China may no longer be Marxist, but it remains hideously Leninist
The Middle Kingdom’s embrace of capitalism has come at the price of ever more brutal repression.
Daniel Hannan 3 July 2021 •
Everything we thought we knew about China was wrong. We used to imagine that the worst was past, that the trend, however fitful, was towards liberty. The rise of a market system, we assured ourselves, was bound to lead to more consumer choice and so, over time, to a less authoritarian society. How naïve we were.
“There’s this strange belief that you can’t build a mobile app if you don’t know the truth about what happened in Tiananmen Square,” says Kaiser Kuo, the former director for international communications for China’s search engine Baidu. “Trouble is, it’s not true.”
The years since Xi Jinping took over in 2012 have seen a vertiginous lurch into tyranny. Overnight, censorship was tightened, lawyers jailed, dissidents made to disappear, autocracy celebrated, foreign quarrels pursued with a vengeance.
The new old China was on display this week for the hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi addressed a huge crowd dressed in a Mao-suit (as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, proletarian overalls became the uniform of the party elite). He reiterated his determination to force unification upon Taiwan, and told supporters: “We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us. Anyone who tries will collide with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people!”
Ten or twenty years ago, there was a perfunctory quality to China’s socialist sloganeering. Busts of Karl Marx were tucked away in cupboards, just as in the former USSR. But Xi has dusted them off and brought them back out, decreeing new statues of the old cadger in Beijing and in Trier, his German birthplace. Think of the classic Simpsons episode, where the Soviet Union suddenly reveals that it never went away, the Berlin Wall bursts out of the ground, tanks reappear on the streets and the embalmed Lenin rises zombie-like from his glass case. Now update that image to take account of modern technology.
China has built the most advanced surveillance state ever conceived. Orwell imagined telescreens that could observe our behaviour. China has spyware on phones and face recognition technology that allows it to monitor its citizens’ attitudes and expressions, as well as their whereabouts.
Chinese online networks such as Weibo, Tencent and Alibaba are among the biggest in the world. Yet they obediently proselytise and censor their users. At the start of Xi’s period of office, there were independent voices, politically-minded bloggers, online influencers. The authorities were unhappy. “A number of journalists no longer see themselves as party propaganda workers,” complained Hu Zhanfan, the head of state TV. “They have redefined themselves as professionals, a basic misunderstanding of their identity”.
Xi had the answer. A few prominent critics were arrested, subjected to show-trials and forced into tearful televised confessions. Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone who spread an unhelpful “rumour” that was shared more than 500 times or viewed more than 5,000 could expect three years in prison. Overnight, every independent blogger fell silent. So did critical journalists. So, indeed, did civil rights lawyers who had bravely defended some of the figures targeted by the regime.
The centenary might have been awkward for the authorities. Their party’s founders railed against oligarchy, and Xi does not want that sentiment repeated. Indeed, when a group of genuinely communist youngsters applied Marxist theory to present-day China, protesting about poverty and demanding greater freedoms for the masses, the regime cracked down, arresting 50 students in Shenzhen in a single day.
Marx is mainly used by the regime as an antidote to “Western liberalism”. (The few commentators who sardonically observed that Marx himself was hardly Chinese quickly learned to keep their mouths shut.) The party is militantly nationalist, and campaigns against any marking of Western festivals, such as Hallowe’en, Christmas and even April Fools Day.
But if the authorities are no longer Marxist, they are still very much Leninist. The dictatorship of the party is China’s ruling principle. It is sometimes justified with Marxist dialectic, sometimes through Confucian analects, sometimes in anti-American language, but always with menacing bellicosity.
All talk of a peaceful rise has been dropped. China has become a nation of old men in a hurry. (Xi, at 68, is a young blood in what has often been a government of nonagenarians, and expects to rule for decades more.) Several neighbouring states now feel the force of Chinese revanchism: Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Japan. During the lockdown, Chinese forces shot dead Indian soldiers in a border dispute. Australia has been subjected to an economic boycott for demanding an enquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. Hong Kong has been absorbed and assimilated, any notion of “one country, two systems” gone. Taiwan is braced for an eventual invasion that many now see as unavoidable.
The Taiwanese know what would be in store for them as a conquered people. They see it in Xinjiang, where a mandatory app on every phone looks for anti-social behaviour, such as growing a beard, fasting or making contact with foreigners. Break too many rules and an algorithm will have you interned in a “re-education camp”.
Uyghurs bring out all the party’s complexes: its nationalist dislike of ethnic differences, its Marxist contempt for religion and, above all, its authoritarian distrust of anything that it does not directly control. Having built a state-of-the-art surveillance machine in Xinjiang, there is nothing to stop China turning it against the rest of its citizens.
The worst of it is that young Chinese seem not to care. Students in Western universities, outside the censors’ firewalls, show no interest in pluralism. When the late Sir Roger Scruton spoke of the communist leaders “creating robots out of their own people”, his words were scandalously twisted by the New Statesman. But the Chinese regime has indeed conditioned its population to steer away from rebellious thoughts. Orwell’s dystopia is giving way to Huxley’s: “A population of slaves who do not have to be coerced because they love their servitude.”
Roger was more perceptive than I was. I blush when I look back at my articles from as recently as two years ago, deploring the crackdown in Hong Kong but arguing, with baseless optimism, that the hardliners around Xi were balanced by more moderate voices from the Jiang and Hu eras.
The truth is that China has come out of the lockdowns grimmer, stronger and more assertive. The world we knew has gone.