“The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century” by Stein Ringen

China today is ruled by a party-state totalitarian dictatorship. That is the conclusion of Stein Ringen’s thoughtful and careful analysis in his new book The Perfect Dictatorship. It is a conclusion that will be unpopular and challenged in Asian and other world capitals, where it is a strongly held belief (or hope) that China’s government is a “normal”, traditional authoritarian regime and can be dealt with accordingly.

The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, Stein Ringen (Hong Kong University Press, September 2016)
The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, Stein Ringen (Hong Kong University Press, September 2016)

Ringen, a Norwegian political scientist, emeritus professor at Oxford University, and the author of several books on state analysis, including an important work on South Korean political and social policy, collaborated with unnamed Chinese colleagues and friends in presenting what he calls a dissection of “a system that is unlike any other, a dictatorship that works to perfection.” Those Chinese informants are unnamed, he explains, because his conclusions “are critical of the Chinese model”, and therefore it “is not necessarily in the interest of Chinese friends that I associate them with this book.”

The dictatorship is “perfect”, according to Ringen, because it is


relentless, determined, and unforgiving, sophisticated in how it does but uncompromising in what it does.


It works so well, he continues, because it “grows harder within a setting of economic progress.” It is not crude, like most dictatorships.

China’s purported evolution from Mao’s totalitarianism to mild authoritarianism began, according to most outside observers, in the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms in the wake of Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution. Ringen believes that Deng’s policies have been misinterpreted:


It is thought that Deng Xiaoping and his allies regeared the system into one single-mindedly dedicated to economic growth and that China was being edged on to a path of becoming an ordinary country …
But this regearing never happened. The opening up that Deng launched in 1978 was to be economic and no more.


Economic liberalism did not mean political liberalism. “The regime has not been and is not,” writes Ringen,


single-mindedly dedicated to economic growth. It is single-mindedly dedicated to its own preservation.


Economic growth became a means to renewed legitimacy for the Communist Party leadership after the revolutionary upheavals of Mao’s rule had weakened that legitimacy. Deng did not, however, move away from “party-state control”, and neither have any of his successors.

China’s economic growth is real though probably overstated (official statistics, Ringen notes, are not reliable), and many Chinese have better lives in material terms because of it. Corruption is rampant. Pollution is terrible. The rule of law is mostly non-existent. Inequality is great. Many Chinese, especially the rural population, have benefited little from economic progress. And, most important, the great masses of people lack political freedoms.

In China today, Ringen explains, the Communist Party is everywhere.


It is present in every government agency, central and local, in every unit of the military, in every town and village and neighborhood, in every school, in every university and university department and every student residence, in every business, and in every officially registered social organization.


The party is omnipresent, and party-state policies are designed primarily to promote the interests of the Chinese nomenklatura.

China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has accumulated more personal power than any other since Mao. He is party chairman, head of the Central Military Commission, and state president. Ringen views the “China Dream” not as a slogan but as an ideology, one that links individual happiness with national greatness in a way that is reminiscent of the fascist regimes of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. “In fascist Europe,” Ringen writes,


there was no limit to repression, no limit to aggression, no limit to evil, no limit to political murder, and no limit to sacrifice that was not for the good of the people.


China is not there, yet, and may not get there.


A state is not fascist for being nationalistic; it is fascist if its nationalism is grounded in a fascist ideology.


Internally, economic reforms have resulted in a modest retreat of the state, but the party “has extended its reach” throughout society. “It represents a shift in the mode of control,” writes Ringen, “from direct state command to a more subtle form of party control.” He calls this “sophisticated” totalitarianism” or “controlocracy” that “uses terror with some economy … but holds the means of terror and is unhesitant in its use when necessary,” as in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the more recent repression of the New Citizens Movement.

Externally, scholars and policymakers have long debated whether regime-type matters in state-to-state relations. Many “realists” dismiss the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian governments as irrelevant to relations between states in the international system. They rightly point out that Western powers have allied with both totalitarian and authoritarian regimes when it suited their respective interests. The US and Great Britain, for example, allied with Stalin’s Russia during the Second World War, and the United States had a tacit alliance with Mao’s China during the latter years of the Cold War. In international relations, the enemy (even a totalitarian one) of my enemy is my friend.

Many neoconservative scholars and policymakers, however, believe that the internal nature of a regime invariably affects its foreign policy in ways that other states need to appreciate and factor into their foreign policies. The late US political scientist and policymaker Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote persuasively on the important distinctions between totalitarian and authoritarian powers in her book Dictatorships and Double Standards. Totalitarian regimes, she explained, used the coercive power of the state to transform values, beliefs, economic and social relations,


obliterat[ing] the distinction between state and society and eliminat[ing] … those interstices of the law in which freedom thrives.


Authoritarian regimes do not extend their coercive reach that broadly, permitting citizens to live their lives as they please, except politically. Totalitarian powers, imbued with ideological purposes, have often been more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad.

Ringen notes some worrisome aspects of China’s foreign policy in the context of Xi Jinping’s China Dream. First, China is determined to maintain control of Tibet and Xinjiang despite significant unrest and opposition. Second, China is following a “colonizing strategy” (settling “Han” migrants and officials to integrate lands into the country) in Hong Kong and Macau, and is determined to do likewise in Taiwan. Third, China has sometimes acted in a bullying manner in its unresolved border disputes with Pakistan, Myanmar, and India. Finally, China has acted aggressively in the East China and South China Seas. This all adds up to what Ringen calls a “menacing undertone in China’s dealings with its neighbors of ‘might is right.’”

There is concern among some observers and scholars, such as the American China expert Arthur Waldron, that China’s current economic slowdown is sapping an important aspect of the regime’s legitimacy, causing China’s leaders to increase repression at home and/or foment trouble abroad in an effort to maintain power and reinvigorate the legitimacy of their rule. “Hence,” Ringen writes,


the increasing prominence of propaganda, political education, and mass campaigns, and the new rhetoric of national greatness, nationalism, and chauvinism, and the super-rhetoric of the China Dream.


“What we are seeing in the China Dream,” Ringen concludes, “is the embryo of an ideology that is ultra-dangerous”—the perfect dictatorship.

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.