China of Xi Jinping: Towards Chinese Fascism? by Jean-Philippe Béja.

{Xi Jinping’s Rally? Image not part of original “Pouvoirs” journal essay}

CHINA OF XI JINPING: TOWARDS CHINESE FASCISM? by Jean-Philippe Béja, POUVOIRS (Number 169), 2019. (English Translation)

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Since becoming the world’s second-largest economy in 2011, China has become increasingly present on the international stage. Abandoning the policy of biding it’s time (avoiding the light), she took a number of initiatives aimed at restoring the country to the grand status that she had lost since the British gunboats forced entry into her market during the First Opium War in 1842. After the Financial Crisis of 2008, which dealt a serious blow to the “Washington Consensus”, the Chinese Communist Party began to pose itself as the model: the “Beijing Consensus”, the “Chinese Model”, which has become today the “Chinese Solution”, this model explains the “Chinese Miracle” by a mixture of market economy, openness to globalization and dictatorial regime. The policy of the “new silk roads” (yidai yilu, literally a belt, a road, translated in English as “Belt and Road Initiative”) should serve as a vehicle for this model, and it has achieved undeniable success. There are countless countries in Africa, Europe and Latin America who are trying by all means to attract Chinese investors.

Gone are the days when Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history, and today no one (except perhaps Donald Trump, but for other reasons) calls into question the regime which reigns over a fifth of the population of the planet. Hopes of democratization brought about by economic development have vanished; contrary to the theories of Seymour Lipset [1], the rise of the Chinese economy and its internationalization have instead reinforced despotism and, in what he described as the “new era”, Xi Jinping’s regime seems to be moving towards a form of neo-totalitarianism or fascism “Chinese Style”. Because China is definitely not a “democracy”, if that term has any meaning. As we will see in this article, there is nothing democratic about it: there are no competitive elections, no opposition political parties, private media are banned, and it is increasingly visibily and openly a dictatorship: that of the Communist Party, which has been particularly strengthened since Xi Jinping’s accession to the general secretariat in 2012.

Reform of the political system: a hope for democratization.

And yet, everything had started rather well. In the aftermath of the death of Mao Zedong, who had plunged China into international isolation, economic stagnation and a form of totalitarianism hitherto unknown, Chinese leaders, under pressure from a society that had expressed its disgust for the regime even before the death of the tyrant during a large demonstration in Tiananmen Square [2] [April 1976? predates infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre], had attempted to liberalize the regime. The policy of reform and openness adopted at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in December 1978 was to put China on the path to modernization and democratization. Deng Xiaoping, himself a victim of Mao’s attacks since the start of the Cultural Revolution (1966), was determined to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

Contrary to the vulgate [common understanding] that wanted China to start its reforms with the economy (while later Mikhail Gorbachev started with political reform, which would explain its failure) Deng started by forcefully oppressing Mao’s supporters and rehabilitating his victims before launching into economic reforms, while Gorbachev had tried to reform the economy (perestroika) and, faced with its failure, had embarked on an enterprise of transparency (glasnost). Deng, he knew very well that it would be impossible to attack the sacred cows of Mao Zedong’s thought without eliminating his most fanatic supporters and without amending the system that had allowed them to prevail.

The new strongman had of course not the intention of establishing democracy, and after letting the malcontents set out their demands for democratization and denounce the persecutions they suffered during Mao’s reign – so getting rid of his opponents within the Party – he affirmed the need to defend the “four fundamental principles ”, namely the Marxism-Leninist thought of Mao Zedong, socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat and, last but not least, the leadership of the Communist Party. He therefore ordered the closure of the “walls of democracy” which had multiplied in 1978-1979, and sentenced Wei Jingsheng, who had called for “the fifth modernization, democracy”, to fifteen years in prison [3]. However, in order to renew the legitimacy of the Party, he relaxed the latter’s control over publications, universities and the economy.

