With its strong emphasis on technology, the military, strong single-party leadership and a collective national identity that refuses to recognize pluralism, China is displaying increasing — and worrying — symptoms of fascism. From the military parade surrounding the 60th anniversary of the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Oct. 1 to forced relocation and assimilation programs targeting ethnic minority groups such as the Uighurs, China is in many ways reminding us of the fascist states that reared their ugly heads in the first half of the previous century.
In some ways, it is difficult to apply that term to the rising dragon, primarily because of some marked differences from its predecessors. For one, fascist states tended to be short-lived and led by strong — and often charismatic — rulers. China, even if we take 1949 as its starting point, has a long history and its leaders, with the possible exception of former premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來), are not known for their charisma.
China’s embrace of capitalism in the early 1990s has also masked its fascistic tendencies, because “unrestrained capitalism” was one of the principal targets of fascism. The fact that the PRC finds its roots in communism and class conflict — both of which fascism traditionally opposed — can also mislead the observer.
Still, today’s China arguably represents fascism 2.0, neo-fascism or “fascism with Chinese characteristics.”
One of the most peremptory signs of fascism is the state’s negation of individualism and the idea that citizens draw their identity and raison d’etre from the state. Evidence of this emerged earlier this week when Chinese Vice Sports Minister Yu Zaiqing (于再清) chided 18-year-old Olympic champion short track speedskater Zhou Yang (周洋) for thanking her parents — but not her country — after winning gold at the Vancouver Winter Games last month.
“It’s OK to thank your parents, but first you should thank the motherland. You should put the motherland first, not only thank your parents,” Yu told the Southern Metropolis Daily.
In his book Anatomy of Fascism, American historian Robert Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites [and] abandons democratic liberties,” traits that are apparent in China today.
In his essay Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt, published in the New York Review of Books in 1995, Italian intellectual Umberto Eco highlights aspects of fascism that have disturbing reverberations in contemporary China. Features of Ur-Fascism, or “eternal fascism,” Eco writes, “cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”
Let us explore the features unearthed by Eco that apply to China today.
For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.
In contemporary China, this translates into the state’s intolerance of dissent. Reporters (foreign and local), rights activists and ordinary citizens face censure, arrest and loss of employment if they dare criticize the state. Critical coverage of everything from lagging reconstruction in quake-hit Sichuan to calls, recently published in 13 daily newspapers, for an end to the unjust hukou passport — a system introduced during the Maoist era that prevents most Chinese, especially residents in rural areas, from moving to other parts of the country — is seen as treason. Even when motivated by love of country, anyone who criticizes the authorities over such matters as environmental catastrophes, social inequity, corruption, forced relocation, outbreaks of disease (such as SARS) and censorship can be assured of negative repercussions for himself and his relatives. Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) and Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) are two recent examples.