arendt seems to have had a soft spot for Mao Zedong. In her second edition of Totalitarianism, she praised his 1957 speech “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People” as “the first piece of serious writing which has come out of the communist orbit since Lenin’s death”. She specifically credited him with choosing a path of “national communism” free from “totalitarian terror”. She thought him wise for recognising the tension “between the people and the government … even under a Communist dictatorship”. But she thought that the “strong populist note in the speech” was of “even greater importance”. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was still a decade in the future.

Arendt seems never to have returned to the question of Chinese totalitarianism, but the truth is that Mao’s China was not a totalitarian state, at least not on Arendt’s terms. Arendt saw the potential for totalitarianism in China (and India), “where there is almost inexhaustible material to feed the power-accumulating and man-destroying machinery of total domination”, but she correctly ascertained that in neither country was there sufficient mass participation in politics to make totalitarianism viable. Mao did his best to foster that kind of participation in the Cultural Revolution, but it was always a youth movement and personality cult, never a universal phenomenon. In China, the family, the army, and even the CCP itself proved resistant to mass mobilisation.

Until today. Mao’s China was a revolutionary state, totalitarian perhaps in ambition but not in reality. Under Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, the CCP hardened into a kind of falangist authoritarian regime with communism as its secular religion, observed more in the form than in the spirit, but nonetheless above criticism and beyond questioning. Deng’s own successor, Jiang Zemin, continued in the authoritarian tradition, making room for private industry while maintaining the power of the party-state—and the sacraments of communist ritual.

But in the early 2000s, China’s new paramount leader Hu Jintao began to lay the seeds of a creeping totalitarianism, squeezing out alternative bases of power in business and the military. He prioritised state-owned firms and solidified state control over “national champions” in strategic industries. He also began a major program of military modernisation that transformed the People’s Liberation Army from a bloated party militia into a professional fighting force. Born in 1942, he was China’s first truly post-revolutionary leader, starting life as a working engineer before becoming a party apparatchik at the age of thirty. Hu, who like Jiang is still living in retirement, probably never intended to bring about a totalitarian transformation in China. But his professionalisation of the party-state made it possible for his successor to do just that.

Xi Jinping became China’s paramount leader at the end of 2012. He quickly consolidated the three main offices of General Secretary of the CCP, President of the PRC and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Born in 1953, his only work experience outside the Party was a teenage stint digging ditches during the Cultural Revolution. He is a CCP apparatchik par excellence. His father was a revolutionary guerrilla fighter, self-taught intellectual and economic reformer. Xi is a “princeling”, albeit one with a grudge from five years hard labour. He seems to have little concept of life outside the Party. He seems to be as ambitious for China’s power as he is for his own. And he has set China on the path to totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism is a loaded term, all the more so since the two archetypical totalitarians—Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin—were both mass-murderers on the scale of Genghis Khan. But Genghis Khan did not lead a totalitarian regime, and the fact that totalitarian rulers can murder with impunity does not turn all totalitarians into mass-murderers. Anyone who wants to understand China’s twenty-first-century totalitarianism has to put aside the mass-murder league tables of popular political theory. Totalitarians are not merely more murderous authoritarians. In fact, totalitarians are very unlikely to be authoritarians, since any source of authority outside the state is ultimately an impediment to the totalitarian atomisation of society. And totalitarians may not be murderers at all.

In 1971, Roland Huntsford, then the Scandinavian correspondent for the Observer, published The New Totalitarians, a book about social democracy (and specifically the Social Democratic Party) in post-war Sweden. He portrayed Sweden as a country in which the party managed all aspects of life, with its cradle-to-grave welfare system operating to obliterate any sense of individual responsibility. Those few who dared to think for themselves faced ostracism or exile. Huntsford later described The New Totalitarians as “a youthful indiscretion written with far too much emotion”, but he was in his mid-forties when the book was published, and although the book certainly is indiscreet, it is politically mature. The more recent and scholarly PC Worlds: Political Correctness and Rising Elites at the End of Hegemony by the anthropologist Jonathan Friedman corroborates many of Huntsford’s journalistic observations.