The de facto decollectivization of the countryside, carried out in 1984, made it possible to revive the production of agriculture which employed 80% of the population. Once the problem of survival was resolved, Deng would tackle the urban economy. Instead of resorting to the “shock therapy” which was to prevail in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Party allowed a private economy (small and medium scale) to develop, especially in commerce. and in the service sector while maintaining state-owned enterprises. At the same time, he appealed to foreign capital by creating “special economic zones”, where foreign capital was exempt from taxes and could use docile and cheap labor. Foreign companies were allowed so Chinese state-owned enterprises could introduce modern management methods into the country.

All these policies did not call into question the sacrosanct “leadership of the Party”, but Deng wanted to reform the way it operated. In 1980 and then in 1986, he affirmed the need for a “reform of the political system”: prohibition of the cult of the personality, establishment of a collective leadership, re-establishment of the division of labor between the Party and the State, limitation of a number of terms for the president to two and, above all, reestablishment of bureaucratic rules of operation in order to guarantee a certain security for Party cadres [eg against arbitrary brutality of the Cultural Revolution]. Deng asserted that political movements targeting “class enemies” accused of sabotaging socialism and which established absolute arbitrariness, would no longer be organized. At the same time, he had a penal code and a code of penal procedure adopted in order to provide a minimum of legal guarantees to citizens. These decisions allowed a profound questioning of the system set up by Mao Zedong, while preserving the dictatorship of a single party.

At the same time, the relaxation of controls on society opened up a space for discussion which the barely rehabilitated victims of the Maoist movements – in particular the rightists condemned in 1957 – took advantage of to try to push for the democratization of the regime. All kinds of structures beyond the direct control of the Party, collections created in state publishing houses, salons [4], independent research centres, appeared during the 1980s, without the latter cracking down on them. The market economy that was beginning to emerge at the time also favored their development. We were then witnessing a sort of virtuous circle of democratization: the Party needed the support of the driving forces of society to renew its legitimacy, and these could influence its decisions [5]. At the same time, the development of the market economy promoted the empowerment of society. Of course, this liberalization did not proceed in a linear fashion, and movements against “bourgeois liberalization” or “spiritual pollution” ,which targeted the most radical of intellectuals, did multiply. Likewise, the development of the private economy had encouraged the rise of corruption, especially among Party officials and their relatives, which had contributed to the increase in discontent among the population.

The attacks of the conservatives, worried that economic reforms combined with political reforms would undermine the Party leadership and lead China to “change colour”, have met with success. In particular, they culminated, in 1987, in the resignation of the Party’s secretary general, Hu Yaobang, accused of having been soft on “bourgeois liberalization”. Deng Xiaoping himself was the first to curb the reformist ardor of his deputy. However, he believed that nothing should undermine economic reforms, and until April 1989 he ruled in favor of the reformers.

However, the animators of the autonomous structures born in the 1980s began to worry about these attacks. Hu Yaobang’s death in April 1989 appeared to them as a symptom of the weakening of the reform camp. This time the students organized large-scale demonstrations which shook the capital and more than three hundred large cities. “Dialogue on an equal footing, democracy and freedom, punishment of the corrupt”, it was behind these slogans that students and townspeople took to the streets in the Spring of 1989. These huge demonstrations, crowned by the hunger strike of three thousand students in Tiananmen Square, resulted in a deep division at the Top of the Party. While the reformist secretary general Zhao Ziyang opted for negotiation with the protesters who represented a large part of urban society, Deng Xiaoping joined the conservatives and decided to quell the protests with blood. The massacre of June 4, 1989 put an end to the sequence of political reforms [6].

Avoiding a Great Leap Backwards.

