Is China a fascist state?

We need to understand China in the context of a rise of authoritarian political parties and governments throughout the world. South America, far from perfect, is the only region of the world without a clear rise in the influence of anti-democratic, authoritarian parties and governments.

As the prime minister of China prepared to meet Her Majesty (or, to quote Bette Midler, "Her Royal Heinie"), the deputy prime minister (his name is Nicholas Clegg) referred to the Beijing regime as a "communist one party state", to which the people of China are "shackled". 

The deputy prime minister has the ‘one party’ part correct, but is the Chinese state ‘communist’?  To put it another way, should this overtly authoritarian regime be assigned to the politics of the left, yet another example of Marxism-socialism-communism leading to dictatorship? Or is the Beijing dictatorship something quite different that has no kinship to the politics of the left?

This same question occurred to me recently when I participated in a discussion in London, at a private dinner party with about a dozen people who included several trade unionists, a member of parliament and a prominent television journalist known for his progressive views - probably the most left-wing mainstream journalist in the United Kingdom. In the course of the discussion the journalist told us that on the basis of his many trips to China, he had reached the conclusion that far from communist or socialist, the Chinese regime was fascist.

Members of the Communist Party of China, 2013.

The nature of the regime in China has been on my mind ever since that discussion. My concern to understand the political orientation of the Chinese regime is part of broader worries about the rise of authoritarian political parties and governments throughout the world. It is my strong impression that South America, though far from perfect, is the only region of the world without a clear rise in the influence of anti-democratic, authoritarian parties and governments. In a recent Real News video interview with friend and colleague Trevor Evans, concerns about the rise of the far right in the European Union elections last month played a central role.

Is branding the Chinese regime fascist more than name-calling? If the F-word applies to China, does it enhance our understanding of China and the anti-democratic movements elsewhere? I believe that the answer is ‘yes’--an ‘authoritarian communist China’ has quite different political implications than a ‘fascist-authoritarian China’. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests would seem an appropriate moment to address this issue.

The first step is to define ‘fascism’ in an operational manner that distinguishes it from other types of authoritarian ideologies and regimes. The standard, dictionary definition, "an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization", is too vague to be useful. In its place I characterize a fascist regime first and foremost as capitalist and anti-labour. The two are related because suppression of the working class holds wages low, which facilitates the faster growth of profit.  Suppression of the standard of living also allows for export-oriented capitalism, though historical evidence shows that wages can rise in fascist societies.

Almost all capitalist dictatorships are aggressively anti-labour, but not all are fascist--the Pinochet regime was authoritarian, anti-labour but not fascist. To qualify as fascist an anti-labour capitalist dictatorship must boast (the appropriate word) other characteristics.  As Hitler and Mussolini demonstrated, fascist regimes are more than nationalist, they are expansionist. 

Hitler youth, date unknown.

In addition to chauvinistic expansion, fascist regimes are anti-liberal in the strict sense of explicitly denying the values of the Enlightenment--individual freedoms including the principle of open inquiry. This is a distinguishing characteristic of fascism--that the elimination of the rights of the individual is not presented as a temporary measure to counter some perceived threat (such as an external enemy). It is defended as a necessary and appropriate way to organize society on a permanent basis. To quote from a fascist founder,

 Fascism combats the whole complex system of democratic ideology, and repudiates it, whether in its theoretical premises or in its practical application. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society...

[Benito Mussolini speech in 1932, "What is Fascism?"]

An additional characteristic of fascism, closely related to the rejection of the role of the individual (except the Leader) is corporatist social organization. In the garden variety dictatorship, civil society continues to function as long as its organizations manifest no political opposition. Under fascism, the regime seeks to destroy and replace civil society with corporatist structures, the most important of which is a mass political party subservient to the regime and its faux participatory organizations, for youth (the Hitler Youth), the working class (the German Labour Front), and even exercise and fitness groups (Nationalsozialistischer Reichsbund für Leibesübungen).  The linguistic link between ‘corporation’ and ‘corporatist’ is not accidental.  Fascism is capitalist to its core.

