Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage II: Just How Totalitarian is Modern China?

Rainer Hachfeld, Stalin-Mao-Xioriginally published 12 March, 2018.

The most striking difference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality. In other words, one destroyed the dignity of human thought whereas the others destroy the dignity of human action.

—Hannah Arendt (1950) 

About two months ago I wrote many praises for John Garnaut’s 2017 speech, “Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping’s China.” Garnaut claims that Xi Jinping sees himself as the heir of Stalin and Mao and that this communist heritage is vital for understanding the modern Communist Party of China. I concur with this claim, and wrote a few thousand words tracing the connections between the Party’s modern methods of control and their antecedents in the days of Stalin and Mao. If you have not read that piece, I encourage you to go do so.

However, I have some reservations about Garnaut’s characterization of the Chinese Party-State. This post will explain the source of this disagreement. I begin with a story of from a cataclysm that took place outside of China, but which is relevant to Garnaut’s description of what is happening inside it.

In her memoir of her childhood in the Khmer Rouge regime, Chanrithy Him describes an execution. I am going to reproduce this scene at length. I ask readers to consciously try and read it all instead of skip through the block-text, as is normal reading habit.

It was nearly noon, perhaps in November 1975, when my brothers, sisters, Mak, and I, among hundreds of other people, arrived at a place near Peth Preahneth Preah. It was a large, open ground studded with tall trees shielding us from the blazing heat of the day. Men, women, and children were gathered to witness a judgment on two people. Their crime, Angka said, was loving each other without Angka’s permission. Thus they were our enemies.

“When Angka catches enemies,” a leader had announced in the previous mandatory meeting, “Angka doesn’t keep them, Angka destroys them.”

One by one, the children, are picked from the crowd and told to stand near the two poles so they can see what Angka will do. It sounds as if we are about to see a play, an entertainment.

To the right of the poles are three wooden tables aligned from edge to edge to form one long table. Behind them, sitting on chairs, are Khmer Rouge dressed in black uniforms, perhaps in their forties and fifties, whom I have never seen before. Their necks, as usual, are decked out with red-and-white-and white-and-blue-checked scarves, draped over their shirts. They are well guarded by cadres standing with rifles behind and beside them. The cadres’ faces are grave. They stand still, straight like the poles. A few Khmer Rouge at the table whisper among themselves. At that moment I see a stash of spades, hoes, and shovels leaning against a pole planted firmly in the ground.

A one-horse buggy pulls up. Two cadres stride toward it. A blindfolded man, hands tied behind his back, is guided off it. Behind him emerges a blindfolded woman who is helped out of the buggy by another cadre. Her hands, too, are tied behind her back. Her stomach bulges out. Immediately she is tied to the pole near the buggy. Her arms first, then her ankles, with a rope about half the size of my wrist.

A woman in the crowd whispers, alarmed, “God, she’s pregnant.”

The blindfolded man’s arms are also bound to the pole. He’s calm, standing straight as his ankles are fastened to the bottom of the pole. Dressed in slacklike pants and a flannel shirt with long sleeves rolled up to his elbows, this man appears intelligent. He’s tall. His body build suggests he’s one of the “city people.” Like him, the pregnant woman looks smart, educated from the way she carries herself. She looks composed. Her collarless blouse with short sleeves reveals her smooth arms. Her once-refined face suggests a once-sheltered life.

Each of the Khmer Rouge rises from the table to speak. Their voices are fierce, full of hatred and anger as they denounce the couple. “These comrades have betrayed Angka. They’ve set a bad example. Therefore they need to be eradicated. Angka must wipe out this kind of people.”

Abruptly another Khmer Rouge at the table gets up, pulls the chair out of his way, strides to the front of the table, picks up a hoe, and tests its weight. Then he puts it back, lifts up a long, silver-colored spade, and tests its weight. He walks up to the blindfolded man.

“Bend your head now!” he commands, then raises the spade in the air.

The man obeys, lowering his head. The Khmer Rouge strikes the nape of his neck again and again. His body slumps, his knees sag. A muffled sound comes out of his mouth. His lover turns her head. The executioner strikes the man’s nape again. His body droops. The executioner scurries over to the pregnant woman. “Bend your head NOW!”

Her head bends. The spade strikes her nape. Her body becomes limp. No sound comes out of her mouth. Only two blows and she’s dead. The executioner walks away, his hand wiping the perspiration from his forehead. Suddenly a long choking sound is heard. The woman’s stomach moves, struggling. Everyone turns. Someone whispers that the baby is dying.

