The Inscrutable Ideology of the New China

Incoherence, or totalitarian brilliance? (China: Part 2 of 3)

As I wrote in the first part of this series, we might at one level be best off viewing China as behaving exactly as would any normal adolescent, aspiring empire. It has all the classic hallmarks: dreams of wealth and power, a powerful sense of national destiny, and a tried-and-true geopolitical strategy virtually indistinguishable from that of any ambitious young empire of the past. But is this label sufficient to fully describe what the present phenomenon of China really is? No.

There is undeniably another, more unique element that must be accounted for when considering the nature of this nation now run by the heirs of Mao Zedong – a nation increasingly viewed by many in the West with deep unease or even (let’s be honest) fear. That unease is not just the product of China’s new aircraft carriers. No, it is a product of watching a regime seamlessly adapt new technologies for mass social control, effortlessly crush democratic autonomy in Hong Kong, and pack mass internment camps full of Uighurs in Xinjiang. It’s a product of an acute suspicion that China is not just an empire, but an Evil Empire.

It is the totalitarian system seen as having blossomed in China, and the political ideology at the heart of it, that they most fear. Tellingly, the Republican right in the United States now rarely utters the word “China” without preceding it with “Communist.” Meanwhile, Democratic President Biden now openly characterizes the world as locked in an ideological battle between liberal democracy and Chinese-style “autocracy.”

But what is the guiding ideology of China, actually? It turns out this isn’t very easy to answer at all.

Try to answer it we must, however. Historically, nearly every globe-spanning empire that rose to power has come with its own new political ideology that spread along with it. This includes the last 200-odd years of liberal-capitalism that was exported around the world largely by Imperial Britain and then its successor, the United States.

So it might behoove us to get a solid grasp on China’s, if we want to understand where the ideological landscape of our globalized world may, unfortunately, be headed.

Communism

The most obvious answer is that China is a communist country, or at least a socialist country aspiring to achieve communism. It is run by a regime called the Chinese Communist Party, after all.

Then there is all the endless Marx, Lenin, and Mao that everyone is subjected to. If you added up all of the hours spent in mandatory study of the forms and theories of Marxism (sincerely or with exasperation) by every primary school child, university student, PLA soldier, and current or aspiring Party cadre in China over the last decade or two, you might approach a number in the trillions. Officially, Marxism-Leninism is still in.

This has only increased under the term of Xi Jinping, who has launched campaign after “study” campaign to lecture Party members and citizens alike about “staying true to our founding mission” of implementing socialism and developing communism. Meanwhile Xi, a true fan of “the fundamental point of view of historical materialism,” can’t help constantly gushing in public about how “Marxism itself is the truth” – “a truth that is scientific, popular, practical, and open, and its brilliance as truth is constantly manifested in its continuous development through times and practice.” In fact, Xi explains, when the CCP uses the word “truth,” actually “this truth refers to the truth of contemporary Marxism and the law of social and historical development.”

Xi gets really offended whenever anyone questions whether the CCP are actually still a pack of commies. In April 2019 remarks, for example, he raged about the fact that, “In recent years, some public opinions at home and abroad have raised questions about whether China is currently still socialist. Some people say it is ‘capital socialism,’ while others simply say it is ‘state capitalism’… These are completely wrong!” Rather, all of China’s success, as he said at the Party’s 100th anniversary celebration in July, is “attributable to the fact that Marxism works.”

The problem is that while “communist” makes a great buzzword to denote the CCP’s continuing virtue (from Xi’s perspective) or familiar villainy (from the perspective of, say, Marco Rubio or Mike Pompeo), it is simply no longer a label that easily reflects economic and social life in China today.

Capitalism

Take a closer look at China, and you’ll find a country full of young people so desperate to succeed in the cutthroat world of the Chinese tech sector that they submit themselves to the body and soul-destroying work hours of “996” (9:00 am to 9:00 pm, 6 days a week) demanded by their giant corporate employers. They do this because it seems like the best option available in a job market for China’s ever-expanding pool of university graduates that is so competitive that “graduation equals unemployment” is a societal meme (the two words share a common Chinese character).

Those grads are understandably anxious about finding themselves living the life of a factory sweatshop worker; or maybe worse, among the struggling legions trapped by up-front debts in the vast system of modern-day indentured servitude that is the Chinese “gig economy” – created to power the very tech companies in whose offices they relentlessly labor instead (Alibaba, “China’s Amazon,” has happily forecast that up to 400 million Chinese may enjoy the liberation of such “self-employment” by 2036). 

