Totalitarianism and Chinese Politics

The Totalitarian Model, made popular by Brsesinski Friedrich, and Arendt in the mid 20th century consists of bureaucratic monopolistic governmental control of 3 main sections of society: mass communications, operational weapons and all organizations (including social and economic ones). They are generally led by one man who heads one political party whose power is inseparable from the bureaucracy and above even the recognized legal system. This mono-party, mono-leader system typically claims the right to rule through its espousal a single, utopian ideology which cannot be challenged. Although this model gained great popularity and is often the model that people think of when they think about the USSR or China, it is important to question whether this model is actually a good description of reality, or if it is actually incorrect. Can this model, in fact be helpful in understanding communist systems? I will examine the three areas mass communication, operational weaponry, and group organization in communist states and compare them to the model to determine if it can actually be helpful.

According to the model, these regimes use their control of mass communication for a variety of reasons, one of which is to indoctrinate the citizens in the wisdom of the state and the great leader’s ideals. This is to help build a base of support and consensus. Control of mass communication also helps prevent the free flow and spread of ‘dangerous’ information, especially oppositional doctrines which might lead to the arising of competing political parties. This helps maintain the status-quo power of the ruling party in a totalitarian state and ensures that their centrally planned agenda can be implemented with as little resistance from organized masses as possible. On the one hand, there is ample evidence against this idea. Interest groups and factions do arise within the communist party and pursue divergent agendas. Although they are never deeply organized and were unable to form entirely new, oppositional parties, they were able to communicate effectively enough with each other to pursue their own interests within the party. Within the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s reforms based on glasnost and perestroika were not monolithically supported. As a reformer, he actually began to deregulate control of communications. Reformist factions formed within China as well. Beyond members of the party, common people were able to appeal to their workgroup leaders and affect the implementation of government policy. Rural areas also were able to have some meaningful communication and the voice of America radio broadcast was even allowed.

Although China and Russia are now in the midst of reform, even today elements of totalitarian control do persist. For example, the Chinese government has blocks access to Duke University’s website for months at a time. It has also coerced google into offering a censored Chinese version of the search engine and blocked access to the normal Even though the internet is supposedly the great equalizer in the contemporary era for bringing the power of mass communications to the most common man, China has still maintained a firm grip on it. Moreover, Harry Wu, wrote about his new 15 year prison sentence given in 1995 for “stealing state secrets” after he had already sent 19 years in a prison camp for being a “counter revolutionary”. He tells the stories of two other men, Wei Jingsheng - who receives an 11 year sentence for “subverting the government” by writing a critical article in 1997, and Wang Dan who received 4 years for being a student leader in Tiananmen square protests against the reforms which were violently crushed by the government in 1989. Therefore, although the Totalitarian Model is not comprehensively correct in terms of mass communications, it does offer some insight into the workings of communist and formerly communist states and offers some help in understanding them.

Because of it monopoly on operational weapons, the totalitarian bureaucracy can employ coercive and repressive force (often through terroristic police secret forces) against dissenting elements of the population. Dissenters might be identified in every facet of society ranging from well off peasants, to religious groups, to the urban intelligentsia, to workers who petition for better wages and even commoners who merely speak ill of a single government policy. They may face torture, imprisonment, exile, forced re-education or even execution. This violent coercion forces the populous into officially offering support of the autocratic rulers in the government and leaves the party and leaders of the government in a position shielded against the effects of pressure from real public opinion. Moreover, the monopoly of force allows the government to monitor every citizens activity and often the use of id cards with name, residence, occupation marital status, etc on them is required to keep the population in check. So is the theory helpful in understanding reality? Many purges have occurred in both the USSR and Communist China and North Korea, especially early on at the time of revolution. Travel in and out of the states was severely controlled and is to this day in North Korea. Millions died during the cultural revolution and great leap forward. Currently in China, the Laogai is a repressive prison system still in place with the motto “forced labor is the means, while thought reform is the goal”. This was the destination for the men previously mentioned and Harry Wu compares it to the worst prison labor camp systems used during the gulag or in Hitler’s Germany. The militaristic monopoly allows this prison system to remain in place. In terms of this element, the monopoly of militaristic force, the totalitarian description seems to be fairly accurate for communist states, at least early on. After the initial purges, control is relaxed slightly, but even still, the monopoly on weapons and force remains and is employed.

Economies within totalitarian stats are generally based on central planning. All social organizations ranging from religions to family and career choices are also centrally controlled by the government. There is little clear distinction between the public and the private. In essence, totalitarian regimes exert coercive force on all aspect of a life across the entire spectrum of the populous. The goal is a removal of the boundary between state and individual identity

