Race to the Totalitarian Bottom
Many have yet to realize that the new cold war between the United States and China is not one between democracy and dictatorship, as was the previous one between the U.S. and the USSR. Rather, it is a battle between two emerging totalitarian states, with China intent on surpassing the U.S. as the new global hegemon.
The two totalitarian progressions display different features: China is in the grip of iron fisted autocratic rule imposed from above, while America is under siege by an anarchic tyranny underwritten by cultural elites and tech titans. The difference is significant. However, Xi’s China and progressive America both aspire to total politicization of society and control over all aspects of a citizen’s life. Both regimes see no limits on governmental interference, and demand all citizens accept an official doctrine and infallible authority. China is leaping forward, but woke America is catching up.
For decades, the CCP’s propaganda machine has diligently taught its people that American democracy is a hollow inferiority compared to China’s socialist democracy (whatever that means). The 21st century America seems to be proving that point. Democracy loses its legitimacy when the group, instead of the individual, is sovereign. Votes are not sacred when voters are not informed by a fair mass media dedicated to uncovering facts. Public discourse is perverted when it is overwhelmed with vapid slogans like “End white supremacy,” used to instill a false narrative of history, much like Orwell’s Animal Farm sheep bleating “four legs good, two legs bad.”
Since the 19th century, American higher education—the finest of Western civilization—has attracted a slew of modern Chinese intellectuals, who admired its scholarly rigor rooted in empiricism as an alternative to Confucian doctrine. Two centuries later, the institutions of higher learning in America have been hijacked by a clique of professorial opportunists who promulgate assertions (e.g., “systemic racism”) that are unproven and unprovable, and compete in demonstrating loyalty to the dominant ideology of identity politics.
Once an oasis for emigres who had fled Nazism, fascism, and communism, woke America now is ostracizing and even persecuting citizens of different opinions while keeping the border porous. Inspired by the spirit embodied in the Statue of Liberty, several thousand Chinese students shed blood in Tiananmen Square in 1989, fighting for freedom of speech. Many more American students today self-righteously censor dissenters with screaming, horns, or fists, demanding society conform to their flamboyant isms.
Chinese immigrants who have survived Maoist mass movements are now experiencing disturbing déjà vu. They watch in dismay the land of freedom and decency transmogrifying into Mao’s China, a land where resentment and revenge were inculcated and weaponized to divide the nation into belligerent tribes. Friends and neighbors were turned into liars, informers, and opportunists, or militants, looters, and killers.
These emigrants cannot return to China. Since 2016, when Xi Jinping made himself officially the “core leader” of the seven person Standing Committee of the Politburo, the political pendulum in China has swung back from oligarchy to totalitarian dictatorship. Departing from the pathway Deng Xiaoping set in 1978, Xi’s China epitomizes the state readily recognizable in the literature of totalitarianism. The elaborate ideology of “core socialist values,” a single mass party dictated by one man, a system of terror intimidating both party members and the general population, the total control of all mass communication, and a recast of the economy in the image of socialism, are all working to push China into the “new era” under Xi where all Chinese are to dedicate themselves to serving the motherland.
Emboldened by the progress of information technology and A.I. application, Xi has developed a voracious appetite for total control and surveillance of the Chinese population that was absent in his two predecessors. Liberty did not spread “by cell phone and cable modem” in China over the past two decades, contrary to Bill Clinton’s sanguine prediction in his 2000 speech addressed to Johns Hopkins University. No inch of the Chinese internet is free from Big Brother’s prying eyes. All internet-based activities need a national identification and, in some cases, a bank account. The cell phone, with its super apps such as WeChat, has tethered the individual to the state, serving as the most effective spy ever seen in human history.
It is hard to imagine, though only for now, a country other than China being able to implement a mandatory application called “Health Code” for the entire adult population, as it has since February 2020. Three color codes determine whether the individual will be quarantined or allowed access to public life. The color is generated in real time, based on one’s digital footprints. The app’s sophisticated algorithms are so stringent that a user’s color will change if the individual’s cell number appears simultaneously with that of a Covid patient in an area about the size of a football field for 10 minutes or more.
The totalitarian state Xi is building seems to be functioning as the dictator wishes. However, both the USSR and Mao’s China eventually failed miserably. The 20th century has provided ample evidence that a delusional utopian ideology that holds the nation hostage and totalitarians drunk on power lead to nothing but atrocity and ruin.
Woke America’s anarchic tyranny is still scrambling to subjugate the entirety of American society. It may yet succeed. But if America wants to win a cold war for the second time, such an anarchic tyranny stands no chance against the focus of Xi’s China. To defeat its totalitarian antagonist, America needs a free people proud of their rich heritage, who uphold the rule of law and stand ready to defend what made their country great.
Habi Zhang is a doctoral student in political science.