Still, China’s young tech workers and entrepreneurs retain a hope that their hard work might someday lead them to strike gold: after all, China minted a new billionaire approximately every 36 hours between 2020 and 2021. With 1,058 (U.S. dollar) billionaires at the start of this year, there are in fact more members of the 10-digit club in China than in any other country on the planet, accounting for nearly a third of the global total.

By an odd coincidence, a lot of those billionaires seem to be the ruling Party elite. Xi may have launched a massive anti-corruption campaign when he came into office, but, somewhat awkwardly, it turns out the families of Xi and the top Politburo Standing Committee have been stashing a whole lot of cash in the Caribbean. And – in the time-honored tradition of dynastic leadership, East or West – the son of China’s powerful economy and finance tsar, and Xi’s right-hand man, Liu He, set up an asset management firm, Skycus Capital, to definitely not profit off the name of his father while investing with China’s tech giants. Meanwhile, the net worth of China’s official parliament puts even the U.S. Congress to shame.

Riding this mighty river of wealth, China has rapidly transformed into one of the most economically unequal societies on earth. The country now boasts a Gini Coefficient of, officially, around 0.47, worse than the United States’ 0.41, while the wealthiest 1% of the population now hold around 31% of the country’s wealth (just a bit below the 35% found in the U.S.). Most people in the world’s second largest economy remain relatively poor. Despite genuinely remarkable success in eliminating “absolute poverty” (income of less than about $2.25 a day) and creating a growing middle class, even Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has admitted that some 600 million Chinese still subsist on a monthly income of less than 1,000 yuan ($155) a month.

In other words, one could certainly be forgiven if they concluded (as an old joke goes) that the collection of “Chinese characteristics” that make China’s official ideology of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” unique is really just ruthless, robber baron capitalism – and has been ever since Deng Xiaoping famously proclaimed in 1985 that the new policy would be to “let some people get rich first.”

And yet, China is hardly a free market.

This is an economy where state-owned enterprises still hold 40% of industrial assets and produce 40% of national output, having been urged by Xi Jinping to grow “stronger, better and bigger.” Meanwhile, China’s private sector giants are both explicitly supported (subsidized and shielded from international competition) and subservient to the state, mobilized as “national champions” to achieve strategic goals at home and abroad.

Since Xi has an empire to build, instructions are in place to build a “modern private enterprise system with Chinese characteristics” by acting to “continuously strengthen the Party's leadership over the private economy, bring the majority of private economy practitioners closer to the Party, and gather majestic forces to work together to build the Chinese Dream.”

The Party’s stated role is to “educate and guide” entrepreneurs to “unswervingly listen to, and follow the steps of the Party,” while executives and employees are supposed to “continuously increase their political, ideological, and emotional identification with the CCP and socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Regulations require the establishment of Party-member cells in all organizations (both for- and non-profit). By the end of 2019 some 4.6 million Party cells were embedded in Chinese private firms, associations, and social enterprises, along with SOEs and state organs – including 61% of social organizations, 73% of private enterprises, and 95% of public institutions and SOEs.

Their loyalty thus ensured, businesses are expected to “undertake the responsibility to serve the country through industry and make the country strong through industry.” Meanwhile laws mandating “civil-military fusion” require businesses to share all knowledge and data relevant to national security with the state. 

This is all directed by a system of “top-level design,” including the Party’s latest Five-Year Plan, which sets overall goals for “China Inc.” to meet, as well as more specific plans like “Made in China 2025,” which explicitly aims to secure China global leadership of strategic “core technology” sectors which are “important instruments of the state,” including advanced manufacturing, industrial robotics, supercomputers, and new energy vehicles.

All of this is in service of Xi’s goal to make China a “self-reliant” superpower, since, as he’s put it, “As long as we can stand on our own and be self-reliant… then we will be invincible no matter how the storm changes internationally. We will survive and continue to develop, and nobody can beat us or choke us to death.”

Fascism

Xi’s China is not the first rising power to dream of achieving national “invincibility” through self-reliant industrial might. What we see in the fusion of corporation and party-state might not reflect the mode of capitalism we’re used to in the West these days, but it does have plenty of historical precedent. The symbiotic relationship between the government and powerful zaibatsu conglomerates that fueled Imperial Japan – and its own desperate quest for autarkic self-reliance – ahead of the Second World War certainly comes to mind as one example.