Elements of totalitarianism can be seen in China. Forced relocation of populations from urban areas to rural areas fro re-education is an example of intimate government control. The ending of higher education for a decade in china is also an example of central economic and social planning as is the cultural revolution. In Both China and Russia, every person was guaranteed work, regardless of their output. However, choice of profession was not really an option. Production quotas maintained an economy that always lacked enough goods, even though prices were controlled to be very low. However in China, as communism progressed, interest groups did arise within the party who were sometimes but not always crushed by force. Different types of interests from the police to industry were articulated and the vision of central planning came into question which eventually lead to the current economic reform scheme. Moreover, although the totalitarian model argues that individual citizens are basically powerless to influence the government, many individuals in fact used government policies to their own advantages. Some would refuse to work and claim sickness but still get paid because they were guaranteed it by the central planning. Even self education occurred in the face of the cancelled universities and eventually, once universities were reinstated, citizens began to be allowed to study outside of China. Marriages were not forced to occur and underground religious movements persisted, even at the high of oppression. People did not loose their individual identities. Thus although some of communist economic and social control can be described by totalitarianism, the system was not fully totalitarian. The totalitarian model is typically applies to communist regimes as an accurate description of the way they are. This model does accurately (though only partially) describe some conditions within communist states at certain points within their history, mainly early on just after the revolutions. However, over time, competing interests within the government began to challenge the monolithic nature of the regimes. Economically and socially, communist regimes were only partially totalitarian. The same is true .in terms of communication. Militarily, they maintained totalitarianism, sometimes strongly, sometimes less strongly. Therefore, although Totalitarian theory is not comprehensively correct, it can in fact be helpful in attempting to understand some elements of communist states and should not be completely disregarded.

Traditional totalitarian theory states that individuals in communist states have basically no way to influence the decisions of their governments because of the governments monopoly communication, force, and social institutions. Democracy on the other hand is seen and inherently a highly participatory type of regime. However, more recent findings show that people within communist states can in fact participate although the sources of power, modes of participation and the impacts of the participation differ between the two systems. In Chinese communism, the modes of Voting, campaigning, appeals, adversarial appeals, cronyism and resistance through (protests or strikes etc) have all been identified as modes of participated. These are very similar to the modes of participation within democracies However, China differs from democratic systems In that, while in democracies these modes are generally participated in collectively, in the communist system they are participated in individually. This is because the sources of power and communication from the government to the are in fact different. The Authority of the regime is communicated through law created by popularly elected representative, interpreted by courts and enforced by popularly elected executives in democracies. This law is highly precise and there is little room for interpretation. In communist systems, policy is implemented through documents, many of which are kept secret and thus policy implementation lack precision. Moreover, the leadership who creates these documents is in no way accountable to the populous (as the elected members of government are within democracies. This leads to a different in the focus of participation.

Participation in communist states inherently cannot affect the agenda setting stage of policy. Affecting the decision making stage is possible but difficult, however, due to the vagueness of documents affecting the policy implementation stage is fairly common. This is what allows the typically group activities of democracies to be carried out by individuals. Because so much policy implementation power is focus in the local work group leader, the workers who cannot be fired are able to exert influence through making appeals to the work leader, complaining to the work leaders superiors, attempting to bribe the work leader, or resisting the work leader through work slowdowns as they are immune to retaliation by getting fired. In this way, the one person strike can be effective. The vagueness of documents also help special interest groups within the party itself to implement policy in ways that favor their own personal agendas. Moreover, these groups do in fact have some affect on the agenda setting and decision making stage of the policy process. Therefore, the monolithic vision of the central great leader is in fact never truly carried out, but competing interests within the government push for their own agendas and attempt to claim resources away from other factions.

Thus the outcome of participation in communist China is focused not on resetting the agenda or even in affecting the main ways decisions are made, but in influencing the interpretation of decisions in favor of ones own interests. This makes participation a highly relational activity within communist china.

Democracies on the other had, because of the preciseness of their communication tool, the law, leave little room for reinterpretation at the implementation level. Therefore agenda setting and decision making must be the primary focus of individuals who wish to participate in politics. The vote, in democracies, unlike the vote in china where the choice really isn’t much of a choice, has much power. Leaders are elected periodically in all levels of government and if they do not respond to the lobbying of their citizens by focusing the agenda and making decisions the citizens wish for, then they will be voted out of office.

Thus lobbying and campaigning are much more effective at achieving goals than in china where effective goal reaching centers on the implementation and appeals/resistance modes of participation. Since democracies are based on votes, lobbying and campaigning must be carried out in large groups to have an effect. Every person hold an equal vote, and thus lobby’s yield power by creating large blocks of votes. Bribery is not an option. Because of the diffuse nature of political power within the populous and therefore politicians must have strong campaign bases as well as respond to the agendas the lobby’s wish to win their votes. This means that, in order to impact the effects of policy on the ground, members of the populous must be able to effectively organize interest groups of common people, not groups within the government like the communist system. These common interest groups of citizens must convince other citizens to join in specific causes to effectively influence the politicians throughout their tenures as agenda setters and decisions makers.

Political participation occurs both within communist and democratic systems. The sources of power for participants differs between systems with participation being very individual in communist systems and much more collective in democratic systems due highly in part to the nature of communication from the authority to the populous and also the relationship of the populous to the authority structure (ie effective periodic elections vs a fairly static bureaucracy). Thus, although the modes are present in both systems, the target focus and most effective modes of participation differ from system to system and impact different portions of the policy process. Democratic participation focuses more on the agenda and decision stages while communism focuses on impacting the results of the implementation stage.


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