John Weeks

[Author of Economics of the 1%: How mainstream economics serves the rich, obscures reality and distorts policy, Anthem Press, $19]

I was recently a participant in discussion over dinner in London with about a dozen people that included several trade unionists, a member of parliament and a prominent television journalist known for his progressive views — indeed, 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.

As you might infer from a column I wrote about three weeks ago, China has been on my mind for some time.  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 (see interview about inflation in Venezuela), 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 two weeks ago played a central role.

Back to China, is branding the regime fascist more than name-calling?  To put the question another way, 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 China” has quite different implications from a “fascist-authoritarian China”.  The 25th anniversary of the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests would seem an appropriate moment to address this issue.

Left: Agents of authoritarianism confront protesters. Right: The army moves in.

We find several unabashedly authoritarian governments in East and Southeast Asia — Thailand since the recent coup, Malaysia for decades and the country I know best, Vietnam (see the column I wrote after a visit to Thailand and Vietnam).  Is China just a much larger version or variation of emerging capitalist authoritarianism?  If so, there should be no over-riding source of concern, encountering yet another garden-variety dictatorship.  But, is there more to it than that?

The first step is to define “fascism” in an operational manner that distinguishes 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.  I characterize a fascist regime first and foremost as capitalist and anti-labor.  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 that are aggressively anti-labor, but not all are fascist — the Pinochet regime was authoritarian, anti-labor but not fascist.  To qualify as fascist an anti-labor capitalist dictatorship must boast (the appropriate word) other characteristics.  As Hitler and Mussolini demonstrated, fascist regimes are more than nationalist, they are expansionist.  In addition to chauvinistically expansionist, 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), but defended as an appropriate way to organize society on a permanent basis.  Closely related to the rejection of individual rights is the great leader syndrome.

Left: Hitler Youth on parade. Right: Rally of the Communist Youth in China. Similarity coincidental?

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 Labor Front), and even health and fitness groups (Nationalsozialistischer Reichsbund für Leibesübungen).  The linguistic link between “corporation” and “corporatist” is not accidental.

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 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, comrade”).  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 recently disputes over territory have provoked belligerence from the Chinese regime.  In my May 17 column I discussed 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 to become a capitalist superpower.  In other words, the regime is a familiar capitalist dictatorship in the process of shedding the trappings of socialism.  If this 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).

Workers on strike in China, 2010.

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 (see discussion in World Savvy Monitor), and change requires insurrection and overthrow of the regime.  In this context it is sobering to recall that the fascist regimes established before WW II fell as a result of world war not internal insurrection.

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John Weeks is Professor Emeritus and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development Policy and Research, and Research on Money and Finance Group at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.