In 1985, Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang spoke in Wenzhou, a large port town south of Shanghai. After Chairman Mao died in 1976, the city quickly started to return to its trading roots. Shops and small businesses flourished, beating out state-owned entities for both workers and sales. Though intrigued by the capacity of the “Wenzhou model” to raise living standards, Zhao praised collectivism and the command economy in his speech. Whatever its short-term uses, he warned, capitalism would eventually implode under the weight of its own contradictions.
Communists have been waiting for these “internal contradictions” to do capitalism in for the better part of two centuries. Hence Deng Xiaoping’s belief, when he took control of the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1970s, that the future belonged to the Soviet Union. Deng sought closer ties with the United States not because he valued human rights or free markets, but simply because he wanted to check the rise of the USSR. The conviction that America is in decline, or on the verge of collapse, has informed Chinese foreign policy ever since.
The West remembers Deng as a reformer, and the 1980s, when he was the nation’s paramount leader, as China’s period of “opening up.” That is not the full picture. In 1983, Deng waged a violent campaign against “spiritual pollution”—the “decadent ideas of the bourgeoisie and other exploiting classes.” He fiercely opposed the separation of powers, denouncing it as a “Western system.” And of course, he responded to the student protests of 1989 by imposing martial law, which led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Until the very end, Deng insisted that the “publicly owned sector is the mainstay of the economy.” And he ensured that political power remained firmly in the CCP’s hands. The Party has never released its grip.
Last year, in his report to the 20th National Congress of the CCP, President Xi Jinping extolled “the great founding spirit of the Party.” He urged his comrades to “striv[e] in unity to build a modern socialist country in all respects.” The price mechanism and the profit motive may be what lifted China out of poverty, but the Party remains Marxist to the core. Which system, you might wonder, really contradicts itself?
“No communist regime anywhere,” historian Frank Dikötter points out in China After Mao, has “managed to stay in power without constant infringements of the party line.” This is because planned economies don’t work. They provide no reason to work hard, take risks, or innovate. Under Stalin and Mao, Dikötter observes, the illicit pursuit of private gain was “not so much the grit that stopped the machinery as the oil that prevented the system from grinding to a complete standstill.” China’s Great Leap Forward, in particular, “was so destructive that the very survival of ordinary people came to depend on their ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state.” Obeying “the plan” meant starving to death—as tens of millions did.
Yet the CCP persists. It remains committed to the Four Cardinal Principles—“keeping the path of socialism, upholding the people’s democratic dictatorship, upholding the leadership of the Communist Party of China, and upholding Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.” It is a governing ethos cemented in place with blood. Still, the Party sees a new way forward.
As journalists Josh Chin and Liza Lin explain, the CCP believes that it has found “the blueprint for the rival system [to liberal democracy] it has long dreamed of building.” The goal is the same: to master central planning and eliminate the possibility, if not the very idea, of subversion. The tools are new: powerful cameras, facial-recognition software, online data harvesting, and AI-powered information analysis. By “mining insight from surveillance data,” the Party will “predict what people want without having to give them a vote or a voice.” And by “quashing dissent before it spills out onto the streets,” it will “strangle opposition in the crib.” Whereas Western nations derive their legitimacy from contested elections, public scrutiny, and checks and balances, the CCP will maintain control, and manufacture consent, with technology.
The situation in Xinjiang, where the Party is inflicting a blend of digital and physical brutality on China’s Muslim Uighurs, is an extreme, though logical, example of the program in action. Cities are honeycombed with sensors and checkpoints. Smartphones are searched on the street. Finger-, voice-, and faceprints, along with blood samples, are collected at police stations. QR codes at the doorways of homes and businesses inform the authorities who should be present where and when. Meantime, more than a million Uighurs have been sent to reeducation camps. Detainees are poorly fed and constantly monitored. They do not dare converse with one another. Strapped into “tiger chairs,” they suffer lengthy interrogations on their religious habits and affiliations. They are made to chant Party slogans, study Party texts, and watch Party films for days on end. Signs on their beds say: “Recognize your mistakes, admit your mistakes, repent.”
Will digitized surveillance and social control help the Party achieve the “Chinese Dream”—the triumph of “the socialist political system with Chinese characteristics”? Such measures may well prolong the Party’s existence. But it seems doubtful that they will enable the CCP to engineer the human soul. Apparently dissatisfied with its effort to brainwash Uighurs, the Party has shifted focus to sterilizing them. (Several countries, including the United States, agree that the word for this is “genocide.”) Nor is it likely that the digital leap forward is all that Chinese state media make it out to be. As the Party boasts of its budding technological prowess, remember the sham communes, furnished with playacting peasants and grain amassed from surrounding villages, that it used as propaganda during the Cultural Revolution.
No matter how sophisticated the CCP’s surveillance grows, the whole scheme will continue to stand on one-party rule. And one-party rule is brittle. “In every dictatorship,” writes Dikötter, “decisions made by the leader have prodigious, unintended consequences.” China long persisted in its zero-Covid policy, with all the misery and economic destruction that it entailed, for no better reason than that it was Xi Jinping’s policy. The state busied itself building quarantine facilities, enforcing lockdowns, and conducting mass testing. When the policy sparked China’s largest street protests in decades, Xi finally buckled. But because his previous policy could not be questioned, no one was prepared for his abrupt change of course. Vaccine boosters were not widely administered; medical supplies were not stockpiled. The Party did not even warn local health officials before it reopened the country at a stroke. Around 250 million Covid infections immediately ensued, overwhelming the country’s hospitals. (On social media, those who blamed the protestors for this catastrophe could speak out, while those who sought to blame the CCP were—naturally—censored.)
“Reproduction needs to be planned,” Mao said. “Humanity is completely incapable of managing itself.” Deng Xiaoping agreed. Inspired by the pseudoscientific thought of Song Jian—China’s answer to Paul Ehrlich—Deng ruthlessly enforced the one-child policy. On his watch, state-imposed abortion, often accompanied by beatings and other abuse, was widespread. The long-term effect of such authoritarian “management” is now emerging. Last month, the Party announced that, for the first time since the Great Famine, deaths in China outnumbered births. Over the next 50 years, the population could fall by half. And that’s before one accounts for the babies lost due to the sense of frustration and futility, among young adults, engendered by years of Covid lockdowns. It looks like China will indeed grow old before it grows rich.
For the United States, the outlook is rosier. To hear the geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan tell it, our best days are ahead. In response to international turbulence, he predicts, we will reshore manufacturing, increase our food and energy security, and spark massive growth. Perhaps so, but only if we keep our commitment to liberal democracy and economic development.
The danger is that, just as a new era of American prosperity comes into view, the next generation of Americans will embrace, and then impose, the very tenets of CCP ideology that ensure immiseration. The denunciations and purges occurring at our universities proceed along Maoist lines. “Wage a tireless struggle against all incorrect ideas and actions,” Mao urged. Do not “let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship,” as the liberal does. And do not “hear counter-revolutionary remarks without reporting them.” Maintaining an open society, where free enterprise is defended and the scientific method is upheld, should serve us well in an age of uncertainty. Creeping toward Mao Zedong Thought most assuredly will not.
In 1986, college students in Anhui province sought to partake in the show elections for the National People’s Congress. They hung posters demanding “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Needless to say, state officials promptly removed these appeals to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But those students did not think “internal contradictions” would prove fatal to American ideals. And neither should we.
Corbin K. Barthold is Internet policy counsel at TechFreedom.
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