Globe: China Moves Back Towards Totalitarianism

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China has had a horrible experience with dictatorship. The worst being that of the founder of the current Chinese government, Mao Zedong. Mao was a communist ideologue who led his communist rebellion in perhaps the world’s deadliest civil war in order to take control the county, which he achieved in 1949.

What followed was the bloodiest dictatorship in history. Through a series of purges and industrialization policies, more than 60 million are estimated to have died under the leadership of Mao – a number that nearly dwarfs those who died under Hitler or Stalin. When Mao died decades after his rise to power, the Chinese government took precautions to prevent another cut-of-personality from controlling the country again – one of the most notable being a constitutional mandate that limits leaders to two five-year terms.

 In the more than 40 years since Mao died, the People’s Republic has made attempts to modernize. The country nonetheless still remained authoritarian, the Tiananmen Square massacres occurred on the reformist Deng government in 1989, but China still improved it terms of moving away from totalitarianism – which is not a high standard, given how China was run under Mao.

Coinciding in that period of relative de-totalitarianization of China, the economy and influence of the PRC increased drastically. The economy improved exponentially, eventually leading China to surpass Japan as the second most powerful in the world. In the West, an intellectual phenomenon occurred – like the Soviet Union and Japan, American economists predicted China to become the next economic superpower, eventually overtaking the economic might of the U.S. Books predicting Chinese hegemony of the international system and a new global geopolitical struggle between China and America to occur in the future.

Recent history has been good to China, which is why the latest news out of Beijing is so surprising. It was announced that the Chinese government would be abolishing the system of limiting Chinese presidents to only two terms, and instead increasing the serving range. Some have predicted it will allow leaders to serve for life. The change was undoubtedly enacted to prolong the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.

One of the perennial questions of politics is “who governs?” Or rather, who is that controls the real power. In the People’s Republic of China, it is undoubtedly Xi Jingping. Who is Xi? Xi has been the president of China since 2013, and the most powerful since Mao. Almost immediately following his ascension as head of state, Xi executed a series of “anti-corruption” campaigns that removed large percentages of party leaders and military top-brass from power. The replacements, as to be expected, are loyal to Xi.

 Xi in also in the process of replacing more party officials with loyalists, which will only increase his vast power. Under Xi, China has reversed many of the liberalization policies enacted by the post-Mao leaders. Xi arrested human-rights lawyers, ramped up censorship of the media, suspended official contacts with Taiwan, and increased militarization of the South China Sea. While the media has always been censored in China, the press was given a small arena to present stories unflattering to the government. Xi put a stop to that.

Now only pro-regime stories can be published. China’s militarization has reached new heights under Xi; the first foreign Chinese military based was opened in Djibouti, and the Chinese government began a campaign to build islands in the South China Sea. Such actions have prompted the Japanese to come out of a pacifist slumber a take the military as an important issue again.  Before his rise to the executive office, Xi wrote critically of attempts to pull China away from communism (he scorned the idea of his country having democracy). Once in power, Xi reversed the post-Mao policy of giving space between the ruling Communist party and the government. XI has campaigned to make the two inseparable.

There are no signs of the persecution stopping, and the crackdowns of the government have increased following the announced of the constitutional term abolition. On the government-controlled search engine that serves China (Google is prohibited in China), certain terms relating to Xi and his prolongation of power have been censured. Words such as “emperor” and “two term limits” have been banned when used in relation to Xi. Comparing the recent events to books such as 1984, Animal Farm, and Brave New World has also been prohibited. This has caused an outcry amongst critics, with some saying that China is “going to become North Korea.”

Most notably amongst the new censorship comes from the world of memes. A popular image circulating the internet is a meme that has a side-by-side portrait of XI and Winnie the Pooh. In response, any mentioning of Winnie the Pooh on Chinese search engines has been censured to protect Xi from being compared to the honey-obsessed cartoon bear.

The Chinese government’s move to greenlight a new cult-of personality dictator puts the future of the region in an even darker shadow. American foreign policy towards North Korea has weighed heavily on China pressuring the Kim regime into taking marginal human rights improvements. With the recent constitutional changes, it would seem that the Kim regime has wared off on China, not the other way around as American policy makers hoped.

 The resurrection of Chinese dictatorship will also pose a threat to the Chinese economy, which has relied on the government’s modest liberalization in order to grow. Historically speaking, dictatorial regimes that have faced economic hardships have initiated wars in order to booster nationalism in attempts of distracting a populace from noticing the political failures. In China this is especially paramount, has militarism has been the main vehicle delivering Xi to power.