Melissa Chan is a journalist covering transnational issues often involving China’s influence beyond its borders. She is based in Berlin.
When the facts change, it’s time to change our minds — and our language. Ahead of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, international media knew China was authoritarian and described it as such when necessary, but entire articles concerning China’s political system were written without mentioning it. The government had issued regulations allowing the foreign press corps to travel freely around the country, a departure from years of tight control. And the people we met on these trips, many working as labor campaigners or rights lawyers, pointed the way to a new, transformative Chinese generation.
Authorities then started locking up the activists they once championed. The country decoupled from the world’s popular social media platforms, blocking Facebook, Google, Twitter and others. Police began aggressively surveilling news teams, sometimes waiting in cars at the airport before we even landed. My decision to regularly use “authoritarian” reflected that shift.
Now, we should consider nomenclature once again.
Some will argue the country’s communist foundation makes it fundamentally incompatible with fascism’s right-wing roots. The respected Chinese legal scholar Teng Biao prefers calling the country totalitarian.
But consider the hallmarks of fascism: a surveillance state with a strongman invoking racism, nationalism and traditional family values at home, while building up a military for expansion abroad.
Xi Jinping, a leader who has elevated himself to the level of Mao Zedong, has built a cult of personality around him, complete with portraits in public and private spaces. Propaganda recalls China’s glorious history while bewailing its past treatment by Western imperial powers, allowing Beijing to play both the nationalism and victim cards. As a correspondent formerly based in China and now writing from Berlin, I find it difficult to ignore how much China’s present echoes Germany’s past.
To right perceived wrongs, Xi has a clear revanchist agenda. Taiwan has become his Alsace-Lorraine, the Himalayan border with India his Polish Corridor, and Hong Kong his Sudetenland. With military or strong-arm tactics, he has made clear that moves to control these areas are not off the table. In addition, Beijing has reportedly moved into Bhutanese territory. China also claims most of the South China Sea, where it has built military outposts marked by its own “nine-dash line” that, on a map, protrudes far beyond Chinese land borders in a Lebensraum-like expansion.
21st-century technology has provided the Chinese Communist Party surveillance capabilities that 20th-century fascists could only dream of. Facial recognition cameras work to track 1.4 billion people, invading even public bathrooms to stop toilet paper theft. The state, with coordination from its technology giants, controls and tracks messages and content shared between smartphones.
No entity operates freely from the CCP, including these technology champions. Companies may chase profit margins like other capitalist enterprises, but party officials step in when they see an overriding state interest. Those who fail to fall in line are felled — the most spectacular example being billionaire tech magnate Jack Ma, who disappeared for months after criticizing the country’s financial regulators. Together with Beijing’s anti-union, anti-labor stance, the Chinese economy today recalls Mussolini’s corporatist fascism.
The state has also become fixated on machismo, another fascist obsession. It bans what it considers “effeminate” behavior, which it associates with the LGBTQ community, where activists have also faced increasing government reprisal. It exhorts men and women to procreate, in a sharp reversal of Beijing’s decades-long one-child policy. It has invaded citizens’ most private spheres to do so, even attempting to bolster male virility by clamping down on vasectomies.
Critically, Beijing targets ethnic Han Chinese in this campaign — in its eyes, the “master race.” Against minorities, most troublingly against Muslim Uyghurs, the state has sought to prevent births, including by using extreme measures such as forced sterilization. Its treatment of Uyghurs, not as citizens but rather a problem to be dealt with, has led to the establishment of hundreds of reeducation camps that experts say constitute the largest detention of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II. The legislatures of several democracies have called what’s happening genocide.
Taken together, “authoritarian” — used to also describe declining democratic states such as Hungary and Turkey — hardly feels enough, nor does it feel accurate. That is a disservice to the public. Journalists, politicians and others should consider calling elements of the Chinese state fascistic, if they are not entirely comfortable describing the state writ large as fascist.
We may be facing an absence of existing terminology to properly describe contemporary China. But that behooves us to rethink our vocabulary and not dismiss the f-word out of hand.