Meanwhile, Xi and the CCP face another problem: if anyone is being honest about it, the abstractions of ideological Marxism just don’t seem to inspire much loyalty in the people these days. Simultaneously, Xi has come to view many of those forms of far-left ideas that do seem to actually remain popular with more alarm than joy: a recent revival of interest in going “back to basics” by a movement of Neo-Maoist Chinese youth has been thoroughly squashed (hence why Chinese state media was recently censoring images of two young Chinese Olympic athletes wearing little Mao badges pinned to their uniforms, to the dismay of fans of the O.G. Great Helmsman).

No, a new source of popular legitimacy is required for the modern Chinese party-state.

As touched on in Part I, the regime’s solution has largely been to diligently stir up a form of hyper-nationalism to serve as the glue that now holds Party and People together as “China.” This has been accomplished by carefully cultivating an official national historical narrative: of China as an ancient, proud civilizational empire stretching into the mythic past; of being brought low only by the dark machinations of foreign forces; but of now being a pathway to a glorious restoration of national greatness, thanks to Xi and the Party. Today, as I wrote in “The Trinity of Terrible Ideas”:

The “Century of Humiliation” (百年国耻) at the hands of Western and Japanese Imperialists from 1839-1949 is central to China’s self-conception, and “never forget national humiliation” (勿忘国耻) is hammered into every school student as the first commandment of their “patriotic education.” Victimhood now colors every aspect of China’s political worldview… [as] when the Big Boss Xi Jinping is regularly declaring in speeches like one last October that, “seventy years ago, the imperialist invaders fired upon the doorstep of a new China” and “the Chinese people understood that you must use the language that invaders can understand – to fight war with war and to stop an invasion with force, earning peace and respect through victory.” And now that “the people of China are now organized, and are not to be trifled with,” they will “never allow any person or any force to violate and split the motherland's sacred territory,” given that “once provoked, things will get ugly.”

As you might deduce from all the talk here of “the Chinese people” and “the motherland’s sacred territory,” this nationalism is of a precise variety: ethnic blood and soil nationalism. Specifically, ethnic Han nationalism (Han Chinese make up around 92% of the population in broader China).

Behind the veil, helping to drive this stuff is an increasingly dominant academic movement in China, sometimes referred to as the Neo-Authoritarians or Neo-Statists, that draws on some rather curious influences for Communists. Most notably: “Hitler’s crown jurist,” Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt. Interest in Schmitt has taken off because his theories on the proper role of state power are quite conveniently fitting and appropriate for the new China – or so the leading man of this movement, and top CCP philosopher, Wang Huning, whispers into Xi Jinping’s ear.

Several of Schmitt’s theories are of particular interest in Beijing. The first is his positioning of sovereign authority at the apex of political decision-making. While liberals consider the rule of law as having the final word when political values clash, Schmitt believes arbitrary commitments to law “deprive state and politics of their specific meaning,” and thus argues sovereign executive power can and should act unhampered by legality when in a “state of exception.” Otherwise it isn’t really sovereign. The sovereign decides when the situation constitutes a state of exception. Naturally this tends to go together well with one-man rule.

Second, in Schmitt’s view, all politics is at essence about group power. Indeed, the only “specific political distinction… is that between friend and enemy.” That is, the political existence of a group must be based on a specific identity that serves as the substance of a friend-enemy distinction. Therefore, a state can only be legitimate if its legal boundaries also embody a clear friend-enemy distinction. This identitarianism dovetails well with the CCP’s Leninist instincts, Mao having labeled “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?” as the “question of the first importance for the revolution.”

Finally, the friend-enemy distinction necessitates that the sovereign promote the internal unity and homogeneity of the state, including the suppression or elimination of internal enemies who do not endorse or conform with that distinction. It is this last idea that has had the greatest consequences in China.

After a series of violent anti-Han riots broke out in China’s western Xinjiang region in 2009, thinkers influenced by Schmitt began to argue that the Soviet-style multi-ethnic policy then in place in China should be abandoned in favor of acting to forge a cohesive and unified Chinese “state-race” (guozu 国族). Outraged by a string of Xinjiang-linked terrorist attacks in 2013 and 2014, including an attack at a Kunming railway station that killed 31, two years after he came to power Xi ordered “a major altering of the region’s strategy” in Xinjiang. Launching a “people’s war against terrorism,” that would aim to “discard the dross and select the essence; weed out the chaff to bring forth new roots” and “build a shared spiritual homeland” for the Chinese nation, he ordered the “organs of dictatorship” to show “absolutely no mercy” and “unflinchingly walk the correct road of China’s unique solution to the ethnic question.” Orders soon went out to begin “forceful educational dredging work” that would force the “Sinicization” of religious and ethnic minorities in China, and by 2017 “concentrated educational transformation centers” had sprung up to manage “key groups.”