For the next two years, a witch hunt took place under martial law in Beijing. Civil society leaders who failed to escape overseas with the help of the Hong Kong Democratic Forces were hunted down, jailed and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Semi-autonomous research centres, salons, reading boards of publishing houses, and bold media were dissolved. Self-criticism and the return of ideology, pressure on private companies in the countryside and in the city, characterized this period of turning back. Conservative forces, which had always been unhappy with economic reforms, sought to restore planning, causing a recession that effected the standard of living of the population. Realizing the loss of legitimacy caused by the June 4 massacre, Deng Xiaoping worried about the deteriorating economy. In January 1992, he set out on a trip to the south of the country, where the special economic zones were located, and re-launched it by expanding the country’s openness to the market and to foreign capital. He declared that “regardless of whether he calls himself ‘socialist’ or ‘capitalist’, development is the most important element” (fazhan shi ying daolii), giving a new name to his “cat” politics (it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse). Much to the chagrin of supporters of the planned economy, Deng proposed a new social pact: on condition that they did not question the leadership of the Party, intellectuals, graduates and engineers could embark on business creation and develop their creativity in the market economy. They would also be allowed to taste the fruits. As for foreign companies, they were allowed to set up factories and companies where they could have 100% of the capital. Opening up to capitalism and strengthening authoritarianism, the recipe for the “Chinese Miracle” was thus developed, and it would lead China to rise to second place in the world economy.

Indeed, anxious to take advantage of the advantages offered by the Chinese Communist Party, the multinationals invested en masse to take advantage of the cheap, docile labor force and the infrastructure put in place by the Chinese state. The Party, eager to make state enterprises more efficient, laid off tens of millions of workers, who themselves had to find jobs. This did not go without difficulty, and protests escalated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, the Party’s control over social organizations prevented this discontent from turning into a challenge: by a mixture of concessions to the workers and repression of the leaders, the mass layoffs passed without too much difficulty.

Joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 opened up developed country markets to China, and in less than ten years the country became a “factory of the world.” Worried about developments in Russia and Eastern Europe, the Party leaders stepped up their struggle against “peaceful development.” All attempts to create political organizations or autonomous unions were severely repressed. At the same time, the Party was flexible in dealing with social conflicts if they were not the work of autonomous organizations. From the mid-1990s, he even tolerated the existence of NGOs, provided they were not doing politics.

Anxious to give pledges to the “international community”, on which they depended for their economic prosperity, Chinese leaders affirmed their will to establish the “rule of law”. Chinese locial actors rushed into what they saw as a breach, and this was how the rights movement (weiquan yundong) [7] was born. Led by lawyers, journalists and intellectuals, often university professors, this movement did not call for the establishment of democracy, but for respect for the rights of citizens. Its development was fostered by the development of the Internet, which allowed the emergence of a form of civil cybersociety.

Economic development in the context of the one-party dictatorship gave Party cadres opportunities to enrich themselves. The most widespread abuses concerned the eviction of city dwellers living in the old quarters of cities to make way for large real estate projects launched by local cadres or their relatives. The expropriations of peasants to allow the creation of development zones also caused strong discontent in peri-urban areas [adjoining urban areas]. From the beginning of the 2000s, a large number of riots took place, modestly dubbed “collective incidents”, in which angry citizens set fire to the headquarters of Party committees [8].

Economic reforms, which stipulated that state enterprises had to make a profit, led to the emergence of a so-called commercial press, which, to attract readers, began to cover subjects which were taboo for major newspapers. This is how daring weeklies like Nanfang zhoumo (or Southern Weekend) appeared, which, although belonging to a press group dependent on the Party committee of Guangdong province, did not hesitate to cover the riots, or to denounce the abuses of executives. Civil rights lawyers took these abuses to court and, although they did not often succeed, thanks to the press and the fact that these cases were relayed on social media (from 2009, Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, has hundreds of millions of followers), public opinion was exerting pressure on the Party. The rights movement grew rapidly until July 9, 2015, when the government arrested more than three hundred lawyers, deprived a large number of them of their license to practice and sentenced about twenty to prison terms [9]. The social space opened up by the rights movement thanks to the government’s stated desire to establish the “rule of law” has now been greatly restricted. The rise of civil society in the grey areas, the emergence of the rights movement, the development of workers’ demands and the emancipation of part of the press supported by development of the internet risked calling into question the social contract established by Deng Xiaoping with the elites in 1992.  Although they did not openly address political issues, the social forces that developed their autonomy were increasingly a challenge for the Party. The growing social polarization, the discontent of the middle classes – main supporters of the regime – in terms of pollution, food insecurity and rampant corruption were also threats.

