For nearly ten years, I have been arguing that China may well be the first example of a mature fascism in power. The highest praise imaginable has been bestowed on this theory, by the People’s Republic itself. When I published an updated version of my theory (first published in the Wall Street Journal in 2002 and reprised in different form in NRO thereafter) in the Far East Economic Review in May, 2008, the entire issue was banned in China.
On the occasion of Mr. Hu’s visit to Washington, it seems appropriate to revisit this theme, which seems to me to have been abundantly confirmed by events.
Beijing Embraces Classical Fascism
by Michael Ledeen
Posted May 2, 2008
In 2002, I speculated that China may be something we have never seen before: a mature fascist state. Recent events there, especially the mass rage in response to Western criticism, seem to confirm that theory. More significantly, over the intervening six years China’s leaders have consolidated their hold on the organs of control—political, economic and cultural. Instead of gradually embracing pluralism as many expected, China’s corporatist elite has become even more entrenched.
Even though they still call themselves communists, and the Communist Party rules the country, classical fascism should be the starting point for our efforts to understand the People’s Republic. Imagine Italy 50 years after the fascist revolution. Mussolini would be dead and buried, the corporate state would be largely intact, the party would be firmly in control, and Italy would be governed by professional politicians, part of a corrupt elite, rather than the true believers who had marched on Rome. It would no longer be a system based on charisma, but would instead rest almost entirely on political repression, the leaders would be businesslike and cynical, not idealistic, and they would constantly invoke formulaic appeals to the grandeur of the “great Italian people,” “endlessly summoned to emulate the greatness of its ancestors.”
Substitute in the “great Chinese people” and it all sounds familiar. We are certainly not dealing with a Communist regime, either politically or economically, nor do Chinese leaders, even those who followed the radical reformer Deng Xiaoping, seem to be at all interested in treading the dangerous and uneven path from Stalinism to democracy. They know that Mikhail Gorbachev fell when he tried to control the economy while giving political freedom. They are attempting the opposite, keeping a firm grip on political power while permitting relatively free areas of economic enterprise. Their political methods are quite like those used by the European fascists 80 years ago.
Unlike traditional communist dictators—Mao, for example—who extirpated traditional culture and replaced it with a sterile Marxism-Leninism, the Chinese now enthusiastically, even compulsively, embrace the glories of China’s long history. Their passionate reassertion of the greatness of past dynasties has both entranced and baffled Western observers, because it does not fit the model of an “evolving communist system.”
Yet the fascist leaders of the 1920s and 1930s used exactly the same device. Mussolini rebuilt Rome to provide a dramatic visual reminder of ancient glories, and he used ancient history to justify the conquest of Libya and Ethiopia. Hitler’s favorite architect built neoclassical buildings throughout the Third Reich, and his favorite operatic composer organized festivals to celebrate the country’s mythic past.
Like their European predecessors, the Chinese claim a major role in the world because of their history and culture, not just on the basis of their current power, or scientific or cultural accomplishments. China even toys with some of the more bizarre notions of the earlier fascisms, such as the program to make the country self-sufficient in wheat production—the same quest for autarky that obsessed both Hitler and Mussolini.
To be sure, the world is much changed since the first half of the last century. It’s much harder (and sometimes impossible) to go it alone. Passions for total independence from the outside world are tempered by the realities of today’s global economy, and China’s appetite for oil and other raw materials is properly legendary. But the Chinese, like the European fascists, are intensely xenophobic, and obviously worry that their people may turn against them if they learn too much about the rest of the world. They consequently work very hard to dominate the flow of information. Just ask Google, forced to cooperate with the censors in order to work in China.
Some scholars of contemporary China see the Beijing regime as very nervous, and perhaps even unstable, and they are encouraged in this belief when they see recent events such as the eruption of popular sentiment against the Tibetan monks’ modest protests. That view is further reinforced by similar outcries against most any criticism of Chinese performance, from human rights to air pollution, and from preparations for the Olympic Games to the failure of Chinese quality control in food production and children’s toys.
In all these cases, it is tempting to conclude that the regime is worried about its own survival, and, in order to rally nationalist passions, feels compelled to portray the country as a global victim. Perhaps they are right. The strongest evidence to support the theory of insecurity at the highest levels of Chinese society is the practice of the “princelings” (wealthy children of the ruling elites) to buy homes in places such as the United States, Canada and Australia. These are not luxury homes of the sort favored by wealthy businessman and officials from the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. Rather they are typically “normal” homes of the sort a potential émigré might want to have in reserve in case things went bad back home.
On the other hand, the cult of victimhood was always part of fascist culture. Just like Germany and Italy in the interwar period, China feels betrayed and humiliated, and seeks to avenge her many historic wounds. This is not necessarily a true sign of anxiety; it’s an integral part of the sort of hypernationalism that has always been at the heart of all fascist movements and regimes. We cannot look into the souls of the Chinese tyrants, but I doubt that China is an intensely unstable system, riven by the democratic impulses of capitalism on the one hand, and the repressive practices of the regime on the other. This is a mature fascism, not a frenzied mass movement, and the current regime is not composed of revolutionary fanatics. Today’s Chinese leaders are the heirs of two very different revolutions, Mao’s and Deng’s. The first was a failed communist experiment; the second is a fascist transformation whose future is up for grabs.