Despite Western outcry upon discovering that up to one million ethnic minority Uighur Muslims were likely now being held in detention camps in Xinjiang, at a Party conference on religion in late 2020, Xi declared China’s Han supremacist ethnic policy a “totally correct” success that “must be held to for the long term,” and vowed more efforts to imprint Chinese national identity “deep in the soul” of minorities. The CCP soon began expanding the policy beyond to Xinjiang and into Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

Back in the day, when a system fused corporations with a powerful authoritarian state, employed them in the pursuit of power and glory in the service of a blood and soil nationalism based on a celebration of a mythic past, talked up a unified “state-race,” and called for no mercy in its “unique solution to the ethnic question,” we’d probably put two and two together and call it fascism.

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Autocracy

So this is already getting complicated. But maybe we are simply putting too much emphasis on ideology in the first place?

Wang Huning’s Neo-Authoritarianism draws on more sources than Carl Schmitt. Just as foundational is a carefully revisionist celebration and incorporation of China’s own ancient political thought.

That includes Confucianism’s emphasis on hierarchy and orderly relations between family and father, citizens and ruler. But, while the virtue-obsessed Confucius is the best known of China’s classical philosophers in the West, the most influential today may be a very different figure altogether: “China’s Machiavelli,” Han Fei (c. 280-233 BC).

The godfather of a school of Chinese political philosophy known as Legalism, Han Fei rejected the Confucian notion that the character of men could be improved, seeing human nature as inherently selfish. Instead, he advocated that to rule securely, maintain public order, and maximize the wealth and power of the state, an autocrat must retain an absolute position of centralized power, bind his subjects with a strict system of laws, and govern their behavior with the precise application of reward and punishment. In practice, then, he largely rejected what we would define as political ideology in favor of a purer Realpolitik.

Han Fei’s ideas were adopted and employed by the ruler of China’s first unified (if short-lived) dynasty, the emperor Qin Shi Huang. But they’ve been mostly frowned upon in Chinese culture ever since.

Xi, however, has embraced them with gusto. He worked quickly after coming to power to purge his political rivals under the auspices of an anti-corruption campaign, and centralized nearly all decision-making in his own hands. Then, having successfully set up a personality cult, writing “Xi Jinping Thought” into the CCP constitution in order to place himself on the same level as Mao, he succeeded in having term limits on his presidency removed, allowing him to rule for life. Frequent party “rectification campaigns” now “turn the knife inward” to keep the Party cadres in line, while the people have been treated to a great constriction of what space they’d once had for political discourse and dissent, and now increasingly find themselves subject to a comprehensive digital “social credit system” that tracks their every move, statement, and purchase and doles out appropriate rewards and punishments.

So, in the end, is Xi just a typically pragmatic, power hungry dictator, and his specific system of political belief and control not of much significance? Maybe we’ve come full circle to Part 1 and the best way to understand China’s “ideology” is as really just being much the same as it’s been for most of history: China is an empire, and Xi its emperor?

The problem is that Xi himself seems to pay exquisite attention to the importance of ideology, and above all to a fighting a singular ideological threat: the relentless hydra that is liberalism.

Liberalism

Wait, isn’t liberalism now thoroughly dead in China? Hasn’t Xi crushed any semblance of it with his political crackdowns? That is certainly the consensus in Washington today.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the dream in Washington was that the liberalization of China’s economy would inevitably lead to political liberalization, and in time even transform China into a liberal democracy (whether the CCP wanted this or not). They weren’t exactly subtle about this idea, which the CCP describes distastefully as “peaceful evolution.”

In arguing for why China should be accepted into the World Trade Organization, President Bill Clinton put it this way: “The change this agreement can bring from outside is quite extraordinary, but… it will be nothing compared to the changes that this agreement will spark from the inside out in China. By joining the WTO, China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products; it is agreeing to import one of democracy's most cherished values: economic freedom.” The “most intelligent thing we can do to increase the chances that China will become more open, more democratic,” he said, was to “let liberty spread from within.” Soon they would “find that the genie of freedom will not go back into the bottle.”

A decade-and-a-half or so later, and, with Xi’s China apparently headed in the politically opposite direction, now a major military competitor, and having cannibalized America’s manufacturing industry, a panicked Washington establishment was convulsed by a full-blown argument over “who lost China?” (again). As the “China Reckoning” seized Washington, it gave up on “engagement” as a failure and switched to full-blown “strategic competition” with Beijing.