Ending stagnation and reestablishing a strong regime.

Faced with this dangerous development, Party leaders found it difficult to adopt effective policies: the collusion between political power and economic power lead to the creation of interest groups that were tearing each other apart. To prevent these conflicts from escalating, Secretary General Hu Jintao procrastinated and sought to maintain peace between the factions. This attitude led to the considerable development of corruption. No faction was prepared to sacrifice its interests in order to calm contradictions, or simply to keep the Party in power. The collective leadership, imposed by Deng Xiaoping in the aftermath of Mao’s death, resulted in an opposition to change that threatened the very existence of the regime.

During Hu Jintao’s last term (2007-2012), there was an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the Chinese Communist Party. In Guangdong Province, Secretary Wang Yang sent one of his deputies to negotiate with peasants who had been violently repressed when, in accordance with the electoral law, they had demanded the removal of their corrupt village chief and the holding of new elections. He gave them satisfaction [10]. Likewise, when strikes broke out at the Honda and Toyota auto factories after a crackdown came to nothing, he authorized negotiations between workers and management, which resulted in substantial wage increases. During his tenure, workers’ defense organizations, supported by Hong Kong NGOs, were able to fight for collective bargaining with employers in many [11] factories. Many analysts believed Guangdong was moving towards a hidden recognition of civil society.

At the same time, in Chongqing, in the interior of the country, the charismatic secretary of the Party committee, Bo Xilai, launched a major campaign against corruption and the “mafias” (da hei, “to strike the black forces”) and encouraged people to celebrate Mao’s legacy by singing songs from the revolutionary era (chang hong, “singing red songs”). Posing as a great leader, he adopted social policies in favor of migrant workers, while lashing out against private entrepreneurs. He went so far as to inspect a parade of armed forces in a neighboring province.

These contradictory policies were extremely shocking in a Leninist party whose main feature is “democratic centralism”, which prohibits the existence of factions. If this situation continued, it risked calling into question the very existence of the regime.

Neo-totalitarianism or Chinese-style fascism.

As soon as he joined the Party’s general secretariat in November 2012, Xi Jinping took drastic measures to prevent this drift. Collective leadership had resulted in a dangerous weakening of leadership, which was unable to decide between conflicting policies. It was therefore necessary to re-establish the authority of the “number one” because, in this type of regime, only a strong man can impose solutions. Xi Jinping was keen to be this man (was the Party really divided between Wang Yang’s line and Bo Xilai’s line?).

Xi confirmed Bo’s elimination by organizing a spectacular trial that ended with his life sentence for corruption, which was a way to undermine his popularity (he did not succeed inside Chongqing [municipality] however, where the former “number one” [Bo] remained popular). Regarding Wang Yang, he did not join the Standing Committee of the Politburo [not until 2017 following 19th Central Committee meeting], he was appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and had to leave his base in Guangdong [province].

From the beginning of 2013, Party cadres were required to study a film about the end of the Soviet Union in which it was claimed that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapsed because there were no more “real males” within it [12]. Xi offered to provide a remedy to this situation. This would prevent the stagnation that characterized Hu Jintao’s [General Secretary CCP before replaced by Xi in 2013] (and Brezhnev’s) last years in power from leading to the collapse of the Party. He will not be the Chinese Gorbachev, but on the contrary the man who saves the Communist Party.

