China is a fascist country
The remarkable similarities between the policies of Jiang Zemin and Benito Mussolini

The Spectator 11/23/02: Jasper Becker

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When Jiang Zemin became leader of the Chinese Communist party in 1989, no one had the faintest idea that 13 years later he would have utterly transformed it. The trappings of the party may still be Stalinist, but as the 16th party congress came to an end last week, it was increasingly clear that Jiang has turned the CCP into a right-wing regime.

It is a piece of audacity that no one expected from the portly, shortsighted former electronics engineer. In 1992 Deng Xiaoping nearly sacked Jiang for being too hesitant to forsake the Left. Since then he has pushed through the gamut of free-market economic policies: the deregulation and break-up of government monopolies; the privatisation of state industries; mass lay-offs in old industrial heartland areas; and a wave of foreign investment. He has instigated the cult of the entrepreneur and has introduced undergraduate loans.

The result has been economic success on a grand scale. China has sucked in more than $360 billion of foreign investment and has gone from a nation of endemic shortages to one with such an excess of supply that it is being blamed for a wave of global deflation.

Jiang Zemin defies conventional political labels. At the congress he changed the CCP constitution, distancing it still further from its former role as the leader of a worldwide Maoist revolution. The ‘communist’ party has now dropped all pretence of being a band of militant revolutionaries leading the working class into a utopia, and now purports to represent all classes and all interests.

Jiang himself personifies his party’s inherent contradictions. He is not a cartoon dictator given to populist demagoguery or intimidating displays of brute power, but an owlish, jovial figure, fond of bad jokes and showing off his voice in karaoke singalongs. Unlike his number two, the former premier Li Peng, who congratulated the troops for their bravery against the unarmed students on Tiananmen Square in 1989, Jiang is not a hated figure. Instead, he habitually disarms and disconcerts his foreign guests by performing at state banquets, playing the piano or singing one of 129 songs he has memorised. Before an American audience he croons ‘Love Me Tender’, with Russians he waxes sentimental with ‘Moscow Evenings’, and in Italy he renders ‘O Sole Mio’ in a good baritone, once performing a duet with Pavarotti.

He loves Chinese and Western opera, especially Verdi, and his dearest wish is to construct a grand multi-hall opera house opposite the Forbidden City. Despite his age, 76, and the responsibilities of running this vast empire, he is rumoured to have dalliances with a number of middle-aged mistresses, including the popular singer Song Zuying.

Although Jiang is the apex of a rambling multilayered bureaucracy, he seems to spend little time on administration. He finds enough time to polish his English, reads Dickens and Tolstoy, and often summons experts to his study in Zhongnanhai, next to the Forbidden City, for three-hour discussions on subjects as diverse as Tibetan Buddhism and Italian history.

Indeed, he behaves less like Il Duce and more like a philosopher king in the style of the great 18th-century Qing Emperor Qianlong, who inspired such admiration in Voltaire. Like Qianlong, his calligraphy adorns public buildings everywhere in China and his poems are studied in school. Slogans daubed in whitewash across the villages of China exhort the people to study and praise his philosophical musings. As a man of both the arts and the sciences — he studied electrical engineering in Shanghai — he is also at pains to present himself as a cosmopolitan man of the world whose mission is to ensure that China learns as much as possible from the outside world.

Jiang’s personal political history contains similar contradictions. As a student in Shanghai, he joined the party in protest at how, in 1947, Chiang Kai-shek had cut the education budget to boost the military budget. After 1989, Jiang did exactly the same. As Shanghai’s leader in the late 1980s, he encouraged the liberal and reformist paper, the Shanghai Economic Herald, to push for policies to help revitalise the city. He later betrayed the publication, closing it down and arresting its editor in order to curry favour with hard-liners in Beijing.

At the latest party congress, Jiang welcomed capitalists into the party, but 12 years earlier he instigated a purge of private entrepreneurs, shutting down a million companies, seizing their assets and throwing many of the owners in jail. His campaign even targeted the children of private businessmen, accusing them of spending their time at school fighting, drinking, gambling and reading pornography.

Likewise, he promised to meet the students’ demands by forbidding the children of officials from taking part in business while promising to open the bank accounts of party members to outside scrutiny. None of this ever happened, and now his eldest son, Jiang Mianheng, is deeply involved in big commercial projects with foreign investors, including setting up the China Netcom Corporation, which is building a fibre-optic network across the country. Jian Mianheng is a delegate at the party congress and will probably have a seat on the new central committee.

The party still describes itself as running a dictatorship, but what kind of a dictatorship is it? Perhaps the only description that now fits the CCP is a modern-day version of the Fascist party. Under Jiang, the party has gradually dropped all references to Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin to the extent that, for the first time during a party congress, none of them was mentioned at all.

Class warfare is out, but the Chinese Communist party also rejects liberal democracy, leaving China under what could best be termed an ultra right-wing dictatorship; not the terrifying madness of Hitler’s national socialism, but a fascism more akin to the early thinking of Benito Mussolini.

Jiang would also subscribe to Mussolini’s notion that at the centre of this effort is the state which ‘organises the nation but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential: the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the state alone....’

While Soviet and Chinese communism was marked by the day-to-day micro-management of a centrally planned economy, Mussolini’s preference was for a partnership with capitalist corporations, which were allowed to run the economy. The changes in the party’s ideology that Jiang triumphantly introduced last week make possible a marriage between a market economy and a totalitarian police state, a capitalistic free-for-all.

The flip side of the picture is a little grimmer. Labour is priced solely by the market, and in China that makes human life very cheap indeed. Hundreds of millions are left behind in grinding rural poverty, 30 million disgruntled workers are without jobs or pensions, and looming over it all is a mountain of bad debt as big as Japan’s. Jiang and the CCP have carried on regardless, ruthlessly quashing worker protests, smashing a nascent democratic movement, and dealing mercilessly with religious believers: Roman Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists and the Falun Gong movement.

From a country once obsessed with egalitarianism, we now have one of the most unequal societies imaginable. The CCP, still run according to Leninist principles, is not bound by any religious beliefs, ethical or moral constraints. The only imperative is to keep itself in power at all costs.

One thing that distinguished Italian fascism from other right-wing movements of the time was its willingness to embrace new technology and apply a rational technocratic approach to social problems. Jiang likes to present himself as the chief engineer overseeing the transformation of the Chinese people — a vast project akin to building a bigger dam or designing a more efficient car factory.

Both Jiang and his son, as well as other members of China’s ‘fourth generation’, are fervent believers in the ‘white heat’ of technology. In his speech last week, Jiang promised to ‘blaze a new trail to industrialisation’ by absorbing advanced technologies, above all information technology. China already has more mobile-phone users than any other country in the world, and is second only to the United States in Internet users.

While most Western leaders believe it is a good thing that Jiang has brought capitalism to China, it is a little frightening how quickly the country is acquiring and absorbing new technology. As China becomes one of the great powers in the world, no one can be sure how this generation, or the new one taking its place, will choose to wield its influence. The West has acted in the comforting belief that it is somehow a historical inevitability that, after the market economy, the rule of law and a civil society must follow; but as history demonstrates, not all rich and powerful states have been democracies.


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