The dream of liberalizing China was abandoned.

They should perhaps look a little closer, however. It’s true that China didn’t remotely liberalize – if you consider liberalism to be mainly about democratic elections, a free press, and respect for human rights. But maybe you are one of those people that believes there is more to a comprehensive definition of liberalism than that: instead you see its essential telos as the liberation of the individual from all limiting ties of place, tradition, religion, associations, and relationships, along with all the material limits of nature, in pursuit of the radical autonomy of the modern “consumer,” all enforced by the positive law of the leviathan state.

In that case, the picture of what is happening in Chinese society would start to look quite a bit more familiar.

Rural revitalization” of China’s agricultural and decaying industrial rust-belt provinces may now be a major government priority, but the people there find they still have little choice but to pick up and move from their hometowns to coastal cities in order to look for employment as migrant laborers.

China’s growing ranks of elderly may have previously relied on their children to take care of them in their old age, but now they have been left behind in empty villages, centuries of traditional extended family living upended in a generation, the state left to pick up the increasingly immense cost of care.

China’s demographics are in crisis, the population peaking and the “age-dependency ratio” of the working age to the retired worsening rapidly, thanks of course in no small part to the decades of the “One-child Policy” enforced by the government as part of China’s “modernization” program. Economic projections have gotten so dire that the government has now reversed course, offering incentives to try to encourage families to have as many as three children (all limits are expected to soon be abolished). But China’s young people met the news with incredulity and ridicule as being “totally out of touch,” with one survey finding (before being censored) that only 5% of them would consider having that many children. They are way too busy struggling with their 996 jobs for that. “Do they not yet know that most young people are exhausted just supporting themselves?” asked one typically viral post on social media.

It’s true that, especially given China’s cut-throat education system, raising even one child costs a huge sum: estimates range between $30,000 (about seven times the annual salary of the average citizen) and $115,000 depending on locality.

Even those Chinese youth who could afford it have found they enjoy a new, coveted lifestyle instead: living the DINK (“Double Income, No Kids”) life, in which pragmatic, well-educated young couples (married or often not) spend all that sweet extra cash on themselves. As one thoroughly liberated 27 year-old man with a vasectomy explained to the New York Times: “For our generation, children aren’t a necessity… Now we can live without any burdens. So why not invest our spiritual and economic resources on our own lives?”

Besides, like almost every aspect of life, sex has become an app-based commodity in China just like in the West.

Meanwhile, despite trite Western commentary on the inherent communalism of Chinese culture, the sense of atomization and low social trust in China has become so acute that it leads to periodic bouts of anguished societal soul-searching.  

No, the seeds of deracinated individualism are definitely now planted deep in China, with a growing contingent of Chinese netizens describing existing in a state of nihilistic despair. This has been encapsulated in the online slang term neijuan (“involution”) which describes a “turning inward” by individuals and society due to, as one popular post put it, a “prevalent sense of being stuck in a draining rat race where everyone loses.” (See, Doomers of the West: you aren’t alone!)

This despair has now manifested itself in a movement known as tangping, or “lying flat,” in which people attempt to escape the rat race by resolving to do the absolute bare minimum amount of work required to live, becoming modern ascetics living off the relatively meager generosity of the Chinese state.

So if unhappy Chinese millennials now spend their time lying around alone in their absurdly overpriced rented studio apartments, aimlessly browsing the internet, listening to VAVA, and complaining about the pressures of liquid modernity, it may be because the genie of liberalism never made it completely back into the bottle after all.

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Socialism Strikes Back! Xi’s Square Deal and Anti-Liberal Progressivism

Xi Jinping slipped up, and now he knows it. He defined himself by his political anti-liberalism, but it crept in through the back door he’d left open for the tech bros and the Goldman Sachs bankers. Now the kids are all mad and his “socialism” looks like a joke; what a mess.

Rapid-onset decadence simply will not do for a rising empire. So in recent months Xi has launched a revolutionary offensive to rectify this mistake and head off all the perils of economic and cultural liberalism.

The state has announced it has had quite enough of “vulgar internet celebrities” promoting their lascivious lifestyles, and leading celebrities have begun disappearing. Disgusted internet regulators have promised to “resolve the problem of chaos” that is online fandom culture. Minors have been banned from using the “opium of the mind” (video games) for more than three hours per week. The government has vowed to “resolutely put an end to sissy men” (that would be niangpao, literally “girlie guns”), epitomized by Korean boyband stars, appearing on the screens of impressionable Chinese youth. LGBT community groups have been erased from the internet and banned from messaging apps.