Few would deny that China is a capitalist society, with an economy organized around and driven by corporate profit. Thus, at the outset we can dismiss suggestions or arguments like those of Clegg that present China as socialist and/or communist. If those words have any meaning, they cannot apply to a capitalist society (and if China is not capitalist, the Pope is not a Catholic).

In my experience the Chinese regime and the Communist Party ideology satisfy the anti-Enlightenment test. The central planning regimes of the Soviet Union and East and Central Europe claimed to have or aspire to workers' democracy (not "bourgeois democracy").  They even had the formal institutions to mimic this aspiration, as well as claiming a form of free expression, perverse and disingenuous as it was. 

In discussion after discussion in meetings with Chinese officials, I have encountered what might be called the "Asian values" argument--"Chinese people want an improvement in their material conditions, not western democracy". As for freedom of intellectual inquiry, it is my experience that Chinese academics based in China tend to endorse variations of rote learning in the social sciences and humanities (I cannot comment on teaching and research in the sciences).

As for corporatism, the Chinese regime has strong qualifications. The Communist Party of China is a mass organization and subservient to the regime. Its supposedly non-political activities reach into many aspects of daily life, mimicking the non-existent civil society.

That leaves chauvinistic expansionism. Like the issue of capitalism in China, almost no one would deny the rampant chauvinism of the Chinese regime and the (so-called) Communist Party. But, chauvinism is not the monopoly of fascists. To go from chauvinistic authoritarianism to fascist authoritarianism a regime has to adopt militaristic expansionism. Whether the Chinese regime has taken that step is not clear to me. There can be little doubt that the regime is quite prepared (in more ways than one) to use the explicit or implicit threat of force to achieve diplomatic and territorial gains.

The first post-WWII military expansion by a Chinese regime was long before the society had even a hint of capitalism, the ‘Sino-Indian’ border war in 1962 (when Mao Zedong was firmly in charge). The ‘Sino-Vietnamese’ war occurred just as the Chinese regime began the shift from central planning to aggressive capitalism, thus should not be taken as evidence of fascist tendencies to militarism. 

However, more recent disputes over territory have provoked considerable belligerence from the Chinese regime, among these, the aggressive assertion of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. To that can be added the dispute with the Japanese government over the Senkaku Islands, in which the US government has weighed in on the Japanese side, a clear example of capitalist super-power rivalry (I do not refer to Japan).

The overlap of fascist characteristics with the concrete aspects of the Chinese regime suggest at least two possible interpretations. First, the key fascist traits of corporatism in place of civil society, including a mass party, may be a vestige of the central planning period that the Chinese leadership plans to discard when it is no longer useful in building a capitalist superpower. 

In other words, the regime is a familiar capitalist dictatorship in the process of shedding the trappings of socialism. If this is the case, the possibility exists that at some point in the future the regime will undergo democratic reform. This could be generated from below by working class protests as well as the putative democratic aspirations of the rising middle class (see report of the former in Aljazeera).

Alternatively, the regime may be in the process of transforming the structures of the central planning period into institutions to consolidate and render permanent a dictatorship of capital. If that is the case, hopes for democratic reform have no basis.  Change would require insurrection and overthrow of the regime. 

In this context it is sobering to recall that the fascist regimes established before WWII fell as a result of world war not internal insurrection. More sobering still is another comparison to the first half of the twentieth century.  In the early twenty first century there is no militarily powerful government like that of the United States under Franklin D Roosevelt to lead an alliance of bourgeois democracies against the rise of a neo-fascist coalition.

About the author

John Weeks is Professor Emeritus, School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, and author of 'Economics of the 1%: How mainstream economics serves the rich, obscures reality and distorts policy', Anthem Press, published earlier this year.

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