Oh…a cry from the crowd. The executioner runs back and strikes the body repeatedly until the struggle in it stops, still like the pole.

This was a brutal lesson. By now I know the Khmer Rouge’s dark side. I fear for Ra for avoiding Na, a defiant act against Angka. I am afraid her silent rebellion will carry a heavy price. [1]

Ra was Chanrithy’s older sister. The Communist Party of Kampuchea, which referred to itself in its dealings with the Khmer people only as Angka, “The Organization,” had recently chosen a husband for her. Ra consented to the marriage but defiantly refused to sleep with the husband chosen for her by the Party. She was lucky: her husband did not report her. She did not share the fate of the man, woman, and child that Chanrithy saw the regime execute several years earlier.

I repeat this tale at such length because it captures something fundamental about what we mean when we use words like ‘totalitarian.’ The point here is not the level of violence and terror the average person is exposed to (though that is often a sign of the deeper issue I am addressing). Rather, what we see in this story is a frightening extension of what sort decisions are considered political. Under the Khmer Rouge, making love was an explicitly political act. Marriage was a political decision. Refusing to sleep with your husband was an act of political rebellion. The first claim of the totalitarian is that everything is political.

In my view, a totalitarian system must meet two minimum requirements:

  1. In this system all human action is considered political action
  2. The system is ruled by a Party which claims commanding authority to direct all political action—and thus all human action—for its cause.

The great tragedies of 20th century history occurred as the totalitarian leaders attempted to translate their claim of authority over all human action into actual control over the same.

This view of totalitarian society crystallized in my mind some years ago, when I first read Liang Heng’s memoir of his youthful escapades as a Red Gaurd in the Cultural Revolution. A professor had asked me to review it. In that brief review I noted:

In Mao’s China the personal was always political. And not just the personal—everything anyone did was political. Maoism was a political ideology that asked its members to give everything they were, had, and did to the socialist cause. This intellectual framework implies that everything one does should be layered with political meaning. A child’s prank, a lover’s kiss, and a friend’s embrace were all political acts. The clothes one wore, the way one walked, the letters one wrote, and the words one spoke all had political valence. It was with this in mind Liang Shan warned: “Never give your opinion on anything, even if you’re asked directly” (76).

Such caution is inevitable in a world where there is no distinction between the personal and the political. Politics is the division of power, politicking the contest for it. In a system where the most intimate and private actions have political meaning, these actions will be used by those who seek power. These naked contests for control leave no room for good and evil – good becomes what those with power declare it. “One day you are red, one day you are black, and one day you are red again” (76), Liang Shan instructed, and he was correct. This struggle stretched from factions warring within the walls of Zhongnanhai to the village black class child currying for favor.

The problem is not competition: that is an ingrained aspect of human life. The special tragedy of the Maoist system was that it spared nothing from the pursuit of power. There was no aspect of life that could be cordoned off as a refuge from the storm. [2]

Those comments were an attempt to describe a crucial feature of Maoist China. They could be repeated with only cosmetic changes to describe humanity’s other totalitarian experiments. Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, and the terrifying regimes that murdered millions in Cambodia and North Korea were all defined by a terrifying collapse of the personal into the political.

John Garnaut would add Xi Jinping’s China to the list:

The totalitarian machine works to a predetermined path. It denies the existence of free will and rejects “abstract” values like “truth”, love and empathy. It repudiates God, submits to no law and seeks nothing less than to remould the human soul….

Xi was arguing for a return to the Stalinist-Maoist principle that art and literature should only exist to serve politics. Not politics as we know it – the straightforward exercise of organisational and decision-making power – but the totalitarian project of creating unity of language, knowledge, thought and behaviour in pursuit of a utopian destination.

“Art and literature is the engineering that moulds the human soul; art and literary workers are the engineers of the human soul.”[3]

This is the rub of my disagreement with Garnaut. The current Chinese system is defined by the Stalinist tools and ideology its leaders have inherited. But I am not willing to call it truly totalitarian—at least not yet. Secretary Xi may talk about engineering the souls of China, but he has—by totalitarian standards—done a poor job of it. The every-day lived experience of the average Chinese is nothing like the sort of experience hundreds of millions endured under truly totalitarian rule.

A distinction must be made here between elements of society the Party feels it lacks the ability to co-opt and the majority of workaday Chinese. If you are a Uyghur or a Tibetan, a devout Muslim or Christian, a labor leader, activist, and or a rights lawyer, you will not hesitate to call this regime totalitarian. The violence inflicted upon you will be of the totalitarian sort; the scope of the state’s control over your daily life (that is, the scope of what is considered ‘political’) will equal anything the fascist or communist parties of the past inflicted on their subjects.