A viral nationalist blog post vigorously promoted across state media in August helpfully explained that the liberal West was clearly “increasing its efforts to launch a color revolution against China” through a “tittytainment strategy” (奶头乐战略), and that if China “let our young generation lose their toughness and virility then we will fall… just like the Soviet Union did.” Fortunately, it said, Xi’s “profound revolution” will ensure that “the cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position of worshipping Western culture.”

But fortifying the culture and whipping those no-good tangping dropouts into virile, productive patriots is only a secondary objective. The real priority, as Xi declared in January, is that “we absolutely must not allow the gap between rich and poor to get wider.”

So since the beginning of the year an anti-monopoly and “data security” campaign has been unleashed on China’s largest tech companies, with the state handing out multi-billion dollar fines left and right. Top executives have been summoned to appear before regulators by the dozen, who have lectured them on their “vicious” anti-competitive behavior, and ordered them to rectify their “misconduct,” including giving up market share, or else. Bankers are running scared as IPOs worth billions have been suspended. China’s most prominent billionaires, like Alibaba’s Jack Ma, are keeping their heads down and avoiding appearing in public. The 996 work schedule has officially been made illegal. Firms relying on gig work have been ordered to improve pay and working conditions. The Housing ministry has capped annual rent increases at 5%. The $120 billion private education and tutoring industry was effectively killed off overnight.

“Excessively high incomes,” the government announced, are to be “adjusted.” “Illegal gains” of any kind will be punished. Predictably panicked sell-offs on Chinese stock markets quickly led to clarifications by officials that, “We will not ‘kill the rich to help the poor’.” Instead, the wealthy will simply be “encouraged” to “give back more to society” by voluntarily giving up some of their property for the greater good.

They’ve got the message, and have been quick to pay the ransom. Now woke to the cause, online giants Alibaba and Tencent have each pledged to donate more than $15 billion to “common prosperity” funds. Not to be left behind, e-commerce platform Pinduoduo pledged its entire second quarter profit this year to rural agricultural development.

All of this has been conducted under the new national slogan of “Common Prosperity.” Deng Xiaoping’s famous aphorism that “to get rich is glorious” is out.

For Xi, addressing the inequality issue is do-or-die, because, as he told his comrades in January, “achieving common prosperity is not only an economic issue, but also a major political issue related to the Party's governing foundations.” Because, after all, in the end achieving “common prosperity” is, Xi clarified, the “essential requirement of socialism” – and if the so-called Chinese Communist Party can’t even do that, then what, people may begin to wonder, is the point of it anyway?

So, determined to Make Chinese Socialism Great Again, Teddy Xi is now aiming to put an end to China’s Gilded Age with his own Square Deal. It’s apparently to be replaced (just as followed in American history) with a Chinese version of the Progressive Era, complete with trust-busting, zealous social activism, prohibitions on vice, and of course plenty of technocratic “scientific management” by a reenergized state.

Maybe now he’ll finally be able to own the libs?

China: New Totalitarian Synthesis?

China probably isn’t what you think it is. If you’ve made it all the way here to the end of this ideological maze, you can probably see that no one category we are familiar with is sufficient to contain its many contradictions.

But one thing that is clear, in my view, is that China is not exceptional: it’s under assault by all the same forces of modernity as everywhere else, and is struggling to cope and adapt much like everyone else. While Xi may have his grand ideological plans, one sometimes gets the feeling that he may just be an old-school Marxist-Leninst fighting a desperate rear-guard action against a world he doesn’t fully understand, using whatever political weapons he happens to find at hand.

But there is more to China than Xi Jinping. And if China reflects common economic and societal forces at work in the world today, then its regime reflects an evolution of political ideas that go beyond China today as well.

And what could be be emerging with China is a synthesis of old and new ideas the likes of which has not yet been seen before in history: a mode of governance that may include all the consumptive power of globalized neo-liberal capitalism, the state-directed economic and military might of fascism, the social control of communism, the moralistic welfare-statism of progressivism, and absolutely none of the messy political liberty of ye old republican democracy.

That is unsettling. Because the approach China is taking is in many ways something already frighteningly recognizable today: an elite determination that only an ever-more powerful state can solve the challenges of the present, that universal conformity is strength, and that digital technology has unlocked as yet untapped depths of totalitarian control with which to manage the irritating chaos that is humanity.

Needless to say, others in power around the world are watching very, very closely, intrigued.