To label Swedish social democracy as “totalitarian”, one must pull back from Arendt’s condemnation of totalitarianism as an “absolute evil”, but that still leaves room for her evocative description of life under a totalitarian regime as a form of “organised loneliness”. And as in Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany, there were few autonomous bases of civil society in post-war Sweden. Even the Lutheran Church of Sweden was effectively secularised under the sway of the Social Democratic Party. The party dominated or ran all forms of educational institution, from nurseries to vocational education centres, often under government contracts. It controlled the schools, the universities and their unions. Remarkably, it has governed the country almost continuously since the Second World War, although it has rarely won as much as 50 per cent of the vote, despite controlling all of the country’s major institutions.

Similarly, the CCP under Xi Jinping is decidedly a minority party. Boasting 90 million members, it may be the world’s largest political party, but in a country where party membership is merely the first rung on the ladder of political influence, the numbers don’t mean much. No one can know for sure, but it seems unlikely that the CCP could win an open election in China, if it ever had the courage to run one. Notionally, there are eight independent parties that are part of China’s “United Front” (against what?), but they are not even window dressing. China’s very constitution proudly proclaims its status as a one-party state.

But China’s party-state is no friendly neutral like post-war Sweden. Nor is it an isolated, inward-turned, self-destructive pariah like Stalin’s Russia. It is an aggressively expanding military power that herds disfavoured minorities into concentration camps, claims a special role protecting diaspora communities, and seeks to redraw its neighbourhood map. Today’s China is like nothing so much as late-1930s Germany. And we all know where that led.

The “reductio ad Hitlerum” is history’s most seductive rhetorical device. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party he led are talismans for ultimate evil, allowing anything that can be linked to them to be automatically cast beyond the pale. Its casual use can cheapen an argument, and it is all too often employed simply to close down debate. As many terrible tales as history tells, there have been few true parallels with Nazi evil. Yet Nazi Germany itself was once a respected (if not entirely respectable) member of the family of nations. Upstanding politicians like Neville Chamberlain met with and dealt with Adolf Hitler—and Chamberlain wasn’t the only one, but only the most upstanding.

In the 1930s, Nazi Germany was already evil incarnate, but not yet evil in motion. All sensible people could see that Hitler’s Germany did not respect the basic norms of the European state system. Industrially, Germany’s support for “national champions” in strategic industries challenged the economic and technological status quo. The country sought to reorient European trade around a German core. It was also rapidly arming and aggressively irredentist. But as a dynamic country at the heart of Europe, representing more than a quarter of the European economy and bordering twelve European countries, Germany could not be ignored—at least, not by Europeans. Nor could it easily be isolated.

The arguments for accommodating 1930s Germany were not so different from the arguments for accommodating China today. Established hegemons should make room for “rising powers”. Germany should be allowed to take its “rightful place” in the hierarchy of nations. Germany offered a new model of “state capitalism” that was more effective than the liberal free-market approach. The Nazi party had “lifted millions” of Germans out of poverty through centrally managed economic development. The past “humiliation” of Germany left it with “legitimate grievances” that should be addressed. Germany’s growing concentration camps were a “purely domestic” issue and the rest of the world had no right to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs.

Yes, we really have heard it all before. But the parallels between 1930s Germany and today’s China don’t end there. In international affairs, China’s blustery rhetoric about reunification with Taiwan echoes Germany’s demands for Anschluss with Austria. China’s creeping occupation of the South China Sea recalls Germany’s unilateral remilitarisation of the Rhineland. China’s claims to speak for (and pretence of defending) all people of Chinese ancestry everywhere in the world resemble 1930s pan-Germanism. Hong Kong is eerily reminiscent of Danzig.

In short, China’s totalitarian expansionism is nothing new. But the technology that underpins it is. Xi Jinping has tools at his disposal that Adolf Hitler could only have dreamed of. In the 1930s, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was still a decade in the future, and even Orwell didn’t envision the real-time monitoring and censorship of all private communications. Orwell’s Ministry of Truth repeatedly rewrote history; Xi’s algorithms erase it entirely.

