Foreign Policy

Yes, you can use the T word to describe China

That year, H&M disappeared from China’s internet. Ride hail, e-commerce, online advertising: the world’s largest fashion retailer simply disappeared without a trace. The shops were still open – if you could find them. They did not suffer broken windows or tax robberies, but they literally erased China’s own Baidu cards and even Apple cards from the card.

That seems like a small price to pay for taking a principled stand against modern slavery. However, the precision of China’s strike against H&M is as shocking as its stifling completeness. It shows that the government in China wields a form of power that is as fine-tuned as it is total. Whether it’s attacking a corporate critic, silencing all warnings of an emerging infectious disease, or suppressing the language and religion of an entire ethnic group, China’s government is not an authoritarian brute force regime. It is the inventor of a new technototalitarianism of the 21st century. It has all the tools of classical totalitarianism – and many new ones of its own invention.

H & M’s crime – if you can call it that – was to issue a statement last October assuring its customers that it was “deeply concerned” about “allegations of forced labor” in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region West of China. She neither endorsed the allegations nor condemned China’s ongoing crimes against humanity, which many call genocide, despite confirming that she would no longer source cotton from the region. The Chinese government mysteriously waited five months to beat H&M for responsible corporate governance.

This kind of arbitrary exercise of power is a key feature that distinguishes totalitarian regimes from authoritarian ones. Authoritarian governments base their legitimacy on the authority of important institutions – often more religious – that are already deeply rooted in their societies. They are able to transcend ordinary moral boundaries because they use the already existing loyalties and beliefs of their people. Authoritarian violence is often brutal, but rarely surgical.

Totalitarians demand from their people to give up sentimental ties to established institutions in favor of an empty ideology of state power. A great theorist of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, explained that totalitarians teach their followers to “believe anything and everything, to think that anything is possible and nothing is true.” Totalitarian regimes feel completely numb, commit genocide, or scrub a company off the Internet with equal equanimity. They murder as a simple matter of state policy. To use the terrifyingly astute aphorism so often attributed to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; One million deaths is a statistic. “Or as Arendt put it, Hitler’s concentration camps even made death itself anonymous.

The word “totalitarianism” was first printed in 1926 by the Roman Catholic priest Luigi Sturzo to describe the fascist government of the then Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. For Sturzo, totalitarianism meant “the centralization of political and economic life, the suppression of all freedom of action and the conversion of state powers into a single executive and administrative power and thus the reduction to real dictatorial power”. While authoritarian regimes force the individual to submit to a distorted and one-sided fraction of society, totalitarianism is the elevation of the state above everything else, including the individual and society.

Mussolini’s Italy was always ambitiously totalitarian, and although it took control of civil society organizations such as newspapers and trade unions, it had to find accommodation with the powerful Catholic Church. Nationalist and Soviet totalitarianism were more complete. They all differed in character, not to mention the extent of their violence, from the murderous authoritarianism in Francisco Franco’s Spain, António de Oliveira Salazar’s Portugal, and later military regimes in countries like Greece, Argentina, and Brazil. Authoritarians consistently appealed to the moral authority of established institutions such as the army and the church. Totalitars based their rule on sheer terror.

Communist China has always been totalitarian in theory, and in practice under the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, perhaps totalitarian in the first quarter of a century of the People’s Republic. As Mao said, “political power grows from the barrel of a weapon” and “the party commands the weapon, and the weapon must never command the party”. The chaotic nature of Mao’s rule may have prevented the Chinese Communist Party from effectively governing the country, but that did not prevent it from infiltrating all aspects of civil society – as it would be called in an ordinary country. In China, even the Catholic churches are run by the state.

In the early years of Mao’s rule, Western writers routinely described China as a totalitarian state. But that started around the time of then US President Richard Nixon’s thawing in 1972. As recently as 1978, the influential Freedom House report “Freedom in the World” claimed that “Communist China remains one of the most totalitarian states in the world.” With the opening of China’s reform era in 1979, this language was dropped. But after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, many commentators must have felt the need for a political epithet to describe China. Most of them seem to have chosen “authoritarian”.

Like many others, Freedom House now describes China as an “authoritarian regime”. But China has little to do with classic authoritarian states. The Chinese Communist Party does not seek to legitimize its rule by referring to the authority of established institutions beyond general appeals to Chinese patriotism and Confucian patrimonialism. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, the “centralization of political and economic life”, which Sturzo viewed as a hallmark of totalitarianism, only increased. Those who associate totalitarianism with concentration camps need only look to Xinjiang, where China is using top-down instruments of social control to bury a society of many millions in the mass grave of cultural oblivion. If China has ever been ruled by a totalitarian regime, it is now.

When a state tracks its citizens’ online communications, physically tracks people with facial recognition technology, controls all mass media and most social media, and incarcerates large swaths of its population in concentration camps, this is a totalitarian regime – plain and simple. Without installing Orwellian two-way screens in all living spaces – or after today’s evidence that every citizen is being watched with their smartphone’s cameras – it’s hard to see what else China can do to deserve the label. The concentration of power in communist China already corresponds to that of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and modern technology offers today’s China infinitely sophisticated mechanisms for monitoring and controlling its population.

There seems to be a strange reluctance to apply the “T-word” to China today. Experts seem more likely to wonder whether China’s government is totalitarian than to claim it is. In addition to Freedom House, non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, and government agencies such as the US State Department characterize China as authoritarian rather than totalitarian. You don’t seem to have thought much about what the word “authoritarian” might mean, other than the implication that its spread poses a challenge to liberal democracy. The irony is that authoritarianism rarely spreads. History teaches us that totalitarianism usually threatens to overstep its limits and endanger the rest of the world.

Truly authoritarian regimes can be extremely unsavory, but their embedding in certain social milieus – also with regard to Spain, Portugal or Greece – makes them inherently non-exportable. In contrast, totalitarian regimes are much better able to enforce external compliance with their demands. This is because foreign employees are not required to agree to their distorted norms. They just require compliance – and all too often foreign companies and even universities are willing to provide them.

H&M may stick to its ethical principles, although doing so could prove costly to the company – and even to Sweden, its home country. Countless other Western companies have long since surrendered to pressure from China and effectively dropped under China’s influence. Unfortunately, there is no way to combat the spread of totalitarianism without compromising the bottom line. This truth applies to entire societies as well as to individual companies. The corrupting influence of Chinese totalitarianism can be contained at the border, but only if other countries recognize it for what it is – and don’t shy away from saying so.

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