But this is not the way Party rule is normally perceived or experienced by the vast majority of Chinese. If you have dealt at all with Chinese you will be struck by how many will tell you things like “I am not interested in politics at all” or “I avoid politics as much as possible.” Statements like these are built on the premise that a sphere of life that is not political does in fact exist. In modern China, there is a refuge from the storm. For the vast majority of Chinese, the books they read, the clothes they wear, the talents they cultivate, and the lovers they kiss have no special political valence. Political considerations may have their part to play when choosing a school or a spouse, but these are of the old and ordinary guanxi sort that have shaped Chinese life for centuries. Most Chinese today simply do not feel like their souls are bent and hammered by Xi’s engineers.

This is important to understand: it  gets to the heart of why the regime remains popular despite its hostility to virtue and liberty. I recall a conversation I had in 2016 with a woman in Shanghai. We had just met for the first time in years. The topic of our conversation turned to the worsening political climate in Beijing. She was adamant that things were not really that bad:

“We still have freedom of speech after all!”

I was confused. “How can you say that? If you go unfurl a banner saying how much you hate Xi Jinping in any park in Beijing, you will be arrested in a few minutes. If you write how much you hate him on WeChat, that post will be taken down. Your account might be canceled.”

“That is not what I mean. Look you and me are talking right now. I am free to say anything I want to you. With my family and friends I can say whatever I want—what more do I need?”

This claim was not technically correct. Chinese activists have been arrested for merely talking in private about the conditions needed to replace the Communist Party. In Xinjiang, cadres are regularly sent into the homes of Uyghur families to spy on their inner lives. But these are edge cases, groups subject to Communist coercion at its most frightening and violent. Her words were an accurate statement of the reality most Chinese experience. Most Chinese are free to voice whatever opinion they wish, as long as they voice this opinion in private. That seems stifling to Americans (or in Garnaut’s case, Australians) accustomed to a regime of liberty. But remember the context for which my friend made her claim. Totalitarianism is not a foreign boogey man in China, but an experience that was endured by hundreds of millions in living memory. The Chinese remember a time when they were not free to speak their minds even when speaking behind closed doors. From that vantage point what the Communist Party of China offers now is a positively a liberating experience.

Orwell famously likened Stalinist regimes to a boot stamping on a human face:

The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy — everything…. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever. [4]

This image is accurate enough for a regime engaged in constant and perpetual revolution against internal class enemies, as China and Cambodia were at their Maoist nadirs. But it doesn’t capture the reality of the current Party regime. If we must liken fiction to life, the better analogy is provided by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In that dystopia, American civic society has been slashed to pieces, its people degraded into an atomized soup of selfish, pleasure-seeking individuals. It is a society where most care nothing for politics. The few who do buck the trend—those who read, those who organize, and those who openly question the system—are brutally eliminated. But that happens on the margins. Most citizens of Bradbury’s dystopia do not know much about what happens to the people of the margins. Those who do know endeavor to forget about it as soon as possible.

Whether by accident or design, this tracks the way modern Chinese society works. The majority of Chinese are avowedly apolitical, and hope to remain that way. They are content with their live-streamers and hokey talk shows. Their focus is on the rat race. The Party cares less for shaping the souls of these distracted masses than reducing their capacity to organize. You see this reality reflected in odd places. A recent study of censorship in Chinese social media made this point very well. When surveying thousands of censored postings, political scientists Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts realized that even vitriolic criticism of the Party is often left standing. To give you a sense for how hostile these uncensored posts can be, here are a few examples the authors highlighted as typical:

I have always thought China’s modern history to be full of progress and revolution. At the end of the Qing, advances were seen in all areas, but after the Wuchang uprising, everything was lost. The Chinese Communist Party made a promise of democratic, constitutional government at the beginning of the war of resistance against Japan. But after 60 years that promise is yet to be honored. China todayl acks integrity, and accountability should be traced to Mao. In the 1980s, Deng introduced structural political reforms, but after Tiananmen, all plans were permanently put on hold…intraparty democracy espoused today is just an excuse to perpetuate one party rule.”