Or prevent it from happening in the first place. Today’s China is a continuously-edited present where proscribed words disappear from the virtual page even as they are typed and proscribed thoughts are difficult to imagine because they can never be expressed. Contemporary China’s techno-totalitarianism is increasingly integrated and all-encompassing—and increasingly centralised. Orwell’s twentieth-century Big Brother could only operate through the party, and as a personification of it. Today’s information technology allows China’s leadership to circumvent the party, governing individuals directly through their mobile phones.

As in other totalitarian states, China’s one party is embedded in all aspects of civil (and, in China’s case, military) society. All trade unions are CCP trade unions; all schools and universities have CCP oversight committees; even private companies are beholden to the CCP. Party-society integration isn’t just at the top level: within each organisation, party committees exist within every department. The CCP is everywhere.

Except it isn’t. Most party committees rarely meet, or meet only for tea and cakes. Visit any Chinese university and they will show you the locked door behind which lies the dusty party room. The vaunted embeddedness of the party in all institutions is a thing of the past. The party has moved online.

Techno-totalitarianism gives the leaders of China’s party-state inside access to and ultimate control over everyone’s bank accounts, mobile payments and social media accounts. In a country where nearly all transactions are made on mobile phones (everything from booking a ride to buying vegetables from a street vendor), the government’s ability to control your phone is equivalent to the power of house arrest. China has also invested heavily in facial recognition technology, allowing mass public surveillance of the kind used for policing in London to be tied to individual identities.

When Wuhan Central Hospital’s Dr Li Wenliang was arrested for warning colleagues about the novel coronavirus, he wasn’t turned in by a colleague-turned-informant. He was betrayed by his WeChat account—and the accounts of others who spread screenshots of his messages. In his case, the party-state’s monitoring was relatively unsophisticated: his name was on the images being posted to social media. But others routinely report their messages being edited in real-time as they type them. There is no human agency behind that kind of repression; it’s an entirely electronic process. But there is a human principal. His name is Xi Jinping.

Compared to earlier party-state totalitarianisms, China’s techno-totalitarianism is extraordinarily centralised. There is no role for local party secretaries in designing the algorithms that WeChat uses to suppress political speech. All of the relevant strings can be pulled directly from Beijing. The Chinese government has named at least fifteen private companies as artificial intelligence “national champions” that report directly to the national government, wherever their home offices may be. These companies include well-known brands like Huawei, Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent (owner of WeChat), as well as more specialised operators like Hikvision (surveillance systems), Megvii (facial recognition), Yitu (image processing) and Unigroup (chip design). Assigned the joint mission of completing the surveillance state, they certainly don’t have to worry about local party committees interfering with their research.

The Chinese word for China, Zhongguo, poetically translated as “Middle Kingdom”, more literally translates as “Central State”. It reflects China’s self-conception of lying at the centre of the world. Throughout most of history, the Central State has been one of the world’s most decentralised. China has often been more a unified cultural zone than a unified political entity, and warlordism has been a recurring feature of the dynastic cycle. Authors have always highlighted the challenge of governing the “vast” and “varied” country that is China. Its mountains are proverbially high, and its emperor is proverbially far away.

Not any more. The internet brought the emperor into people’s offices, and the mobile phone has brought him into their pockets. These days, the emperor isn’t even a click away. People don’t have to raise a petition to attract the ear of the emperor, because the emperor is already listening. And watching. And following. And always ensuring that no one ever gets the chance to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Anyone who still believes that China might once again break down and fracture into several warring states, think again. Change will come to China, eventually, but when it does, it will radiate out from the centre. It may even lead to the demise of the naked emperor, Xi Jinping. But it certainly won’t take him by surprise.

Salvatore Babones is The Philistine.


1 comment
  • Old West

    Just read this piece today in my copy of Quadrant — it takes a while for it to reach the US. A fine piece of writing. Helped me to understand better what we are dealing with. God help the US if Australia becomes a protectorate of China.

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