He does not hesitate to use Bo Xilai’s prescriptions to impose himself: he adopted a two prong policy. On the one hand, he launched a major offensive against civil society organizations that had taken advantage of the grey areas to develop. On the other hand, in order to eliminate his possible opponents within the Party and to gain the support of the population, he launched a major campaign against corruption, the execution of which was entrusted to the Central Commission for Discipline Control of the Party. A similar campaign had enabled Bo Xilai to establish his popularity in Chongqing. Still drawing inspiration from his rival, Xi built an image of a leader close to the people by going to eat steamed buns at a popular restaurant as soon as he came to power.

Rights organizations were the first targets. As early as January 2013, the jurist Xu Zhiyong – founder of the New Citizens Movement, whose members signed a pact in which they pledged to “respect the Constitution and the laws”, to “defend their correct implementation” and to “defend social justice ” [13] – was sentenced to four years in prison. However, his NGO denounced the corruption of executives and demanded the publication of their assets, which corresponded to the wishes of Xi Jinping, whose campaign against corruption said it should not spare the “tigers” (senior cadres) nor the “flies” (grassroots cadres). For Xi Jingping the new General Secretary [of the CCP], only the Party could be allowed to lead this fight, and there was no question of letting society take initiatives in this area. This policy was confirmed when, on July 9, 2015, he attacked lawyers, as we have seen above. Some of them were forced to give television interviews in which they admitted to being “manipulated by hostile foreign forces” and repented of having harmed state interests. In the same year, workers’ defense NGOs were sentenced [14] who also admitted on television that they had been “used by hostile foreign forces” [15]. A law limiting the establishment in China of foreign NGOs (main sources of funding for Chinese rights NGOs) was adopted in 2016: they must be sponsored by a Chinese public institution and be registered with Public Security [police]. Suffice to say that only those which provide social services would be authorized, Chinese institutions are naturally reluctant to vouch for NGOs considered hostile by the government.

The Party was taking back the spaces of autonomy that had developed over the ten years before Xi came to power. It was in Xinjiang, the northwestern province inhabited by people of Turkish origin [Uyghars], that Party control reached a climax: since the start of 2017, more than a million people have been interned in re-education camps because they did not submit to the Party’s demands. Refusing to eat pork or consume alcohol, observing Muslim holidays or giving Islamic names to one’s children is enough to send the culprit to these camps. At the same time, a million ethnic majority [Han Chinese] Party members were installed within Uyghur families to ensure that they did not consort with “terrorism” [16].

At the same time, the campaign against corruption has been unfolding which, to date, has affected more than a million executives, from the member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo to the village secretary [17]. The Central Commission for Discipline Control of the Party has become a real Cheka [Bolshevik secret police that became the KGB] who can arrest anyone and intern him for days, even months, before taking him to court. This organization has created a reign of terror within the Party.

Once [Chinese] society was tamed and the Party put back in order, Xi Jinping rekindled the cult of personality: there is not a day without his photo appearing in People’s Daily; everywhere we find his quotes; the village where he was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, Liangjiahe, has become a place of pilgrimage.

The strengthening of the Party’s control over society and the establishment of the cult of personality were institutionalized during the nineteenth national congress of the Communist Party: “To the North, to the South, to the East, to the West, to the Centre, the Party directs everything.” And this Party must implement “Xi Jinping’s Thought on Chinese-Colored Socialism for the New Era”, which has become the guiding ideology [18]. A constitutional amendment removed the two-term limit for the president, paving the way for a life presidency for Xi. But another institutional change went unnoticed: government institutions were merged and placed under the leadership of specialized Party committees, putting an end to the policy of division of labor between Party and state, which had been established by Deng Xiaoping to prevent the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution from happening again. And all of this is taking place in an atmosphere of nationalism, with Xi promising to realize the “Chinese dream of rebirth of the Chinese nation.”

