Political origins of China's regional governance crises

By He Qinglian on Oct 9, 2014
Original article in Chinese: 何清涟: 中国地区治理危机的起源•政治篇

The various resistant movements that took place in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong in recent years showed that the Chinese government is facing severe regional governance crises. Despite the central government in Beijing exercising strict economic controls over those regions and implementing powerful stability maintenance measures there, the three places became increasingly unstable. Why? This is decided by the characteristics of and the way totalitarianism works.

Characteristics of totalitarianism

Any totalitarian regime would emphasize “state objectives”, which in essence is to substitute reality for what it claims to be the “ideal society”, one that requires homogenization of politics, economy and culture. A totalitarian regime would not tolerate heterogeneous culture and would do anything to assimilate it. If this could not be done, the regime would opt to destroy that culture.

One characteristic of totalitarianism is that a regime is monopolized by a single political party which normally is led by one person. If the leadership of such a party evolves into a collective one involving several individuals with equal authority, a rift (or even infighting) within that ruling clique could result. Taking into account such a possibility, Xi Jinping has been consolidating his power since he took office. And indeed, if the supreme leader of a totalitarian party loses his grip on power, he would not only become constrained by others; he would have to fear for his family and his own live as well.

Totalitarianism as such is marked by two political features. First, it takes life-and-death struggle for the top leader to maintain and consolidate power. This kind of struggle is used not only to keep society under control but also to clear rivals (or disobedient members) within the ruling clique. Examples include line struggle, which happened 11 times in the early years of the Communist Party of China (CPC); two CPC General Secretaries being sacked by Deng Xiaoping after Reform and Opening Up; and more recently, the downfall of Bo Xilai.

And the second feature of totalitarianism is that it rejects the rule of law: Mao Zedong, for instance, prided himself on his utter disregard of the law; during the Cultural Revolution, the whole system of public security bureau, procuratorate, and court was simply abolished, the law was replaced by “highest instructions”. CPC leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao all said that they attached great importance to the construction of the law and that they intended to “rule the country by law”, yet the truth is that political power was, and continues to be, above the law.

With these two features, totalitarianism means whoever emerges on top can only do so by eliminating all political rivals and keeping all the power to himself.

Totalitarianism as such—it may well be called the CPC totalitarianism—is certain to be in conflict with the cultural traditions and interests of minority regions and is impossible to put up with heterogeneous cultures, like that of Hong Kong.

The difference between authoritarianism and the CPC totalitarianism is that authoritarianism focuses only on secular politics, as illustrated by the phrase “render unto Ceasar”; the CPC totalitarianism, which believes in Marxism, is on the other hand a form of pseudo-religion. It regards religion as opium and at the same time sees itself as the substitute for all religions. Thus, the CPC regime is one that seeks to control both the secular and the religious realms: it cannot tolerate the Tibetan people worshiping the Dalai Lama, and it would not allow the people of Hong Kong harboring resentment and repulsion toward the regime in mainland China, either. This is the fundamental cause of regional governance crises in China these days.

The two flanks of political control: secret police and mind control

The CPC totalitarian regime would ensure its control over the country and terrorize the people through societal hierarchical organizations, secret police and informant networks that fully penetrate every corner of society. This model of control is employed not just in regions inhabited by Han Chinese but also in minority regions and Hong Kong.

In the minority regions, the regime would train pro-government minority individuals and encourage them to monitor others and tip off to the authority.

In Hong Kong, the regime would exercise its control by gradual penetration through means such as training, provision of incentives and making decision on who would get the one-way permit to migrate to the city. Veteran Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong estimated that of the 7 million residents in the territory, there are as many as 400,000 underground CPC members, making up 5% of the population there.

Control measures like these may for a certain period make a region submissive and facilitate easy control, but in the long run, this mode of autocratic rule relying on informants and sense of terror would increasingly deepen the contradictions between the central government and the minorities as well as most of the residents in Hong Kong.

Through monopoly of education and the media, the CPC totalitarian regime puts in place a highly developed system of ideology control. All thoughts that are not in line with the authority are regarded as a serious political problem.

Objective of ideology control: uniformity of thoughts

During the Mao era, “thought reform movements” were launched time and again to purge dissent and ensure uniformity of thoughts.

Similarly, the reason that the Chinese government stressed every now and then the phenomena of “faith vacuum” and “the loss of faith” since Reform and Opening Up was not so much because the Chinese populace really lost their faith but rather many of them stopped believing in the official ideology and turned instead to various religions such as Christianity, Catholicism, Fa Lun Gong and the Church of Almighty God.

In order to maintain ideological control, the Chinese government makes incessant efforts to purge dissent. And to assimilate the Tibetan people, the Chinese government abolishes teaching of the Tibetan language and prohibits them from hanging the portrait of the Dalai Lama and makes them put on the wall portraits of CPC leaders instead. Nonetheless, the Tibetan people have never given up their belief in Tibetan Buddhism. Likewise, Uyghurs in Xinjiang also retain their Islamic faith.

This political intention of the CPC to assimilate or exterminate heterogeneous cultures originates doubtlessly from the fundamental teaching of the Party’s classics like those theories brought forth by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Yet this intention comes more predominantly out of the political need to maintain power.

In order to achieve the uniformity of thoughts, all leaders of the CPC totalitarian regime need to come up with their own theory. For example, Jiang Zemin introduced the concept “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao put forward the “Scientific Outlook on Development”.

Xi Jinping, too, would need to establish his own theory. Yet despite suggestions such as “three confidences” that his think tank made since he took office two years ago, Xi has not yet developed his own theory.

Unachievable goals

To realize its vision of an “ideal society”, the CPC regime would have to resort not only to political violence and mind control but also all kinds of political campaigns which aims are to ensure uniformity of thoughts and a nation obedient to the leaders.

In addition, such a regime would also seek to achieve uniformity of economic conditions across the whole country so that its ruling is supported. For this reason, the Chinese government often disregards the differences between each individual province and region in terms of geographical location and resource conditions and attempts to achieve its goal by fiscal transfer, a measure known in the 1990s as “minimization of differences between regions” and nowadays as “stability expenditure”.

However, given that there are deep-seated cultural and political conflicts in Tibet and Xinjiang and that the money from fiscal transfer does not actually benefit the general public in those regions, such a measure could only be effective in a short period and would fail over time.