Bush, now in Beijing, gets up close to the rulers of China, he must have
We are told that the Chinese have helped us fight terror, which is cause for
satisfaction. On the other hand, the CIA has recently revised sharply upwards
its estimate of Chinese military power in the near future, which is cause for
concern. As he ponders what China is and may be, Mr. Bush might reflect that
the People's Republic is something quite unique, and therefore very difficult
China is not, as is invariably said, in transition from communism to a freer
and more democratic state. It is, instead, something we have never seen
before: a maturing fascist regime. This new phenomenon is hard to recognize,
both because Chinese leaders continue to call themselves communists, and also
because the fascist states of the first half of the 20th century were young,
governed by charismatic and revolutionary leaders, and destroyed in World War
II. China is anything but young, and it is governed by a third or fourth
generation of leaders who are anything but charismatic.
The current and past generations of Chinese leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to
Jiang Zemin, may have scrapped the communist economic system, but they have
not embraced capitalism. To be sure, the state no longer owns "the means of
production." There is now private property, and, early last June, businessmen
were formally admitted to the Communist Party. Profit is no longer taboo; it
is actively encouraged at all levels of Chinese society, in public and private
sectors. And the state is fully engaged in business enterprise, from the vast
corporations owned wholly or in part by the armed forces, to others with top
management and large shareholders simultaneously holding government jobs.
This is neither socialism nor capitalism; it is the infamous "third way" of
the corporate state, first institutionalized in the 1920s by the founder of
fascism, Benito Mussolini, then copied by other fascists in Europe.
Like the earlier fascist regimes, China
ruthlessly maintains a single-party dictatorship; and although there is
greater diversity of opinion in public discourse and in the media than there
was a generation ago, there is very little wiggle room for critics of the
system, and no toleration of advocates of Western-style freedom and democracy.
Like the early fascist regimes, China uses nationalism -- not the standard
communist slogans of "proletarian internationalism" -- to rally the masses.
And, like the early fascisms, the rulers of the People's Republic insist that
virtue consists in sublimating individual interests to the greater good of the
nation. Indeed, as we have seen recently in the intimidation and incarceration
of overseas Chinese, the regime asserts its right to dominate all Chinese,
everywhere. China's leaders believe they command a people, not merely a
Unlike communist leaders, who extirpated traditional culture and replaced it
with a sterile Marxist-Leninism, the Chinese enthusiastically mine the
millennia of Chinese thought to provide legitimacy for their own actions. No
socialist realism here! Indeed, this open embrace of ancient Chinese culture
is one of the things that has most entranced Western observers. Many believe
that a country with such ancient roots will inevitably demonstrate its
profound humanity in social and political practice. Yet the fascist leaders of
the 1920s and '30s did the same. Mussolini rebuilt Rome to provide a dramatic
visual reminder of ancient glory, and Hitler's favorite architect built
neoclassical buildings throughout the Third Reich.
Like their European predecessors, the Chinese claim a major role in the world
because of their history and culture, not because of their current power, or
scientific or cultural accomplishments. Just like Germany and Italy in the
inter-war period, China feels betrayed and humiliated, and seeks to avenge
historic wounds. China even toys with some of the more bizarre notions of the
earlier fascisms, like the program to make the country self-sufficient in
wheat production -- the same quest for "autarky" that obsessed both Hitler and
It is therefore wrong to think of contemporary China as an intensely unstable
system, riven by the democratic impulses of capitalism on the one hand, and
the repressive instincts of communism on the other. Fascism may well have been
a potentially stable system, despite the frenzied energies of Hitler's Germany
and Mussolini's Italy. After all, fascism did not fall as the result of
internal crisis; it was destroyed by superior force of arms. Fascism was
alarmingly popular; Hitler and Mussolini swept to power atop genuine mass
movements, and neither Italians nor Germans produced more than token
resistance until the war began to be lost.
Since classical fascism had such a brief lifespan, it is hard to know whether
or not a stable, durable fascist state is possible. Economically, the
corporate state may prove more flexible and adaptable than the rigid central
planning that doomed communism in the Soviet empire and elsewhere (although
the travails of Japan, which also tried to combine capitalist enterprise with
government guidance, show the kinds of problems China will likely face). And
our brief experience with fascism also makes it difficult to evaluate the
possibilities of political evolution.
Although Hitler liked to speak of himself as primus inter pares, the first
among racial equals, he would not have contemplated the democratization of the
Third Reich, nor would Mussolini have yielded power to the freely-expressed
will of the Italian people. It seems unlikely that the leaders of the People's
Republic will be willing to make such a change either. If they were, they
would not be so palpably concerned that the Chinese people might seek to
emulate the democratic transformation of Taiwan.
To be sure, the past is not a reliable guide to the future. China has already
amazed the world with its ability to transform itself in record time. Many
scholars believe that China's entry into the World Trade Organization will
bring further dramatic change, as the Chinese have to cope with freer
competition and a greatly enhanced foreign presence. They may be right, but I
have doubts. For the most part, politics trumps economics when the survival of
a powerful regime is at stake, and the Chinese leaders have often said they
have no intention of following Mikhail Gorbachev's example.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has to contend with the present state of affairs, and must
evaluate the risks and challenges of contemporary China. Classical fascism was
the product of war, and its leaders praised military virtues and embarked upon
military expansion. Chinese leaders often proclaim a peaceful intent, yet they
are clearly preparing for war, and have been for many years. Optimists insist
that China is not expansionist, but optimists pooh-poohed Hitler's imperialist
speeches too, and there is a lot of Chinese rhetoric that stresses Beijing's
historic role, as if there were an historic entitlement to superpower status.
Thus, classical fascism should be the starting-point for our efforts to
understand the People's Republic. Imagine Italy 50 years after the Fascist
revolution, Mussolini dead and buried, the corporate state intact, the party
still firmly in control, the nation governed by professional politicians and a
corrupt elite rather than the true believers. No longer a system based on
charisma, but on political repression, cynical not idealistic, and formulaic
appeals to the grandeur of the "great Italian people," endlessly summoned to
emulate the greatness of its ancestors.
That is China today. It may be with us quite a while.
Mr. Ledeen, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a
member of the U.S.-China Security Review Commission, is author of "The War
Against the Terror Masters," forthcoming from St. Martin's Press.