Stifling of society by the Party, cult of the leader, managed economy where state enterprises play an essential role and private companies close to the leaders enrich themselves, nationalism, Xi Jinping’s China looks more like Mussolini’s Italy than Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. A dictatorship where democracy has no place, and which is therefore not even a “democracture” [quasi-dictatorship with democractic elements].

Summary.

The nature of the Chinese regime had not changed since 1949, but the need to renew the legitimacy of the Communist Party in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s death led Deng Xiaoping to ease the pressure of the apparatus on society and the economy. After the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, Deng opened the country to the world market while maintaining the dictatorship. Rapid economic development and the exploitation of grey areas by NGOs had led to loosening of controls. Upon coming to power, Xi Jinping suppressed emerging civil society and strengthened Party leadership in all areas, eliminating spaces of autonomy and establishing the cult of personality. Party hegemony over society and government, cult of the leader, nationalism, China is in no way comparable to “democratures” [quasi dictatorships with democractic elements]. Dictatorship has been imposed, and his system more and more recalls fascism.

Notes, References.

  • [**] Pouvoirs, https://revue-pouvoirs.fr/, “Revue française d’études constitutionnelles et politiques.”
  • [1] “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Democracy”, American Political Science Review, vol. 53, n ° 1, 1959, p. 69-105.
  • [2] Claude Cadart and Cheng Ying-hsiang, Les Deux Morts de Mao Tsé-toung, Paris, Seuil.
  • [3] Victor Sidane, Le Printemps de Pékin, Paris, Gallimard, 1980.
  • [4] Groups which met regularly in the universities. The best known is the “democracy fair” (minzhu shalong) organized by Wang Dan at Peking University.
  • [5] Jean-Philippe Béja, In Search of a Chinese Shadow, Paris, Seuil, 2004.
  • [6] Jean-Philippe Béja, Michel Bonnin and Alain Peyraube, Le Tremblement de terre de Pékin, Paris, Gallimard, 1991.
  • [7] “China’s Human Rights Lawyers: Political Resistance and the Law” (interview with Eva Pils), TheDiplomat.com, February 11, 2016.
  • [8] Liu Xiaobo, “Inspired reflections by the Weng’an affair ”, in id., La Philosophie du porc, and other essays, Paris, Gallimard, 2011, p. 391-402.
  • [9] China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, Report on the 709 Crackdown, July 2016.
  • [10] “Village Ends Protest after Official Concessions ”, South China Morning Post, December 21, 2011.
  • [11] Jean-Philippe Béja,“ The New Working Class Renews the Repertoire of Social Struggles”, China Perspectives. Number 2, 2011, p. 3-7.
  • [12] “26 nian qian de jintian, Sulian jieti, lengzhan jiesu” (“Twenty-six years ago today, the Soviet Union fell apart, the Cold War finished ”), bbc.com, December 25, 2017.
  • [13] “Zhuming Weiquan Renshi Xuzhiyong Fabu ‘Gongmin Weiquan Shouce’ “ (“The famous defender of rights Xu Zhiyong publishes a ‘manual for the defense of rights’ ”), Boxun.com, April 2010.
  • [14] Michael Forsythe and Chris Buckley, “China Arrests at Least 3 Workers’ Rights Leaders Amid Rising Unrest,” New York Times, December 5, 2015.
  • [15] Steven Lee Myers, “How China Uses Forced Confessions as Propaganda Tool,” New York Times, April 11, 2018.
  • [16] Chris Buckley, “China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers. The Goal: “Transformation” ”, New York Times, September 8, 2018.
  • [17] Choi Chi-yuk,“ Xi Jinping’s Anti-Graft Drive Has Caught So Many Officials that Beijing’s Elite Prison Is Running Out of Cells ”, scmp.com, February 14, 2018.
  • [18] “Full Text of Xi Jinping’s Report to the 19th CCP National Congress”, Xinhuanet.com, November 3, 2017.

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[*LK Posted By Lara Keller 5/2/2022]

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