This is a city government [Yulin City, Shaanxi] that treats life with contempt, this is government officials run amuck, a city government without justice, a city government that delights in that which is vulgar, a place where officials all have mistresses, a city government that is shameless with greed, a government that trades dignity for power, a government without humanity, a government that has no limits on immorality, a government that goes back on its word, a government that treats kindness with ingratitude, a government that cares nothing for posterity. [5]

Why does crimethink like this escape the censors’ net? Their answer was simple: because the censors are too busy removing every mention of group protest or self-organized problem solving independent of Party control: “Posts are censored if they are in a topic area with collective action potential and not otherwise. Whether or not the posts are in favor of the government, its leaders, and its policies has no measurable effect on the probability of censorship.”[6]

It is a somewhat brilliant system. Like a spinning gyroscope, there is no reason it could not maintain forward momentum for the span of many human lives… if it remained in a vacuum. But China is no vacuum. An authoritarian system built on the political apathy of its citizens is not good for much but keeping its leaders in power. The leaders of China are more ambitious than this. They dream of glory. They are also more fearful than this: they suffer in a state of constant worry over the machinations of international enemies. There is a certain siege mentality among the Party elite; this mentality is not friendly towards spinning tops. Apathy brings stability. What these men want is victory.

It is that simple: if you believe your nation is engaged in a great struggle for power and glory, pressure will mount to enlist your countrymen in that struggle. In Chinese terms, that means we hear the return of terms like the mass line and the fengqiao experience.

This slouch towards totalitarianism is not a new tale.  Totalitarian regimes, without exception, have been the creation of societies under siege. Out of this sad history I suspect that the best historical analogy for what we will see in China’s future is found in Japan’s imperial past. There was no grand revolution to herald the beginning of Japanese totalitarianism. Instead, over a decade, Japan’s authoritarian system slid slowly into a totalitarian one. Each step down this slope came as sense of international crisis quickened. The more hostile Tokyo believed the outer world was to its ambitions, the more important total mobilization of the nation to accomplish these ambitions became. War was the final stroke: By the end of that contest the Japanese people lived in a regime whose conception of the political did not differ much from its counterparts in Germany or the Soviet Union. International pressure doomed the last spots of refuge from the storm.[7]

It is not difficult to imagine China treading this same path. As the Communist Party of China grows more vicious, hostility to its ambitions grows. The more hostile its neighbors and rivals are perceived to be, greater the need to mobilize the masses to resist them. The stakes of this struggle will reach extremes. In that day the totalitarian temptation will beckon. Party leaders will have little reason to ignore it.

Dark times lie in wait for the people of China.

But that day is not yet our day. In our day, totalitarianism remains a temptation still. In the future things may change, but for the moment, we misunderstand Chinese society if we project too much of its past onto its present.


[1] Chanrithy Him, When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), pp. 246-247.

[2] Tanner Greer, unpublished document. Page numbers refer to Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, Son of the Revolution (Vintage Press, 1984).

[3] John Garnaut,“Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping’s China,” speech given at the Asian Strategy and Economic Forum, 21 August 2017, posted at Sinocism on 16 January 2019.

[4] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signent Classic, 1961), p. 306.

[5] Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but SilencesCollective Expression,” American Political Science Review 107, iss 2 (May 2013), p. 13.

[6] ibid.

[7] On the Japanese siege mentality and its creeping consequences, see Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1991); many moving first person account of life under this sort of totalitarian soceity are included in Haruko and Thomas Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History (New Press, 1991).

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I just found your blog as you were leaving Twitter. I'm glad you have decided to keep blogging, and I hope you will go on some podcasts in the future. Learning about the situation in China also helps me understand what I value in my home country, and I think many podcast listeners will feel the same way.

Thank you for this insightful piece. I particularly found your description of the Chinese populace interesting; while currently apathetic, the stage is set and the tools available to "enlist" them towards a far more totalitarian ideology over the coming years. I am not looking forward to what China's public discourse looks like in 20 years.

Thanks for another thoughtful post. Nice counterpoint to the one on Garnaut. We’ll miss you on Twitter, but it’s probably for the best.

Sounds strikingly reminiscent of my wife's description of growing up in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union in the 70s & 80s.

Your posts about the CCP as true believers brings to mind Whittaker Chambers autobiography Witness. Chambers comes across someone with a religious instinct of great power, who first put his faith in the communist party, but later became christian (even if that also broke him).

My point with that analogy is I'm wondering how useful you find the analogy between the existing inner party of the CCP to a quasi-religious sect. One with it's own faith, truth, teachings. This analogy is often used in banal ways and overdone. But I can't help but find the analogy of inner party of China to a type of quasi-theocracy still somewhat useful, even if ultimately flawed.

Maybe you'll comment on that angle (either as useful or un-useful) in some upcoming post. Thanks.