Stein Ringen, a visiting professor of political economy at King's College London and professor emeritus at the University of Oxford, is the author of "The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century."
When the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party convenes in Beijing on Wednesday, the world will be served up a dazzling spectacle of power and procedure. The Great Hall of the People will be swathed in red banners, golden insignia and a sea of flowers. There will be reports, decisions and elections. Thousands of delegates will gather in imposing assembly, some in traditional dress, some in military uniform, the majority in black suits — almost all men, almost all with obligatory jet black hair with not a strand out of place. There will be order.
That spectacle will be a combination of truth and fiction. The projection of power is true. The People's Republic of China is a Leninist State. In every government office is a party secretary, as in every military unit, state or private business, organization, university and school, provincial and local government, down to every neighborhood in every town and village. The party secretaries rule under commands that come down the line. They observe, report irregularities and have the final say in decisions large and small.
In East Asia, China's power is military. That has allowed it to turn 1.2 million of the South China Sea's 1.4 million square miles into de facto Chinese territorial waters, in one of the biggest territorial grabs in history. Globally, its power is economic. Businesses around the world and their governments avoid anything that can cause the Chinese displeasure. They sign up to Beijing's version of the "one China policy," shun the Dalai Lama and stay silent on human rights abuses.
With leader Xi Jinping's "One Belt, One Road" initiative, China has launched an audacious global program of investment power. Chinese credit is enabling trade and communication investments through Asia and into the broader world, and in the process, China is procuring that most precious of power resources that has so far eluded the regime: international friendships. American imperialism has rested in part on soft-power alliances. Now Beijing is outdoing the master.
The fictitious part is the pretense of procedure. The congress will rubber-stamp decisions already made and elections dictated to it. The appearance of collective decision-making is for show. Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao and has moved the system back toward one-man rule.
On the ground, far removed from the facade of order and unity, the reality is hard and ugly. Activists are locked up, with or without judicial procedure. Some disappeared. Troublemakers get beaten, at home or in detention, sometimes to death. There is an unknown number of political prisoners, many of whom suffer mistreatment and torture. A regime that presents itself to the world in perfectly choreographed civility depends, in its dark corners, on gangster-style thuggery.
Since Deng Xiaoping rescued the party-state from collapse following the Maoist madness, there have been two major lines of development — one, steady and strong, of economic progress, and the other, in ups and downs, of political regression. Presently, economic growth is slowing. In response, under Xi's firm hand, dictatorial controls and censorship have been tightened relentlessly. Rights activists are detained and paraded on television, with orchestrated confessions. Feminists are detained for demonstrating against sexual harassment on public transport, not because their cause is in some way subversive but for organizing outside of the party system.
The combination of these two developments — forwards economically and backwards politically — is alien to the Western liberal mind. Some who look to China cling to the illusion that the People's Republic is a benevolent autocracy of effective governance, albeit with blemishes. But there are many autocratic regimes in the world, such as Russia and Turkey. China is something else, a neo-totalitarian party-state.
There is next to no disagreement among observers that Xi's first period has come with a tightening of dictatorship. But there is disagreement about whether this is temporary or lasting. Some think the regime is riven by contradictions and that it must reform or decline. Others, myself included, think that the reason dictatorship is tightened is that stronger controls are necessary when up against weaker economic performance and that the regime is ensuring that it can ride out any challenge from below.
There have been two previous big party states in modern times. Nazi Germany lasted only 12 years, but it took a world war to crush it. The Soviet Union lasted upwards of 70 years, and it took decades of Cold War confrontation for it to disintegrate. History does not suggest that Chinese totalitarianism will give in easily.
As the congress dissolves after a week, Xi will have been celebrated, re-anointed and have more of his cronies in the leadership. What will have been on display, even more than power and procedure, is the party's absolute determination to preserve its rule.
The Chinese leaders have learned from the demise of the Soviet Union. When the party secretaries leave the Great Hall of the People and return to their posts throughout the land, they will have been told, and will tell others, that their regime is one of discipline without dissent. The party will have reaffirmed its monopoly on the writing of its own and the country's history, the unity of party and military, and the strength of the security services. It will have celebrated the virtue of censorship, Internet control and propaganda. Its agenda will be control and control again.
Meanwhile, we who live by the values of liberty and democracy must decide where we stand. When we look to China, should we see, using Henry Kissinger's term, a civilization-state that merits our respect? Or should we see a repressive and domineering power state that should be resisted?